For the last few months, Hanna Benn has lived underground, in a small studio bisected by gauzy curtains, living and working in the basement of Central State, the former Westside psychiatric hospital. The historic hospital – now reclaimed, remodeled and re-used as a co-living space by Reverie Estates — hosted Benn in its first-ever artist residency this spring. As winter thawed and dripped into spring, Benn composed and wrote pieces that will be presented for the first time Saturday.
The Indy-born composer and singer moved back to Indy last year after a decade in Seattle, where she attended Cornish College of the Arts, wrote and toured with her band Pollens, and created commissioned pieces for a variety of symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles. She spent a bit of last year on tour with eclectic R&B producer and performer Boots, ping-ponging the States at festivals. When she returned, she moved into Central State.
“I committed myself,” she says, laughing, “to focus.”
It seems focus could come easily at a space like Central State Mansion a large, brick mansion nestled on a grassy expanse. Reverie remolded the historic estate, turning the former hospital into dorm-style student and co-living quarters with a large, modern shared kitchen. Neat touches – a revitalized tiny movie theater; quiet study nooks – abound. Benn, allotted a studio on the bottom floor, cut her space in two, working in one corner and sleeping in the other.
But Benn describes her time working as scattered. “It's been fluid [process] of what comes,” she says. “My mind's kind of scattered, so I have to work scattered.”
Part of that process has involved digging through bits and pieces of her past 10 years.
“[I'm] going through my backlog,” she says, gathering up a collection of shattered iPhones and laptops in her arms and laying them across the floor of her studio. “Three computers, three iPhones that don't work – but I have voice memos. I've been going through all of my voice memos, drawing inspiration from my old selves. I haven't had this much time to focus on myself. This intentional residency to focus on that. ... I've been listening to my old ghosts. The ghosts are my past selves. I've been collecting those, [and] paying attention to my present for this show.
She says through this process, she's written a series of mantras and bits of poetry that guide her composing.
The content of those mantras include, “The want to always be present, and the need to let go of things. I continually hoard old feelings, and I hoard recordings. This process,” she says, gesturing to all of the shattered technology neatly laid across the ground, “has been such a labor. When I listen to these things -– these ideas, the ones that I love — I've already remembered and retained them. So it's partly about letting go, being present, about being transparent to be present. [My piece is about] acknowledging ghosts, playing with different kinds of light, talking to your shadow.”
As for instrumentation for the piece, she says, “At the heart of it, it's really just going to be my voice, and air phones – aerated instruments. Woodwinds, pipe organ, and my voice. [It includes] sampling a lot of acoustic recordings of pipe organ and flute, and rearranging them for me to use at a midi controller.”
She's continued to work with sonic and visual artist Jordan Munson, citing his technological prowess as key to bringing her visions to life.
“He is a genius at certain things I have no understanding of,” she says. “There's a lot of things that I've wanted to do, and I hear them, but I needed to meet him in order to do it. I finally feel like I met a partner in that.”
Her background in the study of sacred song and membership in the Christ Church Cathedral choir as a young person continues to inform her new work as well.
“No matter what music I make, I imagine a space like a cathedral,” she says. “I always think of myself being of service to something. I do see myself as a performer and a composer, but I feel like I'm doing it out of service for something.”
The space she'll perform in Saturday is, while not a cathedral, grand indeed. The 1899 building sits 20 yards from the Central State Mansion, a gorgeous, tiled expanse with glittering globe lights and intricately etched ceilings. Visual installations will be shown in the Carpentry Hall across a short sidewalk. All artists exhibiting and performing at The Future Past play with the theme of memory.
This event serves as opening night for a monthlong exhibit in the space featuring work and contributions by a variety of artists. The exhibit is open by appointment, and is an effort of art + space, a site-responsive programming series that highlights emerging and mid-career creators in non-traditional spaces. The opening night also serves as a fundraiser for NoExit.
A few days after our interview, Benn sends me a few bits of the poetry that frames her work.
May the fragments reconcile themselves
May my light, the one unseen,
May I come back to me?
If you go:
The Future Past: Opening Night
Saturday, May 7, 6 p.m.
Historic Central State, 164 Steeples Blvd.