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Joanna Brouk Hearing Music [19701985]

The Numero Group presents the first collection of music by new age/ambient/avant-garde music pioneer Joanna Brouk. During the 70s and 80s Ms. Brouk blazed her own trail well outside of the musical establishment to create uncompromising electronic and acoustic work of sleek beauty and primal power.

Joanna Brouk

She studied under avant-garde music legends Robert Ashley and Terry Riley at the fabled Mills College Center for Contemporary Music before graduating into the San Francisco Bay Area's exploratory music scene. Hearing Music collects 22 beguiling and enchanting pieces from Joanna Brouk's two-decade career, including previously unissued recordings and engaging historical liner notes.

Joanna Brouk was a composer who wrote scores with geometric shapes; a poet who became an experimenter in early electronic music; a recording artist, pianist, synthesist, manipulator of sounds and occasional vocalist. Describing herself as more a channel than a composer, Brouk took her cues from the frequencies of the natural world.

Her little-known body of work exists at the nexus between ambient, new age, avant-garde, drone, and classical minimalism stark in its simplicity, lush in its expanse. She created her music with talented collaborators like flautist Maggi Payne and pianist/composer Bill Maraldo. Brouk self-published her recordings on cassettes to a dedicated group of listeners, primarily in California. After decades of relative obscurity her work eventually reached astute musicologists in far-flung hip centers.

Hearing Music was researched, compiled and produced by Numero Group A&R representative Douglas Mcgowan, best known as the proprietor of the Yoga Records label and the creator of the I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age In America 1950-1990 collection, a groundbreaking reassessment of new age music by 20 artists, including Brouk. I Am The Center caused a stir in late 2013, appearing on dozens of best of the year lists, and garnering praise in Pitchfork, Wire, and The New York Times. Hearing Music is the result in part from listener requests to hear more from the mysterious Ms. Brouk.

Hearing Music draws from Ms. Brouk's beguiling and rare cassette releases and her archive of previously unreleased recordings. "Fire Breath," "The Creative," and "Majesty Suites - Entrance of the Queen of Winter Dawn" are heard for the first time here. Hearing Music is available at better record and new age stores, at numerogroup dot com, and online retail sites worldwide.

The influential, Grammy-nominated Numero Group label is widely regarded as the star of the ever-growing world of music rediscovery and reissue. In addition to its lauded releases of albums from new age pioneers like Iasos and Jordan de la Sierra, Numero has plumbed such disparate genres as folk, funk, country, and salsa to create award-winning compilations and box sets. The gorgeously-packaged Hearing Music carries on Numero's tradition of quality and attention to detail.

In 1970 Brouk left New York to attend the University of California, Berkeley, to study creative writing under the tutelage of the poet Josephine Miles. Brouk's studies led her to music; and her mentor, Miles, encouraged her to explore sound poetry and recording. Brouk became entranced by the poetic use of sound in native cultures: the way repeating words make a rhythm; the way alliteration, assonance, and consonance become drums; the way shamans use chants, voice manipulation, and repetition for spiritual healing.

As Brouk explains it, "I realized that, in many instances, it didn't matter what you said, it mattered how you said it: the tone of the voice, the rhythm, the sound. Because sound has an incredible effect on other people; it can make them dance, put them into trances; it can control emotions by a certain pitch, a certain depth."

Accordingly, her first sound pieces were processed music, repeating words layered over and over until they became hypnotic mantras. This word recording led to an almost obsessive devotion to capturing the sounds of the world around her and, eventually, the music playing perpetually in her head.

"When you slow it down, the sound of bees sounds like a drone like Tibetan monks. So I realized there are several universal sounds: bees, crickets, frogs. When you slow down their frequencies, they reveal an underlying drone that really is everywhere in the world. If you're underwater you'll hear a hum. So I was fascinated with the underlying drone, that's really where I started."

Brouk called this "the unity of the soundwave" and, without formal training, she began to pursue it. She taught herself to play piano slowly, tapping out a single note over and over until she finally heard the next note resonating in her head, and the next. Commercial synthesizers were just coming on the market.

The Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College was earning a reputation as a leading pioneering electronic music school. Miles arranged for Brouk to study, experiment, and record there. To Brouk, the Mills studio looked like a heaven of tape decks and analog modular synthesizers including a wall-to-wall Moog IIIP and a Buchla 100, both operated by dials and switches.

To her wonder, Brouk found that the synthesizers could recreate any sound she heard playing in her mind. Brouk's instructors at Mills included legends like Robert Ashley (the Center's director and creator of a new offshoot of modern opera) and Terry Riley (a trailblazer of American classical minimalism). Their encouragement was important to Brouk as she pursued a unique and minimal sound of her own. It was the support of a local radio host that first helped Brouk's music bloom outside academia. KPFA-FM has always been a notoriously progressive radio station.

In October 1972, Brouk appeared on Ode to Gravity, a program featuring contemporary and experimental music. Host Charles Amirkhanian praised Brouk's work, calling her a composer "whose interests in sound revolve around taking time to explore those parts of music that we usually pass over, the sounds within individual tones. Joanna Brouk's music assumes you are unlike the majority of listeners; that you will approach her music in a meditative way and will slow down your body functions enough to hear the sounds she has created."

The show played several of her early compositions, including The Creative, made entirely from the resonations of a slowly struck gong with some synthesizer tones. The segment struck such a chord with listeners that KPFA offered her a show of her own and eventually made her program director. She graduated from Berkeley with a BA in creative writing and electronic music and went immediately into radio production, putting her music in the background of shows and documentaries. She also produced work for NPR.

In 1980, she enrolled in Mills' graduate program for electronic music. Her thesis project was a large scale work for the Oakland Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales called Holy Saturday Mass. (It was narrated by Erik Bauersfeld, the voice of Admiral Ackbar in Return of the Jedi.) Through her own label, Hummingbird Productions, Brouk released a flurry of tapes: Healing Music in 1980, The Space Between and Sounds of the Sea in '81, Golden Swan in '83, and Healing Touch in '85. Kaiser Permanente placed a large order and used Brouk's music as sound therapy for patients in their hospital network.

The inclusion of her albums in catalogues of new age music made her known to fans of the increasingly-popular genre. Though the albums were largely cobbled together from Brouk's early tapes, Sounds of the Sea was different, a fully conceived concept album and a masterpiece of her career. Repeated motifs link the tracks together, as does Brouk's expert manipulation and layering of sound. Synthesizers mirror the timbre and tone of the French horns, flutes, and conch shells, playing the same refrains until it becomes difficult to tell the acoustic from the electronic.

Similarly, while some pieces feature field recordings of actual dolphin songs, other tracks feature spectral human voices mirroring the same sonic heights. Brouk married and moved to San Diego in late 1985, and gave birth to a son. She took up the practice of transcendental meditation. "I didn't have my synthesizer, I didn't have money. It was kind of a start-over moment."

Though she still writes and hears music daily, occasionally drawing the scores on paper geometrically, Brouk has not recorded in 30 years.

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