Martin Hennessy is NOT dead

But he does seem to have trouble with the whole “living composer” thing. The evidence? He recently started a fundraising endeavor aimed at producing more concerts and recordings of his music and named it Martin Hennessy is Dead!

Martin’s frustrations with the music business are common, of course. After all, not everybody can be a John Corigliano or Jennifer Higdon.  It’s a given that being an artist in our society requires a healthy dose of fortitude and self reliance.  But one’s storehouse of such inner strengths can run low at times.

In 2008, Martin’s comic opera “The Good Friar” received a workshop performance by the Center for Contemporary Opera. “The audience loved it,” he recalls. “Afterward I got mad at the universe for not responding with a fuller production. So after a year of licking my wounds I figured out, once again, that I have to work even harder and that the answer isn’t going to come from out there but from inside me.

And thus is born “Martin Hennessy is Dead.”

But the subject of death has more resonance with Martin than just the fact that he’s a composer.  He’s been HIV+ for more than 20 years.

“When it came to naming the project the first thing that popped into my head was ‘Martin Hennessy is Dead!’  It cracked me up and felt so good and liberating. Not only because of the obvious joke of a composer only getting an audience posthumously but it just felt good to dump all the baggage of HIV and ego and desire for success into one succinct declaration.”

Shedding the labels of HIV and AIDS is actually quite a turn around, since it was through accepting and embracing his HIV status that Martin turned more deeply to his art and transformed from being a pianist to a composer.

Hennessy lost a lover to AIDS in 1986 and received his own diagnosis in 1988, which precipitated a long emotional bottom.  But in 1993 he went public. Way public.

“I told my parents and friends. I would tell people on line in the bank.  I was so renewed by the truth of ‘I am HIV positive.’ And I realized that the ‘HIV positive’ didn’t even matter, it was the ‘I am’ that fed me.

“I sublet my apartment and went to Philly to live with my sister and her lover. Bought an old piano at the Salvation Army in Manayunk and started writing songs and a musical.

martin_piano_2“Let me die,

Let me always die;

Let me be an ever dying creature falling inexorably towards the earth.

For only then can I soar surely to the heights of my original imagination!

“I wrote these words during my time in Manayunk. An imagination of death can be a valuable trope for letting go, for transformation and change. Death of ego is a big one for me.”

This was also the dark era when, perhaps ironically, the labels of HIV and AIDS brought artists more attention.

“In the 90’s I was presenting some of my first work with the concert series Positive Music but I couldn’t get it done in other AIDSy sort of venues because I wasn’t dead. I distinctly remember a sort of hierarchy of sickness among composers and artists in which the sicker you were the more compelling your work was found to be and more urgent to be done. Damn! I had thrush and an AIDS diagnosis but only had shingles, boils and a recurring ear fungus and facial skin that was constantly flaking off.”

“Now in the post-AIDS world I am just a dime a dozen composer/pianist. At those networking meetings for the American Music Center or Opera America when you have to put on a name tag, I feel like jotting down ‘No One.” Or better yet, ‘Beware! Desperate Composer!!!’”

One of Hennessy’s techniques to keep desperation at bay is spiritual practice. Since 1995 he’s attended annual retreats sponsored by the Helios Foundation, based in London.

“Their process uses a simple technique of focusing on a particular point or chakra over and over until one sort of digs a hole through to the essence of being. Gradually during the three days one observes the preconceptions and the tricks of the senses fall away and what remains is a deeper, closer connection to your unique truth and sometimes even the grand event: Enlightenment.

“I used it as a tool to stay ahead of the virus and have brought other HIV’ers to the process as well. I noticed a beneficial side effect was an increased creative energy. I would accomplish my composition projects and get things done so easily afterwards.”

MartinIllustrationCurrent Hennessy projects include a cycle of 13 songs for soprano and baritone using Edna St. Vincent Millay’s long poem “Renascence.” Also a song cycle to AIDS-related poetry written by a gay American poet who died a few years ago (rights are currently being negotiated).  That should be a nice follow-up to another AIDS-themed work, “A Letter from East 11th Street,” a two-part chamber opera to a libretto by Mark Campbell.

Besides composing, Martin is also active as a vocal coach and accompanist, working regularly with soprano Marnie Breckenridge and mezzo-soprano Heidi Skok.

With typical effusive candor, he declares: “I want to start writing an obituary now by performing my music with wonderful artists and building an audience for my work in concerts presented by Martin Hennessy is Dead!”

Fractured Atlas

Martin Hennessy is Dead! is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions in behalf of Martin Hennessy is Dead! may be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. Click on the link to read more and make a contribution.

One Response to “Martin Hennessy is NOT dead”

  1. Jim Pierce says:

    Thank you Martin for this article. You certainly are not dead. In fact, you are and have been more alive than most people I have known throughout my 50(!) years on this planet. Keep writing, composing, questioning, raging, loving, inspiring and laughing. This world’s not done with you yet!

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