«Avant» magazine, UK
May 1998


Interviewer: Mark Wastell
1. What is the main impetus behind your continued interest and involvement in your longest running collaborations Pago Libre and OrganIC VoICes?

– It‘s a strange synchronicity that, in asking about my continued interest in long-term projects such as Pago Libre or OrganIC VoICes, you should mention the word „impetus“ – because «Impetus» was the name of a British magazine, and also of my first quintet featuring Swiss players Marco Käppeli (later Fritz Hauser) on drums, Thomas Dürst (b), Jürg Burkhard (as) and Agnes Ushma Baumeler (violin) - a very peculiar instrumentation, with which I recorded two LPs (remember the vinyl days?) in 1979 and 1983 and which I used again some 10 years later in the quintet Shooting Stars & Traffic Lights, with extraordinary American drummer Alex Cline, my Pago Libre pals Tscho Theissing (violin) and Daniele Patumi (b) #and Jurassic (that‘s a mountain range in Switzerland, NOT Spielberg‘s latest sequel) saxophonist John Voirol.

About the „main impetus“ behind one‘s continuing efforts and endeavours – who could honestly claim to know the real reasons? In German the word „Grund“ has a significant double meaning: „reason“, „cause“, „argument“; as well as „ground“, „soil“, „bottom“, „foundation“.

So could it simply be the „pursuit of happiness“, as demanded in the American constitution? Maybe we should rephrase the question to: What keeps the rebel going?

– Certainly not the economical side. A part from a handful of CDs (notably the 3rd solo album «Text, Context, Co-Text & Co-Text», which has sold more than 3‘000 copies so far), almost all of my ventures, including Pago Libre and OrganIC VoICes, are a financial black hole, soaking up more money than they will ever generate (I fear). So I find myself cross-subsidising these projects with money I get for commissions as a „classical“ composer, working as teacher and workshop leader. Or to put it in even more drastic words: my involvement in jazz & improvised music is, economically speaking, a hobby – I could never afford a living (not to speak about raising my family) from it.

– But of course there are rewards: positively the m u s i c i t s e l f, the sheer happiness created by doing it, and the enthusiasm it sometimes generated in the audience. Playing, for example, open air at the Ruvo di Puglia festival in front of some 4‘000 people with Pago Libre and finally getting a standing ovation, or with Aurealis in Bologna in front of 400 raving students, or a solo recital at the QEH (documented on the new solo album «The Well-Prepared Clavier») makes up for a lot of pecuniary backlashes. And in long-term projects one can realize concepts and compositions which would be impossible to play in short-term groups: take the piece „Tupti-Kulai“ (recorded on the CD «Pago Libre», L+R 45105, 1996) as an example. It features several superposed polytextural, polyrhythmic layers, 19/8 against 2/4 against 3/2, and even with world-class players like Tscho Theissing, Arkady Shilkloper and Daniele Patumi it took us a while until we were able to play this whole thing with ease — isn‘t it a terrible thing to watch some concerts where all the musicians‘ heads are deeply absorbed by r e a d i n g the music, instead of just having fun p l a y i n g i t ? Hypercomplex, tricky grooves can become simple ditties, and vice versa.

– Another good reason to remain loyal to a group for a long time is the range and quality of the o r c h e s t r a t i o n . In Pago Libre, we have a whole string section with Tscho‘s high altitude virtuoso violinistic skills down to the deep end of Daniele‘s rich sonorous bass bottom, and frequently they trade places... check out, for example, the 2nd movement of „Toccattacca“ on «SS & TL» (L+R 45090, 1995). With Arkady‘s french horn and flugelhorn, and the piano used in various ways (harp-like string plucking, percussive prepared strings, and of course on the keys) we have the core of a whole symphony orchestra, and that can serve as a base for innovative compositions. And let‘s not forget the friendship and mutual joy which is, in this quality, only possible among people who know each other for
a long time.

– With OrganIC VoICes, it‘s again the orchestration: this time the church organ, which as „the queen of instruments“ is a whole orchestra by itself. Ever since my first steps on the keys of a piano, and my career as an (Irish catholic) altar boy, I frequently sneaked up the stairs to the church gallery and tried to tackle the three manuals and the pedals... later on, during my studies at the conservatory in Lucerne, the Creative Music Studio in New York and the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin I took up the organ and specialised in uncatholic, unorthodox (if not to say „heretical“) registrations, sometimes only pulling stops half way out or getting the huge machine to wheeze like an old lady suffering from consumption.
So by sheer nature of this piping beast, it has to be a long and ongoing love affair – or none at all.


- On the CD («OrganIC VoICes», Leo Lab 003, 1994) with German singer and vocal acrobat Gabriele Hasler (her incredible range reaches right down to tenor or even baritone!) you will also notice the intense reciprocal affection and interaction of text & music, lyrics & sounds, and that simply can‘t be the result of a two day‘s session – listen for example to one of the „PaniConversations“ or „Pisa Luna“.
My mother Una Wolf Brennan was a classical singer (throwing in the occasional Irish folk song into her recitals with romantic Klavierlieder), so that probably accounts for my continuing interest in vocal music: a part from many songs («Entupadas» with Swiss singer Corin Curschellas, Creative Works CW 1013), I wrote works for choir, chamber music with vocal solo and the „Euratorium“, an oratorio based on seven European folk songs for orchestra, choir and alphorn solo (1993).
– The organ is also featured in a (in my view very much underrated) album with singer Norma Winstone and saxophonist Urs Leimgruber («M.A.P. – Music for Another Planet», L+R 45021, 1990), and soon in «pipelines» with Swiss trumpet and alphorn player Hans Kennel, another project which started years ago. Life is too short for all the ideas, but we might as well try.

– Of course, having said all this in favour of long-term projects, it‘s also fun to jump directly into entirely unknown territories and revel in totally improvised, ex-temporised music, deciding in a fraction of a second where to go next, like the collaborations with saxophonist Simon Picard and drummer Eddie Prévost, which only started in 1997 (CD «Entropology», t.b.a.), or «MinuteAge» (with Swiss percussionist Margrit Rieben and clarinettist Reto Senn), or flautist Nicky Heinen‘s very special trio (CD «Nisajo», with Russian bassoonist Alexander Alexandrov, on FMR Records......*)

2. You do a lot of work with Daniele Patumi – what‘s so special about your association with him?

– Again, I can only probe into the conscious parts of my mind. First of all, he‘s a unique player, with a whole array of highly interesting and inventive techniques so far unheard of, a „one-man-string orchestra“, or, in Alex Cline‘s L.A.slang, a „monster“. Over the years, he has become one of the leading figure of the Italian jazz scene – at the prestigious Bolzano Festival 1997 his profile was all over the city, because instead of some American superstar they choose him for the festival poster. His roots are in Umbria, a soil full of Etruscan remnants, and I assume these vibes immediately struck my Celtic antennas when we first met in Cortona, an old Etruscan town at the borderline between Toscany and Umbria, in 1989. He‘s the
Pa in Pago Libre (Go was for the first violinist, American Steve Goodman; Li for
the Swedish trumpet player Lars Lindvall – they formed the first line-up of the band). We started to work as a duo, recorded «TEN ZENTENCES» (L+R 45066) in an old church in Boswil/Switzerland, which was voted „miglior disco del anno 1993“ by Italian magazine „MusicaJazz“, and worked as powerhouse and rhythm section for various groups, Pago Libre and Aurealis being the best-known of them.
– besides, intensive/inventive double bass-piano relationships are not that unusual, if you think of Scott La Faro (or later Marc Johnson) with Bill Evans or Steve Swallow with Paul Bley or Gary Peacock with Keith Jarrett.

– For the last three years, we have also worked with the „Paganini of the modern flute“, eminent New York flautist Robert Dick, who plays the entire range of this instrument, from piccolo down to the contrabass flute, and just released the trio album «Aurealis» (victo cd 052, 1997). In June/July, we‘ll be touring Canada and the USA to play at Vancouver and Toronto Jazz Festival and at the Knitting Factory, New York.

– Some more virtues of an ongoing collaboration: dynamic balance, absence of ego dominance, efficiency, reliability – in one word: conZENtration.

– So, the relationship has only started to bear fruits... Ultimately, what it boils down to is probably instinct, affection and elective affinity.

3. How did the group HeXtet originate?

– The idea was born in a rather mediocre (the food was not hot enough!) Thai restaurant in the middle of Soho, together with Lindsay Cooper, in summer 1996. We are both attracted to poetry and share some common roots: I was a big fan of Henry Cow, Slapp Happy, Art Bears, Hatfield & the North and a lot of the subsequent „Canterbury“ groups, as long as they didn‘t fall into self-indulgent excessive solo noodling like Camel/Caravan or boringly bland rock rhythms. The ideal line-up of the band was clear from the very first moment: no explicit double or electric bass (so this decision seems to contradict somewhat my answer of question No.2), but rather a whole array of deep sonorities: the trombone (Paul Rutherford), the bassoon (due to Lindsay‘s illness, this had to be replaced by the bassclarinet – Mike Westbrook suggested Peter Whyman, and I think he did a fantastic job!), the lower range of the piano keys & strings and, of course, the bass drum with its characteristic timpani sound. The drummer was also crystal clear: it couldn‘t be anyone else but Chris Cutler. This left the choice for the VOICE, but again that happened literally by accident: some hours before playing at the Ruvo di Puglia Festival in October 1996, I went for a „fast swim“ in the sea, and injured my foot on a rock hidden beneath the water. When I limped back to the hotel lobby with my bleeding foot in nothing but my bathing-trunks, guess who was standing there, together with her pianist husband Keith? One of my teenage idols, Julie Tippetts... I blushed and was so embarrassed that I could barely speak. But she immediatley went to her room, only to came back with band-aid and a smile. „You‘ve got to be pretty resourceful on the road“, she mused...
– So some months later I dared to call and ask her about the POEms ProOjEct. Evan Parker (ss, ts) completed this unusual group of prominent musicians – in fact it was only during the first rehearsal at „The Spitz“ (Old Spitalfield Market) that I learnt that some of them played together for the very first time – in spite of living in the same city for two or three decades!
– And finally, a fellowship of the Swiss Art Foundation Landis & Gyr enabled me to live and work in East London for half a year as „composer in residence“, from February to July 1997. There, in a small studio at Smithy Street, Stepney, I composed all of the HeXtet songs as well as the new solopiano album «The Well-Prepared Clavier» (Creative Works CW 1032, 1998), which I performed partly at the QEH at the „Sergey Kuryokhin Memorial“ concert on May 16, 1997, recorded by BBC Radio 3 and broadcast on July 12 by Brian Morton and Alyn Shipton.

– About the actual CD «Through the Ear of a Raindrop» (Leo CDLR 254, 1998), I would like to quote the Leo release sheet:

“The work of some of Ireland‘s, Britain‘s and America‘s leading poets, including Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, E.A. Poe, Paula Meehan, Theo Dorgan and William Shakespeare, is given an exciting and passionate treatment by the members of HeXtet, a specially formed contemporary music ensemble, featuring some of the most distinctive voices in British modern music: Julie Tippetts, Peter Whyman (bcl), Evan Parker (ss,ts), Paul Rutherford (tb) and Chris Cutler (dr, perc; ex-Henry Cow), as well as Irish/Swiss composer and pianist John Wolf Brennan.

30 years after the legendary “Streetnoise” double LP (with Brian Auger & the Trinity) and 24 years after Carla Bley‘s “Tropic Appetites”, Julie Tippetts‘ voice can finally be heard again in a song-orientated, collective group context. The recording session took place in London‘s Gateway Studio, with engineer Steve Lowe. Swiss artist Thomas Lüchinger did the watercolour painting for the cover. The detailed booklet included all the lyrics, as well as the coverlines, written by Canadian critic Stuart Broomer.

Poetry has always been a great inspirational source of music. In ancient Greece, poems were recited to the sounds of a lyra – lyrical lyrics. After every couple of strofe (strophes), there was a katastrofe (cata-strophe), meaning, in the original Greek sense, the return to a point of rest and axial equilibrium of a lyra string after it has ceased to vibrate.

If this sounds a bit puzzling, indeed very much like a Zen-Buddhist koan, these modern poems were treated in a spirited and unfussy jazz-based way, along the songlines and borderlines of improvisation, avantgarde rock, imaginary folk and contemporary classical music. Drawing on the various talents of the HeXtet members, their adventurous, expressive and virtuoso skills, John Wolf Brennan wrote these scores right “into the gargle of the singer”, as Mozart used to say, injecting them with sparkly and infectuous rhythms, trying not to forget the subtle humour between the lines. Parts of the music, like the echoes, only came into existence in the actual recording process – hence the “comprovisation”. Over all, a rather rough edge to the finish was intended, in order not to create music too polished, which would only betray the original sense of “lyrics”.

Interviewer: Mark Wastell

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