William Brooks studied music and mathematics at Wesleyan University (BA 1965), then received degrees in musicology (MM 1971) and composition-theory (DMA 1976) from the University of Illinois. He has been associated with John Cage as both performer and scholar; he played in the world premiere of HPSCHD and has several times directed productions of Cage’s Song Books. Brooks taught at the University of Illinois (1969-73) and at the University of California (1973-7), then worked as a freelance composer, scholar and performer before returning to the University of Illinois (1987). In 2000 he took up his present post at the University of York.
William Brooks’ new work, Tracce, will be performed at the next Late Music concert (Saturday 7th September) by Madrigali Redux.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
William Brooks: Gosh. Why would I do that? If anyone is reading this, I’d suggest she or he come to the concert. But okay ...
A long time ago, Petrarch wrote many sonnets, among them a group expressing his love for Laura and grief at her death. One of the most famous of these begins “Zefiro torna e’l bel tempo rimena” (“Zephyrus returns and brings back the fine weather”), which contrasts the verdant beauty of spring with the desert of the poet’s despair. This was set very beautifully by Monteverdi and by Marenzio before him. Then, in 1909, J. M. Synge published free translations of the “Laura” sonnets. These were, as you’d expect, written with a colloquial (not to say “peasant”) Irish-Anglo flavor. I’m very interested, at the moment, in turn-of-the-century Irish literature; I wrote a big piece on Yeats a while back. So the Synge texts caught my attention. (Too late, of course: the indefatigable Gavin Bryars set all of Synge’s Petrarch translations a few years ago.) The Irish love ghosts and mystery; I suppose Tracce attempts to surround Synge’s text with wisps, haunts, traces (“tracce”) of the past.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
WB: Sometimes. Usually. And no, I really can’t describe the process. There isn’t one process, after all; there are many. I do like to know how time will be structured; perhaps that’s a given. But, of course, when writing open-form works, even that must be set aside.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
WB: I generally don’t write music unless there is a performance forthcoming. Hence I often know the performers, and I like that. And most definitely I write with sound—and action—in mind. I abhor midi (though I use it when necessary), and I try whenever possible to sing, shout, dance, thump, conduct, or otherwise make tangible what I’m writing.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
WB: I hope I don’t have one, but I probably do. I seem to write a lot of shapes, gestures—not enough repetition, I think. I want people to remember things, the good and the bad, so traces (that word again) of the past are often evident. I’m a historian at heart (though I have many hearts: mind your back, Doctor).
SC: What motivates you to compose?
WB: People. Community. Love. The opportunity to give.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
WB: All the good ones are dead. Didn’t you go to school?
SC: Behave, there must be someone…!
WB: Well, in truth I ducked the question because an answer usually results in being assigned to one camp or another. Uptown, downtown; minimal, maximal; Tonal oder Atonal ... that kind of thing. I’m pretty lavish with admiration, actually; if you give me a score chances are that I’ll find something that interests me. (How else could I get excited about obscure pop songs from 1915?) As for identity, I’m as confused as ever.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
WB: We’d have to have a party—maybe, since I’m American, a barbeque. George (not Charlie) Ives, Ockeghem, Clara Schumann, the least known of J. S. Bach’s kids, ... But to tell the truth I’d rather host some performers: Maria Callas, Bert Williams, Ole Bull, Patsy Cline, Bix Beiderbecke ... now THAT’s a party!
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
WB: Today, the one is Charles Ives’s Second Orchestral Set. Tomorrow, it might be any or none of the following: Josquin’s Ave Maria, Roscoe Holcomb singing anything, Chopin’s mazurkas (especially the senza fine), Porgy and Bess, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Dr. Subramaniam playing an alap, Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes” (with the words: “Be kind to your web-footed friends ...”). Of course, I’m choosing all these for effect; in reality, I almost never listen to recordings, I’m astonishingly ignorant about almost all repertoire, and I truly think I’d prefer my desert island to sound like a desert island.
SC: …and a book?
WB: The Bible? Finnegans Wake? A 5,000-page anthology of poetry? Richard Taruskin’s history of music? (Just kidding ...)
WB: A dead heat between Top Hat and Some Like It Hot. But I’m in despair about giving up the Marx brothers ...
SC: … and a luxury item?
WB: My Mac—or if that doesn’t qualify as a luxury, my iPad. But what’s the wifi like on a desert island?