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Clip: Derk Richardson on Michael Brook

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  • Carl Z.
    Composer/producer Michael Brook returns with a new solo CD of ethno-ambient dreamscapes Derk Richardson, special to SF
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 25, 2007
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      <http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/derk/>

      Composer/producer Michael Brook returns with a new solo CD of
      ethno-ambient dreamscapes

      Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate

      Thursday, January 25, 2006

      A Michael Brook solo project is a rare thing. The
      guitarist-composer-producer has been the mastermind behind acclaimed
      postmodern world-music collaborations (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou
      N'Dour, Cheb Khaled, Djivan Gasparyan), film scores ("Black Hawk
      Down," "Heat," "Albino Alligator," "An Inconvenient Truth") and pop
      productions (Jane Siberry, Julia Fordham, Jorane, the Pogues).

      But the Toronto-bred architect of ethno-ambient dreamscapes has
      released only a handful of albums under his own name. So when he does
      issue a "Michael Brook" CD, such as his latest, RockPaperScissors, and
      goes out on tour to support it (he appears Friday, Jan. 26, at the
      Great American Music Hall in San Francisco), it would seem to be a big
      deal.

      Brook sees it otherwise. "I think the public gets a slightly false
      impression," he said in a phone interview last week from his home
      studio in Los Angeles. "They think, 'Oh, he hasn't done a solo record
      in 12 years, or whatever, and he's been doing other things.' But in
      fact I just pretty much always do the same thing. How it's packaged
      can change."

      Indeed, while RockPaperScissors is technically Brook's first solo
      release since 1993's Live at the Aquarium (the immediate follow-up to
      1992's Colbalt Blue and only his third since his 1985 debut Hybrid),
      it is in many ways at peace with all of his other projects. Ambient
      synthesizer beds and programmed rhythms provide the atmospheric
      settings for the thick, radiant tones of Brook's electric guitar (he
      invented the endlessly sustained "infinite guitar," made famous by The
      Edge on the U2 song "With or Without You"); the morphing cloud-like
      textures swell to even greater proportions, thanks to a studio
      orchestra and a classical choir recorded in Sofia, Bulgaria; and
      tried-and-true ethnic elements crop up in solos by Armenian duduk
      player Gasparyan and Lebanese violinist Claude Chalhoub and the
      ghostlike vocals of the late Pakistani qawaali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali
      Khan.

      As an imaginary travelogue, RockPaperScissors is a fascinating journey
      through Brook's scrapbooks, which also include quasi-rock songs: the
      title track, crooned by the Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan; an aching
      ballad of longing, "Want," sung by Lisa Germano; and an eerie ballad
      worthy of a David Lynch/Angelo Badalamanti soundtrack, "Pasadena,"
      featuring by English experimental pop singer Ben Christophers.

      "This is the first time I really collaborated with lyricists," Brook
      granted. "But if I had done a bunch of songs with Lisa [Germano] in
      exactly the way we did for this, then it might have turned into a
      collaboration record or a production job like my others. That's not to
      say there aren't differences between this and my other work, but I
      think they're smaller than they might appear."

      If Brook is in fact doing "pretty much the same thing" in every
      project, what, then, is the crucial "same thing" thread that runs
      through all of his music? "I think atmosphere speaks to me more than
      any other element," he said. "It could be a drum loop or a guitar riff
      or a chain of effects or a texture. The important thing is, does it
      make my ears go, 'Oh, that's interesting'? I suppose you could analyze
      it and generalize about it, but from my perspective it's just
      something that sounds interesting or exciting or emotionally
      involving."

      The common assumption is that Brook came by his atmospheric chops by
      way of such mentors as Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Harold Budd. But
      Brook's fascination with atmospheric music is rooted in his earlier
      exposure to Indian music (first on Beatles records and then on obscure
      UNESCO albums). "The alap [slow introductory sections] of many Indian
      ragas are very atmospheric," he said, "and I was influenced by the
      music of people who were probably influenced by that, like Terry
      Riley's In C, which I know is not exactly atmospheric, in that it's
      sort of loud and in-your-face, but still, it has a kind of
      environmental aspect to it that I like a lot.

      "I was always attracted to using tape delays and doing montages or
      cut-ups of stuff when I was in high school," Brook continued, "and
      I've always used a lot of electronics and pedals with my guitar. But
      it was when I got exposed to a lot of new music, like La Monte Young
      and Alvin Lucier and Steve Reich that I realized, that's what I was
      trying to do. Part of what happens is the music doesn't change, but
      because it's constant, your perception of it changes."

      While studying electronic music at the University of Toronto, Brook
      met and began working with "fourth world" trumpeter Jon Hassell. His
      circle of musical acquaintances and collaborators soon grew to include
      Eno and Lanois. "I really didn't begin to find my own voice in the
      music until I went to Dan Lanois' studio and got to see some of the
      techniques that they were using and the tools they had to do it. In
      those days, just having a reverb unit was incredible. It's almost hard
      to imagine, of course, because now we can have -- on a PowerBook --
      all the tools we ever dreamed of then."

      As Brook's technical acumen grew, so did his career opportunities.
      When he recorded his first solo album, Hybrid, he "unconsciously
      incorporated" some of the Indian and world-music elements he had been
      absorbing. When Peter Gabriel heard it, Brook said, "I think he felt I
      might be a sympathetic and appropriate person to produce Nusrat [for
      Gabriel's then-burgeoning Real World label]. Then I think because of
      the Nusrat record, people called me on other cross-cultural projects."

      During the recording of RockPaperScissors, Brook was looking for
      voices to put on the album, and his co-producer and orchestral
      arranger Richard Evans (who tours with Peter Gabriel) went through the
      tape archives and found an outtake of a piece from the Nusrat Fateh
      Ali Khan recording Mustt Mustt. "It had been an experiment where I had
      Nusrat sing along to an echo, a long delay of himself," Brook
      explained. "The experiment didn't work out that well, but there were
      some lovely vocal phrases in it, which we could use [on the track
      'Pond']."

      The most startling vocal apparition on RockPaperScissors is that of
      Sir Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas' "Under Milkwood" on the track
      "Dark Room," with the Bulgarian orchestra inflating prog-rock textures
      worthy of King Crimson. "I was very intrigued with the idea of spoken
      word over music, which I know can sound a little too arty or cheesy
      sometimes," Brook explained. "My original intention was to try using
      somebody reading bits from a Raymond Carver story, because I love the
      plainness of his dialogue, yet it's imbued and overflowing with
      emotion. Richard Evans had just bought 'Under Milkwood' from iTunes,
      and it was the only spoken-word track we had, so we said, 'Let's just
      try that and see how it sounds.' It was immediately magic. What a
      performance! It gives me goose bumps still."

      Brook had intended to tour RockPaperScissors shortly after its release
      last summer, but he broke his collar bone and a couple of ribs in a
      slow-motion bicycle accident. (While mending, he and James Hood
      created a continuous, ambient remix of the album's 11 tracks for a
      companion CD that will initially be available only at the live shows.)

      A recording that includes the voices of deceased superstars, as well
      as Bulgarian orchestras and choirs, will be hard to replicate in
      concert. The touring ensemble is just Brook, singer Lisa Germano (who
      will open the show) and violinist-arranger Julie Roger (plus a team of
      artists and designers who will project elaborate visuals). Brook,
      however, is undaunted by the shift in scale from the infinite
      possibilities of the studio to the confines of the stage. "I don't
      feel a major allegiance to doing it like the album," he said, "nor do
      we have the resources. But it's been fun getting ready to do this.
      Essentially, we're going to interpret the material. So it's like a
      60-piece orchestra and 20-voice choir and a rock band interpreted by
      three people."

      Michael Brook performs Friday, Jan. 26, with Lisa Germano and Julie
      Rogers, at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., S.F.;
      showtime 9 p.m.; tickets $20. For more information, call (415)
      885-0750.
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