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Jeffrey BROOKS (b. 1956)
After the Treewatcher, for ensemble (2013) [7:53] Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, for ensemble with tape (2014) [11:08]
The Passion, for three voices and ensemble (2017) [21:30]
Molly Netter, Lucy Dhegrae, Philippa Thompson (voices)
Bang on a Can All-Stars and Contemporaneous/David Bloom
rec. 2018, Power Station, Berklee, New York City
Full text for The Passion included CANTELOUPE CA21146 [40:31]
Jeffrey Brooks is a 63 year old Minneapolis-based composer who has been associated with the Bang On a Can All-Stars since their earliest gigs. His oeuvre may be rather modest in size, a consequence which may in part be due to physical and pragmatic limitations forced upon him by Parkinson’s Disease; on the evidence of this disc however Brooks creates work of undoubted quality and considerable originality. His own website reveals a particular interest in music for large wind ensemble (one of his pieces, Dreadnought, has apparently become a staple in this repertoire) and works for amplified chamber groups. The three recent pieces included here form a conceptual trilogy and were expressly written for the All-Stars and associated musicians. They each suggest that Brooks possesses a terrific ear for colour and texture as well as an architect’s appreciation of structure and proportion. While the best known Bang on A Can composers (David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe et al) operate within a readily identifiable sonic aesthetic (amplification, rock beats, grinding guitars, heavy bass grooves) there is often an element of in-your-face confrontation that I occasionally find jarring in their work, whether it’s to do with rawness, volume, distortion or something else. This antagonistic quality is largely absent from these three pieces. In fact a palpable spirituality hovers around each of them which somehow avoids seeming antithetical to the driving, robust nature of Brooks’ music.
The eight minute ‘overture’ After the Treewatcher references a piece by Michael Gordon which Brooks recalls hearing in the early 1980s at a composers’ concert during his first year at Yale. He describes his experience of The Treewatcher for solo rock organ amusingly in the booklet. In a nutshell it consisted of a sequence of notes repeated loop-like for eight minutes, followed by twenty strikes of a hotel service bell. Almost as extraordinary to Brooks was the audience reaction to Gordon’s singularly hypnotic piece: “Boos, cheers, shouting insults……I had never been to a concert like this. (I was definitely not in Minnesota anymore)” Thirty years later Brooks decided to use Gordon’s early piece as a springboard to create a more ornate work for a larger group of musicians that could project similarly trance-like qualities. It begins with a confident rising and falling line played on a (12 string) electric guitar. The entire piece derives from this figure – a tight ensemble gradually emerges with individual instruments playing with or incorporating the motif as After the Treewatcher proceeds. Its sound encompasses grainy, scrubbing string textures, Gordon’s original organ sound, attractive piano ostinati, a couple of brief, quiet interludes and driving rock, while it concludes with that hotel service bell gesture. It’s both exciting and memorable.
One characteristic that impresses in After the Treewatcher is the skill with which Brooks ‘interlocks’ different melodic and rhythmic patterns to create the impression of almost spontaneous variation so that the piece evolves organically and inevitably. This seems to be a feature of all three elements of this trilogy. There is nothing superficial about this music, and no empty posturing. The following piece, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother elegantly melds associations of bereavement and nostalgia with gestures of vivacity and drive. Bach’s early keyboard work of the same name (BWV 992) inevitably provides a starting point for Brooks. The ‘beloved brother’ in this case was the English composer Steve Martland, whose untimely passing in 2013 deprived the UK of its most identifiable exponent of rock-influenced, Bang on a Can-like classical music. Martland was a close friend and associate of Brooks and had been best man at the American’s wedding. The first sound one hears is the familiar hiss and crackle of an old LP record being played – these extraneous sounds in themselves provide a cue for nostalgia and are every bit as relevant to Brooks’ piece as the Bach capriccio itself; this eventually emerges from the turntable before a tactfully applied wash of echo, a hint of rock drum and a harpsichord grow out of the texture. There’s a shard of jagged string melody, propulsive, yet somehow sad. Eventually electric guitar and bass funk up the harmonic implications of what’s gone before and combine with the sustained, sad notes provided by flute and piccolo. The Capriccio seems to adopt a loose ABA structure with a slower, elegiac central section which seems to rely on a continuo-like sound above which flute and strings hover, while the electric guitar dominates the sound of its livelier concluding section. A melancholy charm seems to pervade this work, notwithstanding its more mobile, dancier interludes; it’s difficult to believe that Steve Martland himself would not have loved it. I certainly did.
The trilogy is completed by the most extended and largest scale work here, The Passion, which comprises three movements played without a break. Brooks explains in the note that he’d long been attracted by the idea of composing a Passion, but one that was inspired by contemporary life rather than by The Gospels. Thus his work focuses on the suffering of real people from our own time, and draws on modern texts which are arguably even more powerful and universal. Its opening movement is for the large instrumental ensemble alone, and again conveys a decisive sense of direction, characterised once more by the ‘interlocking’ nature of the melodic and rhythmical fragments and motifs Brooks employs. As the panel builds there are frequent echoes of baroque harmony and texture. Brooks’ music seems to be unfailingly satisfying, formed and complete. I would go so far as to suggest that on this evidence, the means by which he seeks to develop his material are consistently more elegant and convincing than those encountered in several pieces by his better-known BOAC colleagues. If there is joy in hearing such exciting yet touching music, there’s also considerable admiration for the discipline Brooks exhibits in keeping the lid on these pieces and never allowing things to run away.
At the 7:06 mark the second movement commences; this signals the involvement of three female voices. Here the text is spoken, sometimes simultaneously by the trio in English, German and French. The words are drawn from the writings of a Los Angeles journalist, Jefferson Reid, who describes moments in the daily lives of an undocumented migrant with a chronic injury and a woman with an extreme form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The effect of the simultaneity of language upon the listener is likened by the composer to one’s experiences in an international airport where PA announcements in unfamiliar languages may disorientate or confuse. Instrumentally, a repetitive but gentle percussive scraping dominates the sound of the movement while the amplified piano arpeggio at its outset conveys a haunting, almost funereal ambience. The repeated phrase “The Passion”, asserted by individual voices at specific moments strikes home. Distortion is increasingly applied to the vocal production, almost rendering the humans characterised in the text as disconnected and ‘alien’ – thus Brooks somehow succeeds in enabling Reid’s words to more accurately represent the plight of these disenfranchised individuals. Eventually a synthetic bell chimes over the scraping sounds.
At 14:38 the final section begins with the sound of sleigh bells, and a faster four-square pulse, with rock drum and flutes in the background alongside quietly riffing guitars. This music is defiantly upbeat as the trio of voices now harmonise the words from a ‘guide to life’ pamphlet, written by a terminally ill woman to help her children navigate the world after her passing. The author was one Claudia Brooks Lindberg, the composer’s own sister, and this movement can be taken as representing a life-affirming memorial to her. Brooks’ music is unfailingly catchy but never twee, while his late sister’s wise words are pithy, practical, playful and uncannily poetic, although at times the intricacy of Brooks’ instrumental textures and the amplification made it difficult for this listener to unravel them without the aid of the written text. Vivacity and confidence underpin both singing and playing, as befits such a wonderful, humane finale. The final phrase of the text is “Call home often”, insistent, crucial advice which almost morphs into a desperate, determined plea – and then the music stops.
For once I have no quibble whatsoever with the short playing time. The three works here were conceived as a coherent set, and any extra music would at best constitute a distraction and at worst fatally undermine their considerable potency. I find it most surprising that with the exception of the wind ensemble work Dreadnought none of Jeffrey Brooks’ other music has been commercially recorded. One earnestly hopes that the positive critical reception this issue deserves and will almost certainly receive will encourage Cantaloupe or perhaps another label to record more music by this distinctively talented individual.