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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Henry Brant

The Canadian-born American composer Henry Brant (1913-2008) was a maverick who worked well within the constraints of practical practicality. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2002.

I recently came across a review of his 25-minute piece Orbits: A Spatial Symphonic Ritual (1979) in the NY Times (6/2/2009). The work is scored for 80 trombones, soprano, and organ. It had been premiered at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, but the East coast performance must have been a sensation. Two performances took place in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum for a select audience limited to 300 people each. The trombonists stood lined up on the spiraling walkways encircling the rotunda below. Each of the 80 dispersed brass players faced down to the audience and conductor. The texturing, cascading chords, and antiphonal effects must have been spectacular.

The part of the review that caught my attention was not about the "spacial" elements of the work that Brant became so famous for, but the polystylistic nature of his work. Brant was quoted to have written that music composed in a single style could not evoke the "stresses, layered insanities and mulidirectional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit."

Polystylistic? Hum. I've never given it much conscious thought. While at times I have veered into digressions of classic jazz from the primary perspective of a post-Schoenbergian atonal framework in my own music, I've always regarded the melding of opposing styles to be a tricky business. I've got an old school bias that says that works should be unified, fully-integrated, and organic at all levels. Somehow jumping around between cultural constructs or otherwise self-contained musical languages seems a bit like channel surfing on cable TV. Flipping suddenly between CNN and "I Love Lucy" does create a jolt, but does it contribute to the overall form and expression of the work in a meaningful and artistic way? I'm unsure, but willing to see if it can be done both tastefully and in holistic fashion (e.g. Luciano Berio's orchestral work Symphonia is one possible example of successful "polystylism").

By the way, Brant's orchestration text book Textures & Timbres has been published. It is the result of his lifelong work as a conductor, composer, and teacher. He worked on it from the 1940s up his death in 2008. Early on Brant found employment in commercial radio and orchestrated numerous films for Hollywood. Later he taught orchestration classes at Juilliard.

I never met Brant, but my wife Willemien did. On June 16th, 1984 she participated in his work Mass in Gregorian Chant for Multiple Flutes performing with hundreds of flutists situated in tour boats moving up and down the canals of Amsterdam. It was part of an entire week of Brant's music performed at the annual Holland Festival.