Patricia Brennan: Sound Touch

by Troy Collins

Patricia Brennan © 2023 Frank Heath

Raised in Veracruz, Mexico, Patricia Brennan was exposed early on to a heady musical combination of Afro-Cuban traditions, Son Jarocho, folkloric marimba, rock and roll, and Western classical music. Brennan eventually joined the Youth Orchestra of the Americas at age 17 before moving on to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and new music ensembles like Eighth Blackbird. Those myriad influences can be heard on Maquishti, her unaccompanied solo debut, released in 2021 by Valley of Search.

Brennan currently holds memberships in several ensembles, including the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Mary Halvorson’s Amaryllis, Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus, Matt Mitchell’s Phalanx Ambassadors, the Webber/Morris Big Band, and Tomas Fujiwara’s 7 Poets Trio with cellist Tomeka Reid. She has also collaborated with pianist Vijay Iyer as a member of Blind Spot with writer Teju Cole and bassist Linda Oh, and performed and recorded with such luminaries as Sylvie Courvoisier, Dan Weiss, Trevor Dunn, Dave Douglas, and Darius Jones, among others. Brennan’s own projects include a duo with percussionist, drummer, and turntablist Noel Brennan (DJ Arktureye), and a quartet featuring bassist Kim Cass, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and percussionist Mauricio Herrera, which can be heard on her first album as a bandleader, More Touch (Pyroclastic).

More Touch expands upon the stylistic inroads made on Brennan’s debut, combining lessons gleaned from past experiences and present interests into a unified whole. She has explained that playing in percussion ensembles while at Curtis was inspirational: “A percussion quartet is all about creating a collective texture or timbre. At the same time there’s a very strong improvisational culture in my hometown of Veracruz because of the Afro-Cuban music and Son Jarocho influence. In a way, the goal for this quartet was to have four percussionists together as a unifying starting ground and adapt that idea as closely as possible to a more traditional jazz quartet.” The album’s unique instrumentation – mallet percussion, hand percussion, drum kit, and upright bass – places equal importance on rhythm, color, and texture, enabling all four players to alternate lead and support roles, with the sum greater than the whole.

Cass provides a foundational element, navigating complex rhythms while creating textures, sometimes assuming the lead voice. Gilmore demonstrates the same versatility; although rhythmically precise, he not only underpins the music but adds color. Similarly, Herrera, who is more rooted in the tradition, is nonetheless able to adapt to more unorthodox strategies. At times, Brennan’s virtuosic approach to the vibraphone and marimba recalls the instruments’ expected historical roles, but at others she extends their sonic possibilities with electronic effects that change pitch and tone. It’s a technique heard in the playing of guitarist Mary Halvorson, whose 2022 album Amaryllis features Brennan in a prominent role.

Brennan enhances the resonance and melodicism of the vibraphone and marimba with extended techniques and subtle electronic manipulation. Her expansive sonic palette blurs the lines between progressive jazz and contemporary classical music on More Touch, where she bridges tradition and innovation by combining influences from the improvisatory practices of Afro-Cuban and Son Jarocho traditions of her native Mexico with Western classical conventions, yielding a vibrant new music. Intrigued by her methodology, I interviewed Brennan during the winter of 2023.


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Troy Collins: Some early biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your background. How did you get your start playing music?

Patricia Brennan: Music has always been part of my life. My hometown of Puerto de Veracruz in Mexico has a rich musical tradition, influenced by the many cultures that had made that city their home. From Afro-Mexican, Afro-Cuban, native Mexican and Spanish influences, the local music scene is a window to the soul of the town. Outside of home, I grew up soaking up that musical environment. At home, music was a huge part of my upbringing. My paternal grandmother, a concert pianist, would practice at our home and as soon as I could walk, I wanted to join her in the fun by attempting to play with her on the upper register of the piano. These visits became some of my earliest musical memories. Additionally, my dad, an engineer by profession but a Latin percussion aficionado, would host or would take part of Cuban son jams during the weekends and would always encourage me to join on some kind of small percussion as well as in the dancing. My mom, although she never played any instruments, is very knowledgeable about music. She would take me to concerts and introduce me to different artists and composers to listen to from Beethoven and Chopin to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. It was through her encouragement that I started my formal musical training at the age of five at the local conservatory. She believed at the time that in addition to my exposure to popular music it was important to be a formally trained musician.

In Mexico, at that time, music education was only provided at local conservatories. Back then, only a few cities in Mexico had one. I was lucky there was one only a few blocks away from my home. It was then that I began piano lessons as well as theory and choir. A year later, I would pick up percussion as a second instrument and join the conservatory’s orchestra.

TC: How did you arrive at your current sound? Did you have any influential teachers or mentors?

PB: I’ve been always curious about the possibilities of sound, whether it’s pitched or non-pitched, any sound has a place in my sonic palette. I’m guided by the common denominators between sounds, their tendencies and behaviors. The awareness of its path. One of my earliest influences was percussionist Evelyn Glennie, her ability to understand sound and to truly listen from an experiential place influences my perspective of how to listen to music from a very early age broadening my understanding of the meaning of music. From that point, I’ve been on a path of constant sonic exploration.

TC: Speaking of sound, perhaps you could give a break-down of your current gear set-up in relation to the efx you currently use?

PB: As far as my current gear, I play a Musser M46 vibraphone. I really love the sound of the bars from this particular model. I have a custom-made motor that was added later to the vibraphone. Also, I use a guitar pedal rig through an amplification system from K&K Sound. I use several pedals and change them up regularly but usually I use a Digitech Whammy pedal, delay pedals as well as some pedals that have very specific processing functions such as the Red Panda Particle pedal. Sometimes I use distortion pedals such as the Pro Co RAT distortion pedal.

TC: Wow, a full guitar pedal rig! Considering the vibraphone already has a dampening/sustain pedal and a motor to adjust vibrato built into it, do you ever find the addition of efx pedals challenging to incorporate? I’m imagining you’re approaching pipe organ levels of complexity with that set-up.

PB: It was definitely a challenge when I started to incorporate pedals to my set up. It felt like learning a new instrument! The purpose of incorporating pedals into my setup was to be able to expand the sonic possibilities of my instrument. For example, I wanted to be able to access a lower range than the acoustic range of the instrument or I wanted to access non-pitch based sonic possibilities. Physically it is definitely a challenge since I had to learn how to balance my body while keeping one foot on the dampening pedal of the vibraphone and the other on the guitar pedals. I’m also constantly managing that balance as I play since I use several guitar pedals at once and the dampening patterns are specific to the music. At times, I also use other pedals on the side of the vibraphone.

TC: I’d like to return to Evelyn Glennie if you don't mind. I'm embarrassed to admit I had not heard of her before. I did some research and listened to her Ted Talk, of course, all of which was fascinating. When and how did you discover her and what do you feel you learned from listening to her?

PB: I was first introduced to Evelyn Glennie by my percussion teacher in Veracruz, Mexico. He played a video tape for me that consisted of her journey to prepare and perform the Ney Rosario marimba concerto as well as diving into her background. I was about 7 or 8 years old and was completely fascinated and inspired by her since then. Firstly, her courage and perseverance are incredibly inspiring. Also, her ability to think “outside the box,” her creativity not only as a musician but also her ability to apply that creativity to the way she lives her life are exemplary. I continue to be inspired and guided by those qualities of hers. More musically specific, despite her being deaf, her awareness of sound is incredible. She was the first musician that taught me to “be one with the sound,” the importance of the embodiment of sound and the purpose and meaning behind every note we play. Sound becomes an internal experience. She’s also inspired me to continuously expand my sonic palette. Every new sound, whether it’s pitched or non-pitched, is a door to a world of sonic possibilities.

TC: Thinking of the initial resistance Glennie received from the classical music establishment – not only for her disability, but possibly for her gender – I’m wondering what was it like for you, coming up through the ranks as a young female jazz player? Were you aware of any other female jazz vibraphonists? Did you ever encounter any obstacles? It is refreshing to finally see more gender diversity in creative improvised music nowadays – but not so long ago, that wasn’t the case.

PB: Growing up in Mexico there were definitely obstacles not only due to being a girl wanting to play drums and percussion but also due to the embedded traditional role that women have in the culture in that country. However, I was fortunate to always have a great support system between my family and teachers that allowed me to pursue my passions despite my gender. They never treated me any different, and always helped me focus on developing my craft. When I moved to the US, I continued to have teachers and peers that encouraged me. When I started studying jazz, I was curious about finding out about and studying female players. Also, as a mallet player, I was definitely curious about other female mallet players. Terry Pollard was one the first female vibraphone players that I listened to and was inspired by. But also, I was inspired by female improvisers that played other instruments. For example, one of my biggest inspirations continues to be Geri Allen as well as Carla Bley.

TC: Do you feel that your time spent playing in percussion ensembles while studying at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music influenced the make-up and direction of your current quartet?

PB: My percussion ensemble experience is one of the inspirations for my quartet and recent record. In general, my goal with More Touch is to share a bit more of my story through my music. This includes not only my experiences as a percussionist but also my musical upbringing in Veracruz, Mexico – which is filled with many percussive experiences as well. To develop more on the percussion ensemble, I believe percussionists feel, hear and think about music in a very particular way. Sonically, any sound becomes part of the musical fabric and rhythmically, the embodiment of rhythm is a crucial part of our training. Also, as part of a percussion ensemble, the goal is the composite sound, the texture created by the individual layers. Every member becomes an equal, integral part of the music, making roles malleable. The music that I wrote for this quartet was definitely inspired by that vision and approach.

TC: One thing that I’m always curious about is how composers balance freedom and form, especially those whose chosen instruments are primarily harmonic in nature. But as you said, percussionists occupy a different place in music, often straddling a harmonic and rhythmic divide. Do you find that as a percussionist, you are more open to the possibilities of sound and texture than a musician whose instrument is traditionally expected to be more “constrained” in the harmonic realm?

I don’t imagine it happens anymore with the musicians you currently work with but I’m guessing there may have been a time during your studies when certain extended techniques or experimental approaches might have been frowned upon.

PB: Yes, I do find that to be the case. It’s in our nature, as percussionists, to consider every sonic possibility as well as unusual compositional approaches that are inspired by texture and sonic exploration. I think this is in part due to the repertoire that has been written for percussion. A lot of those pieces introduce experimental language that many times include extended techniques. Sometimes these pieces also invite the performer to make creative choices, such as choosing the instrumentation based on certain limitations to improvising in order to create specific textures. In addition, our role as percussionists in any ensemble is not only rhythmic in nature but also it’s our job to think about broader compositional elements like color, texture and structural flow, for example:

How can we highlight a moment in the piece? How do we create energy and momentum with textural build up? However, when I started playing jazz, I did find at times a resistance to these approaches, particularly in the pedagogical approach to vibraphone. After coming from a contemporary percussion background, I felt that more possibilities could be explore as improvisers on vibraphone – and marimba.

I did find that other instrumentalists would have more of an open-minded approach to sonic possibilities. Many times, I found myself getting inspired by improvisers on other instruments. It felt like hearing other improvisers be more exploratory allowed me to be myself on my own instrument.

Since I hear music from a percussionist point of view, this approach became part of my improvisational and compositional language.

TC: In the liner notes to More Touch you explain the inspiration for each song. Not many composers of instrumental music do this, but what I find interesting is that there’s a consistency of approach in your thought process, which seems heavily influenced by non-musical aspects. For example, “El Nahualli” and “And There Was Light” draw from folklore; “Square Bimagic” and “Sizigia (Syzygy)” are inspired by mathematical and scientific concepts; while “The Woman Who Weeps” and “Robbin” are more personal.

But the overarching concept seems to be about composing instrumental music that has specific meaning to you beyond abstract musical concerns. Thus, I’m curious, how do you convey those intentions to your bandmates and how important is it to you that they fully understand the origin and meaning of the piece? I assume that each composition has its own parameters that should be followed. Do they ever bring ideas or explore unexpected avenues that change the initial direction of the pieces you write?

PB: It’s definitely important to me to communicate to my bandmates the message, meaning or source of inspiration of each piece. Particularly because each piece is a clear expression or musical realization of the concept or idea it’s based on. However, it really depends on the composition, for example pieces like “Square Bimagic” and “Sizigia (Syzygy)” are very specific notation wise due to the exact nature of their compositional source. All the rhythmic structures are based on specific numerical patterns and most of the piece is through composed with exception of the solo sections. Although, sometimes the exact structure becomes a pivot point for free playing as well. In those cases, I do communicate with my bandmates the specific numerical subdivisions I use so we are all feeling the groove the same way. However, even in pieces like that with very exact rhythmic structures, I still like for my bandmates to feel free to make their own choices within those rhythmic parameters.

In pieces like “Robbin” and “The Woman Who Weeps” I may communicate to them more of the general vibe and emotion behind the piece, more so we all have the same mindset as a starting point, but we all interpret it based on our own experience. Having said that, I still try to give my bandmates the freedom to interpret the piece from their own point of view. And yes, due to that process sometimes unexpected directions arise becoming more of a collective interpretative experience. The sheet music in this case no matter how specific it is, becomes more of an optional outline rather than a specific set of instructions. Ultimately, I always like to get to that point in the process where spontaneity takes center stage.

TC: When composing for your quartet, which has many possible instrumental permutations available, do you notate specific parts for certain instruments, or do you sketch in a more skeletal framework for your bandmates to interpret? I’m thinking of Mauricio Herrera’s role in the group, for example.

PB: For most of the music in the record, each part or layer is notated – including the drumbeats. However, the drumbeat is just a rhythmic skeleton or a guideline as to what the rhythmic structure of the piece is. I like to write drumbeats to most of my compositions because it represents the rhythmic structure that’s unique to a particular composition. As far as Mauricio’s part, he would have the drum part as a reference for the rhythmic structure but sometimes he was playing specific patterns unique to his instrument’s tradition. During the process of writing and working on the music, Mauricio and I would meet to discuss possibilities and applications of traditional patterns from his instruments into specific rhythmic structures from the music. The drumbeat was always a great reference as to what the rhythmic structure was for each piece, and we would use that as a starting point. Then there were compositions like “The Woman Who Weeps” or “More Touch” where the drums and percussion play more of a textural role. I didn’t write a drum part for those pieces because they are more conceptual rather than based on a rhythmic structure or pattern.

TC: Moving beyond your own quartet, I'm curious about your numerous side gigs. The jazz bands of the past featured long-term personnel for extended tours, but that has largely changed today, for reasons both aesthetic and economic. What advantages and challenges do you personally find in working in so many different groups?

PB: I value greatly my experiences as side person. I was fortunate to start my path playing with incredible band leaders and mentors. One of the many advantages is that I learned so much not only about leading a band but most importantly it allowed me to grow as a musician. During the time I was solely focused on being a side person, I was able to develop my own approach through experience by watching, listening, and playing with not only great bandleaders but also with other incredible side people. I enjoyed learning through real time experience and taking my time to eventually step into the leader role. I always admired the role of the side person and the patience and respect that came with that. Many of my favorite musicians were incredible side people. I could hear their development throughout the years that eventually would lead into a very unique voice and musical vision. It’s such an important process and experience in the life of a musician. I would say the only challenge is to find the balance between the work that it takes to be a side person and the time dedicated to work on individual concepts not directly related to the side work.

TC: Considering your ability to navigate multiple styles in a variety of settings (as a leader, collaborator, and side-person), are there any aspects of the jazz tradition that you currently find inspiring and/or any established practices you find creatively constraining?

PB: One of the aspects I always found inspiring is the constant search for innovation within the tradition. So many of my favorite improvisers were – and some continue to – always move (ing) forward while keeping a deep awareness of the tradition and fundamentals. Sometimes during the process of studying the art form, the idea of tradition differs depending on individual established practices that could be creatively constraining due to the lack of continuously exploring spontaneity and innovation during the process. I also find inspiring how the process is a constant invitation to introspection. It encourages awareness of self and others as well as presence.

TC: In reference to performing, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

PB: As far as studio recording, my experience depends on the recording process. I’ve had experiences where the compositions are broken down into specific sections and it’s more about achieving a very accurate recording. Other times it’s more about the big picture where recreating the live performance experience in the studio is the focus. There’s definitely a different energy in the studio even when the experience is very close to a live performance. However, presence is one of the common denominators between the studio experience and the live performance whether we are recording in smaller sections and running through a composition. As far as live performance, there’s always the energy from the audience and the spontaneous energy from the band. I find because there’s no pressure of documentation during a live performance, there are more risks taken by the performers.

TC: In the same line of thought, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially regarding archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

PB: I grew up listening to records, vinyl and eventually CDs; it felt like a wholesome experience. The album cover in itself was a piece art, the design told a story and to complete the experience, the music. I believe the physical aspect of records is irreplaceable, whether it’s presented in vinyl or CD’s. They provide an experience that streaming would never replace. I do find that in today’s world streaming allows our music to have a wider reach by getting to more places and audiences. The immediate aspect of downloads and streaming is incredibly valuable to artists in order to make our music more accessible. However, one of the major downsides of streaming is the minimal financial support that provides to the artists. There’s still a long way to go in order to properly compensate the artists for their work on streaming services.

TC: In conclusion, what projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

PB: I’m currently planning a septet recording that will feature the quartet from my record More Touch in addition to three horn players. This instrumentation is inspired by the concept of roles of expansion, the horns serve as an expansion of the melodic role as well as textural/rhythmic role. The vision for the role of each instrument in this ensemble is determined by the needs of the music rather than the role expectations that they imply. The horns traditionally are expected to lead, in some cases that will be the role they take, but I also envision them as another rhythmic or textural element, an extension of the colorful palette of percussion. We’ll be going into the studio in the Fall of this year and the plan would be to have a 2024 release.


© 2023 Troy Collins

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