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?

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.

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.

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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