John Wolf Brennan
Text, Context, Co-Text and Co-Co-Text
John Wolf Brennan / piano, compositions
Brennan’s third solo piano disc unites most of the things he’s known for — rhapsodic compositions, improvisation, canny preparations and extended techniques, whimsical folk-like tunes, rather Gothic poetry and a Joycean love of ambiguity and barefaced daftness. Over the course of seventeen tracks all this could become disorientating and fragmentary, but something holds these pieces together. That something is a sophisticated Romanticism; a something with all the whistful elegance of a Byron or even a Thoreau, but with a twentieth century sense of its own complexities and contradictions.
Brennan loves a good tune, and his compositions are often hummable, disastrously so for his reputation among the European avant garde. He harmonises them with neither modal washes nor jazz cycles but genuine progressions; these are pieces which modulate, which shift in and out of atonality, which build into ringing cadences. And what gives them their propulsive energy is his hard rhythmic touch. Notes seem to spring from the keyboard, and his rubato is always musical, never technical, his free rhythms striding forwards as confidently as the tricky mixed metres of “Song of the Moon”.
This is a less restless disk that last year’s The Well-Prepared Clavier; what was fun about that disc, in part, was its manic inclusivity. Here there is much greater focus on straight, composed piano playing. Why? Perhaps because Brennan’s subject is something like the construction of an alternative Irish music, a music which doesn’t borrow from airs and jigs so much as from the inherent Romanticism, even sentimentality, with which the island’s image is so bound up, as well, of course, as its legendary wit and literary virtuosity.
Which is not to say that Brennan romanticises the coutry of his birth so much as, if I have this right, that Ireland romanticises itself. It’s there in Theo Dorgan’s critical theory-informed spirituality (an excerpt appears in the insert) which is simultaneously academic, popular and frighteningly redolant of a kind of blood-and-soil nationalism. Brennan’s music has to work its way around these contradictions, and he wisely leaves the wise-cracking experiments aside in favour of a simpler, more nuanced approach.
Not that this is joyless stuff, either. On the contrary, Brennan revels in the impossibility of his task. The result is a typically approachable listen from one of the most uncategorisable musicians around. Richard Cochrane