The first time I saw Henry Plotnick play, he and his parents had just arrived for a weekend visit. Henry jumped out of the car and breathlessly asked if my partner, James, and I wanted to hear the new song he had learned to play. Henry was about five or six at the time, so I expected maybe "Chopsticks" or "Twinkle, Twinkle." He sat down at our kitchen table, turned on the small Casio keyboard that never left his side, and began to play one of Erik Satie's Gymnopedies. Gulp.
Two feet above his head of dark brown curly hair, silent communications passed between a small stunned audience of two and parents who shrugged, looked slightly amazed and just a little proud of their young son. Turns out Henry had become interested in Satie and had learned to play this piece by ear. Later, it would be one of the first pieces he asked his piano instructor to teach him to read.
I still remember this scene with the same vivid emotion. Henry, head down, concentrating on this piece of music he had become obsessed with, surrounded by four adults, all artists, witnessing a moment of pure craft -- the innate ability to hear and reproduce through persistent labor. It felt like hands surrounding a small, flickering flame, sheltering it from the wind.
The next time I saw Henry play, the scene was much more normal. I was over at the Plotnick house for a visit -- I have known Henry's parents for decades and have even worked with his father, Danny Plotnick, an internationally-renowned underground filmmaker, at two Bay Area institutions. Henry's mom, Alison Faith Levy, a singer/songwriter/pianist -- and member of many bands, including The Loud Family, The Sippy Cups and McCabe and Mrs. Miller -- was playing the proud parent and asked him to show me the latest piece he was studying with his music teacher on the upright piano in their living room.
Henry, now 8 or 9, was more interested in recounting the latest things he had learned about insect life and outer space, but always a good sport, he relented and gave it a try. The piece was from Francis Poulenc's Mouvements perpetuels and was clearly a struggle. Henry was learning to read music and developing structure around his gift, but it wasn't easy. He tried three times, but always got tripped up at a particular place in the movement. It's possible that his hands might not have been big enough to do whatever was required. Or at least, that's what struck my untrained eye. We went back to talking about dinosaurs, I think.
Henry couldn't have been born into a better environment. Both of his parents, successful as they have become, understand the artist's struggle. They recognized what Henry possessed when it first showed itself and have developed a solid structure within which he could learn, explore and grow. After Henry released his first album, the (in my -- and others' -- humble opinion) brilliant Fields on Holy Mountain, I was talking with his father, Danny, who said that only a few months later Henry had announced he had enough material for a second album. I wondered about that reality, but Danny said that he wouldn't allow his own experience of struggle to generate false limits for Henry. He said, "He has already put out his first album and he really does have enough good material to release a second. Maybe that's just his reality."
I see Henry next when he plays at the Noe Valley Farmers Market for the first time; he will become a regular fixture there. Now he is 10 or 11 years old and beginning a pretty mad love affair with his new Yamaha keyboard. It's not just the black and white keys he is playing; he has quickly mastered nearly all of the keyboard's programming functions. At this point Henry has begun experimenting with loops and layering, using just the Yamaha's basic tools, but what he makes is amazing.
Watching him play is like witnessing a spring of creativity bubble out of a pure source. You can almost see the music swirl in the air. And here in the heart of Noe Valley, Henry is a pied piper for the children at the market who stop what they are doing, leave their parents behind and surround his keyboard. The set is entirely improvisational, but there is nary a sour note struck. Little kids push their way to the front and begin to shake their stuff. This music, reminiscent of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and all manner of prickly, high-brow experimentalists, is somehow powering a go-go for toddlers. The scene is almost psychedelic.
I have more stories about being amazed by this kid, but really, the only way to represent him well is to give him his due as an artist -- and to take the art seriously. Henry's first album, Fields, sounds like one complete symphonic piece with separate movements. The sequencing is crucial to the overall success of the album. Described as "coalescing soundbites of light" on the experimental music blog Sonic Masala, Fields made it onto two critics' lists for the Village Voice's annual Pazz and Jop best in music for 2013.
Qualia (or Blue Fourteen), Henry's latest album, came out this week on Blue Tapes, a British experimental music label that specializes in releasing cassettes -- apparently the latest analog trend to sweep the music nerdosphere. (Fields was also released as a double, clear-vinyl album.) Qualia really sounds like a sophomore release; it retains the same essential "Henry-ness" -- a happy sparkle in tension with a pointy experimentalism -- as Fields, but is pushing into new spaces. You can hear the artist stretching.
Qualia is a term used to describe the "what it is like" character of mental states. The album is more like a collection of songs than a complete piece. Each track stands squarely on its own. Where Fields demonstrated a strong affinity for Philip Glass, Qualia shows the influence of characters like Lukas Foss and Brian Eno, more mainstream modernists like Dan Deacon, and the -- now classic -- electronica of Kraftwerk. The Quietus describes one of Qualia's tracks, "Mechanolotry," which means the worship of machines, as amassing "layer upon layer of snapping, plucking, yearning synthetic string sound, slowly introducing each element into a hypnotic atonal soundscape, exploring the realm of beautiful chaos as successfully as Terry Riley did on In C…" Um, that's some serious praise.
Today, Henry says he has recorded over 30 hours of music. He says that Fields and Qualia each come from different, roughly two-week periods of his recording history. "Normally the things I think go well together are the ones I recorded chronologically close together. Normally for a couple of weeks I'll have a musical mindset that I'm in. I'll probably be listening to something and hear something in it or just some process, some aspect that I'll like and then I work that out." During these periods he will record a 20-minute song every day; he calls them "musical mindbursts."
Fields and Qualia sound really different from one another because they not only represent different "mindbursts," meaning different ideas or influences, but they were also recorded differently. When he was 11 and recording Fields, Henry used Garage Band and the album is a reaction to, experimentation with and a challenge of that technology's limits. Qualia was recorded on an H2 Zoom using the keyboard and loop pedal. You can hear the breathing room this technology provides. Henry is able to choose the length of the loop he records and can sit and listen to his own results without fear of the sound degrading, as it does in Garage Band.
The result is longer compositions that retain the immediacy of Henry's improv, while also demonstrating a more sophisticated thought process. Where Fields is pure bubble, Qualia is a slow simmer. The songs take longer to develop; the process is more on display.
When he's not playing music (or hockey), Henry ravenously consumes non-fiction and science texts and videos. This summer he went on a reading binge that included the works of Oliver Sachs and John Krakauer. He also subscribes to the YouTube channel, Vsauce, which produces videos that answer questions such as "how many things are there?" and "what is the speed of dark?"
When I ask him what he sees himself doing in the future, he says, "I see myself as someone who does some sort of creative thing -- that could be music, art, writing or science. I can't see myself as someone who's not doing something creative."
Indeed. On that long ago visit when I first heard Henry Plotnick play, his parents decided that we needed some adult time and asked if we had any videos. I had one: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which Henry had not yet seen. So, we put him into the bedroom with the TV and commenced "adult time," which consisted of mostly drinking and trash talk. When the film was over, Henry came out and asked if we would like to hear another song. He then proceeded to play that film's theme song, "Pure Imagination" after having heard it during that one viewing. Yikes.