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Obituaries / Henry Brant, 1913-2008

Experimental composer worked on grand scale

May 01, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

Henry Brant -- an American maverick composer who added the dimension of space to music by placing musicians in nooks and crannies of concert halls, on boats floating down the Amstel River in Amsterdam or arrayed throughout sports arenas -- has died. He was 94.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer died Saturday at his home in Santa Barbara, according to associates.

Brant's pieces were always events tailor-made for specific sites. A typical example was "500: Hidden Hemisphere," commissioned in 1992 by Lincoln Center in New York in honor of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World. Brant positioned military and civilian marching bands as well as a steel-drum band around the campus' reflecting pool. The composer, a small man never seen without a baseball cap or visor, was dressed in his usual color-coordinated athletic garb, this time blinding yellow.

Much of the music of America's past, its dances and marches and dirges, was played simultaneously. But Brant's ingenious use of the location and carefully engineered counterpoint allowed the ear to accommodate the various musical strands. Music not meant to get along did.

Brant often thought big. In 1984, he turned central Amsterdam into a concert venue with "Fire on the Amstel." He needed four boats to carry 100 flutists for a piece that also incorporated multiples of jazz drummers, church carillons, brass bands and street organs. "Orbits," a 1979 work for 80 trombones, at one point has an 80-note chord, half the pitches part of the standard 12-note scale, the other half microtones (pitches that would fall between the cracks of a piano keyboard).

In "Ice Field," for which he was awarded the Pulitzer in 2002, he placed sections of the San Francisco Symphony all over Davies Symphony Hall. The full brass section became a jazz big band. Woodwinds squealed as high as they could from the balconies. Facing the audience were gongs, bass drums and steel drums. The oboes and bassoons buzzed in the choir loft. Brant, in concert dress but nevertheless sporting a poker player's visor, improvised on the hall's large pipe organ.

All of this gave him the reputation of a kook, even with the Pulitzer. The prize came late in his career. At 88, he was the oldest composer to have won it. But he said in an interview that the most it did for him was to persuade a few more presenters to say, "Well, let's look at this minor screwball music."

Nonetheless, Brant was a major figure in American music. He was a noted educator and orchestrator with a varied career that included jazz, conducting and film work. Beginning with "Antiphony 1" in 1953, he was a pioneer of spatial music, and from then on he wrote more than 100 works in which the layout of the performers determined the nature of the music. All music is spatial, he said, because all music must emanate from somewhere. But he was the first composer to devote a career to exploring the expressivity of space.

Henry Brant was born Sept. 15, 1913, in Montreal to American parents. His father was a violinist who had studied with Joseph Joachim.

Brant had an early musical education and was naturally drawn to the offbeat, designing instruments out of plumbing pipes and cigar boxes.

At the suggestion of Henry Cowell -- the experimental West Coast composer who was the first to play the strings inside the piano -- Brant's father moved the family to New York in 1929 to widen his son's musical education.

Brant attended the Juilliard School and studied privately with Aaron Copland and George Antheil.

In New York, Brant led a double, and sometimes triple, musical life. He wrote the furthest-out music he could come up with -- contrapuntally complex, wildly dissonant and unconventional in form -- but he also became more deeply involved in jazz and popular music and found work during the Depression and World War II conducting on radio and orchestrating for films. Virgil Thomson brought him in to orchestrate his scores for the Pare Lorentz documentaries "The Plow That Broke the Plains" and "The River."

After the war, Brant taught at Juilliard, Columbia University and Bennington College in Vermont. He continued film work on the side and orchestrated several notable Alex North scores, such as those for John Ford's "Cheyenne Autumn" and "Cleopatra." However, Brant's name never appeared in the credits.

His breakthrough was in the early 1950s when, all about the same time, he heard Berlioz's "Requiem" written for Les Invalides in Paris, the Baroque music of Gabrielli intended for St. Mark's in Venice and Charles Ives' antiphonal "The Unanswered Question." Brant had found his music growing so contrapuntally complex that the result was a mess. These various scores persuaded him that all he needed was a little physical distance between the players.

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