Molly Sheridan: I’ve been listening to recordings of some of your work for the past few days, and the repeating phrases and the mechanical sounds are all trapped in my head. Now I have to ask: Did you grow up over an arcade or in a traveling carnival or something?
Nick Brooke: I did! My dad was fascinated as a kid with all the shows in London, and not only the carnival shows of the 1930s and ’40s, but he got into the freak shows and displays of mechanical music of the 1830s to 1880s in London. I grew up with books and posters around the house about magic lantern shows and the man who could breathe fire. I don’t think they had two-headed babies in London at that time but, yeah, I kind of feel like I grew up in the 19th century—and not just the 19th century, but the alternate, freak show 19th century.
My dad traveled around New England doing magic lantern shows, which you may know were the earliest form of projection. They were moving slides that you could fill with water, they had cranking parts that could move so you could make—in some more grotesque slides—people’s heads fly off. I grew up watching those shows and actually helping him, handing him slides.
Molly Sheridan: I know that you have a fascination with instruments from that period, especially the Victrola that was literally center stage in Tone Test. Did you have a lot of those types of things in the house to play with from an early age, or did that come later?
Nick Brooke: My earliest two music memories are, one, my dad playing recordings over and over of music boxes. He was a museum curator and he studied all these music boxes for this one show. I was probably six or seven. The other memory is that he also curated a music show there that was Robert Moog coming to the museum and performing on the synthesizer. So somehow the sounds of the synthesizer and the music box are kind of mixed in with my earliest musical memories.
Plus one more, which is that I went to a Catholic grade school where the nuns were just insane! I remember this one who loved to put on the disco version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and sort of wildly thrash around in her habit. So these three images of my musical childhood together might help explain a little bit…
Molly Sheridan: How did you then slide into making music yourself?
Nick Brooke: Well, apparently I went to a musical kindergarten and that was some influence, but in high school I really started getting into listening to music. Mainly classical music, but Grandmaster Flash was coming out at that time as well.
I just started writing as soon as I started listening to it. I had a high school theory teacher who obviously I annoyed—I questioned him a lot about things, and so he would give me enormous assignments just to get me off his back. At one point, he said to me, “You need to research the breakdown of functional tonality and don’t come back to me until you’ve found out about it.” And I was like, “Oh my god, it broke down! Tonality broke down?” Because I was writing nice marches for band at that point. I took the marches to a teacher at the local college, at Williams College, and he looked at them and said, “You don’t want to write this,” and he gave me this book on twelve-tone theory—this is when I was, like, 15—and said, “Write this!” And so my second pieces after the marches for band were twelve-tone pieces, and after that I just kind of did a mix of everything. College was a mix of being influenced by Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff who I studied with, and John Zorn, Berio, a lot of different influences come into what I was doing then.
Molly Sheridan: But it sounds like you had a real passion for it from the very beginning, even though you had a theory teacher who was giving you a hard time.
Nick Brooke: I guess so. Sometimes you do it out of passion, sometimes out if desperation.
Molly Sheridan: What do you do it out of?
Nick Brooke: I think you need something that challenges you at that age, and if you’re in a rural public high school, you’re kind of screaming for something that will make your mind chew a little. I think I’ve always had a passion for things that I don’t understand and that is fundamental to anyone who’s grown up in another culture. Which, granted, I grew up in a small New England town with a white church, but my dad was British, and we were constantly traveling around to Australia, to England. I always did things that my dad did, his sort of Briticisms, and I never felt at home in my own culture. So finding out about music, or music that I didn’t understand or that intrigued me, seemed to be akin to finding out about other cultures, which I eventually got into after graduating from college, literally, by living in Indonesia for two years.
What I try and do musically is present the detritus of our pop culture in hopefully not a haphazard way but as it might seem to somebody coming from another culture. I put it in a ritualized encasement that it’s my hope gives you a sense of, “Oh, this is how they would do Celine Dion in Papua New Guinea. And I finally see it. I finally see the matrix of our culture by the way you’ve rearranged, chopped up, fragmented, and essentially put it together in a new order that both makes sense and also comments on the previous order that it was in.” It’s a way to rearrange music so that once you hear that music you go back to the tunes that I base music on and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what that is.”
A friend once heard an arrangement I did of an Indonesian pop song that was on the radio 24/7, and I needed to rewrite this tune, as I do a lot of tunes, just to exorcise it from my head. I started rearranging it, chunking it up and stuff, and he went to the performance and was like, “Hey, I liked that. It was cool,” and then a month later he came back to me and was like, “I get it. I just heard the tune on the radio and it’s like I could finally hear it, all the pins and wires.” Maybe this is the reason I use mechanical metaphors in what I do. It’s like I could finally see the pulleys and triggers. Hopefully. That’s a grand scheme, but it’s what I aspire to in different pieces.