...drones and ornamentation

Written by Jeff Keibel on Thu, 22 May 1997 02:35:36 -0400.

...edited from a much longer article in Chart magazine, May 1997, #83:

by Jeff Haas

Two of the best ears in the world come from Richmond Hill, Ontario. Michael Brook, an extraordinary musician, composer and producer, is the owner of these ears which appear, in regular light, to be quite normal. His resume, however, is something truly spectacular.

Michael Brook used to play in Toronto bars. He took some time off after high school, jammed with buddies, drove a truck and did some odd jobs. Then he went to York university and everything changed.

Peter Gabriel, Indian mandolin player U. Srinivas, Algerian superstar Cheb Khaled, Jane Siberry and David Sylvian have all paid respect to Michael Brook, iviting him to tour or asking him to produce their music. This year he received a Grammy nomination for "Night Song", an album he recorded with Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. As well, actor Kevin Spacey asked him to compose the soundtrack for his directorial debut, "Albino Alligator" on 4AD.

And it gets better. He defies the laws of physics, too.

Laughing in the face of scientists and luthiers, Michael Brook invented a guitar that has infinite sustain. Appropriately, he named it the "ininite guitar" and there are only three of them in existense. One of them is owned by U2's Edge, who met Brook through Brian Eno. Edge loved the guitar so much, he used it on "The Joshua Tree". They became friends and worked on a film soundtrack together. The project was Sinead O'Connor's first recording.

After living in England for ten years, Microsoft's Paul allen asked Brook to come to Atherton, California to work on a project for his Interval Research Company - looking at how people will be using music and computers in the future.

And this from a guy who grew up in Richmond Hill?

Why did you decide to go to York?

I was playing in bands and kind of reached a musical limit. I thought I needed to find out more because the rock tradition is that nobody actually teaches you anything. You just figure everything out off records or learn it from other guys in your band. So I thought I should find out more about music.

And did you?

I'm still not a schooled musician, but I git exposed to a lot of stimulating things there. They had a pretty good Indian music program. It was a program about the influence of African music on American music. And a good electronic music department, which is what interested me initially.

How did that bridge over into electronic music?

Well, I didn't really know how it would. They had a lot of visting composers there and one of them was John Hassell, who's actually done a lot of work doing exactly that thing. He studied a lot of Indian music, but used electronic instruments. I hooked up with him and started helping him make a record. I also joined his band and toured with him.

Why did you choose to study Indian music?

I liked it. It was really apealling to me. I think part of it is that I have a weak sense of harmony, so many aspects of Western music I just don't hear. I can listen to it, but I don't treally know what's going on. So in many ways, I don't really "get" jazz because I don't have a good harmonic ear. One thing I could immediately relate to was the use of drones and ornamentation. I really like that.

A lot of your sounds are very lush on "Albino Alligator"; they're thick and juicy, but the arrangements aren't very complex.

Yeah, I don't think I do complex arrangements. I put a lot of effort into a kind of subtlety. A lot of the complexity comes from the sonic textures and things like that. Arrangement-wise, my songs are fairly simple. When I first moved to England, in order to put out more music you had to have it published and you had to have it written out. It was how you established your copyright. But I can't write music, so I sent someone my tape and had it transcribed. When I got it back and looked at it, there were dotted whole notes for a whole page and one little melodic phrase with a notation "improvise on this phrase" or something like that. I thought that was pretty funny.

That was the same time hair bands were all the rage. If you were into laid-back melodics, what did you think of all the glam guitarists who were just trying to make their hands blur?

Earlier than that I was guilty of that myself. I used to play in all sorts of blues/rock bands and tried to play guitar real fast. Now I just hate it. I find it very gymnastic and lacking in soul.

Where did the transition happen?

I think it was at York. I think I was getting exposed to the introspective aspect of Indian music and getting a bit of control over electronics and so being able to generate rich textural things.

A lot of your work is very esoteric. Are you ever tempted to write something more radio-friendly?

Well, partly I don't think I could. It's not so much I'm against that as I haven't happened to end up there. There's some mainstream stuff I quite like. But in the same way that I try not to think if music comes from a particular country or if it's a certain style, I try not to think about whether or not it's commercial. I try and make that as small a part of the picture as possible. But you have to be realistic about it.

Have you thought of taking all your skills and knowledge from different areas and going somewhere where a lot of experimenting is done today, like in trip-hop, electronica or something new and different?

That's sort of what I'm doing here [in his home studio]. I don't know where I would go. It's not so much that you'd go somewhere and try something. It's more that a person or a company or a project invites you along. I don't actually start things myself. But... there is something you should listen to. [He puts on a DAT of an unreleased Ali Kahn/Brook song which incorporates Indian chanting samples, a heavy jungle beat and a touch of something different. Then he turns to me, amused at the look on my face.] Is THAT what you mean? [He smiles.]

Jeff Keibel
Scarborough, Ontario

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