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John Wolf Brennan


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J.S. Bach opens The Well-Tempered Clavier by declaring that the enclosed compositions are "For the use and practice of young musicians who desire to learn, as well as by way of amusement, for those who are already skilled in this study." The title of pianist John Wolf Brennan's 1998 solo CD, The Well-Prepared Clavier (Creative Works), argues that prepared-piano techniques have outgrown their novelty status to become as vital to the instrument's vocabulary as Bach's music. Brennan takes after pioneers like Henry Cowell and John Cage: he places objects like bolts and rubber stoppers on or between strings to distort the timbre or blunt the resonance of certain notes; he "bows" the strings with rosined fishing line to coax out sound masses of near orchestral density, or plucks them as though playing a great toppled harp. The disc includes two series for which he "prepared" even the recording medium, overdubbing his piano onto tapes of squeaky doors (recorded in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Dubna) and clattering English subways. Brennan's both a composer and an improviser, and combines the two roles in an approach he calls "comprovisation"--even when he improvises within classical forms, his music retains the spontaneity, directness, and rhythmic drive of jazz and pop. On the recent trio album MinuteAge (For 4 Ears) he does most by playing least, injecting tiny rhythmic cells that propel Reto Senn's folkish, melodic clarinet through Margrit Rieben's tangle of percussion, theremin, and musical saw. He's still succinct but more assertive on Momentum (Leo), countering percussionist Christian Wolfarth's busy drums and Chicagoan Gene Coleman's snorting, hissing bass clarinet with an unpredictable battery of clanks, rumbles, and chords. The Irish-born Brennan has scheduled two concerts at the Cultural Center during his weeklong visit from Switzerland, where he now lives: Friday he presents The Well-Prepared Clavier, and Sunday he joins Coleman's Ensemble Noamnesia to perform his compositions "Olos," "Epithalamium," and "Frictions," as well as a Coleman piece for piano and nine instruments called "Klavierraum." Sunday's show will close with a quartet improvisation by Brennan, Coleman, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and trombonist Jeb Bishop. Friday, 7 PM, and Sunday, 3 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630. Brennan and Coleman also play Friday at 12:30 PM at the Cultural Center's Museum of Broadcast Communications; the performance will be broadcast live by WNUR (89.3 FM) as part of its world-music show Continental Drift. And if you're reading this on Thursday, September 16, you can catch Brennan with Coleman, Lonberg-Holm, clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio, bassist Michael Cameron, and trumpeter-electronicist Ernst Long in an 8:30 PM improvised set at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707. Bill Meyer

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Priska Ketterer.

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