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Old Recordings Make a New Mix

New York Times, Sunday, September 8, 2002
by Thomas Staudter

There are enough musical instruments in Nicholas Brooke’s small apartment to equip a sizable—albeit motley—orchestra. But the 33-year-old composer is mostly preoccupied these days with recorded music, specifically a 1915 Victrola, one of the first phonographs manufactured.

In fact, Mr. Brooke is using the phonograph as an instrument, incorporating snippets of recordings into his work.

An interest in recorded music and its relationship to live performance has led Mr. Brooke, recent recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship award, to embark on a project based on the Edison tone tests, a series of marketing events that were held in the 1910’s and early 1920’s to promote Edison’s diamond disc phonographs. In the tests, blindfolded listeners compared the singing and playing of musicians on a stage to the phonographic reproduction of similar performances.

In “Tone Test,” Mr. Brooke plans to outfit some musicians with small speakers; others will hold boomboxes as they alternately perform and broadcast the music from several linked compositions that he is writing. Two narrators will interact with the musicians and with an original Diamond Disc phonograph.

“I intend my tone test piece to be a cultural commentary on how sound technologies affect how we hear music,” Mr. Brooke said. “We usually think of music as a purely sonic phenomenon, yet much of what’s interesting to me is the tension between what you see and hear, and whether what you hear and see is faked or not.”

Mr. Brooke has also become intrigued by lip-synching, karaoke and tribute bands. “They’re all characteristic of our modern times, and although people are sometimes disdainful of these practices, they still afford domestic listeners a chance to express themselves musically an in an artful manner,” he said. “Initially, the idea was that people would want to view their phonographs like instruments, as they did with player pianos.”

But when lip-synching comes to be regarded as a viable form of music, he said, as in the case with some pop singers and music videos, “then certain boundaries disappear.”

Being able to faithfully reproduce the human voice and other sounds has always been the chief virtue and selling point of phonograph, and the Edison tone tests were designed to convince audiences of this.

Mr. Brooke, whose nearly completed dissertation is titled “Playing the Phonograph,” has amassed material on the original tone tests, which featured prominent musicians of the day, including the soprano Anna Case, the baritone Thomas Chalmers, and the violinist Albert Spalding, performing next to a phonograph at Carnegie Hall and other concert halls across the country.

Later, Mr. Brooke said, the musicians who participated in the tone tests admitted that they had trained themselves to mimic the quality and timbre of the phonograph recordings, further complicating the results.

“In a sense, me tone test is a take on early-20th-century D.J.’s and turntable artists,” he said.

A staged premiere of the whole work is planned for a year from now in Brooklyn, where Mr. Brooke will be spending part of the coming year.

Several of Mr. Brooke’s professors at Princeton said they were fascinated by the portions of his tone test work that they’ve heard so far.

“You know someone else has come up with a truly interesting idea when you’re shocked no one else has already done it,” said Steven Mackey, a composer who has been one of Mr. Brooke’s teachers since 1985. “Overall, Nick’s tone test music combines modernist ideas with elements of the vernacular in a quirky, mechanical way, which is why it probably doesn’t sound like anybody else’s music.”

Paul Lansky, a longtime mentor to young composers at Princeton, said Mr. Brooke had always made unusual, idiosyncratic music. “What he’s doing now raises a lot of questions in the context of fun.”

A survey of the instruments around Mr. Brooke’s apartment illustrates the scope of his work and interests. An electronic keyboard hooked up to a laptop computer and a deskload of sophisticated gadgetry allows him to digitally mix a world of sounds, eliminating the task of splicing tapes and writing compositions in freehand.

On a recent afternoon he was compressing samples of “Paradise Alley,” a song he had recorded on his phonograph, into the scheme of his composition.

“This process would have been impossible without this technology,” he said, guiding his computer’s cursor over different parts of the musical score, which was displayed on a monitor.

Around the room were wooden flutes, a toy piano, a concertina, small drums and percussion instruments, a homemade theremin, and–perhaps most prized of all–a gong made from a 1959 Oldsmobile hubcap.

The gong was feature in his composition “Walking/Falling” during its premiere a few years ago, one of a dozen or so of his compositions to be publicly performed. A long, squat vibraphonelike instrument called a gender is a reminder of the two years Mr. Brooke spent in Indonesia studying Javanese gamelan orchestral music, after he graduated from Oberlin College in 1991.

The use of complex, mechanical rhythms by the gamelan musicians influenced him a great deal, said Mr. Brooke, as did their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to combining instruments and sounds.

His study of gamelan and a fondness for building instruments coalesced ina 1997 composition titled “Pemangku,” in which short recordings or samples of strange instrumental sounds and Javanese choral singing are interspersed with everyday sounds like slamming doors and jingling coins.

“I like the idea of using artifacts from our own history to make our culture today seem really weird,” he said.

“Navigating Nick’s music isn’t always easy,” said Kathy Supov_, a New York-based keyboardist who has performed Mr. Brooke’s music, “but the payoff is its personality and sense of beauty.”