John Corbett: Liner Notes for
THE WELL-PREPARED CLAVIER


John Corbett: liner notes for the solopiano album
John Wolf Brennan: THE WELL-PREPARED CLAVIER
Creative Works Records CW 1032 (1998)


"The jazz I like is a mixture of prepared and unprepared. The unprepared is also prepared, and the prepared is also unprepared. There are four edges. Improvisation is a tool, not an end in itself. It's a way of finding music that can't be found by composing. And composing is a way of finding music that you can't improvise. Maybe certain geniuses can improvise perfect forms, but in general to really make a language structure you need time to work on it, time to think about it and prepare it. And then you can play it in a minute! It's prepared. And you can play it in an unprepared way."

-- Steve Lacy


In the United States, it's lodged in the brains of Boy Scouts in the form of an official motto: BE PREPARED. That's a call to be ready, to equip oneself, but not simply for the expected. Not merely to tie knots and identify trees and use leaves as toilet paper, but to think your way out of a corner, to find the trail after being lost, to face some trial you hadn't banked on, to do something not listed in the handbook. Be prepared to deal with something you're not expecting. Prepared to be unprepared. A pragmatist's paradox.

Isn't that the nut at the core of improvising? Preparation for being unprepared: to have to make sense in a senseless situation, create a language out of conflicting codes, compose in real time, think your way out of a corner. Improvisation as paradoxical pragmatism. When spontaneous music gets too "well prepared," that is, when it grows systematic or formulaic, not only does the musician know but the listener can tell, too. The years of months of days of hours of prep-time necessary to stare into the eyes of free play and come out alive need to be counterbalanced by some degree of risk - namely, being prepared to be unprepared. Otherwise, the music sticks too rigidly to the marked path, rather than putting machete to thicket and forging forth into someplace altogether else.

Piano preparation: amplify improvisation's desire to be simultaneously prepared and unprepared by placing that paradox directly on the piano strings - set up preparations with specific effects in mind (change resonance, timbre, attack, decay, frequency; add auxilliary sounds like buzzing, humming, scraping), but only in order to approach them with a willingness to abandon the charted way and tear off into the outback. Combination of Marcel Duchamp's discovery of art in the object-trouvÇ and Evan Parker's cultivation of the "inquisitive feedback mechanism" of instrumental technique. Once a flamboyant effect, suitable for pseudo-polynesian records by lounge-exoticists like Ferrante and Teicher, piano preparation has been taken up and developed in myriad ways since Henry Cowell first formalized as a legit technique. Just as certain extensions of the saxophone vocabulary took a long time to make it out of the trick bag and into the instrument's lexicon - tabulate the forty years that separates Rudy Wiedhoeft's novelty use of multiphonics from John Coltrane's implementation of same - so too have the devices central to piano preparation taken a while to find their stylistic range. But the notion of reaching under the lid is, by now, unremarkable in itself; preparation is currently used by composers ranging from the dreamy Stephen Scott to the vicious Horatiu Radulescu and a small army of improvising specialists including Denman Maroney, Sten Sandell, Sakis Papadimitriou, Chris Burn and John Wolf Brennan.

The Well Prepared Clavier is Brennan's fourth solo CD (accepting that he subtitled his second, Iritations [Creative Works, 1991], a "nonsolopiano" record), and it's both a departure and a continuation. As the former, it initiates a new trilogy, a cycle of works that will find its completion in two subsequent discs; as the former, it links to its direct antecedent, Text, Context, Co-text & Co-Co-Text (Creative Works, 1994) through the track "Science Friction II/Elephant & Castle" - Brennan's earlier record contained the initial "Science Friction," which was its only prepared piano piece, hence the cut here stands as carry-over or symbolic "tied-note" linking past to present projects. What is particularly striking on this disc is the way Brennan uses preparation (in both senses) to delve into unprepared territory. No mere haphazard sequence of tracks, The Well Prepared Clavier opens up like a neatly designed folding-chair, revealing careful planning and execution in its construction. A record built of different, interlocking and adjoining frames, mini-suites lodged within suites like Russian dolls that contain smaller versions of themselves.

Most obvious of these, no doubt, is the five-part "Russian Doors" series. Overlaying prepared piano with sumptious soundscape recordings of squeaky door hinges, the Irish-born, Swiss-resident pianist creates a collage that at once recalls Pierre Henri's musique concräte classic "Variations on a Sigh and a Door" and simultaneously treats those doors as portals to something quite other. Using a different set of field recordings, this time taken from the London Underground, the pianist follows a similar procedure on "Aldgate East," thereby breaking the door pattern and extending it to another audio verite soundstage. Bowed piano sounds punctuate the program periodically ("Prelude: Isle of View," "Bow Road"), droning like a huge harmonium or 22 variously-pitched cellos. And there are Brennan's carefully doled out dedication pieces, each of which looks for some other verbal content lodged in the dedicatee's name (C-age, K-ur-tag, C-o-well). Consider the way Brennan approaches titles: looking for latent puns in words, he teases new material from old. That's not a bad analogy for his music, which examines sound resources in great detail, preferring to be consise and to the point rather than blabbering on in search of things to say.

While some concepts are dispersed across the CD like puzzles waiting to be decoded, two conceptual aggregates are grouped together, potentially autonomous of the other tracks. "Seven Studies for Prepared Piano" is a gorgeous suite of miniatures that resists treating preparations as gimmicks and suggests that the prepared piano can be thought of as a precursor to the keyboard-triggered sampler - each key can represent and cue a completely different timbre, resonance, mute, or harmonic, rather than just adjusting a row of variations on one parameter, as in the well-tempered version. With its high, fast, brittle notes, the second study, "con fuoco," reminds me of Gyîrgy Ligeti's harpsichord sprint "Continuum." The final 24 minutes of The Well Prepared Clavier constitute something of a live coda - played on an wonderful instrument at Queen Elisabeth Hall - that relates to the rest of the disc, but, like the "Seven Studies," can be seen as equally autonomous from it. It's presaged by another live track, "R2D2," a potent duet with fellow virtuoso Marianne Schroeder. And beyond the intense prepared piano pieces, there are straight cuts like "to Gyîrgy K.," a brilliant, jazz-inflected razor whose rhythms virtually become Monk's "Evidence" at points, "For Henry C." with its gentle aeolian harp strokes, and "Postlude," with mysterious bass notes appearing out of nowhere and signalling the end of the disc's main (studio) course.

Equal parts improvisor and preparator, firebrand and calculator, John Wolf Brennan is certainly no boy scout. He does know Lacy's "four edges" inside-out, though. And when it comes to being unprepared, WELL unprepared, he's...well, prepared.


- John Corbett, Chicago
(Spring 1998)

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