Sunday, December 4, 2022

THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH vs. patrick brennan


patrick brennan is a New York city based composer, saxophonist and bandleader who has been committed to an independent musical path along the Blues continuum for over 40 years.  brennan recently authored the book Ways & Sounds: Inquiries. Interconnections. Contours.

Brotherwise Dispatch – How would you describe what it means to be an Artist/Musician in our contemporary world?

Patrick Brennan – To even begin to figure out “artist” in this context leads to asking what makes music and what it can mean. And if we look at music as relations rather than as production, the parameters can look different than it might otherwise.

The present always harbors surprising potential, but what we call “our contemporary world” is, at the same time, haunted, and so many are hounded, by what’s been a more than 500 year long global war to institute and enforce parasitical relations though violence or threats of violence that seeps even into our dreams and intimate relations. And if this isn’t warfare, then why would even its most comfortable beneficiaries, who are generally exempt from the impacts of tactical maneuvers such as applied deprivation, still insist they need so many security guards?

I don’t know what artistic activity would feel like where the active generation of peace were a shared social project, although I know there have been many times and places where this has happened (the Haudenosaunee really stand out in this regard, especially before that barbarian invasion from the west end of Eurasia caught up to them), but I do know that artistic action in our current context can contagiously affirm a will to live. Blues sound, story and sensibility, for example, neither denies nor concedes to the tragic, the absurd or the cruel; and I can, with gratitude, confirm from personal experience that this particular gift has decidedly helped me to live.

This kind of art imagines the eye of the hurricane despite the facts. It puts into practice and demonstrates possible ways of being that we might really want to inhabit, or at least consider. It’s anti-gravitational. It’s anti-entropic. It creates world where there may be no world.

This, of course, runs counter to, say, neoliberalism’s ongoing war on imagination, one that insists that nothing other than its own prescriptions is possible, which is, finally, just the language of domination dressed more politely in an expensive suit while still surrounded by police at the ready to apply their trademark style of persuasion, which David Graeber appropriately named the favored recourse of the stupid because one may then sidestep all the labor involved in imagining the perspectives and experiences of other people.

But, at the same time, arts don’t by default nobly configure benign polar opposites to coercion, terror, intimidation or outright deception either. There are slippery sides to the charisma of artistic imagination. We might think about Leni Riefenstahl, D.W. Griffith, infectiously catchy tunes that ferry pernicious lyrics, or the legions of “kept” artists employed throughout history to glorify or advance the agendas of their funders or protectors. The power of aesthetic presence in this respect indifferently transcends whatever its “content” may be. It’s arguably transrational in scope and able to portal complexities of awareness like nothing else. As for imagination, there’s nothing exclusively artistic about it. Everyone imagines, and absolutely anyone can act from imagination.

Concerning what it might mean to be an artist, I came upon some helpful insights by way of a book from the late 50s by Morse Peckham entitled Man’s [sic] Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior & the Arts, which encouraged me to view “artist” as a role that’s played rather than as an intrinsic condition or property.

While trying to work some of this out for myself, I developed an essay entitled “Musician” in Three Attitudes (that eventually became part of a book called Ways & Sounds) to consider three clich├ęs often called upon to distinguish different sorts of musicians: “amateur,” “professional,” and “artist.” I interpreted these as contrasting varieties of relationship. Framed this way, amateur needn’t at all indicate a poor level of skill (it may or may not) but the intention involved. One musics because one likes (or loves) it. It’s voluntary. The professional role, in contrast, functions only from within paywalls: no pay, no play. The only important determining standard is adequacy. Artistic commitment is, like the amateur, fundamentally unconditional, with the difference being that one works for the music rather than the music’s working primarily for oneself. One strives to go well past adequate and beyond apparent horizons. Within this understanding, the same person may variously inhabit any of these roles at different moments, and there are instances where either amateur or artistic values may be exercised within professional contexts. Artist, then, describes a way of being, doing and caring in the practice of an art rather than any specific social position.

Guitarist Joe Morris aptly articulates artist perspective in his Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music, where he defines free music as that in which “musicians set the criteria and decide whether it meets those criteria.” This presents a superb, if essentially individualist, characterization of artistic freedom, or, commitment to truthfulness, which is actually the same thing. But, how does a sonic community, that is, an ensemble, a band or whatever grouping, coordinate around this or any other principle?

If we want to delve further into the musician-as-artist role within current circumstances, we need also to consider for a minute what constitutes a musical statement in the first place. I’d like to argue here that music communicates through at least two concurrent channels. One is, naturally, sound itself, its palpable physicality and the perceived relations among sounds. 

Music, however, unlike random or incidental sound, is also specifically personified sound. This is to say, when we hear musical sound, we hear people. Despite whatever technocratic/commercial allegations we may have already been subjected to, music doesn’t make itself. It’s not a thing. It’s a human act.

If these sounds are person generated, then real somebodies have to be deciding which of these sounds happen when. The standard musical term for this role is composer. When we apprehend musical sound, we are therefore always witnessing a drama of choices. What will these creative actors do next? Are they putting together sounds convincingly? Does it “make sense?” And how? Why are they doing this rather than that? And who are they? (in a much deeper sense than name only) This is an empathy window through which a listener can begin to imagine other people’s minds and conditions.

And to stretch further, what about the relations among those generating the sounds? A musical performance is no less display of human relations, no less theatrical demonstration of political possibilities, than it is broadcast of conception encoded in sound. This means the social organization of any music is a part of its compositional structure and a part of its artistic statement. Who decides and how decision is distributed are formal characteristics of any musical composition.

For example, the ever so commonplace notion of a “piece of music” as a repeatable, “autonomous,sonorous object is not at all intrinsic to music as a whole but derives from particular social practices. If a piece of music is going to be “the same” every time, nobody can be making any decisions during a performance that would make it different. This means that all compositional decisions have already been made, whether in the recent or way distant past, and that performers, however skilled, nuanced and enriching their interpretations, are, in practice, “just following orders.” This kind of commemoration, or recurrent resurrection, theatrically enacts the character of unidirectional command and control relations, no matter how congenially indulged, and the compositional drama a witness encounters is a monologue displaying the decisions of a single protagonist. That said, there are a whole lot of good and very practical reasons for organizing music this way.

But consider an entirely different system of relations evolved to the greatest degree by putatively un-free people chronically designated from without as constitutionally incapable and therefore not even meriting their own agency. Interestingly, each participant here is instead expected to develop one’s own compositional choices within the actual moments that the music is coming into being. Each choice has also to account for, respond to, or counterstate all the other decisions in process as reflected through the composite sound of the music as it progresses, which, by the way, can never remain the same. Asserted individual differences collaborate to construct a flexible and complexly interconnected whole.

Instead of articulating freedom through words (which is, of course, important enough), this multivoiced drama acts out and engages the possibilities, and problems, of social and imaginative freedom, an orbital quilombo in a space ship, an enormous collective creation, not so much a particular “style” as a concrete demonstration of a way. Think Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Milford Graves, Butch Morris and thousands, and thousands, of others.

The contemporary musician may now be able to access what is the historically widest palette of possible sounds, but the challenge persists no differently than ever in terms of how one puts these together. In this respect, we are always starting from scratch, no matter how much we may “know,” and we still have to listen for the sound of zero. Nor does this eliminate the social structure of a music as itself an ethical statement. But then, nothing’s very often quite so cut and dry simple as that.

This is because the practice of music is itself intrinsically rife with its own irresolvable contradictions. Social and sonic imagination don’t necessarily concur, and sound itself may insist on its own opinions in spite of any of these other considerations, which is to say that a “perfect” or ideal music is, in reality, impossible. There are always conflicts, always variabilities in the relationships formed.

Some musicians may be drawn to a particular way of musicking precisely because of its interactive politics. Others may most powerfully feel gravitational pull toward tightly specified sonic images regardless of how they’re arrived at. And many others will prioritize musical sound as principally an adjunct foil to music’s most dear and closest sisters, whether that be linguistic messages (sung or spoken) or the needs of specific kinds of dance, both being occasions where the primary dramas of creative invention are likely focused alongside of, rather than embedded within, musical sound.

This practical unattainability of any totalizing “perfection” guarantees that music will always have to improvise. It will always have to try something else, but then, that sounds pretty human, doesn’t it?


BD – Based on your book, Ways & Sounds, what do you mean by the “paradox” involved in identifying music?

PB – I was experimenting with developing a more holistic and inclusive conceptual language regarding music while remaining in rapport with more familiar, commonplace, conventional presuppositions. The “paradox” comes with playing among their differences.

To caricature it just a bit for clarity, normally people think of music as something made out of sound.  Therefore people “make” music, kind of like manufacturing a product. The making is conceived as separate, as simply a means to an end. That end, that sonic artifact, is what “the music” is.

In contrast, I was looking at music as activity, which tells a different story. Music is not just its sound. Everything related to imagining, organizing, communicating, sounding, perceiving and interpreting a music’s sounds constitutes “the music.” Sound hubs these interactions. It’s surface, skin and palpable body. It evidences symptom of all these inaudible components of music, but the sound, all by itself, is not, in this sense, “the music,” although, of course, if there’s no sound, there’s no music at all.


BD – How would you describe your own journey through the creative process that it takes to go from the moment inspiration strikes towards its ultimate manifestation as music?

PB – I engage music mostly as a composer and as a saxophonist, two divergent arenas of aspiration that also symbiotically overlap. For the most part, almost nothing proceeds A to B style.

Composing for improvisers consolidates particular constellations of sound and concept in advance to provoke specific environments for further composition during performance, in other words, for collective improvisation, or dialogical composing. These propose a sort of provisional constitution, a dream to be enacted by a community, an interactive matrix curved by resistances and confluences that a group adopts as a commonly recognized pivot to replace default assumptions in the interest of going someplace else, wherever that might be, and possibly yet to be discovered.

My own impulse has always been to push the envelope. As soon as anything feels complacent or facile, I want to shake it up and find something more. I don’t start from any all-at-once vision. I ask instead why anything has to be the way it already is. These compositional interfaces are themselves extended improvisations that span literally years, questions that get continually retested and transformed as vantage rotates across vantage.

I might wonder what could happen if I combine this & that a particular way, or if I turn an identifiable sound area inside out, or if I foreground an otherwise quietly implicit feature. Sometimes I’ll hear some music at a distance where the details aren’t clear, and I’ll fill in the gaps differently than what’s really there. Also, whatever happens with collaborating musicians almost always ignites some additional developments.

Experimentation invites plenty of trial and error. Often, what goes wrong can open more surprising insights and discoveries. The ideas can follow me around too, sometimes nudging me out of sleep with maybe an extension or elaboration, a displacement, or perhaps a fertile simplification. It doesn’t stand still. I keep revising and renovating. It keeps growing.

Improvisation, in contrast, can’t tolerate slack. Musical information and the collective feeling spectrum of the moment at hand inundates awareness at a density that one can’t measure or parse, which can evoke another kind of voice, a sort of alternate persona, but to develop the kind of flexibility needed to go with that also takes preparation. Getting ready to be spontaneous might sound like a contradiction, but it’s not.

Every instance of music arrives in its own way through a distinct intersection of potentialities. Each performance, each recording, issues  only a single episode in a continuum.


BD – How crucial is the relation between musician and listener to the lived experience of making music?

PB – Musicians are listeners. And, when they sound music, they’re listening out loud. But, listening is also musicianship. And this isn’t arcane.  Anybody can do it. Listening puts sounds together, which means that any listener is likewise a composer. The expectancy of the listening ear poses the question that musical sound responds to. It invites a listener to compose along with it.

It’s important to keep in mind that recording technology has been with us for still fewer than seven generations, and that before that, all musical sound resonated only in face to face proximity. There weren’t any confusions regarding its sources. Recording invented disembodied musical sound sundered from its generative actualities in human cooperation, which might give us fantastic archival access to previous instances of musical display but also tends to both obscure and disguise music’s fundamental sociality.

Nothing replaces live performance, the acoustic physicality of the sounds, the smells and sights, the suspense and surprise, the drama and risk, the direct readings of musicians’ attitudes and body language that can tell even more about their relationships with what’s going on. I’ve witnessed moments when an entire room levitates, where no one knows, including the band, what will happen in the next five seconds, and everyone knows they are together in that unknowing. Compared to that, recordings are grayscale photocopies, even if they do facilitate excellent occasions for the rehearsing of real, which is to say live, listening, right here in the present as the music is happening.

Sun Ra warned that the Earth is out of tune and that the remedy would be for all broadcast media to play what he described as “advanced music” 24 hours a day. We’ve never had an opportunity to observe the impact of that prescription.


BD – If you believe there is a difference, what defines Music as a work of Art as opposed to a mere commodity that is bought and sold?

PB – Like language, the activity of music is so everywhere that it’s hard to make it scarce enough to play a role as tradeable commodity. That distinction doesn’t help resolve the problem of how, given all the labor involved, a musician might coax out a living.  As it is, for centuries, musicians have had to feel lucky most of the time just to be treated as disposable service workers, which only further emphasizes that music itself can’t be merchandise, because, even when they “sell” it, they still have it.

However, there are ways that music can be enclosed within market relations through chokepoint controls over access to recordings and performances, which opens to inventions of auxiliary marketable items. Recorded sound, for example, is no more than ornamental packaging attached to the vinyl/tape/disc/code a customer purchases. It functions as a kind of lure, but the purchaser still doesn’t “own” the music, just that particular chunk of mediaware. Likewise, audience, audience appeal, and prestige can be rented out like costumes or equipment, but none of these are music either. It follows that the people who effect these fundamentally non-musical transactions, while skimming off the majority of whatever money does circulate through them, are, with very few exceptions, not the musicians.

There’s no organic connection between musical and commodity values. The unconditionality of artist attitude, such as an unbounded openness to exceed the already, is pretty incompatible with the hyperconditionality of market relations, but they nevertheless coexist, and during certain moments, productive synergies really do happen.

However, a grapevine derived anecdote illustrates what’s closer to normal. A label contracted a respected artist to record while accompanied by several stars, musicians whose creative histories would lead an audience to reasonably expect extraordinary results. There were severe limits on rehearsal time, studio time and the number of takes permitted, restrictions dictated by their managers whose roles were to protect these luminaries from their fees being reduced on future occasions. The album was released with all errors intact, just one signal example of market driven mediocrity.

BD – This has been another one of our BROTHERWISE FIVE interview series, during which THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH interrogates intellectuals, artists and activists with five probing questions to the delight of our readers.

On behalf of patrick brennan and THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH,


-A. Shahid Stover

(this interview of patrick brennan for THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH was conducted by A. Shahid Stover through email correspondence from September 30th – October 24th 2022.)

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