lower case name, upper case jazz composition
Interview by Daniel Barbiero
Originally from Detroit, Michigan, and now based in New York City, alto saxophonist/composer/improviser patrick brennan--he prefers his name spelled entirely in lower case letters--has been composing and performing original polyrhythmic work based on overlapping melodic cells since the 1970's. Although brennan initially developed the concept for large, modularly-organized ensembles engaging in collective improvisation, he subsequently adapted it to his own solo performances for alto saxophone.
It was while growing up in Detroit that brennan first became involved with music. He was exposed to it early on through his father, a guitarist and bassist in the 1930's and 1940's whose collection of jazz records introduced brennan to the music of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and others. He began playing trombone in school and eventually acquired his father's guitar and bass; at age seventeen, he got his first horn.
While still in Detroit, brennan joined a group of musicians gathered around bassist Ubadiah Bey Obey for weekly collective improvisations. He was also affected by the music he heard there; in particular, a performance by Archie Shepp at the musician-run Strata Concert Gallery that featured two drummers left a deep impression on him.
At Thomas Jefferson College in Western Michigan, which brennan has described as a small experimental college, he studied composition and music theory as well as painting. Moving to New York City in 1975, he was drawn to the loft scene and worked as a bassist for nearly a decade. After the instrument was seriously damaged, he turned to playing saxophone. He spent most of the 1990's living in Lisbon and participating in the Iberian improvised music scene, as well as traveling to Morocco to play Gnawa music.
Since the 1970's, brennan has devised and developed a framework for collective, real-time composition based on polyrhythmic cells. His long-term ensemble Sonic Openings Under Pressure has worked with these frameworks and made several recordings in the late 1990's and early 2000's. He also leads a large, modular ensemble called Transparency Kestra, and has adapted his polyrhythmic concept for his solo alto saxophone performances. His most recent recording is Terraphonia, a collaboration with guitarist Abdul Moimême.
During September and October 2019, patrick and I conducted an email conversation that touched on composing for improvisers, social relationships within collective improvisation, rhythm units as an organizing principle for ensemble playing, and much more.
PSF: You're both a composer and an improviser. Something I always like to ask composer/improvisers is how they think of the relationship between these two facets of their musical practice. Is it reciprocal? Complementary? Contrastive? Does one tend to be more fundamental--or perhaps experienced more intuitively--than the other?
pb: To my mind, the distinction between composing & improvising is a false one that's not likely to go away anytime soon. I see this as more of a byproduct of core divergences between Afrological & Eurological conceptions (these are George Lewis' terms) of musicking as well of the tilted imbalance of political power that, whenever possible, extolls the Euro- at the expense of the Afro-.
If one conceives of composing as an action, or, in other words, as choosing among sounds in the assemblage of a sonic image, everyone's composing. What we call an improviser is therefore not at all "not-composing" but composes within circumstances that happen to differ radically from what a composer to score, or tape, or digital file, or algorithm is doing; for example, as Steve Lacy once described it, having only 15 seconds to decide what to say in 15 seconds versus having all the time in the world to figure that out.
But the relations are even more complex than that. There's the instant thought, but there's also the slowly gestating thought & their symbiotic interdependence, that the instant depends on experience & preparation while it reciprocally informs & shapes other evolving long term conceptions in progress.
Ensemble composition also extends beyond sound to address social structure in terms of how compositional agency is distributed & how musical information is communicated among participants. Dialogical composition (which is ordinarily identified as collective improvisation), for example, is decentralized. Each participating composer's (i.e. "improvisor") initiatives are conditioned by the unpredictable responses of one's collaborators within an interactive system.
Some musicians may be more concerned with the character of the music as a whole than exclusively with their own individual contributions& quite a bit of purely improvised music can also default into almost solipsistic, stereotypical tendencies, procedures & textures, so there are at least a few motives around for some to incline toward more holistic perspectives.
I suppose if I'd made a living from commissions, I might have arrived at some different attitude, but, as it is, the notion of composing a sonic artifact leaves me cold. I love sound, but I'm also interested in people, in hearing something I didn't think of.
Composing specifically for improvisers offers a hybrid position that involves designing sound systems that might resemble in some ways the terminal destinations sought by monological composers, but the function & intentions are contrary to that. A composition for improvisers proposes an interactive matrix for further dialogical composition. It's not endpoint but intermediary.
Quite a bit of the time, I'm motivated out of a mix of curiosity & dissatisfaction. I often wonder if something could be different & I wonder if something has to be what it is, or if it could go farther. I'm not satisfied with settling.
I invent compositional matrices to push improvisation further in some way, to stimulate, to raise the tension, to intensify attention, listening & interaction, to see if a group can reach farther than it would otherwise, and, definitely, to push myself beyond my own limitations.
It's also a kind of slow cooking, or marination -- or maybe it's fermentation. It's one thing to come up with a fancy idea. It's something else to actually realize that in practice, to be able to fluently compose at that level within the current of the moment. Likewise, it's a very specific discipline to develop sonic designs & strategies that can be accessibly integrated by improvisors while expansively stimulating invention.
It's true that a lot of great music can already be generated through more or less ad hoc associations among exceptional individuals, but I'm also interested in stretching beyond that status quo to explore how interjecting specific varieties of connective tissue (i.e. compositional interfaces) can facilitate additional pathways of intra-ensemble communication which could enable even more deeply apprehended qualities of collective composition, or common project & conception, which would extend beyond any particular performance, which is also to say that a composition proposes a sort of community to inhabit, develop & explore. You could call this whole process a long term, slowly evolving composition (or extended improvisation) in progress. This isn't, though, an especially unique aspiration. Just think of Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Ornette, Threadgill or Butch Morris.
PSF: Speaking to your last point, I wonder to what extent your matrices are designed to encourage improvisers to play something other than what they otherwise might play if left entirely to their own devices? Are they at least in part a way of pushing people out of old patterns--a way of offering them a new perspective on themselves both singly and as part of a group project?
PSF: Elsewhere, you've described the relationship among players in an improvisation as consisting in a kind of "cooperative antagonism." I think you've identified a very important aspect of multi-player improvising, although it isn't something that's talked about all that much. Extrapolating from my own experience, I'd say that any time we improvise with someone else, we enter into a relationship with an inherently ambiguous dynamic--that other person can be a stimulant, a provocation, a challenge, an obstacle. And of course when you multiply that...
pb: The phrase is a flip of Albert Murray's "antagonistic cooperation," by which he meant that adversity plays an almost necessary foil to heroism in terms of what it may call out from a person.
Among other potential nuances, I often think of the sort of voluntary competition that raises everyone's game (this, in contrast with that militant capitalist, winner-take-all, competition a la Rockefeller that seeks to totally vanquish opponents, customers, workers, ecologies, life itself & so forth). The United States has been host to both attitudes.
It was only during my years in Europe that I began to understand how much something like basketball, for example -- which doesn't turn truly beautiful or surprising until there's pressure from another team's interference -- articulates some of our core cultural assumptions. I was mostly in Portugal, while also hearing plenty of very capable Spanish "jazz" musicians (many of whom are excellent virtuosos) in the 1990's. And, while things may or may not have changed much since then (Lisbon, for example, now has a very lively free improvisation world), most of the musicians I encountered at that time showed a very different way of dealing with conflict than what felt natural for me.
Conflict & provocation seemed, for them, something to avoid in favor of a smooth surface of good manners & friendly smiles, no matter what else might be simmering behind that. Many seemed averse to a creative envelope being pushed in any way. That kind of fencing of jazz sound within the mores of what seemed more like chamber music etiquette was, for me, uncomfortably oxymoronic, but the tension of that resistance to openly incorporating challenge as a generative force also helped me to better understand some of what mattered to me about music. I've long witnessed, as both observer & player, many jazz improvisers kicking the behind of a player cruising on autopilot by messing with the form, the beat, the intensity, expectations, or whatever, in order to try to wake that player (& the music) up. This kind of intervention, when sympathetic, can also fuel another's momentum, if the spirit is on the lift. It can feed new ideas & spark fresh directions. Musicians might deliberately introduce adversity, if not contrariness, in this way with an intent of bringing out something more from each other (if not to get them to just go away), the overall effect of which can diffuse to raise the level of an entire musical community.
We can consider, in this regard, how Bird, Diz & Monk expanded the level of challenge & quality during the bebop moment in a way that still hovers over musicians as examples & standards to reckon with. Likewise, a composition for improvisers might play a similar role. This deliberate friction may stimulate resilience & creative independence, as conflict & challenge can help one to discover, or decide, who one is. It might to incite an artist to go deeper, or to discover something beyond one's current presence to self. My friend, the sculptor M. Scott Johnson, who works in stone, calls this the ecstasy of resistance. So, these relations reach beyond the aesthetic into the ethical as well.
One of the topographical paradoxes of dialogical composing is that, while each player might enjoy individual compositional freedom, no one has control over the composite sonic image that results with the collaboration. Not only does a music's overall sound project a statement toward listeners, it also provides players with barometric feedback that may both inform & impinge upon them.
So, an improviser encounters multiple& sometimes conflicting, responsibilities: attention toward the composite sound that faces listeners, assertion & acting out of one's current creative identity, variable relations with the prevailing collective terms of a composition or idiom, all this mixed with the complications of interaction, foreground/background relations, whether to accompany, compliment, challenge, withdraw, suggest, mock, solo, paraphrase, develop, add, transform, disrupt, sustain, take over, accentuate, confirm, sabotage, duplicate, synthesize, redirect. This list can go on & on. It's about as long as the possible ways to interact interpersonally& it's worth emphasizing here that a musical sound in this way derives from its internal social relations. It's not just about design & technique.
Following collective improvisation's history here on Turtle Island, I interpret it as a theatrical personification of the dynamics of polyrhythm. Robert Farris Thompson has characterized this pan-African aesthetic procedure as "apart playing," that the differences between voices accent a palpable, if often technically inaudible, kinetic/gravitational field (which is where the dance comes in) that is also a zone of mutual highlighting & definition through contrast.
While ensemble polyrhythm is necessarily strict for each individual player due to the precise interdependence of roles, the collective improvisation that became evident in New Orleans more than a century ago incorporated looser associations among contributors with apart playing accomplished through the divergent & indeterminate decisions of individual compositional agents who each distinguished themselves as distinct musical personalities, or sonic personae.
We, often as players, might play to deliberately affect what others might play next (& each gesture is, regardless, always a commentary on the others), but what comes back can't be predicted, which conversely affects what we're then likely to do. You could draw parallels here with the interaction of positive, negative & neutral particles, all that push/pull& the sum of all that, would constitute the music happening behind the sounds (with the sound acting as symptom of those musical activities).
Another parallel with how our interactions inform the music this way could be with the physicist Ilya Prigonine's notion of dissipative structures, where the more coherent (interconnected) a system is -- & in improviser's music this would mean communications (& even misinterpretations & mistakes) among musicians -- the more unstable it is, that is, the more susceptible it becomes to sudden transformations. We witness that all the time, don't we?
PSF: Yes--and it can be intoxicating to experience it from the inside! I'm interested in the practical possibilities arising from the parallel you drew between the social relations structuring a collective improvisation and polyrhythmic dynamics. One possible response would be to compose using polyrhythms as fundamental material--which I believe you've done with your "metagroove" series.
pb: That weaves into some long & circuitous stories. There are versions of collective improvisation, such as the early colonizing New Englander practice of shape-note singing, where each individual would embellish or improvise as one felt it, that don't have a direct relationship with either Africa or polyrhythm, but there's still, nevertheless, some democratic attitude involved there.
"Metagroove," by the way, is a name I made up for something that was already happening & my eventual attraction to composing polyrhythmic interfaces is, of course, rooted in having grown up surrounded & mothered by Black music. Elvin Jones & Jimmy Garrison especially had a huge impact on my perception of time feel. Another large influence was Detroit's Contemporary Jazz Quintet (The CJQ: Kenny Cox, Charles Moore, Leon Henderson, Danny Spencer & Ron Brooks) whom I heard live quite a bit in my teens. I didn't understand what they were doing at the time, but it nevertheless got way inside me till I figured it out myself & began working with those possibilities on my own. Then, there was that hair trigger rhythm section volatility that Mingus was instigating in the late '50's & early '60's that also opened my ears.
What I mean by metagroove is the overall sensation of time (groove) that emerges out of sequences of contrasting grooves -- the meta- refers to this specific synergy of motion states. This is something you might hear Miles Davis' Tony Williams rhythm section pass through spontaneously, but the CJQ was going after this very deliberately as an ensemble using their own compositional interfaces. They would narratively juxtapose a variety of short metric episodes that would each ignite a different kinesis, maybe one that's pulling backward, followed by a rushing ahead, or by a hovering, for example, to weave a sort of mobius strip of sculpturally modulating time.
On my own way to metagroove, I got to go to an inexpensive state college where I learned about earlier European musics, counterpoint, canonic techniques, harmony, etc. I'd take scores out of the library & check them out. The late medieval European technique of isorhythm, as well as the later canonic applications of augmentation & diminution, hinted pathways toward some of non-diatonic melodic pattern's potential collaborations with polyrhythmic organization.
I was also looking at the scored transcriptions of Ashanti ensemble percussion music in A. M. Jones' Studies in African Music while thinking over how Miles' electric bands were foregrounding the rhythm sections as melodic forces -- & then some kind of synthetic connection, or mini-satori, seemed to go "pop" in my imagination that drew all these disparate elements into one swoop.
When I got to N.Y.C. in '75, I went looking for the revolution, where was all that Albert Ayler sound & so forth... It was actually, however, still a great time to be a listener. You could catch Cecil (Taylor), Don Cherry or Jackie McLean over at the Five Spot. I got to hear a rather subdued Monk at Carnegie Hall in one of his last public performances. Sam Rivers had Studio Rivbea going& just down the street at the Tin Palace, a wave of A.A.C.M. musicians, people from St. Louis & California were coming in with a surprise a week. But my own attempts with "free" music didn't seem to get near what I'd recognized in Ornette or the Art Ensemble. Something was missing. I was learning that these marvelous musics that I loved so much didn't just materialize out of thin air, but that a lot more was going on beneath the surface that I had to work out for myself.
Eventually, I took on the composer/bandleader role, using lead sheet & arrangement formats to stretch out the language that all the musicians who'd work with me would recognize, bebop parameters. I designed extended forms & played with metric modulation. Then, interested in getting the melodic instruments to address the same polyrhythmic sophistication that drummers already dealt with, I began designing multi-metric matrices, where the bass might play one rhythmic strata while "lead lines" would articulate another, embedding these polyrhythmic relationships & thinking into melodies that the musicians then couldn't avoid. I wanted rhythm to act as the primary substance rather than have it tied it on later as embellishment.
Eventually, modeling on the CJQ's example, I evolved some interfaces that crisscrossed varieties of metric constellations, one polyrhythm followed by another, each including some component of the preceding pattern, but in combination with something differently inflected. This could allow an improviser to either continue developing an ongoing idea into the next passing episode or shift completely into the next feel.
Launching grooves in series like this also grew out of a desire to further emphasize specific polyrhythmic tensions for the listener by letting their dissimilarities become more explicit than if they were all played at once, this along with inducing more uncertainty & suspense for both listener & player, pulling on attention so as to raise the tension.
Part of what I was after was a flexibly jointed system of sonic cues across which musicians could compositionally signal each other, but I also wanted available both the thickened dimensionality fostered through repeating cycle polyrhythm as well as the unpredictable plasticity of invention, that option to change one's mind, to flow with an unanticipated perception or idea, that Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman have navigated so wonderously.
What developed over time was a multiple strategy where these cells could function alternately as vamps or loops; or they could precipitate a circuit of events the way a repeating "tune" system does through melody/chord sequences; or they could open out into free development; but the motifs were always available to pull the group in whatever direction, more tightly associated (unison textures & moments can speak very powerfully to listeners), or more loosely, without having to be left stuck, or adrift, in any one of these modalities.
Generally, I've gravitated to the bass role as the pivot position, almost the default conductor of this confluence, as bass figures speak equally effectively to drum pitched & song pitched instruments (the bass string, when pizzicato, acts as a tunable drum). Their long soundwaves & the pitch shapes they can enunciate move more slowly & are easier to assimilate & spontaneously respond to in depth. Robert Farris Thomson quotes the Bakongo scholar Fu-Kiau Bunseki: "Treble voicings represent our world, but bass patterns come from the spirit."
This is to say that the bassist most decides the overall trajectory of an evolving form. It also facilitates simultaneously foregrounding each voice in an ensemble as an independent compositional agent versus relegating some to accompaniment status while at the same time acknowledging the different characteristics & distinguishing limitations of each instrument.
There are huge constraints in designing a metagroove system. Each cell has to hold up almost as a self-sufficient composition all its own & each has to be instantly distinguishable from all the others. They have to project a kind of catchiness so that players can recognize them quickly enough to respond to them on the spot. They have to be indefinitely malleable & suggestive, but not so complicated as to overburden the musicians & bog down live composing; yet, once set in motion, they've also got to be able to birth a kind of overall complexity of sound, relationship & invention. In this respect, the "composed" sound is not intended as dead material for recited reenactment, but as soil & seed germinating both provocation & interconnection. This is an awful lot to ask for& it can't be done with a pickup band either.
PSF: No, I wouldn't think it could, with regard to the difficulty of finding suitable musicians, I mean, and working with them to assimilate these concepts. It's interesting to know that you've adapted metagroove structures for your own solo performances. I don't know if there's a direct connection there, but in any event playing them solo must be a very different experience from playing them with an ensemble.
pb: For a long time, I avoided dealing with the multiple lines necessary to sound the components of a metagroove a capella because how could I realistically play, with any clarity or precision, two, sometimes even three, separate lines, all at different metric strata, simultaneously on a one-pitch-at-a-time wind instrument? That seemed completely crazy. But, there were at least a few examples I could look to, such as Bambuti singing, J.S. Bach's solo violin, cello & flute music, Kora music, some African idiophone music, even mantuno.
Somehow, I stumbled upon a way of sounding polyrhythmic lines by staggering the "ones" of each pattern so as to avoid the impossible problem of playing two exact pitches of one's choice simultaneously, which did help a bit, but this didn't displace the serious technical hurdles that have to be dealt with on the instrument, which I'm still, still, even still, working on. Beyond that, the deeper challenges are conceptual & perceptual, which intensify when you want to interact with that material improvisationally.
Many of these patterns can feel much more confusing (if not, even dizzying) when experienced from the inside rather than from the outside. A concurrent 3:4:5, for example, tends to resist conventional counting (as it would have be counted in 60). This means reaching into some other way of feeling these velocities tactilely, but still being precise. It's not exactly intuitive, but it's nevertheless still hard to delineate. There's some other way of bringing the mind to it, which is a discovery process that I'm still engaged in. The space from within which one invents & generates a body of sound feels very different in terms of the kind of attention & awareness required than either observing/listening or non-playing conceptualization does.
That it's so much beyond me is part of the draw: I don't know all it can do. You could call this part of a what-if? aesthetic, a question generated attitude versus aspiring to fit into an established style, no matter how safely "good" that style might already be.
On a single line instrument such as mine, the pitches of each separate concurrent line have to sound intervallically far enough apart so as to not blend into each other, which also means that "dissonant" intervals between these lines can define these contrasts better than more "harmonious" intervals. Theoretically, one might choose noises or timbres rather than pitches as markers, but I'm not sure they'd be as easy to follow or manipulate, even though that would be, of course, much more "avant-garde" (although nothing prohibits going there while improvising).
Two concurrent lines relating as 3:4, for example, simultaneously host at least three different perspectives. There are the two individual lines, each in themselves. Then there is their composite melody. That melody could be felt in 3, or felt in 4, each with almost perfectly contrary syllabic accents. Some are able to hear these as a complete unit of rhythmic harmony that encompasses all of these interpretations. However, not being a percussionist, I most like to explore the flickering internal differences & emphasize the varying shifts in weight among them.
Unaccompanied solo lines, by their nature, can be especially ambiguous, which, of course, opens windows of opportunity. Nearly any three pitches in a row, for example, could imply some sort of tonality, but one of the problems with a tonal center is that it imposes a perceptual hierarchy on the sounds at the expense of other characteristics, such as, say, sound shape identity. Some musicians have opted to develop alternative pitch sequence systems to diatonic & modal organization, but I'm really not all that good at following rules (even if I've happened to have invented them myself).
Instead, building on what I discovered playing solo in the '90's, I've worked with a strategy I call rotation. Given that frequencies of semblance & dissimilarity seem pretty basic to how we often perceive sound as music, this offers yet another means to turn the same different, while maintaining some recognizable connection among all these derivations.
Let's say you have a pattern of three elements, for example (it could be three pitches, three parts of a phrase, a rhythmic constellation- it doesn't matter). When you flip them from 123 to 231 or 312, there's another entry point, related, while presenting a distinctly different architecture, almost like the experience of walking around a well-articulated sculpture.
And, you can further open up the pitch spectrum through transpositional rotation around a pivot pitch, all of which retains an initial sound identity as it refracts its tonal implications. Or, these rotations could chain as cascades, with the last pitch of a phrase also acting as the first of that phrase's reiteration, but from a new pitch perspective. Then, one can play with the semblances among various metagroove cells by transposing an idea from one into another.
Unaccompanied, one can switch or mix modes however & whenever one likes. This solo space leaves some wide liberty to walk in & out of whatever's being constructed. I could play some polyphony, then go "linear" & then vamp & cross some of that with yet another line if I like. Yet, while all these little systems might help streamline the complexities of decision making just a bit, the mystery of the art always remains to be discovered in the overall composition of a statement.
This thick in detail advance work orients most toward more fluent free association & expanded flexibility in response to whatever might come up in any context. But, no matter how much I may prepare, during the moments of actual performance, imagination's still likely to pop me with something surprising that I might not be able catch up with exactly upon arrival, which then leaves me with plenty to pursue afterwards. That sensation of the ever-receding goalpost follows along like the moon in the sky during an evening walk.
PSF: You've recently released a very fine duo recording with the Lisbon musician Abdul Moimême. I wonder, what's next for you?
pb: That was a very exciting musical opportunity & in contrast with what we've been talking about, this was all freely improvised. Abdul is working with 2 electroacoustically prepared guitars with a vast timbral spectrum that reaches way beyond what any saxophone can & there's no lock at all into tempered pitch.
We did, however, assemble for ourselves a working infrastructure. There's a mutual recognition (our having come to know each other's music & thinking very well through over 25 years of friendship) that in advance coordinated a lot of compositional parameters. Like Xenakis, Abdul is additionally an architect by profession. Both share fascinations with space, proportion, weight & precision, but, as an improviser, Abdul isn't working through blueprints & can assay demolition as much as construction. I especially appreciate how his sonic vocabulary differs so much from synthesized sound in that he's still contending directly with formative physical resistances such as friction & decay.
After giving the recording a new listen, I can notice his guitars actually behaving here quite a bit like a trap kit, but with highly divergent sonorities. The queries he'd sound would hit me with outside-the-box riddles that pushed us both to discover another interactive syntax that still manages to carry enough of what Butch Morris astutely distilled as the essence of swing: spontaneity, momentum, combustion, ignition and propulsion. This has been a refreshing & very satisfying collaboration that I hope we get to return to.
What's otherwise next draws on what's already in motion. I'm, at the moment, exploring publishing options for a book of essays called Ways & Sounds that delves into, among other questions, the social organization of composition as we were discussing it at the beginning of our conversation.
Most in the foreground is a new reconfiguration of s0nic 0penings that's coalesced over the past couple years with Michael T.A. Thompson, Brian Groder & Hill Greene that's readapting some of the solo discoveries to the ensemble. We're working toward recording this winter.
Also see patrick brennan's website
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