Healing: an interview with composer Garreth Brooke
Whether is be recovering from physical or mental pain, healing is part of the human condition. Yet, for all that has been written on how and why we heal, recovery happens at a level deeper than words. This wordless reality is a lonely place; because although everyone experiences pain, our journey back to wholeness is deeply individual.
Composer Garreth Brooke and artist Anna Salzmann--in their joint project, Healing--gave voice to this struggle through music and art. The spare lines of both art forms cut through the noise of overwrought emotions and cheap platitudes, and speak directly to the cold, isolated loneliness shared by everyone who has suffered. Healing reminds people through the beauty of music and art that others have been there too. It reminds us that we're not alone.
Thank you, Garreth Brooke for being willing to be interviewed for No Dead Guys. And thank you for sharing your message of hope with us through Healing.
What musicians and composers do you feel most influences your musical style?
Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll give you a completely different answer! Today it’s mostly Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy and Joseph Haydn but I sound literally nothing like either of them; today I’m interested in their sense of whimsy. Haydn seems to be able to be light-hearted without being lightweight: some of his sonatas are wonderful. Neil Hannon on the other hand seems to pitch his music somewhere in between comedy and tragedy and when it works well, like on Fin de Siècle, it’s magical. But that doesn’t tell you much about what to expect if you listen to my music, which sounds somewhere between the early Romantic period (the gentler of Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte and Schubert’s Impromptus) and “new-age” (the music of Yann Tiersen’s Amelie soundtrack or Ludovico Einaudi at his best). It’s not exactly classical but it’s not exactly “new-age” either. Incidentally, can someone please urgently come up with a better genre label than “new-age”? Every time I use it I die a little inside. “Contemporary Classical” isn’t much better…
When did you start composing and what inspired you to do so?
My childhood piano teacher Matthew Clifford was a keen composer and he showed me how to get started. His method was pretty simple but very effective: we would take pieces that I had already learnt and enjoyed, extract something they find interesting — some motif or pattern or idea — and use that as the basis of another simple composition. It’s a great method and I frequently use it myself when I teach my own students. Composing or improvising based on this method became a real source of wellbeing for me during my teenage years. It just makes me feel good!
A few years after you graduated from Oxford, you took time off from music and worked for the Youth Hostels Association, traveled the UK and abroad, worked with young people, backpacked up the west coast of the US and Canada, and volunteered on organic farms. Why did you decide to leave music for a while and what brought you back?
I don’t regret attending Oxford exactly but I can’t say I enjoyed most of it. It’s a real hothouse: the levels of competition are very high and it's notorious as a place where a significant minority of people have mental health problems, which is something my family history indicates a fairly high risk of. In retrospect I’m not sure I should have taken the risk and I’m honestly just glad I got through it, which is due to a lot of help and advice from a number of supportive people to whom I’m still very grateful, Dr Roger Allen at St Peter’s College in particular.
Afterwards I was accepted to do an MMus at King’s College, London but didn’t get funding, for which I’m actually very grateful! The confused relief I felt at that rejection forced me to really think about what I wanted to do, and I only knew that it needed to be low-pressure and have something to do with nature. That led me on a very rambly route! It was meeting my partner Anna Salzmann that brought me back: she encouraged me to start taking it seriously again, and when I moved to Frankfurt to be with her it became a significant part of our life together.
How did your time away from music influence your writing when you started composing again?
I can’t honestly say that it made me a better musician but it did make me a better person: more balanced, better prioritized, less insecure. It also gave me a love of nature that comes across in a lot of my work: I have a whole suite of pieces called Another Turn inspired by the changing seasons.
One of the things that I really enjoy about your music is the beautiful cross-pollination of music and visual arts that you and your artist partner Anna Salzmann have created. How do you think combining music and art enhances the power of both?
This is always a difficult question to answer because I’m actually very unsure about it myself. I know that it works but I can’t really explain why. I have a theory that it works because neither of us really understand what the other is doing, which might initially sound a bit daft but it means that when I’m looking at her art or she’s listening to my music we’re able to view it with non-expert eyes, and this allows us to focus on whether what the other person is doing touches us or not. I rely on her reaction to tell me whether I’m doing something that only other musicians might be interested in, or whether it might have a wider appeal. My Bartók Felt EP is a good example of that: I just thought it was fun and interesting for me and then maybe at best worth sharing with some musician friends, but when I played it to Anna she got really excited about it and I thought, well, maybe this has a bigger audience? It led to my first play on BBC Radio, which proves to me that she was right!
I was drawn to your music through one of your most recent releases, Healing. Why did you choose this theme and how do you think the music and art depict that process?
We’re all going to be healing at some point, it’s an unavoidable part of human life, but I don’t think our society talks about it particularly well. A common narrative has us “fighting” our illness, which is deeply problematic: if I can’t recover from an illness, does that mean I’ve lost? This “loser/winner” subtext is deeply unhelpful to all the families who watch their loved ones struggling to deal with long-term ill-health, to say nothing of the person who is sick. On top of that, Anna and I have both had to try to heal from some quite serious illnesses/traumas and the reality of it is that you don’t always get better, sometimes you just have to learn to live with it. For me, the message in Healing is that you can live with your illness and still find ways to enjoy life. It’s not necessarily going to be easy — what worthwhile thing is? — but it is unquestionably going to make you into a better person.
Whether it be emotional, physical, or psychological pain, how do you think that art—especially Healing’s combination of music and visuals—can reach people where words fail?
I think music and art is the abstraction of emotion: we know how it makes us feel but we can’t accurately explain why. That sense of connection makes us feel less alone.
What have been your listeners’ responses to Healing?
Very moving. It seems to open up something inside some of them. The ones that move me the most are the people who come up to me after I’ve finished playing and they don’t say very much, but there’s an indescribable look in their eyes and a sort of electricity in the air. It tells me that they have really heard me and that they have in turn felt heard by me. I can’t tell you how much I cherish those moments. Because it really seemed to help these people, when the pandemic hit I decided to give it away: if you go to my store or the record label 1631 Recordings you can download the audio for free.
You have been an advocate for people struggling with depression and mental health issues, most notably in an article you wrote for the Huffington Post Uk. What advice do you offer for those struggling to heal?
How I wish I had a good answer to this question that worked for everyone! I’m honestly still trying to figure this out. Personally I’ve been surprised how often I can improve my mental state by remembering the acronym HALT: it reminds you to check whether you’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired, and if you are then you know what to do: have a nap, eat something, talk to someone. Although these things sound simple, they make a bigger difference than you might think and while fixing the HALT issue might not make the big problem go away, at least you’ve made dealing with the big problem easier.
As a sport-avoider I’ve also been surprised by how important regular exercise is for a healthy mental state. When you’re feeling really low, it won’t always offer a quick fix, but if you can get into the habit of doing it regularly it can lift your default mood significantly. Going for a bike ride often helps, as does a walk.
Finally I think the most important thing is just to talk about it: talk about it with as many people as you can who you can trust and who have your best interests at heart. Once you’ve started talking about it more openly, you’ll be amazed at how many people have also struggled with mental health issues. I talk about the effects of this in more detail in my HuffPost article.
What advice can you offer to young composers who seek to collaborate with artists of different disciplines?
I think you have to approach it with a certain level of self-confidence but also flexibility and a willingness to recognize your own ignorance. Crucially, the same should be true of your collaborator. Then you just see what happens. It’s often not what you expected, and that’s a good thing!
Garreth Brooke is a pianist, composer and teacher. Born in the UK and a graduate of Oxford University, he now lives in Germany with his artist partner Anna Salzmann, with whom he combines music and art for a powerful impact. Often using the pen name Garreth Broke, he's performed all over Western Europe, had his music played on BBC radio, and through his charity sheet music project Upright has collaborated with composers like Michael Price, Barbara Arens, Akira Kosemura and Simeon Walker. He's written about the experience of losing a parent to suicide for the Huffington Post. garrethbrooke.com