Hanna Benn’s exploration of what she calls “the gray area” evolved into a unique style of composing—one that included a taste for electronic beats mixed with new age synth, all built on a foundation of jazz rhythms and classical rules of musical composition. Adapted from Classical Music Indy’s NOTE Magazine.
The Gray Area
By Burton Runyan
Hanna Benn is a composer, but she is probably more accurately described as a collaborator who incorporates dance, opera and theater in her work. She is part of a growing movement of creative people exploring the intersection of genres and the ways in which traditional classical music theory evolves amidst today’s technologies and cultural experiences.
Benn grew up in Indianapolis, spending the weekends of her childhood singing choral music at Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle. While she got most of her traditional music education in the heart of the city, the passion in her own heart grew at home, where she listened to her parents’ albums of jazz, R&B, soul, and of course, Stevie Wonder.
“A broad spectrum is important. It opens your ear. It doesn’t allow you to be limited,” Benn says.
Her exposure to all this music—Anglican choral music, jazz fusion, violin and piano lessons—may have predestined her for a musical career, but Benn didn’t really begin to explore composing until she moved to Seattle to attend Cornish College of the Arts. Originally there to study voice, Benn was pressed to explore her talents by a professor in a composition class. “I never thought I would be a composer,” she says. “The idea wasn’t even a reality for me.”
After finishing at Cornish, she began to discover all the possibilities within composition—breaking down music of all kinds to its very roots and combining styles and themes. “Genre is funny isn’t it? We like to identify everything. Put a name on it. [But] to me it’s all the same,” Benn says.
Benn’s attitude towards genre evolved as she began working in the avant-garde musical communities of Seattle and Indianapolis. There, she found a support system—not just for inspiration, but for exploration.
“I was collaborating a lot [after school],” she laughs, as she details her projects: co-founding an experimental pop band, writing music for friends with chamber ensembles, and producing commissioned works. She even completed a residency in Indianapolis to work on her solo album before starting an international tour with the band Son Lux.
Benn’s exploration of what she calls “the gray area” evolved into a unique style of composing—one that included a taste for electronic beats mixed with new age synth, all built on a foundation of jazz rhythms and classical rules of musical composition.
Dive into her work and the gray area she mines becomes even more apparent—especially when trying to describe her music. The challenge of creating music that can’t be labeled by genre is one she accepts like an honor. If Benn must break rules to represent the universe of music that has influenced her, then so be it.
It’s impossible to miss the parallel between her lovely genre-bending style and her experiences in an artistic area where there are few women of color. Music developed throughout ages as a unifying human experience, but the history of classical music and classism are intertwined.
Benn recognizes how privileged she was to grow up with classical music, and is grateful for it, but her goal is to make music that is accessible to everyone. Creating loosely-defined, genre-less music and wrapping together emotions representative of an entire community allows her to bring classical music to people from all classes, races, genders and ages.
Want to buy Hanna Benn’s music? Check out her website here!
For more info on Hanna Benn, check out her Facebook page here!