Nick Brooke: The Artful Appropriator

Leaning on the Limits of Copyright

Molly Sheridan: I want go back. You said that you’re always asking yourself why you are compelled to copy and reformat. Do you ever come to an answer?

Nick Brooke: I think there should be five contradictory answers to that if it’s going to be interesting. One is I like to please people, and that disturbs me greatly. Sometimes I feel like that’s my Achilles heel in life. Copying is a form of pleasing people but it’s also a form of parody. I find entertainment sinister. And I just want to get at that. It’s all these ambiguous things. By copying you right now, repeating your question, I could be mocking you. I could be saying it in a blank way where you weren’t sure. I could have a syndrome where I needed to repeat things. It could be a ritual—in church I was taught to repeat what Molly Sheridan says. And it’s all these things.

The more positive answer is that I want to bring experimentalism back because I feel that it kind of died in the early ’70s. I just don’t see people doing the range of experiments that were done a long time ago. I think the way it’s going to come back in an interesting way is to use recognizable materials in entirely unheard of—or to use Schoenberg’s phrase, unseen before—ways, because I think it’s going to involve sight. Using familiar materials makes your experiment more legible.

Some of the experiments I’m doing with fragmentation I was doing with chord clusters at Oberlin, and it just occurred to me, well, why don’t I do that with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? It would just make the experiment that much more legible. It might have just been a matter of skill at that point—I had no idea how to do that. I didn’t know what a sampler was, I didn’t know what sampling meant in a classical realm.

People who’ve done reappropriation in classical music I generally find uninteresting for classical instruments. Why? It doesn’t deal with the mode of production. The performance is always classical players and they’re not questioning the fact that they’re going to be reading a score. Or even in those places where the composer is enlightened enough to ask for some different acting or performance venue, they don’t have the care to those train those performers over years and really develop something unique. It’s kind of plastered on in the last half hour of rehearsals. And if you’re really going to make something unique it’s going to take time and immense amounts of funding. Yeah, I have no idea how we’re going to achieve some of this.

In a sense what I’m doing is really conventional. Everyone’s experimenting with sampling, people have been doing it for while, from John Oswald to John Zorn. I don’t mean to be snotty about this, but I just don’t think I can name so many artists who have done it in a really stunningly compelling manner. And I say that as somebody who is not ready to criticize and who loves to see a lot of stuff—I just feel a lot of the experiments in sampling copy Cage’s open-ended, “Hey, let’s put all this stuff in a kind of ur-opera mix, which Cage did in a unique and compelling manner. I just don’t feel what Zorn or Oswald did over that with their uses of other materials had really any uniqueness to it. Even in John Zorn’s case I don’t feel it was really informed by free jazz, I just felt like it was cobbled together. I just don’t get much on additional listenings.

Molly Sheridan: We touched a bit on the ethics of using music that does not belong to you to create new work. Is there anything that you’ve wanted to use, that you’ve not been allowed to use, either before or after you’d already written the piece?

Nick Brooke: Said directly into the camera, “My management has told me not to answer this question.”

Let’s say, with my next piece…[laughs]

Tone Test was pretty safe because a lot of the tunes were written before 1929. It’s very hard. It’s a little crazy, because certain places just give you form letter turndowns. Let it be said to the camera: “I’m not making any money off of this or any recent productions. Nothing. It’s like, yeah, please, sue me! Assume my credit card debt!”

I’m getting cleverer about it. Tone Test had its own particular way around it. I’ve learned so much about copyright laws which are incredibly complex. There are various reasons why something may be identifiable or not. Occasionally I call up friends who are copyright lawyers in a slight panic and ask them questions. They calm me down with their soothing, lawyer-like voices, and say I haven’t done anything wrong.

Molly Sheridan: That seems like a really nerve-wracking way to work. Does it get in the way of the art?

Nick Brooke: It got nerve wracking when [the Tone Test performance at the] Lincoln Center [Festival] happened because this small piece that I was trying out in a performance space in Brooklyn suddenly within six months performed there. I called up the Library of Congress. They did a lot of research for me, nicely. And I was cleared with a lot of this stuff.

Molly Sheridan: Collectively culturally, are we suffering because artists aren’t allowed to build on the materials created by their peers?

Nick Brooke: Very much so. I just think that’s going to explode and change. I hope so. The reason these laws are there is so someone wouldn’t make a profit by imitating something. But if you listen to my music and think it’s imitating someone else, you’ve got to be crazy. I’m such small potatoes, but maybe someone will take me as a test case, and there are probably small infractions in my pieces. With those laws, you’re really outlawing a whole culture in a way.

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