It’s often said that the most honest, free and truly independent music is performed for pleasure, rather than as a career. A simplistic view, perhaps, but it’s true that many sonic innovators broke ground without any obvious desire to score a large paycheck for their trouble. Henry Plotnick, a budding electronic musician from San Francisco, couldn’t exactly be called an innovator. His music, created with a keyboard and various looping software, has precedents: the minimal composition of Philip Glass and Terry Riley, the kosmische style birthed in ’70s Germany and the hypnotic moods of new age. Nevertheless, he’s one of the more singular and unusual figures in the American underground. And there’s little chance of him being waylaid by careerism just yet. Because at 13 years old, Henry Plotnick is still in junior high.
“I’ve stopped trying to pitch my music to my friends,” says Henry. “I don’t think they’re that interested in 20-minute long pieces. I’m the only person even remotely my age in my school that would want to listen to anything like that.” Much of the credit for Henry’s entry into this sound world ought to go to his parents, Danny Plotnick and Alison Levy, who made a point of playing music around the house pretty much as soon as their son was born in 2001. Henry’s precociousness proved pretty hair-raising.
“Henry’s always been attracted to the more experimental stuff. When he was young, John Fahey was his favorite,” recalls his father. “His love of Philip Glass started at four, when I showed him [Godfrey Reggio's 1982 film] Koyaanisqatsi. He loved time-lapse [film] and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got the movie for you!’ And he was transfixed.” Not until the ripe old age of seven did Henry start to put this interest into practice, cycling through Glass, Brian Eno and Steve Reich on the family iPod and trying to replicate it on piano. During the summer 2012, he retired to his bedroom and used GarageBand to record keyboard parts on his computer.
When Danny and Alison heard the results, they were stunned. Alison uploaded an excerpt to her personal Facebook page at the tail end of 2012, where they caught the attention of John Whitson, a former San Francisco resident who now runs the Holy Mountain record label in Portland, Oregon. “I kind of joked with him, ‘Well, Henry’s looking for a label…’ and he was like, ‘Oh, you actually have more stuff?’ We sent John the whole thing and he wanted to put it out,” Danny remembers. The release of Fields, a lavish nine-song double LP, was released in June.
For a composer who confesses to his amateurism (“I’d only just discovered how to use the loop function on GarageBand,” says Henry), Fields is multi-layered and multifaceted, creating dreamlike beauty with a limited palette. Synthesized bells and strings conjure up both aqueous calm and edgy dread; sometimes the melodies recall the accidental oddness of 1970s library music. In places, it sounds like two acts who have also released music on Holy Mountain: arched-eyebrow synth conceptualist James Ferraro, and inscrutable Pennsylvanian duo Blues Control. Most of the songs clock in at five or six minutes, with the exception of Fields’ final two tracks, which total over half an hour.
When the album began to generate chatter online, Henry’s age — he was 11 when it was released — was a near-unavoidable part of the picture. Whitson tried to focus on the music, mindful of the perceived novelty detracting from his ability. “[His age] is a part of the music and it’s not part of the music, and it will increasingly become less of a story as he makes more music. I thought it would be a good idea to deemphasize his age now.” Henry, too, exercises a note of caution. “Adults are like, ‘Oh my god, he’s amazing!’ but sometimes I wonder — are they saying, ‘It’s amazing…for someone his age’?”
Hearing Fields praised in the bearpit of internet criticism, by strangers under no obligation to be polite was, says Danny, “Totally validating…Of course, you think whatever your kid’s doing is awesome. It’s great for Henry too. It isn’t stuff his peers are particularly interested in, so I think he would be working in a vacuum otherwise.”
A digital promo of Fields was sent to 20jazzfunkgreats, a MP3 blog based in the U.K. One of its bloggers, David McNamee, fished it from the inbox and fell for its compositional style: “It kept cropping up on my phone when I was out and about and it hit all the correct buttons for me.” McNamee also has a cassette label, Blue Tapes, whose releases often have a meditative quality, and a home-recorded background — a spirit common with Fields.
“I tracked him down by finding a sole YouTube clip of him performing live, on a channel run by his dad,” says McNamee. “Obviously, when I saw the video I was in for a bit of a surprise.” Liaisons with the Plotnicks began in late 2013, a cue for Henry to consider notions of album-as-artistic-statement for the first time. “It made me more conscious of the music I was making in my room — whether it’d be good for that release. I named the tracks, I put them in an order, I listened to the album a couple times to make sure it was good. Fields was just kind of slapped together.”
As tortuous gestations go, Blue Fourteen — the resulting six-song, 70-minute album — isn’t quite up there with Guns N’ Roses‘ Chinese Democracy. By Henry’s account, the toughest part may have been choosing an album-length representation of his work. “Most days I’ll sit down and record a piece — I record everything I do — so, at the end of the week, I’ve got like three hours of new music.” How much of that ends up being top quality? “A lot of it, actually. I feel that with maybe every 10 songs I do, I elevate the music to a different level. I’m constantly working up my musical ability.”
In the best possible way, statements like this betray Henry’s greenness. No matter how glowing the praise of others, he who talks unreservedly of his own talent risks being branded an egotist, especially in so-called underground scenes. In fact, Henry is level-headed and astute when he discusses his craft. Moreover, Blue Fourteen is a step forward from Fields in terms of complexity and atmosphere. Less reliant on Terry Riley-esque trancelike repetition, his skills in both playing and editing have become audibly more virtuosic. There are field recordings, like the croaking frogs who invade the delicate, puzzle-like “Mechanolatry.” On Fourteen, Henry bears comparison with early-’00s Four Tet, or Japanese auteur Nobukaza Takemura. He can be more linear — catchy, even, as the rickety, beat-driven pulsing pop heart of “Wapiti” proves.
Usually when talent arrives this fully-formed, there’s a pushy parent behind the scenes, attempting to live vicariously through their offspring’s talent. But neither Danny Plotnick nor Alison Levy fit this bill. To the contrary — both are mindful of it.
Danny’s background is in film, primarily cultish low-budget works on Super 8; Alison has been a musician since the 1990s, her most notable group being power-pop outfit The Loud Family. She’s upfront about how her upbringing in the notoriously bohemian San Francisco shaped her outlook. “My mom was a painter and a designer, and I grew up knowing you could incorporate your child into that world in a comfortable way. We’re just plugged into the art scene here, because we’ve been doing it since we were in our early 20s.”
Danny admits that if the family lived in a less metropolitan, more artistically indifferent area, it would have been harder to find an outlet to share his son’s talent. The family’s location, however has afforded them unique opportunities — like Henry playing live at San Francisco MOMA in June 2013. Employees at the prestigious gallery, friends of the Plotnicks, had seen his performances at a local farmers’ market, and were willing to pull a few strings. “We haven’t been, like, crazy stage parents,” Danny says, “but we know how to navigate that world.”
It would be easy to undersell Henry’s potential, or be too manipulative. “Regarding live performance, we’re putting him in situations…not necessarily to succeed, but just not bad situations. Do we want him playing in a smoky bar to a bunch of drunk people?” asks Danny, rhetorically. (Henry, meanwhile, has an excellent reply when asked about his approach to live performance: “Well, at first I felt I needed to wear a hat. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, I don’t need to.”) It goes without saying that parents who coax their child in the direction of obtuse music are hardly looking to fashion a superstar son-slash-retirement fund.
Henry’s musical education is now bolstered via Spotify, and the near-infinite links in the chain it reveals. “I’ll find an artist that I like, see the ‘related artist’ tab and then listen to their stuff. And then I’ll be like, ‘Why didn’t I know about this before? ‘” His mother forbids social media, but enthuses as to his online resourcefulness. “My mind is blown by the way Henry is just able to navigate and discover things. We didn’t have that. We were buying vinyl, and making and trading cassettes!” (The cyclical absurdity of him releasing music on these formats is not lost on her.)
“For the generation that Henry belongs to, all of [music] history is happening at once, and the kind of cultural allegiances you make as a person are no longer solely defined by your immediate environment and the times you live in,” says McNamee. “It makes even postmodernism seem retro and redundant. So take heart parents — it’s not all sexting and 4chan out there.”
“Right now, it’s a hobby,” says Henry matter-of-factly. “But if I keep doing it, maybe it’ll turn into something. Even if not, I already have two albums out. I think I’m doing pretty good so far.”