Ryan Brown Mingles Sound and Surgery

The Oakland composer uses Richard Selzer’s book on surgery as a musical muse.


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Photo by Melati Citrawireja

Growing up in Southern California after the divorce of his parents, Ryan Brown often spent vacations with his father, an X-ray technician who would bring his young son along when he worked the late shift. “I don’t know how they let him do this, but I’d be in the room while he was shooting film,” recalled Brown, 38. “What I remember so vividly is how quickly the outside world disappeared. There’d be a stranger there very vulnerable. I’d be behind the glass and watch this person’s skull suddenly appear on screen.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Brown has found a powerful muse in the essays of Dr. Richard Selzer (1928–2016), a professor of surgery at Yale University who wrote prolifically about the strange and intimate relationship among surgeons, patients, and their loved ones. A co-founder and executive director of the insistently eclectic Switchboard Music Festival, an annual daylong showcase for the Bay Area’s incessantly cross-pollinating scene, Brown is an award-winning composer whose music has found a home in adventurous ensembles such as Kronos Quartet, Roomful of Teeth, JACK Quartet, California E.A.R. Unit, and the Paul Dresher Ensemble.

At Switchboard’s 10th iteration in June at Z Space, the Oakland composer presented an excerpt from Mortal Lessons, his hourlong “medical oratorio” that premieres Feb. 25 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (where Brown serves as associate dean). In creating settings for Selzer’s poetic prose gleaned from his 1976 book Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Brown has crafted a kinetic, lapidary song cycle featuring four vocalists, two keyboardists, and four percussionists. The unusual cast is conducted by vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth’s Eric Dudley. “He brings a ton of new-vocal-music experience to this, which has been invaluable,” Brown said.

Brown was finishing up his doctoral studies at Princeton in 2012 when he first collaborated with Roomful of Teeth, writing three songs for the ensemble setting text from Selzer’s Mortal Lessons. The timing couldn’t have been better, as shortly afterward, the group took home the Grammy Award for best chamber music/small ensemble performance, and Carolyn Shaw, a founding Teeth member, earned the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her a cappella suite Partita for 8 Voices.

Determined to expand the work, Brown received a commission from the San Francisco Conservatory to delve more deeply into Selzer’s Mortal Lessons, which flows seamlessly from “memoir to meditations on mortality to flights of fancy,” Brown said. The song cycle’s loose narrative starts with a tight focus on the body, “Skin,” followed by a hallucinatory pre-op middle section, “Let Yourself Go,” and a third act, “Corpse,” that consists of a doctor’s dialogue with a widow about what to do with her husband’s body.

“He takes these excursions talking to the reader about what happens to a body when you cremate it or bury it or leave it in the open,” Brown said. “It’s really interesting and disturbing at the same time. When he’s asked what he wants to do with his own body, he says buried unembalmed and unboxed at the foot of a tree.”

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