Garreth Brooke, composer & pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Honestly, the biggest inspiration was probably my partner Anna Salzmann. I’d dabbled in composing and improvisation since my teenage years, encouraged by a piano teacher called Matthew Clifford, but it wasn’t until Anna and I started sharing our work with one another that I realised that others might be interested in what I was doing. Anna was the one who pushed me to try to release an album of compositions, she was the one who suggested we tried crowdfunding it, she was the one who said she’d support me by offering paintings as rewards for the patrons. The crowdfunding campaign really took off (we eventually raised almost 250% of our initial goal) and that support gave me a confidence that there was an audience out there for me if I dared to look for it. Since then we’ve collaborated frequently, and our latest joint work ‘Healing’ will be released and exhibited for the first time on the 25th October.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I owe a great deal to my piano teacher Matthew Clifford. During my teenage years he taught me not only that it was possible to compose, but he also made it seem normal. He persuaded me of the genius of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and paved the way for me getting excited about David Bowie’s harmonic language. I also had a couple of great music teachers at secondary school, Phil Wilson and Sarah Noon. Phil in particular was constantly giving me albums and sheet music – he introduced me to the Debussy Preludes, Astor Piazzola, Bill Evans, Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words and in doing so taught me it was OK to be eclectic. When on Sarah Noon’s encouragement I went to study music at Oxford I was surrounded by – and thoroughly intimidated by – other composers, so again composing seemed normal, even if I lacked the confidence to share my own music back then. My Oxford tutor Roger Allen got me excited about the St Matthew Passion, Elgar, Brahms and changed the way I approached music in such a fundamental way that I’m still now realising the consequences. And then since starting to share my music publicly, I’ve taken a great deal of inspiration from composer friends like Sergio Díaz de Rojas, Simeon Walker, Matt Stewart-Evans, Nathan Shubert, Tom Blankenberg, Marie Awadis, Jim Perkins, etc… There’s an extremely vibrant piano/instrumental composition scene right now thanks to the way the internet has changed the industry and some wonderful music is getting made and listened to. It’s extremely inspiring.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I guess I fit into the “contemporary classical” genre; admittedly that’s such a vague catch-all as to be almost meaningless. My music is written primarily for solo piano, occasionally experimenting with other instruments – like in “For B”, which came out on Thesis earlier this year – but you can achieve so much with just a piano that I generally don’t feel the need to add much more. I’m not particularly interested in dissonance – Schoenberg does not speak to me at all – I much prefer a beautiful melody over an interesting form. I enjoy combining popular and classical forms: I typically begin thinking in “verse/chorus” form then try to incorporate the kind of structural dissonance you’d get in classical work. With my longer form works I’ve often got a Schenker graph in my head: in my new Healing album for example the opening three and closing two pieces are in B minor and D major, but the central six sections of the work move between Bb major and Eb minor – the question then becomes “how can I meaningfully resolve this structural dissonance?”

How do you work?

Almost everything starts with an improvisation on my Bechstein, which has such an inspiring sound, it’s just a pleasure to play. Once I’ve found the seed of something interesting, I’ll improvise again on a MIDI keyboard connected to my Mac, which I can then play back, analyse and edit. I’ll usually write a sketch of part of the score (chord symbols, melodic fragments) and then head back to the Bechstein to improvise again. This process is then repeated as many times as necessary whilst a structure develops, which I then notate. Towards the end I’ll attempt a recording in my home studio because I increasingly find that recording and listening is a crucial part of the compositional process – though the core material will stay the same, there are usually some tweaks that need to be made. I spend a great deal of time discussing the artwork with Anna. Sometimes the artwork develops simultaneously, sometimes afterwards, sometimes before; in this new Healing album, the artwork came first, the music grew out of it.

Of which works are you most proud?

The Healing work is certainly the most ambitious thing Anna and I have ever attempted and the feedback we’ve had so far has been really positive, so I’m excited about seeing how a broader audience react to it. I think we’ve managed to take some very personal trauma and rework it in a way that’s accessible to everyone. I also think it’s very timely: our society really needs to heal.

But I think the piece that I’m probably most proud of is a piece I wrote for my Mum after she took her life back in 2015. It’s the piece that makes my audiences cry most; it’s the piece that gives me spine-tingles most often; it’s the most loving thing I ever wrote; it’s also by far the darkest thing I ever wrote. Right at the end there’s a section that depicts her shortly after her death. She drowned herself – not a pleasant way to die and something I still occasionally have nightmares about. I took that horrible image and pictured her gently floating in the water, at peace for the first time in years. Every time I play that section, it requires real effort; it’s almost an act of faith: “it’s OK, she’s gone to a better place”. Strangely that act of faith, repeated and reiterated every time I play it, seems to have worked better than therapy.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Honestly – and I apologise for how mundane this is – it’s when technology fails. Nothing frustrates me like a computer that randomly decides to delete all your files, or take 45 minutes to load for no good reason. I’m generally a fairly calm person but this really makes me want to go full Hulk.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

For me it’s that moment when the commission theme or title suddenly coalesces into a coherent idea. I recently composed and recorded a piece for the label Bigo & Twigetti with the topic “scale” in all it’s various definitions. The topic immediately prompted around 5 ideas, which I sat with for a couple of weeks, until suddenly it clicked and the piece almost composed itself. It will come out in late October/early November and I think might go on to become part of my first piano sonata.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with an artist?

The difference between how she creates and how I create is always inspiring (admittedly sometimes also frustrating!) The massive gap between how the audience perceives art and music is ripe for exploration – I’m surprised these artist-musician collaborations don’t happen more frequently.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My charity sheet music project Upright is basically a work-in-progress list of my favourite contemporary solo piano composers: friends and colleagues who are often working independently without support, creating really interesting works. I grew up listening to people like Radiohead, Ben Folds, Sufjan Stevens, Elbow, The National, Bon Iver and I still love that music. Studying music at Oxford was a challenge because I was, in all honesty, ignorant about classical music (it wasn’t something I’d experienced much growing up) and I found the reverence with which it was treated quite off-putting. I have a vivid memory of getting really pissed off at a student dinner party when all the guests were being sniffy about The Arctic Monkeys. But despite myself I fell deeply in love with Schubert, Sibelius, Elgar and Haydn and since then I’ve added Bach and Mozart to that list.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. I have a lot of peers who are more objectively successful than I am – whether that be in terms of audience numbers or financials – but I get the impression that I’m enjoying my composing and performing career more than almost anyone I know. I think it’s because I’ve been able to (mostly!) teach myself to stop caring about those numbers, those quantities, and start caring about the quality of the connection I have with myself and my audience. Am I writing the music I want to write? Yes. Does my audience like it? Yes. More mundanely, can I pay my bills? Yes, though only because I teach (luckily I also really enjoy teaching!)

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be real. Either be totally yourself, or enter so fully into the performance that you become the performance.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness is overrated: it’s inherently unstable. It is truly meaningless unless you have experienced real sadness. So I don’t aim to be happy. Contentedness is a much better goal: to be able to say at the end of the day, “I did my best”.

However, let’s for the sake of argument accept the premise of “perfect happiness”; then for me it is the state of mental flow. It happens most often when I’m improvising or composing. It’s that sense of being so totally aligned – mentally, physically, emotionally, even spiritually – with what you’re doing in that moment that the rest of the world drops away.

Garreth Brooke’s new album Healing comes out on the 25th October on 1631 Recordings / Decca; the score will be published by Editions Musica Ferrum. The Healing artworks will be exhibited in Frankfurt between 24 October and 25 November. Full details on Garreth’s website

Garreth Brooke is a British born composer, pianist, teacher and curator of the contemporary sheet music project Upright.

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