Nick Brooke: The Artful Appropriator

A Fragment in a Petri Dish

Molly Sheridan: We’ve been talking about these big philosophical concepts, but the technical process of doing this is also intriguing if you’ve never done it. What’s the procedure from the idea, “I’m going to make a piece out of some old recordings” to a finished piece of your own work?

Nick Brooke: Well, I’ll start with a technical issue. The first part is finding a sample that compels you, that you can’t get out of your head. With me, it’s something like the fact that in Beethoven’s Ninth Sym1phony they’re singing joy over and over, like they need that to feel joy. I take that two seconds and I put it in an isolated petri dish, I listen to it and kind of experience its presence, see what space it takes up. I might start messing around with reharmonizing it subtly. One of the processes I do is similar to Reich in that you’ll take the same melody, maybe the upper stuff that the winds are doing, and then change the chords below, so you think there’s progress. That’s essentially what I do except there’s somebody up here going, “Freude!”, “Freude!” Each time I change it subtly so that there’s movement there but it still seems like these singers have a repetition compulsion disorder. In a sense, harmony and rhythm in my things is a way of both administering adrenaline and morphine to the audience simultaneously, and doing that strategically.

The other thing I’ll do, I’ll free associate to textures. I like putting Hollywood Foley in my work because it gives a physical, very surreal impact to everything. It talks about a subtext that may or may not have something to do with it. For instance, with “freude,” I put somebody smacking their chest and somebody cracking a whip, and then you tone that down so it’s not obvious.

In the song “I’ll Make You” from Tone Test, I took a vaudeville tune that was all lovey-dovey and just changed the words around until it was a pretty violent domestic battle. I put stuff around that to get a rhythm going and figured out how you add those pieces one by one into a texture that builds and develops and reaches a point and goes along. Often my days are spent painstakingly figuring out, ok, that takes up that much space—”Freude!”—ok, it needs five seconds. The next day I’ll say four seconds, the next day I’ll say six seconds. It changes until I finally feel right with it.

One way to conceive the form of some of my pieces—which is maybe too often the form of my pieces—is it’s an attempt to get through the song. The fragment “freude” is actually from the song “Just Sing” which of course, having that title, is about not singing. It’s about talking about singing and kind of getting around to it, but actually never being able to do it, which to me is poetic. It’s about trying to get into the tune, but having to rationalize it or command it or control it all the time and just never really being able to do it.

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German Welte Concert Orchestrion, mid to late 1890s

Molly Sheridan: There’s also a lot of silence in your work that creates a kind of rhythm, even in songs that are not in Tone Test. In 127 Studies on a Single Orchestrion, the listener gets a little bit and then it pulls back.

Nick Brooke: One inspiration is Javanese rhythms which is totally a subtext in my work. Actually, if you look at those pieces they’ve all got a steady beat, but sometimes it’s this far out [raises arms spread wide] and you can’t perceive it—the whole piece is constructed roller coaster-like, so each time you go around the spin it’s got to be a tighter curve. That I do partially with silence and the expectation of silence. The silences in certain places have to be very exact, which is why it’s really hard to perform my work.

Molly Sheridan: Is it intentional then that the audience leaves with the echoes of these songs in their heads, extending the perpetual motion set up? And for you especially, does this music just follow you around while you’re working on it?

Nick Brooke: It does because it feels right. For one it feels joyous to me. They hit a point and I can’t get them out of my body. I usually have to stand at the back of the auditorium during performances because I instinctually move—as weird and fragmented as the silences are it just feels so visceral to me. I just want people to come back to these pieces, and I do, and hear them over and over again, and get something more from it.

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