Sonic Theatre: Hahn Rowe Crafts a Soundscape for The Lantern

Emily Johnson
January 25, 2023

If you were to close your eyes it might feel like a thunderstorm; the kind you experienced as a child, when it felt like the whole world was cascading, alive with rolls of thunder and crackling rain. The noises are melodic and totally catastrophic, invoking nothing so much as a feeling of awe.

Instead it’s a man with a sheet of brilliant gold foil draped over a microphone, waving it in slow, sweeping patterns, his own strange dance. He wafts a square of metal near it, creating a thick quavering sound. Then he allows it to settle, to recede, the man-made storm dissipating into stillness.

This sonic alchemist—composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Hahn Rowe—has taken up residence in The Lantern at the Lenfest Center for the Arts and is building a unique performance that is the culmination of the musical tools and processes he has spent his career building. The latest in Columbia’s To Transform series of public programs, the work—titled Something about the weather—will premiere on January 31, 2023, and February 1, 2023.

“Sound is a kind of object in space,” Rowe told me during a recent interview. When I had the opportunity to visit the Lantern to see Rowe’s process, it was an idea I couldn’t get out of my mind.

He would produce a sound—a note from his violin—release it into the space as if it were a beam of light, and begin to play with it as it hovered there in the air. 

Notes would stay aloft as he layered them, distorted them, refracted them, then he might snatch them all back up again. I thought of someone playing with a flashlight—how one might let it flow over certain textures, or use it to make shadows, or cover it up abruptly before releasing the beam. To experience this sonically was totally mesmerizing. 

Rowe treats sound as a totally manipulable material, like molten plastic, pliable and forgiving, capable of being blown thin as a bubble or layered thick and heavy. 

“It’s all through a process of play,” Rowe said. “When I’m in that gray in-between space of not knowing but just observing, applying some of my knowledge and my tools, and having this dialogue with the unknown, that’s where the magical elements happen.”

I had arrived at The Lantern on Tuesday afternoon and found Rowe amidst his rig, a raised platform outfitted with a bed of sound boards, pedals, tablets, and a microphone. He had entered the space only the day before to begin his week-long residence.

“It’s sort of unheard of to have this opportunity,” he said. “To work with all the idiosyncrasies of the space for a week is a real pleasure.”

The production was still totally fluid, resolving itself through choices and instincts. The rig had begun in the middle of the room but was soon moved closer to the wall of windows. Rowe and Julia Hahn, the Lenfest Center’s Production Manager, were discussing the arrangement of seats; there was some talk of Lighting Designer Kate McGee “intervening” during the performance with a light fixture, in which case they would need an aisle for them to approach. 

I walked around the rig, trying to identify objects. There were tuning forks, whistles, and a tin basin; an EXIT sign, a metal grille and three handheld frame drums he had apparently fused together. An instrument I’d never seen caught my attention—as far as I could tell, Rowe had used a DeWalt clamp to attach a kalimba to a lap harp, and then added a couple of metal coils for good measure.

A close-up image of a violin, a microphone, and various other pieces of equipment

“Sound has a lot of associative properties that can draw on memories and physical reactions,” Rowe explained. Part of his process is “to put a different lens on the sonic qualities of certain objects. To enter into the universe of these sounds that seem mundane. There’s actually a sonic world and landscape encased in these [mundane] sounds that we normally don’t pay attention to.

“It’s always surprising what a tiny little object can produce, with the help of some processing and magnification.” 

Among electronic and experimental sounds, Rowe’s work also often includes a more voiced element—the guitar, or violin, or even his own voice—used to emote and give a melodic structure. He might pluck a bluesy guitar pattern over huge, electronic waves. He might sing soft, breathy, mournful notes into a thin auto-tune-like microphone, as if an android were serenading a sunset. 

When he plays a harmonica, or a lilting whistle, or a folksy violin melody, it opens up chambers in the memory and imagination. It’s a profoundly emotional experience. 

Unsurprisingly, Rowe says that storytelling is essential to what he does. 

“I still think we long for stories. I want to create some kind of journey for the audience…This performance will be continuous, from beginning to end, and it will have its own trajectory and arc, but it’s constantly transforming. It’s not just a selection of musical numbers. It’s more about a kind of sonic journey.”

He credits this impulse toward narrative to his work in theater. “I studied classical music when I was young, then I played in rock bands, worked in improvisational forms and electronic music. At a certain point I got involved in making music for theater, and that really flipped everything for me.

“In the music world, we’re so used to performing numbers, and then in between the pieces you kind of disengage, you tune your instrument, you look at whatever tools you need. But in the theater you really have to justify your presence from second to second. Why am I here, where am I looking, why am I walking over there, why am I picking this object up?”

“I still think we long for stories. I want to create some kind of journey for the audience...It’s not just a selection of musical numbers. It’s more about a kind of sonic journey."

Justifying his presence from moment to moment requires Rowe to track a constantly metamorphosing sonic atmosphere. When he captures a new sound—like striking a mallet on his water bottle—you can’t guess at its shape, or how it will fit into the live composition. But then it appears, accenting at just the right moment. For him to have anticipated this is incredible.

School of the Arts Dean Carol Becker, who commissioned Rowe for the To Transform series after seeing his performance at the closing celebration for Adam Pendleton's MoMA show, was similarly impressed by this kaleidoscopic ability.

“I always think of the art-making process as transformation,” Dean Becker said, “an artist or artists together creating something from nothing, beginning with a singular idea, a concept, an intuition, or a materiality, and creating a work. But I had never experienced this so magically as I did at MoMA, when Hahn Rowe, starting with one sound, soon became an orchestra.”

I sat for a little over two hours watching Rowe experiment. I shivered at a frequency cracking open like a jaw, and I dreamed under galaxies of chirping stars. I looked out the window at the city skyline while Rowe wandered out into the hallway with his violin, playing a yearning melody, a call from far away.

I began to think that someone capable of creating such beautiful sounds must have some feeling for the universe beyond my own. Surely someone able to open the channels of memory must be able to see several different times at once; our pasts, our futures, a whole life in sound.

Then he took a break, and unfurled a yoga mat on the floor to lie on while he made a phone call. Just an ordinary person, with an extraordinary ability to brush the familiar and unnameable.

“More than the visual, and the image,” Rowe said, “I think music has a way of going straight to your molecules.”