Originally from Detroit, Michigan, patrick brennan—he prefers to spell his name with lower case letters—is an alto saxophonist, composer and improviser living in New York City since 1975, where he has been creating and performing works involving real-time composition based on polyrhythmically overlapping melodic cells. As this might suggest, brennan has a unique view of composition and its relationship to improvisation. It is a view that he articulates in his book Ways & Sounds, which covers the often complex ramifications of what it means to create music with others, from the perspective of someone actively involved not only in the playing, but in the constructing of interactive compositional frameworks that make that playing possible.
Ways & Sounds is the first book published by the Arteidolia Press, an imprint of the Arteidolia online journal of the arts. (Full disclosure: a book of my own essays is forthcoming from the press.) As an all-arts oriented journal Arteidolia encourages creative approaches to form as well as content; accordingly brennan’s writing, which can be concisely aphoristic or expansively discursive as needed, combines the conversationally direct with the poetically suggestive in a way that conveys the spontaneity of improvisation within the discipline of a thought-out program.
In a provocative opening move, brennan deflects the question—common not only to improvised music but to much contemporary composed music as well—of whether or not a given piece or type of music is structured. The question for brennan is one of “whether” rather than “if,” and so his question becomes one of what kind of structure the music exhibits. For an answer, brennan looks to what he suggests are the two basic poles defining musical structure: what he terms the “monological” and the “dialogical.” In the former kind of music, structure is the product of what he describes as a “single compositional persona,” while for the latter, structure is arrived at through the compositional choices of multiple participants. But although these two compositional alternatives entail significant differences in roles and responsibilities, they do agree in one important respect: whether it is monological or dialogical, the structure is in either case interactive. For even with monologic music, performance involves the interpretation of, and hence an interactive intervention in relation to, the instructions set out by the composer who wrote the piece.
What brennan emphasizes in his analysis of structure and indeed throughout the book is the social dimension of music in all of its forms, whether composed or improvised. As he points out, musical structure encompasses not only the relationships between the musical materials internal to the work or the performance, but the human relationships—cooperative, conflicting, communicative—defining the interactions of the individuals generating the sounds. These latter relationships are just as much structurally essential to the music as are those we ordinarily think of as making up musical structure, and are crucial elements in the realization—successful, unsuccessful, or indifferent—of a piece of music.
Another important theme brennan explores, and one that until recently was often overlooked in Western music, is the role of rhythm in structuring a composition or performance. Here too he applies the analytical categories of monological and dialogical structure to make sense of the varying roles rhythm can play, under different compositional assumptions and circumstances, in musical practice and experience. The understanding of rhythm that drives brennan’s investigation of its compositional possibilities is that as the tactile, kinetic dimension of bodily existence it is a fundamental phenomenon that transcends narrowly musical applications to embrace a sense of what it is to be human. In fact it may be not be too much to say that for brennan, rhythm is the bridge between existential personhood and musical personhood.
Towards the end of the book, brennan addresses the important matter of hearing. Hearing—listening closely, attentively, as a deliberate action within the moment in which one’s own creation of sound may voluntarily be held in suspense—is of central importance to the kind of collaborative, dialogical composition that brennan’s own musical practice entails. But it is no less important to the realization of monological composition. Hearing is the decision to invite in the others involved—the composer, the performer or the ensemble–as collaborators, to recognize them as autonomous yet cooperative actors in a dynamic alliance fused as a common project. As he puts it, “[h]earing is empathy that fulfills the reach of listening.”
Ways & Sounds is a book that will reward repeated readings; it belongs in the permanent library of anyone thinking seriously about the possibilities of musical practice.