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Partners in life and music, Duo Baars Henneman comes to Austin as part of first U.S. tour

Parry Gettelman
Dutch violist Ig Henneman and multi-reed player Ab Baars of Duo Baars Henneman.

There aren’t a lot of viola-reed duos on the improvised music scene — or in any other genre, for that matter. But although Dutch violist Ig Henneman and multi-reed player Ab Baars of Duo Baars Henneman can safely claim to be the originators of the unlikely configuration, they didn’t exactly invent it. Partners in both life and music, they more or less just fell into it after a decade or so of playing in each other’s bands.

“We were in Rome in 1999, we lived there a couple of months, and some musician friends had a festival every year, so they suggested, ‘Why don’t the two of you play duo sets at the festival?’” Henneman recalled by phone from her home in Amsterdam. “We had to think about it a little bit, as you can imagine, being together so often, but we both loved it.”

Henneman’s myriad projects include composing for film and theater, playing in the Queen Mab Trio, and leading a tentet, a string quartet, and a sextet. She said the duo format has been especially conducive to the exploration of new sounds and new textures, whether through composition or in performance. The two musicians’ long history together, rather than breeding complacency, facilitates adventure.

“It’s a beautiful position, because of course free improvisation can be a risky thing to do sometimes, especially with two people only; you’re very vulnerable, very open. I have the feeling when I play with Ab, if I tend to fall, I know somebody will pick me up before I hit the ground, and that’s a beautiful feeling. Also, when we play with a third musician, if we have the feeling while playing, ‘Wow, how can we solve this or that?’ it’s such a good duo that we can solve it together, to make it work.”

The possibilities for surprise are also multiplied through Henneman’s deft use of extended techniques and Baars’ command of tenor sax, clarinet, shakuhachi flute, and even noh-kan, a flute used in Japanese theater that he employed on the duo’s only album to date, 2006’s “Stof.”

Henneman laughed when asked if Baars likes to try a lot of different instruments.

“Always!” she said. “He played a lot of soprano sax when I met him many years ago, and I’ll still suddenly hear a soprano sax upstairs — he lives upstairs from me, we’re neighbors. He’s always looking for sounds, but he knows he has to limit himself, he cannot tour with this many instruments! And it’s difficult to keep your chops good for so many instruments, so he decided to do tenor, clarinet, and shakuhachi.”

Henneman herself is loyal to the viola, although she uses the piano in composition.

“The moment I held a viola in my hand, many years ago — I started on violin — I was totally in love, and I never stopped. It’s really my instrument — the color of the instrument, the role you have. In ensembles, it’s a little bit of the middle of the register, and I like that role, so you can use a lot of different roles. You can play percussion, you can play solo, or you can freak out. It has a lot of things that suit my playing, anyway, my character as a musician. “

Having toured Japan as well as Europe extensively, Duo Baars Henneman is embarking on its first real U.S. tour, performing in 14 cities. Henneman has never visited Austin before, although Baars is well known to creative music fans here through dates with the ICP Orchestra and with his trio plus Ken Vandermark. The duo is presenting a new suite, “Autumn Songs,” that includes compositions refracting various aspects of the season, inspired by natural phenomena, such as the first fall storms, and poetry, including a poem by William Blake about the ripeness of fruit that has an undertone of melancholy but is more about wisdom and desire.

“We started this summer, and we’re both still writing, working a lot on the material together. Once one of us has motifs or an idea, we start changing things and seeing what’s best for our instruments,” Henneman said. “Before we go on tour, already we have a lot of pleasure to work on the material.”

Duo Baars Henneman