What does America sound like? If you ask many Americans during this season of rising, increasingly irrational political and socioeconomic rhetoric, America sounds loud and crass, argumentative and disgusted, frightened and combative, morally dubious and spiritually resolute. But specifically, how does “loud” sound? How do crass or argumentative (or disgusted, frightened, combative, morally dubious or spiritually resolute) sound? And how, putting all of these notions together, plus sonic trickles of local color, does one fashion a theater piece out of this?
Nick Brooke, whose Border Towns is running at HERE from Sept. 10 to Sept. 18, has been searching for answers to such questions for some time now. A veteran of the Lincoln Center Festival (Tone Test) and other innovative showcases, his production company, succinctly called The Cabinet, commingles and collages musical sampling, live singing as well as a sense of the performative into something aural, not just visual. Border Towns, according to the press release, layers “yodels, anthems, ambient sounds and fringe broadcasts” in “lockstep” with seven performers who mimic “sound effects, pop songs and musical ephemera.”
In sum, this is what America sounds like when perceived as a landscape painting for the ears, when “locality is conveyed through music.”
Indeed, America sounds not like any single thing but an unimaginably vast, unpredictable, even a whimsical galaxy of power-emitting stars — a united states of sound.
Created by Brooke and The Cabinet, co-directed by Brooke and Jenny Rohn, and featuring Laura Bohn, Michael Chinworth, Laryssa Husiak, Kamala Sankaram, Laura Stinger, Dax Valdes and Ricardo Vasquez — plus Jeremy Wilson’s sound design, Sue Rees’ set design, Michael Giannitti’s lighting and Simone Duff’s costumes — Border Towns aims to be a “theatrical reflection on recording, location and culture.” At a time of heightened social self-awareness, the question of how locality is conveyed through music is all about a place of sense, not just a sense of place.
And now, 5 questions Nick Brooke has never been asked — and a bonus question:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
My work can sound like it comes out of left field. It starts with sampled mash-ups of every recording you can imagine, which actors are trained to sound like. Together with co-director Jenny Rohn, we develop an equally surreal physical theater in lockstep with this soundscape. There’s text, foley (sound effects), plus the music samples — often cut up in bits and surrounded by lots of silence.
At one talkback someone said, nicely, that the music sounded conventional, and asked me whether I thought of it that way. I’ve heard that about .0001 percent of the time. The person explained that it sounded like each sample developed organically, the silences were all plotted out; there’s a beginning, middle, end and sometimes a climax. I’ve always thought of my work as very formal and strategic. When I’m done with the musical part of a work, I can’t imagine it any other way. I just use familiar materials in odd, unheard-of contexts, and that person could smartly hear through those juxtapositions. The blocking and theater is often used to clarify and underline this “conventional” music.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I try not to think of viewers as idiots. For the most part, if someone doesn’t get my work, they just don’t, and don’t react strongly. I invite them again — maybe next time something’ll hit. It bugs me more when a potential collaborator tells me that the maquette (the sound bed that we choreograph from) sounds “crazy” or “random.” Some past collaborators have even asked me for help in making “sense out of the chaos.” My work in music and theater — I don’t see those as separate — seems like the least chaotic thing ever. Like, I can’t go to the bathroom for days after writing a new piece! How can this order be lost on them? Are they not listening?
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
It’s actually a frequent question, one people are even afraid to ask: is this work deadly serious, or maybe funny? Sometimes people are so convinced of their own interpretation that it’s not even a question. It really thrills me when I perceive that the audience might be split in two with their reactions: the theater should play along that line; I think a lot of my emotional experience exists on that limina between wanting to laugh and losing all hope. I try to compose and co-direct in ways that make that happen.
Putting silence in a work is as dangerous as an untried joke. I enjoy making those kinds of dangerous choices in a work, but it results in completely divergent reactions.
4) As your work seems primarily aural-fixated, how do you determine a visual context? How do you keep the show simply looking like something people will want to watch?
I don’t think of sight and sound apart. Though the work starts as a musical collage, both are conceived together. A recent work, Time and Motion Study, was based on industrial efficiency studies of the 1930s. Eight people were bricklaying a wall, but they also spoke words that described their actions (“position, release, rest” — all derived from these efficiency studies). To choreograph that piece, I had to figure out fairly exactly where each brick was laid over 15 minutes, and coordinate the music so that a ca.-100-brick wall was finished by the end. Sometimes performers will do a physical action in “canon” — exactly timed to what they are singing — and in many pieces I have to know precisely where each person is on stage before I start composing the music.
This can irk the set designer, and even my co-director, Jenny Rohn, to no end! Sometimes I have to know the exact proportion of a table before I figure out if there’s enough time for one performer to roll it on while singing. Of course, I adapt to Jenny’s keen eye, and there are always happy accidents that change the original conception. Also, because the musical elements are so over-the-top, we often keep set, props and sometimes movement to the bare minimum. But the visuals, I hope, can also be fun, rich and complex in accessible ways. Come see it.
5) Given what the performers do, have you created vocal-care/warm-up regimens for them? What happens performance-wise if someone gets a cold and feels like crap?
I should develop a good warm-up! But I ain’t no vocal specialist, and the performers know better what is best for them. Often one performer will warm-up everyone else — this is good anyway for ensemble building. My musical process starts with a sampled mash-up that the performers imitate; gradually, the actual samples are chiseled out, kind of like an etching. But, in rehearsal, I try not to overtax them. So, when the performers are learning a particularly strenuous blocking, I’ll just amp up the samples, and tell them to mark it vocally. It’s hard — there isn’t a standard regime I know that’s good for the chameleon-like demands I put on singers. How do you produce vocal fry (“Born in the U.S.A.”!) while saving your voice? Good singers do this instinctively; I also brainstorm ways not to overwork the voice. Sickness? Isn’t this everyone’s perpetual problem? It can lower the energy; if they’re really sick, it could cancel a performance.
6) Are there towns in America where the answer to the question “What’s listened to here?” turns out to be nothing? Does silence have a sound? What is it?
As much as I hate the statement “music is universal,” music is universal. Everyone does seem to have something they listen to, at least ambiently. So here are three ways to answer your question:
a) Are there local “musics,” or things people listen/play in one region, and not another? Kind of. I probably grew up in the only town in the U.S. where there was no country radio station. I don’t think I even knew what country was until I was 14. Of course, there are some regional differences, but often those pop up more in the live music scene. Which always seems to survive, despite all pessimistic expectations I might have. Sometimes, it’s lovely. Near Lafayette, Louisiana, I could not find a coffee shop or restaurant for miles where some jam session was not going on. Can’t one have quiet here?
b) Radios! Fun fact: as you go to northern towns on the border, the number of scannable radio stations reduces to almost nil; as you go south (New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, even Louisiana), dozens of stations start popping up on your radar. Why? It’s not always a question of geography — some of the towns are just as far apart down south, though you get a lot beamed up through Mexico (possibly a question of transmitter power and flatter landscape).
c) I made a lot of ambient recordings in each place I visited and there was never any silence. There were the conventional sounds: cars passing, birds, wind — that’s universal. But there are always great peculiarities, place to place: main-street muzak, bizarre train whistles or even different attitudes about how much music is appropriate to have blasting out of your car or storefront. John Cage (who famously said silence doesn’t exist) once categorized “country” sounds. In Border Towns, I couldn’t find just one way to pigeonhole what I heard.