Electronic composer Joanna Brouk takes very little credit for the trailblazing sound poetry she recorded in the 1970s and ’80s. It flowed through her she says, unbothered by the metaphysical connotations such a statement implies. She didn’t write it so much as transcribe it, pulling melodies from single repeated notes and from the spaces between them.
“If you want to know where my music came from, it was silence,” Brouk says over the phone from her place in San Diego, synthesizer drones buzzing faintly in the background.
Her remarkable recordings can be heard on Numero Group’s Hearing Music, a double LP set assembled by producer Douglas Mcgowan (best known for Light in the Attic’s New Age compilation I Am the Center, which features Brouk’s “Lifting Off”). From her gong and synth meditation “The Creative” to her collaborations with flautist Maggi Payne, to the droning “Diving Deeper, Remembering Love,” Brouk’s music resonates with a deep, spiritual grace. Her experimentalism aligned with minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but her explorative, cosmic leanings earned her self-released cassettes a passionate New Age audience.
Brouk hasn’t recorded in some time. She’s at peace with it, she says; she’s simply not “hearing” the music the way she once did. She went on to a career in writing and radio production, though in some ways, her empathic, gentle approach extends to all these creative endeavors. She explained all this and more, in the longform conversation with Aquarium Drunkard which follows. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joanna Brouk :: Aurora
Aquarium Drunkard: You began your academic career as a writer, studying literature at Berkeley. How did you make the transition into sound work?
Joanna Brouk: I’d always wanted to be a writer ever since I was a little girl, but at Berkeley I was very fortunate to have a series of excellent teachers who began to unknowingly move me in the direction of sound. I had a professor who taught The Faerie Queene by Spenser, and he kept reading a section in that old English about this hero going through this dim, dark passage of despair. He’d repeat it over and over again, and each time he read it he’d ask, “What’s going on?” People would raise their hand and say, “The hero is going through a bad time, he’s suffering,” and he’d say, “Yes, yes, yes, but what’s going on?” He’d repeat it ad nauseam and I thought, “I’m getting so depressed — I’m going to commit suicide or something!” [Laughs] But the light bulb went off and I raised my hand and said, “He’s strategically using the sound ‘d’ in that passage to create an effect, almost like a drum: dim, dark, despair.” The teacher beamed and said, “That’s it.”
I had an anthropology teacher who showed us a film of a healing ceremony in Southeast Asia. This woman was very depressed…she’d lost her child and you could just see when she walked in she was almost catatonic. They chanted over her and this went on for a very long time. Eventually, she started getting into it — her head going back and forth, then she started dancing, started shaking, laughing. It was such a transformation, so I began to be fascinated with the whole concept of sound in poetry, which led me to a wonderful book called Technicians of the Sacred.
Josephine Miles, the poet laureate of California, was one of my teachers at Berkeley and in those days you could create your own major if you had a sponsor. I went to her and said, “I’m really interested in the connection between sound and poetry.” Berkley had a very little synthesizer studio but [nearby school] Mills had a big one; I told her I’d like to go up there and work, tape sounds and see what happens. So Josephine said, “Yes, I’ll sponsor you.” Two phone calls later I was in. The head of the department Bill Maraldo said, “Boy, someone called me and you’re in.” I didn’t know she had that kind of pull, but I was very grateful. That began my experimental sessions at Mills.