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?

As if juggling the ambitions and needs of underappreciated musicians hadn't been difficult enough, Brooks now must manage the demands of composing and parenting his two kids: Adelle, age seven; and Ronan, age five. Brooks and Bosch--who is an active composer/performer, organizer of their neighborhood farmers' market, and a technical writer for American Express--trade off the duty of tending to their brood. Brooks takes special care to oversee violin practice, baseball, and Pearl Jam dance parties in the living room. When it's Bosch's turn, Brooks steals off to the basement to compose.

It is here that during the fall and winter of 2000 Brooks created "Skeleton Crew," in a room lined with recording equipment, a keyboard, and a computer. After rebuffing questions about how he goes about writing music--Brooks believes the product will be more interesting than the process--the composer produces a handwritten sheet that contains the rough material for a recent piece commissioned by a consortium of university bands. The page features lines of digits, with each number corresponding to one of the notes on a 12-tone scale. The number 2, for instance, might correlate with a D, 3 with an E-flat, and so on.

Rather than write melody fragments on staves, Brooks constructs clusters of numbers and manipulates them. Rhythm is annotated in a self-developed shorthand that indicates long and short rhythmic units. This notational style is then transcribed into the standard system of staves and measures.

For all his unconventionality, Brooks is wedded to melody--a slightly conservative concern among his generation of composers--and seems to actively seek a connection with both musicians and his audience. For instance, Brooks expresses satisfaction with his experience writing "Dreadnought," which has been performed by many university concert bands, including the University of Minnesota Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Professional musicians are so skilled and experienced that they show up to play a new piece, rehearse it once or twice, perform it--and then forget all about it. The students learning Brooks's most recent piece, by contrast, practice for a longer period of time. They play the score numerous times over a season. Brooks describes walking by a student lounge where the flute section was practicing his music, and feeling a sense of satisfaction that they were internalizing the piece, making it a part of the campus's musical landscape. Brooks himself rarely hums his own music--it seems to go straight from his head to the numbers on the page. "I like to hear my music on the radio," he says.

One of the Brooks kids interrupts this music-theory lesson to holler something about the potty. The elder Brooks solves the potty problem and returns to the chart. Such demands would seem to be a distraction to an artist, but Brooks takes these tasks as a sign that his life has gone in the right direction. "As an artist you're poor," he says. "You can't have kids, you can't own a house--unless you get lucky like we did."

This sentiment recalls Brooks's artist statement, which he hands me in the stead of answering more questions about his approach to music. (For someone who once made a trade out of asking composers about the meaning of their method, Brooks is surprisingly reticent to talk about his own technique and inspiration.) Though these statements are typically jargon-filled rhetoric intended to seduce foundations, Brooks's seems to capture the kernel of his life in Minnesota with such insight that it deserves to be quoted at length. He writes:

 

In my earlier work I was concerned with making clean, economical and efficient musical structures with a coherent pitch language and compelling and integrated rhythmic structure....They began to feel a little sterile. None of them had titles. I couldn't easily explain to a non-composer what they were "about." My desire now is that when people listen to my music they not only understand why I need to be a composer, but will also have a sense of how I struggle with life's issues as a man, a father, a husband, a member of a community, a soul. And in the best case it will help listeners to contemplate their relationship to life as well.

 

Back in the basement, Brooks evaluates his current status with a modest shrug: "I guess I'm just kind of stuck with it."

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