Interview:
"Copperpress", 2002


1) First, let me say that I am struck by the profusion of styles that appear on the recordings that you sent. You seem to revel in exploring a number of musical practices and idioms. What attracts you to such a range of musical activities? Working in such a wide range of styles (very adeptly, I might add), how do you define and make explicit your “compositional voice”? While I am no fan of pigeon-holing, I am curious as to how you might try to sum up your intent within these various projects.

Curiosity may have killed the cats, but wolves thrive on it... curiosity triggers off ongoing research and it is indeed a very strong motivator. Have you ever visited a pigeon-hole? It must be pretty dark and narrow inside, and certainly not a place to dwell upon, so I can‘t imagine spending a lifetime in such a prison! On a more serious note: ever since I heard music (my mother was a classical singer, my father a classical amateur pianist, my uncle a professional pianist and composer) and then started to tackle the strings (first) and (secondly) the keys of our home piano at the age of eleven (so, actually, quite late), I felt attracted to very different poles of sounds, ranging from rock music (Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix) to the classical piano repertoire (especially Bach and Bartók), later on the first jazz exposures (Chris McGregor‘s Brotherhood of Breath), and only many years later, studying musicology at the University, I lost this “innocence of perception“ and became more aware of historical styles. In the words of Alfred Schnittke, I used a “polystilistic“ approach right from the very beginning. Take another example: John Zorn. Would you put his “radical Jewish music” (like «Masada») into the same basket as his Morricone paraphrases, or as “Naked City”? Or how can you put Fred Frith‘s distorted table guitar sounds into the same bag as his beautiful “fake-folky” melodies? Or, to quote another of my heros, listen to the music played by Louis Sclavis, his wonderful “folklore imaginaire” ­ file under what? So let this NOT be our worry.... Over the years, I have also come to experience and enjoy the many advantages of this open approach, because (as a pianist) having gone through the fire of free jazz has probably made my lyrical side (some might even say “romantic“, because I willingly confess to be a passionate melomane!) much more interesting, and the harmonic, rhythmic and melodious refinements of, let‘s say, my disciplined work in the chamber jazz group «Pago Libre» has helped a great deal to give my “freemprov“ playing in groups like «MOMENTUM» or solo works a much wider range. My voice as a composer therefore is probably more like a choir than a simple single vocal line.

2) On “Through the Ear of a raindrop” we see some of these various styles juxtaposed. How did that decision come about for this project?

First came E.A.POE‘s poem “The Valley of Unrest“. It triggered off the idea for this POEms PrOjEct, and subsequently the other poems moved in, mostly written by contemporary Irish and British poets (of which Shakespeare‘s sardonically bitter love requiem is most up-to-date!), forming a suite of 8, interspersed with and linked with 5 echoes. Then came the choice of the voice: Mozart used to “write a tune into the gargle of the singer“, and I happened to meet Julie Tippetts (née Driscoll, she was one of my heroines in the late sixties!) at Ruvo di Puglia Festival in Italy, where she was performing with her pianist husband Keith, and I with Pago Libre. Then I got a grant from a Swiss Arts Foundation to live and work in London‘s East End for half a year. I had worked with bassoonist Lindsay Cooper (remember «Henry Cow»?) before (cf. «Creative Works Orchestra» ­ live in Willisau), so I started to work on the concept, discussing it with Lindsay. Then I met legendary players like saxophonist Evan Parker (check out his incredibly hilarious tenor solo on the “fake” reggae rhythm of “Where art is a midwife”!), drummer Chris Cutler (also ex-«Henry Cow») and trombonist Paul Rutherford (he and Evan being longtime member of the «Brotherhood of Breath») , and they all were quite happy to work on this project. Sadly, because of an illness, Lindsay had to be replaced by bassclarinetist Peter Whyman The rehearsals and recording session in London were a sheer delight, and the only drop of bitterness about this group is that it NEVER got a single chance to perform the music live, although the album got extremely enthusiastic reviews, many of them four stars, and some festival organisers seemed to like it a lot, but never called...

3) How do you approach musically 'setting' a poem?

Studying German literature at the University, I had the fortune to work with two diametrically opposed professors, one going for a “structuralistic“ approach (in other words: counting the commas in Baudelaire‘s late poems...), the other for a “hermeneutic“ methodology. Of course, both the pre-fixed method (“stick to your premises, whatever happens along the way”) and the contextual method (“start somewhere and let whatever you find lead you to the next step“) have their ups and downs, and finding your own way b e t w e e n t h e l i n e s became an existential necessity. So, whenever I bring music and literature together, I try to introduce the two worlds to each other, try to respect their respective realms, do NOT try to “marry“ them against their will, but rather search for hidden correspondances, common sounds (of the vowels) and rhythms (of the consonants), try to follow the topography of the speech, the roots of the etymology, the geometry of the grammar, the secrets of the polyvalent, equivocal semantic layers (there are always more than one, this might be one explanation for the Irish love of puns...). But in spite of all the mathematical methods, structural analysis and linguistic exegesis I very much like to listen to my inner instincts, with keen shots, aiming half-blinded at the target, because only then you can hit the bull‘s eye — just think of “Zen and the art of archery”. There are many other ways to integrate lyrics and music than “setting“ it for voices. One particularly intriguing way is to try and look b e h i n d the surface of the letters, and use the
virtual matrix of this “alphabetical landscape” as point of departure for a soundscape, dancing along the “songlines” (described in Bruce Chatwin‘s seminal book on the Aborigines). «Text, Context, Co-Text & Co-Co-Text», my third solo piano album, is entirely dedicated to this specific approach.

4) Pago Libre's latest record seems to use film as an artistic entry point, whereas HeXtet's record seems to focus on the character and properties of language. I've noticed in your liner notes and interviews that you also have an interest in archeology. How does the extra-musical affect your compositional approach?

The subtitle of the new Pago Libre album «cinémagique» is “15 soundtracks for an imaginary cinema” ­ not for an imaginary film. The idea was to create a soundtrack for the cinema everybody carries around in his/her own head, at any given time... as a composer, I look at images and letters pretty much the same way as at notes or rhythms: basically what we have is a series of visual and/or auditive signs, elements, building material, and by investigating, researching, analyzing, deconstructing and re-assembling them we can create new audio-kinetic worlds, which at the same time mirror one‘s own view and certain aspects of the time and space continuum we are living in. Sometimes, a paradox becomes true: the more contemporary (i.e. grasping the very moment[um] of time art is, the more it can grow into a timeless testimony. But having said this, it‘s very important to state that it would be a disaster, if an artist would start to create his work with a sidelong glance to “timelessness“ or, worse even, “eternity“ ­ only trash could come out of such a pretentious, self-indulging attitude. Going back to archeology: in 1990, in the liner notes to «Iritations», I have tried to explain this concept, and I still can‘t find better words: “Thinking about the quite over-worked and strained term of “avant-garde“ (which, by the way, the front soldiers in Napoleon‘s army were called), I found the artist of today to be rather in the “arrière-garde“: having no chance (nor any intention) to catch up with the crazy spinning roundabout of our consumer society, and coming upon all sorts of scraps, which are dispersed by its blind centrifugal forces even faster than they were produced. Once having slipped into the role of an archeologist of the present age, I dis-covered more and more submerged stories, hidden treasures and warped sounds, still existing in a kind of parallel universe... “Iritations“ is a lyrical essay to recycle some of the semantic substance of these symbols, of their significance.”

5) Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of «cinémagique»?

Our internal working title was “breakfast“ (highly classified...:-). We all felt an urge to create music we could listen to while having breakfast, and as most of us tend to be like raw eggs in the early morning, this was quite a challenge! We tried to leave out everything unnecessary, tried to confine our egos, to make the solos fit the overall concept, to “behave like brave boys“ for a change... to put every single element into the service of this higher task. As Pago Libre truly is a paneuropean (ad)venture, we live in four vastly diverse locations: Italian bassist Daniele Patumi lives in Bejing, China, Arkady Shilkloper in Moscow, Tscho Theißing in Vienna, so we had to spread out the studio work over two years, squeezing in a couple of hours between tour concerts in or near Switzerland. Hard Studios, as they are aptly named, are located in Winterthur, near Zurich. Just when we nearly finished the whole album, sound engineer Moritz Wetter (who did a great job otherwise!) hit the wrong tiny button on his ProTools-Macintosh keyboard, and the most complicated piece of all, Theißings paraphrase on a crazy North Italian nursery rhyme, “TIKKETTITAKKITAKK“ went down the drain!... anyway, we were able to re-record it in an even more convincing version. It took us just another day... But after overcoming all these obstacles, we are very pleased with the outcome, and it‘s not only a worthy successor to the Live-Album «Wake Up Call - live in Italy», but also a perfect contrast, maybe even an antidote. The latter was recorded in a much shorter time, in a little more than an hour, to be precise: the time needed for an open-air concert in the medieval town centre of Lentini, Sicily.

6) “Comprovisation” - What is the process and balance of composition & improvisation in the Momentum and Shooting Stars & Traffic Lights projects? How does collaboration affect your work?

Paul Motian epitomizes his famous “jazz on the road, man...“, whenever he runs into a crisis (like arriving at the stage only to find there is no drum kit, a broken piano and a missing mouthpiece...), and I believe that after graduating from University and the Musikhochschule I really learnt a lot “on the road“, from the musicians I was able to work with. One very important collaboration was with Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber (four albums in seven years from 1982 to 1989, the last one, «M.A.P.», in trio with singer Norma Winstone), and I think he was a very good teacher. So I definitely believe that collaborating affects my work, but it also works the other way around: a new composition, an innovative concept can affect a group very strongly. I started to use the term “comprovisation“ around 1990 for highly structural instant composing in the very split second of its birth, a technique requiring alert awareness and a great deal of sensitivity, ultrafast reaction and a keen sense for form. Ideally, there should be no difference between a (painstakingly) notated and an (equally precisely) performed piece of music. The difference is, of course, that you cannot go back and erase single notes or whole parts... so this discipline is more like a devil‘s dance on a hot rod. In the past, I have frequently compared this process to the three physical states of matter. In this metaphor, free improvisation would correspond with the gaseous and a composition with the solid state, and the liquid state would oscillate somewhere in between... and as we all know, all it takes to turn ice into water and water into
steam is a bit of heat.


7) Will there be a Momentum 3?

Yes, actually, there are already several “candidates“ for this number. Of course, any release also depends on the possibilities of the producer, Leo Feigin (of Leo Records,
England). He has been very encouraging and loyal over the last years, and we have to take care not to overstretch the market, which is, even on a global level, small. Last year, we performed at the famous Ulrichsberg Festival in Austria, but had to replace bassclarinet player Gene Coleman (from Chicago) with tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler (from Paris), because of a sudden death in his family. In March, I will be playing with Gene in Chicago again, but Swiss drummer Christian Wolfarth, a master of independent times, will probably never perform in the USA, because of his fear of flying. So it seems like the Momentum has grown into two separate cells on each side of the Atlantic. To make a virtue out of necessity, I intend to keep this ensemble as an open platform for various kinds of (mostly) improvised music.

8) Jazz vs. Free Improvisation vs. Concert Music. How do you integrate the three?

To paraphrase “Nothing ever was, anyway“, the title of a composition by Annette Peacock: Anyway... was there ever a difference? (between jazz, free improvisation and concert music). Of course, on a superficial, that is, phenomenological level, you could state many apparent differences and indulge in the “insurmountable cracks” between these categories, but I find it much more fascinating and, on the long run, rewarding to hunt for the hidden common grounds. So, in other words: how can you NOT try to integrate these three (and many more) disciplines of music, of art? After all, they just happen to be categories, and categories are man-made divisions, classes of things, not natural laws. Therefore, we can soften them up at their borderlines, and sometimes even downright break them up, and replace them by new lines. Maybe this is a better and healthier way to conquer new territories than the old “frontier“ metaphor, which killed so many indigenous people. And let‘s not forget: you don‘t have to be crazy, passionate and obsessed to play this kind of music, but it certainly helps.

9) I have to tell you that I was quite taken with much of the material on “Shooting Stars & Traffic Lights”. That seemed like a recording session that really “clicked“. Your Tango and Toccata pieces were particularly strong, as was Alex Cline's contribution, “Gathering at the Threshold”. Could you tell me a bit more about this project? Is this an ensemble that has continued to work together?

I am very glad you like this particular recording, because ­ believe it or not ­ it is, like the HeXtet, a “virtual“ group without live concerts: we never got a chance to play this music live! It was originally planned as the second PAGO LIBRE album (after the first was issued on the Italian Splash Records label in 1990), with guest Alex Cline, whom I had been working together in a large 13-piece ensemble called SinFONietta, in 1991. But at that time, we just “lost“ our Swedish trumpet player, Lars Lindvall, and had not yet met with Scottish hornist Martin Mayes (who can be heard on another „inofficial Pago Libre album“, “Moskau-Petuschki“, on Leo Records) — a year later, we met Arkady Shilkloper in “Porgy & Bess“ jazzclub in Vienna, and ever since this is the line-up of Pago Libre. But getting back to the “Shooting Stars & Traffic Lights”, this was an incredibly inspired and inspiring recording session, with the spirit of Olivier Messiaen hovering somewhere above our heads, and he is especially evident in Alex Cline‘s wedding song “Gathering at the Threshold”, one of my alltime favourite pieces with a melody so beautiful that only a percussionist could have written it... So, of course I would love to play together again, but it‘s soooo hard to raise the financial funding to create such opportunities, and I freely admit that I‘m not the best when it comes to do business plans.

10) Your approach to the organ on «pipelines» is radically different from your piano and prepared piano styles. How do you view your approach to the various instruments that you play?

First of all, its a misleading and dangerous convention to file both the piano and the organ under “keyboard“ instruments. In fact, they are very diverse instruments, and the technique of pressing the keys is radically different. Johann Sebastian Bach even spoke of “die Tasten s c h l a g e n” instead of “spielen“, rather of “h i t t i n g” the keys than “playing” them. Again, I was fortunate to have a good teacher, Mrs Monika Henking, and I was especially attracted by the French organ tradition (Jehain Alain, Louis Vierne, Olivier Messiaen). It could be argued, though, that my practice of various “prepared piano” techniques has led to some astonishing effects hardly used by “normal“ organists (cf. “An Answer to Charles“, our echo to Ives‘ seminal piece “The Unanswered Question”). Strangely enough, these “urban“ treatments of the “prepared organ” go very well with “exotic“ ethnic instruments like the alphorn or büchel played by Hans Kennel, or the tuba and serpent played by Marc Unternährer.

11) The Satie arrangement worked out very nicely on that recording. How did you come to include that?

Erik Satie was an odd gentleman falling out of all categories: a bar pianist writing “serious“ music, a cranky avantgardist indulging in popular, even hummable tunes, a real life actor handing out fake calling cards in beautiful handmade calligraphy, a borderline pedestrian between arts and centuries, a self-styled Anti-Wagnerian, a minimalist “avant la lettre“, half a century before Reich, Riley, Glass & Co., sporting his ubiquitous umbrella in René Clairs silent film “Entr‘acte“ (1924), and definitely defeating any pigeon-hole desires. In my view, he is one of the eminent figures of 20th Century music. The title of the piece is “Le Tango d‘E.S.”, and if you pronounce it in French, means “Déesse” (Goddess). I took it from his bizarre cycle “Sports et Divertissements” (from 1915). It has a haunting, nearly hypnotic quality, and reminded me of another of his compositions, “Véxations”, to be played 871 times... Some years ago, we performed it, and it took us four players nearly 12 hours! So, it was an experience like a ZEN-Buddhist exercise (cf. my duo album «TEN ZENTENCES» with bassist Daniele Patumi), and this process refers, quite surprisingly, to another Zen master of the 20th century: John Cage.

12) Several composers from the concert music tradition are referenced in the «Well-Prepared Clavier». I particularly enjoyed the treatment that you gave to material from Henry Cowell's “Aeolian Harp”. Could you talk a bit about the incorporation of these various composers and their influence into the «WPC»?

In 1992, I had the privilege to work with John Cage in a series of performances of his works in Wetzikon, a small town near Zurich. Pianist Werner Bärtschi gave his “piano concerto“ its first performance, and I learnt some new tricks of the trade, after having performed his prepared piano pieces. For years I had been searching for new ways to treat the inside of the piano, which I regarded as a horizontal harp, in a much faster and more direct way than having to use nails, screws and bolts and spending hours to prepare and de-prepare: I wanted to change freely between the various grades of “preparedness“ d u r i n g playing! So, we exchanged some ideas, and he struck me with his deep voice and his everlasting smile. We performed three radically different versions of his “winter Music“, and everytime his sole comment was: “Nice!”. So, of course, Cages influence on my preparation techniques is evident, even if I found many new ways. With Henry Cowell, it is a different story: actually, the first time I heard his music was through Chris Cutler (drummer in HeXtet), in 1997! So, when I heard his “Aolian Harp” sounds, it felt like a confirmation of what I was doing ever since I was a little boy, stroking the strings. With Györgi Kurtag, it‘s another story again: I studied with a Hungarian teacher, Eva Serman. When I was a teenager and just h a t e d the "boring classical“ music, she opened up the realm of piano music for me with Béla Bartók: finally, I had found a composer using the rhythmical insistence and “barbaric“ harmonies of my beloved rock music, and still could continue studying at the conservatory... >From Bartók to Kurtág (and Ligeti), it was a logical and short step. Years later, at the “Accents” Festival in Dublin 1991, I was honoured to play my second solo piano programme “Iritations“ (no spelling error!) at the same concert as Györgi and Marta Kurtág ­ they like to perform together in piano duet, juxtaposing chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach and his own “Játékok”. By the way: the four “tributes“ to other composers follow a series of Fibonacci numbers: No. 5 (Kurtág), 8 (Cowell), 13, and 21 (Cage). Of these, only 13 (my birthday) has no direct cross-reference, but if you listen to the “Rump-L-Rumba“, it should not cause great difficulties to guess the addressee of the dedication (it‘s Astor Piazzolla). So, once again, I have to apologize to all those brave and zealous pigeon-hole hunters...

13) I understand that you did a project based on fractals in music. I am particularly interested in this, as my primary composition teacher was Charles Wuorinen (who worked with Mandelbrot and also with IBM on fractal theory). Is this recording still available? Could you tell me something about your approach to fractals?

In 1988, I lived in New York City, at “58 West 9th Street”, as the first track of my first solo piano album «The Beauty of Fractals» is entitled (cf. the quartet version on the first Pago Libre album «Extempora», and the duo version on «Polyphyllum» with Urs Leimgruber). There, I got to know Mandelbrot and his theory of fractal geometry, of self-similarity and strange attractors. The whole solo piano programme was conceived, researched and developed in New York and therefore carries its stamp. The 16 compositions form a very personal interpretation of the geometrical and mathematical concept of "fractals" (fractured dimensions), using it as a metaphor: music in focus between the poles of beauty (aesthetics, poetry, transcendence — the principle of hope) and fractals (chaos, fragility, pain, vitality — the principle of life).
I will just select two of the 16 tracks and try to examine them a bit closer: No.1 (West 9th Street) was my address in NYC, between the drug dealers of Washington Square, the gay scene of Christopher Street; the beggars between the Italian delicatessen shop and the subway entrance smelling of urine; the nervous traffic on, along, under and above the street as a cantus firmus, which is topped by the melodic neon lights of the police sirens; where the realised utopia of the skyscrapers with their masses of steel and glass raise your view and spirit and give you back the courage for big visions, which is lost here in Europe so easily ­ sold out with virtuoso skill and swept under the evenly polished surface. New York ­ the "wonderful catastrophe" , as Le Corbusier called it, gives you the energy to do it here and now. No.10 Kiss the Night, huntin‘ Santa Claus refers to a medieval custom in Küssnacht, a town in Central Switzerland. Originally, this was a pagan custom, which the Catholic church tried to suppress. Because this failed, the ancient Celtic fertility symbols were replaced by Catholic cymbals — to be more correct: cow bells. Once a year, around December 5th, more than 1000 men (no women allowed!) gather, wearing a white “Sennenkutte“ (dairyman‘s habit), forming a long cortège, cracking whips and swinging heavy cow bells between their legs (sic!). As you can imagine, the rhythm, although in strict walking rhythm, immediately starts to tumble, cannot exactly keep its pace, undergoes a permanent permutation, because the men in the fourth row already can‘t hear the first one any more, and so on... fractal theory at work! I recorded the sound of this archaic parade as a basic track for a pianistic counterpoint: an archeo(il)logical paraphrase, a concerto for 900 cowbells, ox horns and well-prepared piano, concerto in the original latin sense of “con-currere” ­ an exciting race of the solo concert grand diving into this secular procession, into the dense wickerwork of fractal timelessness, of stumbling bar lines, a tightrope dance over the rapids of structured chaos, above and below it the high-altitude flight of the piano, until it is drowned after a last rebelling cadence in the quarter-tone clusters of the ox horns.

14) What is the artistic climate like in Switzerland?
Do you think being based there helps your creative work?

Switzerland is a very small country lying in the heart of Europe, at the crossroads of four very strong, very old and very distinct cultures (the German, French, Italian and Austrian), but also (especially since the fall of the Iron Curtain) open to the East, what used to be called “Mittel-Europa“ in the old Habsburg Empire days. So, logistically, you can be in any of these large countries (and soaked in their culture) in a very short time, and concert tours might bring you through several countries (and their different cultures) in the course of a single week. This strongly interacting neighbourhood also accounts for a very fierce competition in the fields of art and music, there is absolutely no “local hero bonus“, like you would find, for example, in Ireland (the island where I was born), or in Finland with its strong national pride and a protective tradition in the cultural sector. So, of course, this absence of official recognition makes an artists life very tough, but at the same time very challenging. Add to this the various languages you need to speak (German, Swiss German, French, Italian, English) and what you get is a multi-cultural biotope, as it were, and at the same time (here in Central Switzerland) a very old peasant culture with lots of pagan customs, such as the “Fasnacht“ (carneval) and the “Klausjagen“ (Hunting Santa Claus, cf. my answer to your question 13, about the piece “Kiss the Night“ ), barely covered with some thin, semi-transparent Roman-Catholic layers... bizarre, but very intriguing!

15) What are some future recordings and plans for John Wolf Brennan? As COPPER PRESS is based in the U.S., any plans to appear here in the future that we might mention?

In Vancouver, I‘ll be giving a series of piano recitals, workshops and lectures at UBC, and at the “Western Front”, together with cellist Peggy Lee and percussionist Dylan van der Schyff on March 3rd. In Chicago, I‘ll be performing at the “Hot House“ on March 6th together with Gene Coleman (bass clarinet), Guillermo Gregorio (clarinet), Jennifer Walshe (voice), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Jonathan Chen (violin) and Marc Unternährer (tuba). In 2003, I hope to finally bring Pago Libre to North America, maybe including some special event with guest Alex Cline. My dream would be to do some concerts together with Dave Douglas‘ “Charms of the Night Sky“ quartet, because I feel this group concept is esthetically quite close to Pago Libre, certainly the most comparable I know on your side of the Atlantic. Even the instrumentation is similar: Mark Feldman (violin), Greg Cohen
(bass), and then Dave‘s trumpet timbre in its very dark, shady way is not too far away from Arkady‘s various horns and flugelhorn, so this leaves the accordion of Guy Klucsevics as the only major difference. I would also like to add that Leo Records just released a new duo album with my longtime collaborator Daniele Patumi, called “Time jumps — space cracks”, recorded live at the old church in Boswil, Switzerland, and that after a four years hiatus, my fifth solo piano album is nearly ready for publishing (Creative Works Records). It‘s simply entitled «Flügel», the German word for “grand piano”, but also meaning “wings”. One of the pieces is called “Anyway... was there ever nothing?”, an echo to Annette Peacock‘s “Nothing ever was, anyway”, using the tone row of her melody, but in retrograde.

February 2002

Thanks very much for your time.

Interviewer: Christian Carey
Christian Carey, 218 Augusta Street, South Amboy, NJ 08879, USA

 

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