Interview for
June 2000

Interviewer: Paula Edelstein

1. I understand you have a deep interest in contemporary archeology along with ongoing research of your Celtic roots. Are there elements of archeology and Celtic history that have influenced your distinctive music style?

This is a question difficult to answer for an aquarius swimming i n s i d e the aquarium, as it were... An outsider‘s view is probably more objective and accurate, less biassed. In other words: in my work as composer and pianist I am often not aware of how exactly this or that source of inspiration happens to float by. If it comes in the form of a poem by Seamus Heaney, or Paula Meehan, or Theo Dorgan (as in “Through the Ear of a Raindrop“/HeXtet with Julie Tippetts, Evan Parker, Chris Cutler, Paul Rutherford and Peter Whyman, Leo Records CD LR 254), then its Celtic roots seem pretty evident to my ears, and even more so, when I use ancient Celtic Country Dances from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the French Bretagne and the Spanish Galicia as a source of melodies for “Maulwürfe“ (lit. “Moles“), a set of educational piano pieces, not unlike the work Béla Bartók did for the Hungarian and Roumanian music. But I assume since my interest in contemporary archeology probes deep into the unconscious world, it probably manifests itself in more subtle forms, in ways I might not even be aware of myself.

2. Your concepts cover a wide spectrum of musical concepts and methods ranging from piano pieces to vocal scores, and works for choirs. Please discuss your PANICONVERSATIONS for our readers.

My mother Una Wolf Brennan was a classical singer, my father Hans Wolf a classical pianist. At most of the many chamber music concerts my mother gave back in Ireland (where I was born) and also in Switzerland, she threw in the odd Irish folksong, usually in the terribly sentimental arrangements of the turn of the last century (James Galway still sells millions of records with this version of Irish music...). So I was deeply soaked in vocal music from my very first childhood on. I guess it became a kind of second nature to me, and in fact accounts for a substantial part of my output as a composer. The “PaniConversations“ are a series of crass songs set to my own lyrics, politically explicit and not in the least “politically correct“. You can hear two of them on the album “OrganIC VoICes“ (Leo LAB 003) with German singer Gabriele Hasler and Austrian trombonist Christian Muthspiel.

3. You also have composed chamber music, such as EPITHALAMIUM after James Joyce's "Chamber Music" that creates a rich diversity in your musical skills. What orchestral works did you compose for the jazz ensemble?

I would like to answer this question by interpreting the word “orchestral“ in its two different significations. In a broad, figurative sense it denotes a quality of most of my music, be it for solopiano (listen, for example, to “Prelude [Isle of View]“, the opening track of «The Well-Prepared Clavier», in which the vintage Steinway sounds like a whole string orchestra (Creative Works Records CW 1032) or small ensembles like «Pago Libre» (a quartet with a miniature symphonic instrumentation, with Arkady Shilkloper - horn, alphorn, Tscho Theissing - violin, and Daniele Patumi - double bass). In a more literal sense, I have written several works for jazz orchestra, such as “T.N.T/Twelfth Night Tango“ (to lyrics by William Shakespeare, with soloists Corin Curschellas, voice and Wolfgang Puschnig, alto sax) and “Dance, you Monster, to my soft Song“ after a painting by Paul Klee (recorded with the “Creative Works Orchestra“, CW 1020). The nonet “Epithalamium“ got its first American performance in Chicago at the CCC (Chicago Cultural Center) in September 1999 during the so-called “Swiss Week“, a celebration of the two sister cities Lucerne/Switzerland and Chicago, by the “Ensemble Noamnesia“ (artistic director: Gene Coleman) conducted by Michael Cameron, and the audience gave it a raving reception.

4. You have studied with some of the greatest teachers throughout Europe and America including musicology, film and literature at the University of Fribourg, piano with Eva Serman at the Lucerne Conservatory, and organ and conducting at the Academy of School & Church Music, among others. Are you still performing with the members of the Swiss composer's group Groupe Lacroix?

Yes, we have been quite active lately. The “Moscow Rachmaninov Trio“ has released a composer group‘s portrait album (Creative Works CW 1030) with a composition by each member of the group, and in summer 1999 the radio station “Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk“ in Leipzig/Germany commissioned 6 pieces inspired by the eminent Swiss painter Paul Klee, which were first performed by the “Ensemble Sortisatio“ and now will be recorded for our next album, based on Klee.

5. I really enjoyed PAGO LIBRE: WAKE UP CALL – LIVE IN ITALY. How was your recent tour with the paneuropean quartet Pago Libre received?

This tour went on for three weeks with nearly 20 concerts, radio shows and workshops in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Switzerland and was very successful indeed. We are celebrating our 10th anniversary, so it‘s about time people get to know this band, which is truly unique in the world of jazz. One of my greatest dream in my life is to bring this quartet to the USA, because I am convinced that this music would go down extremely well with North American audiences. To give you an idea of what it sounds like, on this side of the Atlantic you might compare it to Dave Douglas “Shades of the Night Sky“, but one should bear in mind that we started this concept of chamber jazz music more than a decade ago.

6. I also enjoyed your work on MINUTE AGE with Margrit Rieben and Reto Senn. But regaled in the Creative Works Orchestra's WILLISAU AND MORE, which you recorded "live“. These are two very different pieces. Did you write them at different creative periods in your life...say for instance during a period of 3 years when you felt extremely prolific, or were they written at different intervals in your creative life?

I believe one can find creative potential in every moment of life. The main difference between a project like the “Creative Works Orchestra“ (which involves 13 musicians) and “MinuteAge“ is not creative or temporal, but – sorry to say – purely economical. Putting together a big band like the “CWO“ requires a lot of finances, a part from the creative ideas. In Europe, there are only a handful of large ensembles surviving: the “Vienna Art Orchestra“ in Austria, George Gruntz‘s “Concert Big Band“ in Switzerland, the “LJCO“ in England, Willem Breuker in Holland, the “Italian Instabile Orchestra“ in Italy. With, let‘s say $ 20‘000.- on the table I could be “prolific“ enough to put together a mind-blowing orchestra in a couple of weeks. Some of my large concepts, like “Wood Winds“ and “Brass Breeze“, are sleeping in the drawers for many years now, so beside the official list of realised and released CDs there is an even longer list of aborted projects, stories untold, as it were, most of them for purely financial reasons. With the money some guys turn over at the stock market every day in just hours, one could create some fantastic large ensembles with music never heard of. To give you just one example: Roscoe Mitchell offered to write a special piece for Pago Libre, so I fancy a European-American Jazz Orchestra built around Roscoe and the core of Pago Libre, with American drummer Alex Cline (he already worked with us on the quintet album “Shooting Stars & Traffic Lights“, Bellaphon L+R 45090), American flutist Robert Dick (listen to the trio “Aurealis“ with him on flutes and bassflutes and Daniele Patumi on bass, victo cd052), Herb Robertson on trumpet, Mark Dresser on bass (yes, two basses, a true double bass event!), Mark Feldman on violin, Guy Kluczevik on accordion, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Ray Anderson on trombone, Ned Rothenberg on bass clarinet and Tim Berne and John Zorn on alto sax... and since we really want to go crazy now, throw in the ROVA saxophone quartet as a special element...

7. Your work with Gene Coleman on bass clarinet and Christian Wolfarth on percussion for MOMENTUM is truly experimental. Is MOMENTUM scheduled for release in the USA anytime soon. If so, what label?

“ Momentum“ was released on Leo Records in London (LR CD 274) just some months ago, and already got awarded with the “Selection“ by Swiss Radio International, Switzerland‘s aequivalent to a “Grammy“. We will follow this work up with “momentum 2“, an even more ambitious work, this time also inviting Swiss cellist Alfred Zimmerlin - the quadrature of the vertical circle, as it were. This quartet will also be released on Leo Records (which has become my main label over the last years), in autumn 2000.

8. You have won so many awards and your latest as a performer and composer, EN•TROPO•LOGY, is being hailed as “The Science of Sonic Poetry“. Your collaboration with Simon Picard on tenor sax and Eddie Prevost on percussion is brilliant. How did this project come about?

In 1997 I was living in London thanks to a fellowship by the Swiss cultural foundation Landis & Gyr. I have been a big fan of Eddie Prévost‘s percussive work in the AMM trio for many years, and I liked Simon‘s soloing in the Barry Guy‘s “London Jazz Composers Orchestra“. At the same time, I was reading Italo Calvino‘s “Harvard Lectures“ entitled “Six Memos for the Next Millenium“. One and one and one is three (or a bit more)...

9. John Wolf Brennan, the film composer is due for a release soon. What is the new film project titled?

This is a strange thing in my life as a composer: although I was fortunate to have studied film and film music with some great teachers, such as Ennio Morricone, so far I didn‘t have a chance to make use of this talent. Probably Switzerland is just too far away from Hollywood... But the new “PAGO LIBRE“ album, due for late fall 2000, will be full of cinematic allusions. The working title is “Cinema Paradiso“. And “pipelines“, a new album with Hans Kennel (trumpet, alphorn) and Marc Unternährer (tuba), coming out on Leo Records CD LR 292 this May, features pieces like “Kissing Joy (as it flies)“, following the footsteps of Miles Davis music for Louis Malle‘s seminal film “L‘ascenseur pour l‘échafaud“.

10. Do you think you'll make it to the USA this year?

Yes, first to Canada and then to San Francisco. I will perform my third solopiano program “Text, Context, Co-Text & Co-Co-Text“ at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver from May 4-6 and my fourth solopiano program “The Well-Prepared Clavier“ as well as duet for flute and piano with flautist Diane Grubbe at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Avenue, Berkeley, San Francisco, on May 10th, at 7.30 pm. Please check out the Main Info Line at: (510) 84-JULIA or visit the website


The Jazz, USA
Interview Editor: Paula Edelstein

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