WITH GARRETH BROKE
During this interview, I change seat, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to British composer Garreth Broke. The pianist takes some time to tell us about himself, his project Upright and his latest album Healing, a collaboration with Anna Salzmann.
Garreth you have been very active during the last few years, tell us about your career.
Thank you! Actually, after finishing my music degree I actively avoided working as a musician—I needed a real break, so I worked on organic farms in the UK, US and Canada and in backpacker hostels all over the UK—but over the last few years I have really got back into it and I think I have probably unconsciously been trying to make up for lost time. I have released three albums, Coping Mechanism (2016), Another Turn: Collected EPs (2017) and now my new one Healing, as well as various singles and I have worked with 1631 Recordings, Thesis and Bigo & Twigetti. I have also been thoroughly enjoying working as a piano teacher, playing concerts and publishing sheet music.
For Healing you have collaborated with the German artist Anna Salzmann. How did that collaboration started?
Anna and I actually met in a gay club in Berlin—I think it is fair to say I was not really expecting to meet my future wife that night! As we got to know each other and fell in love, we shared our music/art with one another, which was a genuine pleasure as it was a real meeting of minds. And, to be honest, it helped that for the first few years of our relationship we lived in small one-room flats, so we almost could not avoid bouncing ideas off one another.
What was your creative process for this collaboration?
A lot of this project came from Anna: she was the one who wanted to create a series of paintings on healing, as it is a topic she has been forced to give a lot of thought about over the course of her life. She was going through a really difficult period at the time, and painting was a way of her processing those issues. We talked the paintings through a lot as she was working on them, and I started sketching musical ideas even before the series was completed. We worked out a sequence for the paintings, and I made it so that each painting had a distinct musical idea connected to it—though some pieces are so clearly interrelated that the music had to be closely linked. Once Anna had completed the series it became important for me to ensure that the whole thing flowed musically in a way that illustrated the healing process—which is not a totally linear process, there are ruptures and backward steps. Setting up and exploring a structural harmonic dissonance seemed an effective way of illustrating that. The suite opens with a trio of pieces in a bleak B minor, disrupted by a gorgeous Bb major with wide open melodic intervals, which then moves through a series of flat keys before switching back into the sharp tonality for the final two pieces. And in these two pieces there is an attempt at a resolution of that structural dissonance, as Bb major is integrated into D major and, in the last piece, that resolution seems almost complete. I must admit, however, that I question whether any real-life healing process is ever truly complete.
How important is collaboration for you as an artist and musician?
Interesting question! I do not think you can have success as a musician without collaborating with someone—even as a solo artist it is really important to have good relationships with record labels, venues etc.—and I would certainly be nowhere without Anna's support. But in terms of the composition process I have generally worked alone—Anna and I talk but she has never really made much music so her responses are those of a listener and an artist, not as a musician. I would like to collaborate more frequently, however: I would love to work with a good clarinettist for example.
Upright; what is this project all about?
Upright serves two purposes: it raises money for a charity that helps people who are left in terrible situations after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis, and it shares music by contemporary composers with pianists who want to learn new music. Composers donate their sheet music to the project and I edit and prepare it for publication, and that allows pianists to download the sheet music for free. They can also pay whatever they want, with all the profits being passed on to the charity, Music for Relief. We have been lucky to feature some really wonderful, well-known, successful composers like Michael Price, Julien Marchal, Bruno Sanfilippo, Danny Mulhern, Akira Kosemura, Stefano Guzzetti, Niall Byrne... I could go on and on... and we have also been able to feature lesser known composers who have created really interesting work. We have got some lovely pieces coming up—if you are reading this and you are at all interested in learning to play interesting contemporary repertoire then you should totally check out the Upright catalogue of pieces!
How do you feel the places you lived in have helped you and your career? What about internet?
The internet has been massively important—it has connected me to so many interesting, like-minded people whom it is highly unlikely I would have ever met without it but I must admit I am increasingly careful about how I use it. In particular I am actively trying to spend less time on Instagram, Facebook etc, because the way they are designed encourages unhealthy behaviour—particularly for people who, like myself, have a natural tendency towards acting compulsively. Scrolling down the Facebook news feed or Instagram is a bit like walking into a room full of your family, friends, acquaintances, exes, colleagues, bosses, teachers, friends of friends, people you have only met once, people you have never met and saying "ok everyone, please line up in a totally random order and tell me something totally out of context and no matter how I react, keep telling me". It is weird and it can be really unhealthy if you are not in the right frame of mind.
So after Healing what’s next?
I am hoping to play Healing live as much as possible because it is a joy to share and people seem to really connect with it. I have played it live a few times already and after every show I have had people come up to me and share their own experiences of healing, which have often been profoundly moving. I am also working on a piece new music that will come out soon on 1631 Recordings' next Piano Cloud compilation and, more ambitiously, I am working on a piano sonata... I say "more ambitiously" for two reasons—not just because I am finding it a real challenge (in a good way!) but also because, honestly, when was the last time you heard someone getting excited about the premiere of a new piano sonata?! And so I am not exactly sure the world needs a Garreth Brooke piano sonata. But although Spotify has done a lot to ruin people's musical attention spans, I am still convinced there is an audience out there who does not want an algorithm telling them what they should be listening to, who want intelligent, complex, deeply emotional music, and that is the kind of music I want to write.
Thanks very much Garreth. Last one for the road—one book, one album, one film—tell us about your latest cultural pearls?
I watched Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson movie, this week—what a joy! The recreations of the Pet Sounds recording sessions were astonishing—I was totally captivated. And it is a great story. Well worth checking out. Although I would not exactly describe myself as religious and certainly not as a Christian, I have recently been reading Martin Luther King's book of sermons, Strength to Love. They are fantastic: it almost goes without saying that he was an extraordinarily powerful writer, and the content is either really inspiring or really challenging—certainly never dull. At times it also feels very relevant to the politics of today, almost alarmingly so. I also read a tonne of fiction: currently The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, a novel set in a Jamaican slave plantation in the 18th century. It is startlingly horrific and incredibly well written. And Bon Iver's latest album i,i arrived last week and has not left my record player ever since. Listening to his four albums over the last 12 years has been an extraordinary journey, and I am intrigued by what he said recently about i,i being the autumn album to For Emma's Winter, Bon Iver's spring and 22, A Million's summer—like so much of his work I love it but do not feel like I have even grasped half the complexity of it!
Bouncing on Garreth’s words; Unaware of Bon Iver’s approach towards their releases, I also re-discovered their music through a different set of ears. Well worth a try! Read my review of Healing.