Stuart Broomer

Liner Notes for “pictures in a gallery”, solopiano,
Leo Records 464, 2006

”I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space.”  Mark Rothko

John Wolf Brennan’s Pictures in a Gallery will likely suggest Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the Russian composer’s 1874 piano suite (later orchestrated by Ravel) based on the paintings of his friend Viktor Hartmann. It’s a natural jumping-off point, for Brennan’s work is very strongly tied to some of the paintings in Lucerne’s Rosengart Collection. There may be other inferences as well, for Brennan’s harmonic vocabulary and keyboard fireworks can sometimes suggest the expanding tonal language of the Eastern European piano tradition as it stretched in a few decades through the -isms — from Romanticism and nationalism into modernism, including Prokofiev, Bartók and Stravinsky (the latter most strongly alluded to in The Rite of String, but at least as apparent in the preceding Anyway – was there ever nothing?). That Russian historical reference surely extends to include the musical rendering of Alexander Pushkin’s  “To ***.”   

While these piano performances come with myriad associations, they are not weighted with history. If anything it is a music that is essentially light, fleet, carrying and making new associations easily. Is there an invitation to synaesthesia, the transfer of material from one sense to another? Is there a possible translation of form from a painting to a piece of music? Is there an exchange of space and time? All of these possibilities are implicit in this work, as the reified artefacts of culture can become living tissue.

John Wolf Brennan is blessed with a very quick mind, so his improvisations are always stretching to and from form, to and from pattern, to such an extent that we can readily confuse the spontaneous with the pre-formed. Among the present pieces, those associated with paintings are part of a developed improvisational approach, while the Pushkin is through-composed.

The paintings elicit extended reflections. Here’s Brennan’s description of the process: “I visited the Rosengart Museum several times and spent a lot of time in front of these eleven pictures, taking notes, meditating, closing my eyes, letting the colours and shapes sink deep into the subconscious layers. Then, I went for a long walk along Lake Lucerne. Upon returning home, I sat at the piano and just let these energies flow. Again, I took some notes, careful not to spoil the innocence of the first magic moment of perception, and when the night of the first performance — the one heard on the CD — arrived, I just tried to be as ‘empty’ as possible in order not to let anything interfere with the internal memories and the actual energy radiating from the pictures."

The paintings seem to have set off an explosion of creativity: “As a composer, I can’t help to look at the world with mathematical eyes, to feel obsessed and magnetically attracted by all sorts of geometrical shapes, figures, vectors, proportions, golden and not-so-golden sections, Fibonacci figures, triangles, circles, spirals. Often, when I look at a painting, I close one eye and squint with the other, in order to see the shapes, blobs, stains, dots and points of the colours more clearly.... much like the arrow is pointed not directly at the bull’s-eye in Zen and the Art of Archery, but in a ‘fuzzy-logic’ way nearby. So you can hit it in the very centre – even blindfolded!”

This music is very much about variety of inspirations and methodologies—some of the same variety of methods found in the paintings. At times in the Picasso pieces, the resonating elements of the piano preparation seem to fill in the space of the lines as if they were filling in the area of a painting with colour.

The range of methodologies extends to the musical materials, from the folk song Ach bittrer Winter heard in Meditation on a Medieval Song to the astonishing array of piano preparation techniques heard here. Brennan spent time with John Cage in 1990 working on a series of concerts in Wetzikon, near Zurich, and exchanging techniques for preparing the piano. At the time, Brennan “felt restricted with all the bolts and screws between the strings, because I wanted to rapidly change back and forth between ‘prepared’ and ‘half-prepared’ and “non-prepared” sounds, so I started to develop much faster ways of preparing and de-preparing the piano.” His CD The Well-Prepared Clavier (released on Creative Works in 1998) is a kind of encyclopedia of techniques for altering the piano, Brennan referring to it as “everything you always dreamed of asking Mr Steinway but never dared....”

Among the most striking devices here are the continuous tones of Full Moon, from the Klee Pentagram. In it Brennan uses rosin-covered fishing lines to bow the strings of the piano (he calls it “arcopiano”), in an extraordinary individual effort that resembles the group piano bowing employed by the American composer Stephen Scott. The preparations seem to extend and translate the piano, just as the music reflects the paintings — the gap between piano line and the in-filling prepared sound paralleling line and colour field. Then, too, there are the literal self-duets in which prior recordings are employed.   

Finally Brennan’s abundance of associations — of the high modern, of painting and text — may be aids to distraction. When, where, how do we most fully hear music, does one most fully make music, whether as an improviser or as a listener, composing, forming, building what one hears? It may be in improvising situations that the use of “programmatic“ materials, the point of the subject matter, is to distract the improviser, better enabling one to free the creative unconscious. Is the player (and the creative listener) set free in the gap between the painting/poem and music, insofar as the relationship cannot be adequately conceptualized?  Brennan is alive to the idea that might liberate: “I think if as a grown-up musician, you have so many sounds in your soul, in your heart, in your brain, in your fingertips,  in your toes, that it certainly helps to free this ‘sonoric pile’ by concentrating on something which seems to be the very opposite, that is, not coming from the realm of sounds, but the realm of light waves (or particles, as Einstein might object... today we know that light functions as particle and wave, simultaneously!)”  

The Lucerne concert took place in the same room as the three large paintings of the Picasso Triptych. The audience is thus invited to directly associate the musical and the visual, though no precise correspondence is possible. So is the programmatic relation a deliberate distraction, taking away some of our attention to liberate a fuller attentiveness to the possibilities of the music itself (perhaps the painting too?), as if the effort to pay full attention is the ultimate distraction (the other paintings are in nearby rooms, the auditors awaiting or remembering resonances).

Conversely, Brennan suggests another possibility. He is conscious of, and approves the dicta declaring the autonomy of the art, from Magritte’s painting of a pipe —“The Treachery of Images” — that declares Ceci n'est pas une pipe to Samuel Beckett’s comment on Joyce’s work that “Joyce’s writing is not about something, it’s the something itself.”  But Brennan is alive to another possibility, citing Mark Rothko’s remark that, “No possible set of notes can explain our paintings. Their explanation must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker. The appreciation of art is a true marriage of minds. And in art, as in marriage, lack of consummation is ground for annulment.” For Brennan these pieces are apprehensions, literal holdings. Each of his piano performances, then, is an act of transcendence, a wedding of minds across form. 

Between the lines of music, of paintings, of a poem, Brennan finds new spaces, new residences, spaces somehow open and specific that did not exist before, and in which we share. We are free to be of two (or more) minds when we are in this music. The preparation of the piano is a fundamental ritual, the instrument an altar, a site of transformation, and perhaps a sculpture as well. He expands processes already at work in the paintings, whether the merging figures of the Picassos or the emerging text of Klee’s “ABC für Wandmaler.” The general movement between forms is erotic, echoing the striated, architectural and tectonic colours of Klee’s “Eros”; concepts formerly forbidden to touch now rub together, finding freedom in imaginary frictions. The melodica appearing at the end of the Lucerne concert may be the unspecified horn which appears at the beginning in Picasso’s “Aubade.”

Stuart Broomer

Toronto, March 2006

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