Have Score, Will Travel

New-music composer Jeffrey Brooks has paid for his education over a card game, survived for months off stolen tuna, and lived on an Amtrak train. So what's he doing raising two happy kids in a house in south Minneapolis?

Tanglewood is a posh and respected artists center that supports many programs and productions in the realms of classical and new music. Composers spend time at Tanglewood writing. Young composers earn their keep by composing--and waiting tables in the dining room where the more established composers, performers, and administrators dine. The working resources are lush, and the networking opportunities are singular. It's a professional rite of passage, and the setting for Brooks's romantic duet.

At Tanglewood he met and began courting fellow composer Maura Bosch. After spending what little money he had on flowers and Champagne for her birthday, he realized that he had next to nothing left for living expenses. In order to defray their costs of eating, Bosch set about learning to cook. She picked up Marcella Hazan's book Classic Italian Cooking in trade paperback and found a recipe for spaghetti al tonno--or, in less glamorous terms, tuna spaghetti. As it was simple to make, and all of the ingredients could be easily stolen from Tanglewood's kitchen, the new couple was set for meals. Brooks tells this story with a head-shaking affection for his and Bosch's younger selves. He pauses to let thoughts wander between his words.

"At the time we both had live-in partners back home. So basically we couldn't leave Tanglewood. We didn't have any money. I mean, we drove a Gremlin. One of the Tanglewood staff people was sympathetic to young love or something, and let us stay there. We worked cleaning out cabins. After work we'd walk down the road to Alice's Restaurant--you know, the one in the song. It's there in the Berkshires. We'd order rum drinks and sit and watch Olympic boxing. It was in that restaurant that Maura proposed to me." As though he doesn't quite believe it himself, he repeats, "We were basically homeless....I can't believe how much instability we were willing to live with."

Brooks and Bosch survived that summer and were married in New York City shortly thereafter. Young composers need to go where the work is--which for Brooks meant a position as composer in residence at Bath College in England. "We lived in a little town outside of Bath," Brooks recalls. "It was one of these precious southern-England villages where rich people retire and become gentleman farmers. They wear tweedy suits, ties, hats, and Wellington boots. For some reason they would plow their fields at night. We had a theme song for that. Maura and I would sit by the window and sing: "Night farmer, night farmer, sleeps all day and he plows by night. He's a night farmer."

Lauded and eccentric British composer Sir Michael Tippett lived nearby and traveled in similar circles. He took a shine to the young couple. Brooks's voice lightens as he explains: "He'd take us to these weird 'knights only' castles for lunch. He was a beautiful and brilliant man....He did have this weird need to talk about menstruation, though."

Brooks may have been living scenes out of La Bohème, but he wasn't writing them. In the midst of their romantic-era lifestyle, Brooks managed to develop a musical style that was orderly and patterned. A tendency toward repeated rhythmic figures in bass and drums, in combination with his strong and sparsely decorated melody, gave his music an aura of motion and simplicity. Piano parts that mull over the same powerful and compact motifs are a hallmark of some of his earlier pieces. Brooks's music was growing into a rare combination of listenable and theoretical--exactly the kind of thing getting stage time in Amsterdam, which became the next stop on the couple's European tour.

In Amsterdam, Brooks connected with composer and future mentor Louis Andriessen, the ringleader of Amsterdam's composition scene. "Louis's group is really tight-knit," Brooks says. "They go places together and they boo the same pieces. Everyone watches Louis for the cues on how they're supposed to react to the piece and there's a little smattering of applause after he makes his declaration.

"We were thinking of moving there. But we looked around at the other American composers that had relocated there and didn't want to be like them--so we came back. With our last $300 we bought an all-you-can-ride Amtrak ticket. In those days they didn't have the technology to check the limit on your credit card from the train. All our cards were maxed out--but Amtrak didn't know that....So we stayed on the train living off our maxed-out cards until we wound up back in Minneapolis."

 

Back in the state where farmers plow during the day and audiences clap without any hesitation or prompting, Brooks began to set down roots in the local new-music scene. From 1990 to 1994, Brooks served as artistic director of the American Composers Forum, a national new-music organization based in St. Paul. He spent quite a bit of his time reviewing and directing the work of other composers--an experience draining enough to convince him that his real calling was not making presentations for funding panels.

Later, as artistic director of The Composer's Voice, a show that first ran on Minnesota Public Radio and then on National Public Radio, he interviewed fellow composers on the air. His goal in each interview was to introduce listeners to new music, the composers behind it, and the influences behind them. Brooks still feels strongly that this is how composers should be presented and believes that programs like his will eventually eclipse the concert scene. Yet though he seemed to appreciate the security and status of having a proper title to describe his artistic pursuits, he has since carved out an identity for himself that derives from the composing work he does in his basement studio, and the life he leads with his family above ground.

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