Julian Brooks on copyright and computers

"I truly believe composers play along like fixed odds machine gamblers..."

Every year, Sound and Music shine a light on the work of the composers who are currently in residence on our talent development programmes. These are our New Voices of 2017.  They are creating new, exciting and innovative music, across disciplines, all over the UK.

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Julian Brooks is a composer, coder, sound artist and performer. Initially playing bass in bands and working as a teenage session musician, through exposure to electronic dance music and rave culture he spent a decade in Manchester within the ‘underground’ music community: as recording artist, sound engineer, remixer, producer, programmer and label manager for a successful independent recording label. A growing interest and desire for involvement in contemporary music led to academia, where he organised MMU’s Experimental Music and New Music Ensembles as a Sonic Arts undergraduate. He recently completed a composition PhD at Huddersfield where he was sole digital performer in edges ensemble and a founder member of the laptop ensemble HELOpg, writing text score works becoming more widely performed. A proponent of Free Libre Open Source Software praxis, with all his material freely available online, he recently founded the Pure Data Patching Circle in Hebden Bridge.

What was your route into composing?

Child of folk musician parents, so earliest memories invoke drifting off to sleep with family friends’ music making wafting upstairs from our front room. Played bass from about 13 y.o., in various bands and some session work (theatre, studio, gigs). My late teens was when rave culture hit - it was a big deal. Got into computers, sequencers, studio practice and all that. Very important to me then and now, was developing a Sampling aesthetic, it’s an ongoing thing.

For me the most vital resource in all of this is people, and I feel very fortunate to have encountered some really good ones, who’ve been incredibly important to my practice. From moving to Manchester in the early 1990’s I quickly met up with the London-based sound engineer Dave Holmes who allowed me to squat in his studio for 18 hours a day, and poured a large quantity of the contents of his head into my own. The work I did with Dave was picked up on by Pete Robinson who became a good friend and comrade-in-arms. He brought me into the dense magnetic swirling field surrounding music manager Rob Gretton. To be in and around those people and that patronage for many years was the socially constructive experience of my life. Like many of those involved I remain, in Badiouan terms, a ‘subject’ of that situation, “what would Rob do?” is often a useful moral question.

Though working as label manager for a somewhat successful independent label within more popular forms, and also still making beats and engineering sessions for various people and genres, I had become immersed, listening-wise, in new music (for want of a better term). Frustrated and feeling straight-jacketed by both the tools and forms of music I was making, as well as a loathing the wider pop music industry (generally not very nice folks) I embarked on a Sonic Arts course at university (after leaving school with no qualifications to speak of). Here I got really into the historical practice of experimental music and began to explore 20th Century music. I have always been an avid listener (or cratedigger) and thought I knew quite a lot about music – to then discover this huge catalogue by people I knew nothing about felt, well outrageous actually... ‘What the f*#@!’… was how I felt for a very long time as I got to plough through the surface layer of contemporary musical practice.

My first experience of HCMF, twelve years ago now, was an epiphany. I spent a delirious week wandering from venue to venue, where for the first time experimental music was a real, living, pulsating entity made actual. Been back pretty much every year since. From 2010 I joined The Centre for Research in New Music at Huddersfield as a post-grad, studying for a computer music composition. It was tough, I’ll admit that, but what an experience; really sorted me out. In terms of creative environment I thought I’d never again be in a place like how Manchester felt during the 1990’s, like there was nowhere else on the planet I would have rather been. Huddersfield throughout this decade (do we have a name for it yet - ‘The Twenty Tens’?) was easily as important to me if not more so: amazing peers, astonishing staff, top notch facilities, tons of opportunity – a really vital environment. I was a founder member of the laptop ensemble HELOpg and played for several years in edges ensemble (you never actually leave) where I was the only digital musician at that time. It was highly challenging but I’ve come out the other side with my spurs: I used to make beats, now I’m a composer.

Your practice includes educating others in composition – what was your music education like as a child?

Sadly completely pointless at secondary school. I really enjoyed playing the recorder in primary; a few of us huddling round the teacher as she played piano in assembly, roughly following the top-line. Again it comes back to the same thing for me – semi-improvisatory ensemble practice being what it’s all about. See above for my proper education.

You describe yourself as a ‘coder, sound artist and performer’ – do you think music programming liberates the composer musically?

The concept of code liberated me as a practitioner in general, it permeates all that I do. The most crucial element in al this is that it is code made actual within a Free Libre Open Source Software philosophy and distributive practice. The text scores I write are for me recursively analogous with source code – they are both constructable and performative compositional forms of language. Perhaps .txt scores would be more appropriate, as my verbal text score works are very much digital documents.

As a musician and performer I believe my instrument is code itself, and not the assortment of hardware that may make up the physical interface I employ at the time. More precisely the set of code I work with, pretty much exclusively for all my sound making requirements, is Pure Data (Pd). It was an encounter with Pd and its attendant worldwide community, that put me on the right path and showed me the way out of the creative straitjacket I found myself in. The interested reader may wish to explore my recent PhD commentary, which has much more detail on all of this and is also freely available here:


What are you looking forward to most about your residency with the British Music Collection and HCMF?

In order of encounter, rather than any preference… An excuse to become thoroughly tangled for days at a time in the physical collection itself. I’ve had a few brief rummages already and what a fantastic resource. I’ve got no doubts I’ll discover some real gems in there. Taking a selection of those scores to the workshops and exploring them with our fellow performers will be a joy – children are most often brilliantly committed and insightful explorers of experimental music, I always learn so much. We’ll then co-construct and produce an original score, bringing along what we’ve learnt and liked so far, and play that at the concert. The gig itself, wow! I’ve played at HCMF quite a few times with edges but never in the Town Hall – what a treat – can’t wait.

What is the new music scene like where you live?

Surprisingly lively. This end of the Calder Valley is a seething cauldron of pretty much every type of music imaginable – for me it certainly punches way above its weight in terms of populace. Hebden Bridge already has a certain deserved reputation but many of the more interesting events are also going on around the fringes, so places like Mytholmroyd, Todmorden and the surrounds are really happening on a small scale in terms of audience but there’s no shortage of talented commitment. You can still find it in odd places too… Myself and Steve from Noisy Toys are starting up a Pure Data Patching Circle end of September, and a few people who’ve been in touch about getting involved are already making some wonderful music, including installation type pieces that are just left out and about, slowly decaying in the surroundings for people to stumble across. I like to keep my ear to the ground as much as I can. I also find it difficult to pigeonhole so I think it’s worth saying that nightlife and club music is still important to me for a sense of general well-being. Inkfolk’s recent party in Hebden Bridge with James Holdroyd was great fun (hearing Donald Fagen’s New Frontier squared some circle I didn’t realise I’d been keeping for the last thirty years). Another local dj, Flash Atkins, is always worth the encounter, especially at The Trades Club, and A Love from Outer Space is just brilliant theatre; Andy Weatherall’s a dude, Sean Johnson more than holds his own.

Who are you listening to right now?

There’s a bench overlooking the pond in Nutclough Woods that I’m particularly fond of. It’s a good space to make Manfred Werder’s 2005(1). I’m listening to Stockhausen’s British Lectures (1972-73) quite a lot at the mo’ (sorry Cornelius – who also rocks btw:), they’re both still conceptually very influential, I perhaps desire to be found somewhere in the middle of them both: http://www.ubuweb.com/film/stockhausen_lectures.html

Rachel Maclean’s work is something I’ve only recently come across (from attending a great theatre piece in Oldham that jumped-off from her approach) – she’s really on to something. There’s a web-stream from one of Apartment House’s recent Cage/Wolff gigs that’s also really nice: https://livestream.com/uol/Cage-Wolff/videos/159151852 and I’ll look forward to the forthcoming Radio 3 broadcast of the recent London recording, which I hear was pretty special. The A Tribe Called Quest Album, We Got It From Here… is fantastic, showing my age here but it’s ‘proper’ Hip Hop. We The People and Run the Jewels’ Down are for me part of the first wave of an art emanating from within our Post-Truth era - ‘Gonna need a bigger boat boys’. Finally big shout to Moodymann’s DJ-Kicks mix album from last year, it’s an absolute treat, the guy’s got flow. The HISS Sound System have, for me, the best rig in the country – you’ll find me to the back and in the middle when they put on a show. Being in Annette vande Gorne’s presence recently, whilst she tore the desk to pieces was immense. I asked her beforehand what she called performing with the mixing desk (a long running research question) and she gave the finest answer yet received, “I Am an Interpretor of Space”. Yeah.

What is it like being an artist in 2017?

Great, better than it’s ever been, I believe we are living through incredible times. The moment for resistance has passed, we are now in a position to ‘demand the impossible’ - or my own personal little motto: We Make Change.

If you could collaborate with any living artist – who would it be?

There’s a few but these are the first to spring to mind… I’d like to be ‘in the pit’ for a live electronic music run of Robert Ashley’s Celestial Excursions with Iggy Pop taking Ashley’s role, yes, Iggy Pop. Seriously, let’s do this… I also hope at some point to become an honorary member of ‘The Convolution Brothers’ with Cort Lippe, Miller Puckette and Zack Settel. That’ll do for starters.

When you are not composing, you are…. Being Sound.

Do you think the word composer adequately reflects you an artist? If not, what word does?

Ok, rant alert… According to the PRS I am most definitely not a composer if I don’t copyright my works – which I wont. Can I say it LOUDLY – Copyright is Over. It has been for a while and we live in a post-copyright world (have you been online recently?). And whilst there are currently the last gasp desperate cries from a global neoliberal agenda that has made more money for more shareholders – they’re milking it as brutally as they can because these are the death-throe times. Perhaps it’s the ridiculous length of current law that affords this failure of insight but let’s be clear: copyright agendas, collection agencies and publishers do not serve the interests of 99% of artists (bit like a few other geopolitical systems – sound familiar). I truly believe composers play along like fixed odds machine gamblers; ‘it could be me’. I’m not downhearted here, or wish to come across as cynical… I’m just not. Many people have been making these noises for a while, and that clamour is only becoming louder. Crucially people are actually doing something about this to make change actual, and in the sphere of code this battle is almost won. The arts, including music, is next. I’ll be blogging about this further on my Sound and Music page, and perhaps some forum for discussion and debate regarding such stuff, that should really matter to us all, may be forthcoming both online and in some kind of physical presence. We really have to talk about all this. Okay, rant over…Thanks again to Sound and Music and HCMF for making this happen. Oh yeah, that word; sound artist maybe (can’t say it with a straight face though). Honestly I don’t mind, composer is fine - your insight maybe matters more than mine, I think we construct identity between us.

You can find out more about Julian on his website, Twitter,  and Soundcloud.

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There are 26 New Voices of 2017. Find out more about them here.