Nick Brooke: The Artful Appropriator

The Trouble with Transcending Technology

Molly Sheridan: We’re tackling this issue of appropriation and building new art out of old art in NewMusicBox this month. In taking art that doesn’t belong to you and making it your own, what are your ethical considerations?

Nick Brooke: I’m constantly dealing with that. I think the main thing is to constantly have your music as an expression of your distance from that culture. Two examples. One, I’m writing a lot of arrangements of Indonesian tunes now and the name of the whole group of pieces is Jarak Jauh, which means “long distance.” It’s less about, “Hey, I’ve been to Indonesia. I know Indonesian culture.” It’s more about, “I don’t get this. I don’t get this and this is how I think it should go to my alien ears. And not only that, but gamelan sounds out of tune.” Of course, there are certain prescribed ways certain instruments are out of tune and others are not, but let’s take the out-of-tuneness and make that the key to the piece, make that the metaphor for how things work in the piece.

I did a piece for gamelan called Pemunku, which constantly accelerates and decelerates, because that’s in a sense what Javanese music does, but it did it in a very crude manner using the sounds of car crashes, things dropping, smacking into each other. That was trying to get at what I heard as an incredibly smooth music but which has, in a sense, a violent subtexts underneath. Is it crazy that I hear that? Some of these Javanese songs are about collecting armies together, plus in 1965 there’s this massacre of a half-million people, and I hear that. Maybe it’s wrong for me to hear that.

Another example is this. The thing nowadays in the brochure for the new music concert: “Hey, I learned classical music, but I grew up with rock, so I’m going to use that as my musical voice.” And, yeah, we all did! But why write classical music like rock music? I mean, this is how I sing rock music: In the pathetic isolated one bedroom apartment, I desperately sing chunks of Celine Dion in hopes that I will experience something of love or redemption. And isn’t that more interesting? Because I’m sure half these people who say, “Hey, I grew up with rock music,” if they were in high school, as they say they were, they probably had struggling crazy lives. Why don’t they just sit in a chair on stage and try and lip-sync to the tunes they grew up with, but in an interesting, strategic way. That just seems to me—and I hate this word, so I’m going to use it—it seems more honest ultimately.

Your question about whether I’m related to these musics is really a question about recording. It’s like, “Hey, I bought Celine Dion. Does that mean I’m like her?” This is maybe my negative view of technological culture from reading too much Adorno—that that’s not your CD. You’re trying to be that CD and ultimately we all want to be that CD, so why don’t we put four people up on stage trying to be that CD, who try and ultimately fail to be that CD. You structure that in a beautiful way that expresses all the relationships of these people to these objects that they buy but that ultimately they’re just trying to transcend somehow, put that on stage rather than a chamber ensemble that’s got that rock energy.

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Music in context: Brooke appropriates Edison in Tone Test
Courtesy American Opera Projects/Lincoln Center

Need I say that music is not about sound? It is about the combination of sound and visuals. I think the reason that we got to such a level of abstraction [in music] is because of CDs and recordings. People thought, “Oh, it’s about sound.” And it never is. It’s about context; it’s about everything you see around a performance. And for me, given that the only performances we seem to have nowadays…I’m so depressive [laughs]…is the isolated listener in their home, pounding the end of their armchair and trying feel what’s on the CD they just bought. Obviously everyday people in this culture are obsessed with what’s real, hence reality TV. I’m diatribing here, but if you’re going to reappropriate something, don’t just reappropriate the style, reappropriate the way a domestic listener sitting in a recliner would sing and ultimately scream that tune at home in ways that run counter to the tune. That’s a musical tension that you can express musically on stage.

Molly Sheridan: May I take it then that you’re not a fan of the “sit in the concert hall and listen to the string quartet” concert experience?

Nick Brooke: I think it’s really bizarre and interesting. After two years in Indonesia I came back and was like, “Wow, this is really neat. This is a weird ritual. These people are from a different culture than I come from.” And I think it should be celebrated, but the fact is that cultures grow and change when they get an awareness of themselves. I feel that the classical concert hall doesn’t see itself.

I go to a classical concert and I say, “Oh, they’re trying to tell me that reading is important in this society, because they’re all reading that score, and they’re kind of reading it like a needle would follow a phonograph. Oh, phonographs or CD players seem to be important in this society. I see. In all the other musical cultures I’ve seen, people don’t do that. And look—occasionally they try and close their eyes and transcend notation. And when you do that you look up. Oh, maybe God’s important in this culture.” So there’s this pianist playing—and we’re turning off the sound here, and just looking at what’s happening—and the pianist is like, hey, reading is important, but it’s important sometimes to transcend and to look at God. And occasionally you lift your hands up as if you don’t even need a piano, you can play it like a theremin. Every picture in the New York Times, the pianists never play with their hands. They’re always playing the piano like this [raises his hands] and they’re always looking up.

That’s a message about our culture that we go to these performances to look for a kind of transcendence—people look to become something, and the person on stage is a stand-in for them and the transcendence they want. The pianist starts kind of like a CD player but eventually has some feeling which is maybe also what we do. I put Celine Dion in the CD player—there’s something bizarre and plastic about her—and I’m listening for awhile and I’m like, “Yeah, I feel that!” I think that’s the only reason classical performance has survived—people are looking at us as some weird surrogate analogy for transcending their recordings. That’s a weird theory, but I think it’s totally true.

Molly Sheridan: But it’s a very important theory for you that you seem to come back to over and over again, which seems to have culminated in Tone Test. You poured all that philosophy into that hour-long piece.

Nick Brooke: And there are plenty of ways people transcend recordings. A ghetto blaster, man, what a great way to trumpet your musical tastes! Or maybe not. I just think there are plenty of ways to play your tape player. Maybe the image I have in Tone Test of somebody sitting there fatally banging their hand against their recliner—that image was taken from my grandma who used to listen to tunes like that—there are more redemptive images, and I will obviously chose those more often in future pieces.

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Tone Test
Courtesy American Opera Projects/Lincoln Center

All my music is about tone. I was listening to some art songs today and it struck me how the poetry was set. These were happy poems and they were set to happy music. I don’t understand that—I mean, why? Even Schubert was more subtle than that. And the same goes for acting. If somebody’s happy, why be happy unless you’re doing vaudeville. I feel that with sampling the only way it’s interesting is if you can put a subtext to those samples which is ambiguous. I don’t think my music ever wants to wink at people. With future performances of Tone Test what I really want to work on is tone. That when someone says, “I love you” that’s not what they mean, and that will inform the samples. In a sense you can’t do my music without a philosophy of acting behind it. Which is maybe why I go to experimental theater productions in New York, as a kind of study.

Molly Sheridan: So it’s much more than composition—there’s an entire performance art concept in mind.

Nick Brooke: Yeah, which I haven’t quite nailed yet. I think I’ve nailed the music as I want it.

Molly Sheridan: It feels very solid. It’s very obvious that you’ve grown through the course of the work that I’ve heard, but you have this voice. You can get a sense of who you are as an artist, at least in a general sense, very quickly. We’ve talked about outside influences, but who has influenced you in the more nuts and bolts area of the work that you do now. Less philosophically and more hands-on compositionally.

Nick Brooke: I was already starting to chunk pop songs early in my Oberlin career, specifically starting with Led Zeppelin‘s “Whole Lotta Love,” which I rewrote over and over, and then I rewrote the Mozart Clarinet Concerto over and over. I don’t know why I started doing that. There are people I listened to, though I have to say in terms of what I do now, there are very few people who inspire me that I feel I can study very specifically. I discovered John Moran recently and I find his stuff really interesting and see him perform whenever I can.

I thankfully had a lot of open-minded teachers who were like, listen to all this and listen to all this. I’m a bit of a sycophant and copy everything, so after a while I became interested in that and expressing that. I was talking about transcendence. Why do I constantly want to become something else? How could I make the desire to just be something else all the time a unique style? In a sense, as you say, my style might be unique but it’s working at cross-purposes. It uses entirely pre-existing tunes.

My first teachers in high school just gave me a whole bunch of music, from minimalism to avant-garde to performance art. I saw Christian Wolff when I was seven. And then at Oberlin it was just a good classical background, and I think that’s a lot of what I got at Princeton. Steve Mackey and Paul Lansky are just generally open-minded and yet they’re very good with structure and tonality. Steve Mackey is brilliant in finding the ten seconds in your piece that really just slow it down or just don’t work, and Paul’s a broadminded guy who supports a lot of different styles.

Molly Sheridan: Do you think your education was a hindrance to you in any way?

Nick Brooke: Especially at the end of Oberlin stuff I was raging against tradition. Where I teach now, at Bennington College, I’m inspired by the students who just throw themselves into creating stuff and playing instruments.

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