Bill Brennan: “The first thing I played was a home-made drum set. I must have driven my mother crazy.”

August 2023

Did you grow up in a musical household?
I grew up in a very musical household. My Dad was a great singer, and my Mother played piano a little. I have five sisters and a brother, and we all were in piano lessons and played another instrument. In fact, we had a family music group called “The Brennan Family” (lead by my Aunt Bridie) and we would perform on benefit concerts, at conferences, and at old-folks homes. Five of my brothers and sisters chose music as a profession. When I was a kid, there was live music happening in our house from after school until 10pm at night!

You’re so eclectic in instruments and genres. What was the first thing you played? What’s your latest discovery?
The first thing I played was a home-made drum set made of tin cans of all sizes. I would haul these tins out of the cupboards when I was five or six and then set them up on the kitchen floor and bang away with a set of spoons. I must have driven my Mother crazy.
But the first real instrument I played was the piano, and playing the piano really helped in my learning of percussion instruments, especially the mallet instruments.
My latest discovery is the melodica! – I have always loved Stevie Wonder’s harmonica playing, and this is about the closet sound I can get to the harmonica, and I have been using it in the studio on some recordings.

Concerning Kaleidoscope, your latest release: for the uninitiated, what is a “mallet instrument”? And can you share a little of your creative process behind the “original compositions”?
Mallet instruments are the keyboard instruments of the percussion family – the marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, and glockenspiel as examples. We typically use a yarn, plastic, or rubber mallet to play them. You’ll find mallet instruments all over the world – in the gamelans of Indonesian, in West African (the balaphone), and of course in Guatemala and other Central and South American countries.
In terms of my creative process, my compositions draw from my musical life as a performer of contemporary new music and jazz, and from my experiences with the music of other cultures. In the liner notes for my new album I acknowledge the musical influences of Ghana, Brazil, Indonesia, and India in my compositions. I have been fortunate to have great teachers and mentors from these countries, and my musical life has been immensely enriched because of them and their music. As well, I have always appreciated layers of space and patterns, and natural landscapes, and I try to weave these ideas together to create sonic tapestries. I’ve always loved rhythm, melody, and harmony and explore these aspects in my work. My composition Shadows, for example, is like a musical mobile, turning and spinning with slight but constant changes in harmonic colour. In Kaleidoscope I explores subtle changes of chordal textures, with influences of Brazilian samba music and Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Other pieces, such as Au revoir Les Enfants and Belo Horizonte, are inspired by space and place, reminiscent of Paris and the joyous reflection of early morning rhythmic sounds in the central park of Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

What was your favourite performance/production (or other musical event) to have been a part of?
Vocalist extraordinaire Andrea Koziol and I have been making music together for almost 30 years, and only in the last few years have we been co-writing together. We had a mini-tour of Ontario last summer and our first time performing our co-written compositions was an evening performance in Toronto at Sellars and Newel bookstore on College Street to a sold-out audience, and the following evening at Stratford Summer Music Festival. Performing with Andrea is my favourite thing in the world, and to be co-writing with her has been like food for the soul.

What was your favourite performance/production (or other musical event) to be in the audience for?
Stevie Wonder has been a musical hero of mine my entire life. My favourite concert was Stevie Wonder at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1986. It was incredible – he played for two hours, took a 20-minute break and came back and played for another two hours. That concert was unbelievable!

What’s next for you?
Next up is a recording with Andrea Koziol of our co-written songs. We are planning on recording in November with a release for next April/May. It’s going to be so fun to share our record and to tour across Canada.

Kaleidoscope is available at Fred’s Records. Find out more about Brennan and his work here.

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