AMN Reviews: patrick brennan: Ways & Sounds: Inquiries Interconnections Contours [Arteidolia Press, 2021]

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.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Patrick Brennan, Maria do Mar, Ernesto Rodrigues, Miguel Mira, Hernâni Faustino & Abdul Moimême – The Sudden Bird of Waiting [Creative Sources CS 674]

Back in spring 2018, New York City alto saxophonist/composer patrick brennan revisited Lisbon. While living there in the 1990s he’d become involved with the Portuguese improvised music community; his return to Lisbon put him once again in the company of the city’s improvisers and resulted in two exhilarating recordings: 2019’s Terraphonia, a duet with electric guitarist and sound artist Abdul Moimême, and now the newly released The Sudden Bird of Waiting.

Like Terraphonia, The Sudden Bird of Waiting was recorded in April, 2018 in Lisbon’s Namouche Studios. Here, brennan is heard mostly on alto saxophone but also occasionally on cornet and jaguar, the latter being an ancient Mesoamerican wind instrument producing a gusty, unpitched sound. In contrast to the earlier set, which explores timbral polarities within the restricted intimacy of the duet, The Sudden Bird of Waiting, which finds brennan alongside of a string quartet of violin (Maria do Mar), viola (Ernesto Rodrigues), cello (Miguel Mira) and double bass (Hernâni Faustino) along with Moimême on two electric guitars played simultaneously and objects, is an essay in the complex sonorities of the contemporary chamber ensemble.

Although the music on the album is fully improvised, the cohesion of the strings and guitars on the one side, and the forceful solo voice of the alto saxophone on the other, give the group’s sound a structural coherence that transcends the momentary alliances that typically form and disperse in the flow of spontaneous music. In fact it is this play of difference separating brennan’s saxophone from the strings and guitars that gives the performance the feel of a multi-movement concerto for alto saxophone and chamber orchestra. Here as on his other recordings, brennan is a compelling soloist. His saxophone emerges as a well-defined, hard-edged line standing out against and weaving through the surrounding masses of sound; these latter consist in an elaborately textured structure built up from the full range of extended and conventional performance techniques present to hand for contemporary players—something of a signature sound for Rodrigues and the string players associated with him. The track Nextness introduces a new element into the mix—the spoken word, in the form of brennan’s dramatic reading of poet Randee Silv’s verbal composition by that name. Silv’s anti-narrative of juxtaposed images and creatively dismantled semantics—a kind of extended technique for language—is perfectly at home in these surroundings.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Patrick Brennan & Abdul Moimême – Terraphonia [Creative Sources CS579CD]

The pairing of alto saxophonist patrick brennan and guitarist Abdul Moimême on terraphonia is an especially piquant one whose symbiosis is, paradoxically, an organic outgrowth of a constant polarity of sound.

The album was recorded in April in Lisbon, the home base for Moimême, a Portuguese native who also has lived in Ireland and the United States. Although his main instrument, as here, is electric guitar, Moimême also studied tenor saxophone under brennan, a New York-based musician. A composer as well as an improviser, brennan has since the 1970s pursued an original musical vision that includes solo saxophone performances as well as composing polyrhythmic works based on short, overlapping melodic cells for a large, modularly-organized ensemble.

There is a basic structure that ties together the seven tracks on terraphonia, a structure that consists in a timbral juxtaposition and contrast growing out of a more or less ongoing difference in voices. On the one side, abstract electronic sound from Moimême’s prepared guitars; on the other, the voice-like inflections of brennan’s wind-channeling alto saxophone and cornet. Moimême’s creative use of a broad spectrum of sounds based on qualities other than pitch frames each piece, while the emotional center of gravity lies in the forceful immediacy of brennan’s playing. The latter includes a generous but judicious use of extended technique, dynamic variation and broken phrasing that parallel the multifaceted qualities of the human voice—its confident assertion and hesitation, its full-throated stridency and confidential whisper. The opposition of timbres that emerges from the relationship between brennan and Moimême makes possible a distinctive kind of confluence: In place of the conventional motive engine of harmonic tension and release, the two set up an intricate, contrapuntal web of convergence and divergence in phrasing and dynamics. Through their sensitivity to each other’s contributions, brennan and Moimême are able to transform the particulars of contrast and difference into a higher-level, expressive synthesis.

Daniel Barbiero