By Rob van Alstyne
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By Emily Weiss
South Minneapolis is the battleground where bohemia rages against domesticity. Picket fences barely contain the fat flowerbeds fertilized by carcasses of former Uptowners who migrated south of 36th Street--only to wake up one day and find themselves homeowners. Homes are painted the tongue-in-cheek colors of summer--Dairy Queen Lime, Echinacea Lavender, or a shade of Off-Smurf--as if their owners were thumbing noses at the winters of our Wellbutrin. Free-range children run through the yards, designer coffee brews on the stove, cats patrol living rooms, and cookbooks for the organically inclined line the kitchen walls.
New-music composer Jeffrey Brooks lives in a house much like this. On a Thursday afternoon, he opens the door wearing a gray T-shirt, loose-fitting plaid shorts, and really good shoes. He looks very much like all the other dads living on Pillsbury Avenue--which may or may not fit the image the public has of a Ph.D.-accredited composer from Yale who studied under such notable figures as Louis Andriessen, Martin Bresnick, Gilbert Amy, and Alan Forte, and has had pieces commissioned by groups like the Institute for Contemporary Art, London; the New York Youth Symphony; the California EAR Unit, ensemble in residence for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Minneapolis Chamber Symphony; and Walker Art Center. It is this last organization that is partly responsible for Brooks's latest creation. In about a week's time, the Bang on a Can All-Stars--an intrepid, experimental-music collective from New York--will be debuting Brooks's latest piece, "Skeleton Crew," as part of the museum's ten-hour "Festival Dancing in Your Head."
Brooks shepherds me to a spot in the center of his living room--where the sound from his stereo speakers will hit me "just right"--and plays a demo CD of the work. Written for strings, keyboard, guitar, and drums, this composition is not the classical music you know from your Brunch With the Classics CD. Brooks's music is the kind wrought by someone who jumped through all the classical-music hoops he could find and still made time to stay on a first-name basis with the Violent Femmes. (Violent Femmes fans might be interested to know that bassist Brian Ritchie and Brooks do a little hanging out. Brooks says of one meeting, "We invited him to a dinner party not too long ago, and he said ,'Can I bring anything?' Brooks smiles broadly, rolls his eyes, and continues: "I thought he meant like ice cream or something, so I said, 'Sure.' He brought opium.")
The natural consequence of such a history is music that walks the line between street and study hall. It moves like rock 'n' roll, but has the sophisticated tonal construction of a string quartet. The punkish pulse of the bowed strings and the steady heartbeat in the percussion seem to live comfortably in Brooks's Scandinavian teak décor--both of them nodding to an acquaintance with design. The melody in the electric guitar and keyboards paces the floor and skitters up and down the staircase, not really caring if I follow. I allow my eye to dance around the room to the melodic contour of the piece and noticed the painting of his wife as a child on the far wall, the toys under the dining table, the unmade Murphy bed in the adjoining room, and the 3/4 size violin tucked in the china hutch. Around the corner kiddie art smothers the kitchen walls like so much kudzu. Neighborhood- and school-related reminders are Scotch-taped to cabinets in the order of importance. Vital reminders are placed above the sink, while lesser memos trail off to the sides. Where the cabinets end the cookbooks begin. Hidden in this stack is the secret weapon that tipped the scales toward domesticity for Brooks back in the "salad days": Marcella Hazan's recipe for spaghetti al tonno.
Brooks's everyday life was not always so homey; nor was his music. He left undergrad life at Mankato State in 1979 with little more than a few string quartets and a hunger to write. He won full funding to Yale from a generous--albeit competitive--relative in a bridge game. She told him that if he could win the game for them, she'd pay his way through Yale for as long as they'd have him. One small slam later, he was headed for New Haven.
From his first graduate-level recital at Yale it was clear that being a composer was going to have little to do with powdered wigs and figured bass. "David Lang came out and smacked a hotel bell for five minutes," Brooks recalls. "People started booing. I thought, 'Wow, this is the right place to be!'"
Yale was a busy time of development and experimentation. Brooks recalls, "It's where I learned to write music. He rather sheepishly includes stealing a girlfriend from Jodie Foster--who was then a Yale drama student--among his most notable accomplishments at the school. Countless charts, patterns, experiments, girlfriends, and performances later, Brooks finished his work at Yale. Two master's degrees and a doctorate richer, he was offered a coveted spot as a Fromm Fellow at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.