Molly Sheridan: I know you were in Indonesia again recently, and I wanted to talk a bit about the experience of going back to that culture and that musical influence, which is obviously significant to you as an artist.
Nick Brooke: Four Americans and four Indonesians, all of whom specialized in different Indonesian styles, came together and created eight pieces in three weeks. It was insane—ten hours of rehearsal a day. It was kind of an experience in different collaborative processes. What’s called contemporary music in Indonesia emerged among people from different areas of music and cultures putting these instruments together in often radical ways. It’s just so unique that it inspires me. So we were going to see if this worked as collaboration and I think it did.
We took a bit of a composer paradigm, which doesn’t mean writing music, because it’s all taught orally, which is why three weeks for eight pieces is crazy. I did a really fun piece called Rubber Spike which is based on this spike fiddle, the rebab. It’s the instrument that Americans who hear gamelan say, “I like gamelan, but could you just take that instrument out?” It’s nasal, it seems to play a little sharp, it’s off the beat, and that’s why, of course, I’m attracted to it. I used all those sounds and some extended techniques, made kind of a variation on a tune, mixed in a lot of Foley which I had played live by this Sumatran who’s a great player but he’s gotten into computer music lately so I gave him a Mac and he was playing the sampler while I was playing the rebab and other people were doing various things, including sawing apart instruments. It was really fun. I went in there not knowing who the other people were but figuring out what their specific talent was and how I could use that well in the piece. That was a great way to work, and I think it’s the way I’ve got to work with my other music, because I teach it orally, I teach it through recording. You’ve got to be really flexible with how you communicate your ideas when you’re working on new music for gamelan in Java in a mainly oral tradition, and there are a lot of specifics that this kind of reduces. You’ve got to learn how to deal with that, and that’s a great skill.
I’m also finishing up a piece for the flutist Margaret Lancaster which is about the two-flute tradition in Northern Sumatra. A lot of music there is about doubles and how your better half has left you, including the flute music which is always played in unison with two flutes but slightly out of tune so they’re constantly creating these vibrating clouds of energy.
Molly Sheridan: So, what’s next?
Nick Brooke: Tone Test‘s a good story, but I’m just going to take that mode of working and really take it to the next. There are ways I could stretch it. Literally I’m going to continue with lip syncing and imitating recordings and bringing recordings in and out but I’m going to nuance that and work on it new ways—put live samplers in so we can get the timing better, use more sounds of the live vocalist, maybe inspired by experiments with vocals in Indonesia this summer.
I’m working on a piece called Mass, which is in six parts but not the normal six parts of a mass. I listen compulsively to Top 40 and what’s interesting is not just the love songs, of which there are many, but that all the love songs are about believing. I’m really interested in believing and what that means, especially right now in the political situation. In a way the whole thing works as a requiem mass for John Cage, various fragments of Cage’s text wander throughout. I was interested in how Cage often described his perception of the passage of time or of his life or of musical material as metaphorically mapped on to the United States and what it is to cross from California to Massachusetts. You think of a piece like Imaginary Landscape where he’s literally going across all the radio stations. My piece is about taking a radio and taking these love songs from across the states and rearranging them into this mass.
You know, in America if you lose your religion or belief you make up something, and so this is my attempt to make up something that I believe in and maybe it’s about, I don’t know, failure to love or hoping that if I fragment and rearrange enough love songs I’ll actually learn how to do that. And why radio? 4’33”, you know that was a commentary on radio and Muzak¨, it started as a commentary on technology. This is my take on it. He proposed a piece long before that piece happened call Silent Prayer—here again the religious imagery—which would be a comment on the standard plug-in length of Muzak¨ or radio music of the time, which was 4’30”, and he wanted something that would slightly extend beyond the bounds of that silence. I think my piece is going to climax with 4’33”, but totally filled in, like that scene in Cinema Paradiso where the guy finally gets all the kisses he’s missed.