Patrick Brennan
Patrick Brennan Talks ‘Spectral Sonorities’

Patrick Brennan on Embedded with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

“I like the idea of a musical language which is informed by, but not entirely preoccupied with, the physics of sound and acoustic phenomena.”

Patrick BrennanEvery year, Sound and Music shine a light on the work of the composers who are currently in residence on our Embedded and Portfolio programmes. These are our New Voices of 2016.  They are creating new, exciting and innovative music, across disciplines, all over the UK.

Patrick Brennan is a composer, and he’s been working with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group of whom he describes as “the most brilliant bunch of musicians [he’s] ever worked with”. After talking about his experience on the Embedded programme, Brennan then explains his choice of thesis for his PhD entitled ‘The Abstraction of Spectral Sonorities,’ writing, “I like the idea of a musical language which is informed by, but not entirely preoccupied with, the physics of sound and acoustic phenomena”. Admitting to his “deathly fear” of writing ‘programme music,’ he also discusses the implications of inspiration and music with narrative, rounding up with some candid, expert advice for others also looking to pursue a career in composition…

To describe your music in a few sentences, you’d say…

I began playing the piano at a very young age, so I suppose harmony is my mother tongue. I also generally prefer small, dense, well-crafted pieces (with plenty of exceptions – I’d hate to live in a world without Feldman’s music); so far most of my pieces have been short (5-6 minutes or less). This is partly because of the commissions I’ve received, but also because I really value brevity and succinctness. One day I’ll write an honest-to-God melody, but for the moment I’m happily obsessed with intricate patterns and mechanisms.

After touring on the 2014 ‘Birtwistle at 80’ programme, you applied for Embedded so that you could work with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group for a more extended period of time. What was it about the organisation that attracted you so?

BCMG is the most brilliant bunch of musicians I’ve ever worked with, and I just wanted more. The players are fantastic and so generous with their time and energy. There’s also an incredible sense of collaboration in rehearsals; they really want the composers to succeed and the pieces to work. And obviously I can’t mention the group without also mentioning the amazing Newboulds – probably the two most generous, passionate and committed people I’ve met in the ‘new music’ world.

Could you describe your experience on Embedded with BCMG? How do you think it is going – did it live up to your hopes and expectations?

I’ve had a wonderful experience. I’ve been invited to so many rehearsals and concerts and met so many great musicians. Watching Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Olly Knussen recording Elliott Carter was unforgettable. It’s been everything I'd hoped, and more.

What do you intend to do after your project has ended?

I’ve got more pieces to write and a degree to finish, so those are my immediate goals. After that, I’ve no idea.

The title of your current PhD thesis is, ‘The Abstraction of Spectral Sonorities’. Could you describe what this entails, specifically?

As someone who’s extremely concerned with harmony, it seems natural that I was drawn to the sophisticated, nuanced harmonic language of the spectral composers. Unfortunately, I get the feeling that a lot of modern spectralists (or is it "post-spectralists”?) are retreading the same ground that Grisey and Murail did in the 80s and 90s, except they’re using more sophisticated software. I like the idea of a musical language which is informed by, but not entirely preoccupied with, the physics of sound and acoustic phenomena. There are some great composers out there who are making really interesting innovations in this area (Julian Anderson, Unsuk Chin, Philippe Leroux and Enno Poppe are some of my favourites) and I want to join them by carving out my own tiny niche.

Where/what do you look to for creative ‘inspiration,’ and how do you draw musical ideas from it?

This is changing a lot for me. I used to be suspicious of anything which had a prominent ‘extramusical’ impetus; I had a deathly fear of writing anything that could possibly be described as ‘programme music’. I’ve often had to invent a unifying ‘idea’ after finishing pieces, just to put something down in the programme notes. And I certainly don’t think I’m the only one guilty of this! But I’m getting off my high horse about that now, and am beginning to connect more with the visual arts and literature. It’s nice.

Do you feel that your compositions carry with them a form of ‘narrative’? If so, how does this narrative come about?

I don’t know. Probably not. I prefer to think of them as sound sculptures which aren’t really supposed ‘narrate’ anything in particular – except perhaps the ‘drama’ of the sounds themselves. But if they remind someone of a film they once saw, that’s fine by me.

Do you have any advice for others looking to pursue a career in composition?

I’m not very career-driven, so I can’t really give any useful advice on that side of things. But as a musician, I’ve got plenty of opinions on the subject:

  • Don’t wait until you’re in your mid-twenties to write your first proper piece. I did and I still kind of regret it; composition is a steep learning curve!
  • Listen as widely as you can. With YouTube and Spotify, there’s no excuse not to!
  • Try not to get sucked into one particular ‘school’ of composition, even if it’s the dominant style in your country or university. Unless, of course, it genuinely interests you.
  • Please don’t put electronics in every piece; it gets boring.
  • Go to the pub with your composer friends. You’ll learn an awful lot, and you’ll feel less isolated as an ‘artist’.

What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned about composing music – especially for large orchestras?

Orchestration didn’t come naturally to me, and I’m sure I’ll still be learning about it for many, many years to come. However it took me a while to realise that you’ll probably have to write an awful lot of notes which won’t be heard, but which will be missed if you remove them.

Do you have any recommendations of composers/artists to look out for in the next year?

I’m sure other people have their fingers much more firmly on the pulse of the new music ‘scene,’ but I was blown away by Vito Zuraj’s horn concerto “Hawkeye” at ISCM WMD last year. Can’t wait to hear more of his stuff. Also, Kurtág’s Endgame opera is bound to be amazing.


Find out more about Patrick on the British Music Collection // SoundCloud // Twitter

Interview by Emma Sugarman (Communications Intern – Sound and Music)

There are 25 New Voices of 2016. Find out more about them here.