Allegro Interviews Henry Brant
Volume CIII, No. 1January, 2003
The 2002 Pulitzer Prize for music was awarded to 88 year old Henry Brant for his composition ‘Ice Field’, premiered by the San Francisco Symphony December 12, 2001. Approaching his 70th year as a member of Local 802, Brant talked with union member Michael Finckel last fall about his early years in New York, his 50 plus years of exploration as a composer of spatial music (70 years of composing activity all tolled) , his Pulitzer Prize, and subsequent residency at the Copland estate in Peekskill, New York.
Michael Finckel: What first brought you to New York? Did you come here for study?
Henry Brant: My family came to New York from Montreal in 1929 at the recommendation of Henry Cowell, so I was living there and studying at Juilliard, and working as an orchestrator. At that time the orchestrators were not organized; they weren’t yet part of the union – the employers paid me what ever they wanted.
MF: How did you come to meet Cowell in the first place?
HB: Around 1927, I think it was, he played one of his fists-and-arms-on-the-keyboard piano recitals in Montreal. My father, who was teaching violin and chamber music at McGill University at the time, was impressed with his performance and invited Cowell to stay with us for a couple days. After seeing, my work, he told my parents that he felt they should bring me to New York where I could study with him, meet other composers, and get a well-rounded musical education. He believed there was no real future for me in Montreal. His point of view was very persuasive and two years later we moved.
MF: What about your studies with Cowell?
HB: He was very supportive and published some of my earliest compositions. He also tried to promote my work as a young composer through various articles, one of which appeared in a German publication. Cowell wanted me to be experimental no matter what, and when later I discovered Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, he thought that I was going down the sink for sure.
MF: Who were your composition teachers at Juilliard?
HB: Leopold Mannes (father of the founder of the Mannes College of Music, and later director), Howard Brockway, and Rubin Goldmark. At that time I was leading a kind of double life, writing academic stuff for my classes at Juilliard and at the same time doing more experimental composing on my own which I showed to Cowell and several other composers. In the first few years I also met with Wallingford Riegger.
MF: How did that come about?
HB: The connection was through Ernst Bloch. My father and Bloch had studied violin together and had kept a close association over the years. Although my father admired Cowell, he was concerned that his radical approach would get me into trouble and that I wouldn’t be able to earn a living as a composer of highly-experimental music. Bloch had seen some of my early music and while he found it interesting, he felt that it lacked discipline. He thought that Riegger, a former student of his with a solid academic background, would be a good person for me to work with. Though I met with him for a couple years, it wasn’t an entirely happy situation for either of us. But some years later, in the early 50s, a situation arose in which he was quite helpful. We were both to present works on the same concert. His was for large brass ensemble with percussion, and I was invited to compose something for the same instrumental group. I told him in a phone conversation that I didn’t think I’d be able to write anything that sounded fresh next to his work. He suggested that “where he had done it harmonically, I could do it contrapuntally. There were no better words of encouragement, and I still feel that Millennium 2, my second ‘spatial’ work, is one of the strongest from that period.
MF: You mentioned your early work in New York as an orchestrator. I believe you once worked for Andre Kostelanetz?
HB: Yes, for about a year. He was trying to train me to do things commercially, but he had only partial success. I’d go to his house and he’d take me through a long corridor. The walls were floor to ceiling with framed pictures of audiences taken from the stage. He said, “Now, it’s not only what you see there, but there are people standing also. That’s the audience that you’ve got to write for, not for what you might like.” And that’s the basis of everything he told me. For instance, he had in his orchestra 18 violinists. He said, “They’re the best in New York; better players you can’t get in the Boston Symphony or the Philadelphia Orchestra. Eighteen of them!” So I brought in something with four solo violins, using the remaining 14 violins as a section. He said, “I’m not paying 18 violinists to get that 18 unison sound, for you to write for 14, which means a lower grade orchestra. I’m not trying to sell that.”
MF: How did you come to be hired for that job?
HB: The harpsichordist Sylvia Marlow wanted to work commercially, and she asked me to make an arrangement for harpsichord and string quintet of “In An Eighteenth Century Drawing Room,” a sort of salon hit of the time. She played it on some radio program, and played the recording for Kostelanetz. He said, “Okay, bring the arranger in here.” So I went to see him and he said, “Now, I will give you the whole string orchestra to play this piece.” So instead of a neat little piece of classical chamber music, it became a gooey bunch of slimy string slush. So after he heard that he said, “All right, now do one for me, and if I like it I’ll take you on.” So I did one. He thought it had many mistakes, from his standpoint, but he said, “Okay, you’ll be useful for certain things that my other boys can’t do.” I became the waltz man and Latin man. They had other orchestrators. There was one for show tune ballads, which he thought I wasn’t suited to. There was another one for pieces in sort of up-tempo jazz. Eventually I was promoted to ‘light classics’. And I arranged the Fritz Kreisler masterpieces which were recorded.
I hated the work. It made me acutely unhappy, especially since he would do things like move all the orchestration into the middle range when I had put it in the high or low range. I was then, as now, fond of extreme ranges. Everything could be just blandly moved down or up an octave, which horrified me. My work for him did eventually proved instructive, because there was a sort of rough sense to his ideas about a lot of strings in unison: where every player counts, you can’t waste one.
MF: This story brings to mind a talent of yours that has always impressed me – your ability to improvise at the piano in the style of any well-known composer. How did you learn to do that?
HB: I was self-taught. I realized fairly early in my studies that the way music was being taught didn’t teach you how to compose anything. One built up a style that sounded like somebody else, then eventually a little less like somebody else, and finally it would sound not exactly like anybody else – the idea was to keep it consistent and write in that style all your life, because the high class composers of the past had done that . I suspected – as it turned out, correctly – that what was coming was not going to be what had happened formerly, that there were going to be many changes in style and taste and attitudes towards musical expressiveness, and the thing one had to do was learn to write in as many styles as one could, whether present, past or experimental.
MF: But how, more specifically, did you develop this skill at the piano?
HB: Well, Aaron Copland had a big influence on me in this respect. I first met him around 1931 and started studying with him informally. He inquired initially about my studies at Juilliard “Are you studying an instrument?” I said “piano.” He said, “Keep practicing that piano, because as a composer you’ll need it in order to play your scores for a conductor.” This proved to be good advice as I soon developed an ability to play an entire symphonic work of my own from memory and managed to get some of my first orchestral pieces played in that way. Then, some time soon after, Copland told me, “Some of your music sounds…you must be very fond of Scriabin.” I said, “What’s that, Scriabin?” He said, “Go to the library and bring home as much Scriabin as you can, play it for a couple of weeks, and you’ll be surprised.” So when I got through with that, I had Scriabin coming out of my eyes, nose, ears, and mouth, and everything that I thought or played sounded Scriabin. So I learned that sound – I didn’t know the theory that he used, if any, but I certainly did know the sound. I then did that on my own with every style that I could think of. I regarded the study of classical counterpoint not as exercises, but as a certain kind of music, and that it was necessary to learn how to write in an individual fashion in it. So this is how I acquired this know-how. It was self-taught. And it was a good idea, too, because when I came to New York, the first year I was writing very experimental and harmonically violent music. And it wasn’t long before the boom came down on account of the depression, and you couldn’t play anything experimental. Nobody would touch it. Now, some composers said, “I won’t write; I’ll wait.” Varese was one. He waited 15 years and his time came and he continued his composing. Another thing you can do is to become an orchestrator – that is, if you really wanted to continue writing music of some kind – or a copyist, if that wouldn’t work. Or, learn how to write in a more commercial way, something that sounded like popular music or that had a jazzy sound.
So what I determined to do, I said, “I’m going to compose, no matter what, and I’ll write in any style, any kind of music that anybody wants to pay me for. And this way I picked up an awful lot of stuff. I began to accumulate a reputation: when anybody had some peculiar composing assignment, when they couldn’t figure out who could do it, they’d say, “Well, try Brant. He’ll try anything.” That was my real education as a composer: learning to be an all-round practical musician.
MF: You also worked with the composer George Antheil. How did that come about?
HB: Now, that’s something else. I’ll have to tell you this story. When I was approaching the end of my informal studies with Copland, I came one-day with an orchestral work; I’d been bringing him an orchestral movement, fully scored, every week. Finally he said, “I don’t know what to tell you. You’ve got no musical problems. There’s no sense in trying to tell you anything about musical technique; you already know that. But there’s something missing. I feel in your music that you haven’t lived.” I was about 21 at the time. “Now, this is what you need…What I suggest is that you stop composing for a year and live.” I must have looked blank. He said, “Yes, you must meet people, you must have experiences you’ve never had, you must get interested in the other arts, and in a year’s time that’ll certainly have its effect.” So I left his presence somewhat bewildered. I thought, now I’ve got to learn to live – what do I do?
Shortly after this I bumped into Antheil, whom I’d met on a few occasions, and he had been encouraging. He said, “What’s new with you?” I said, “I’ve decided to stop composing and learn about life.” So he said, “How can that be? For a composer, composing is life.” “Well, that’s what I thought, but I’ve just learned that that isn’t so in my case; Aaron says, ‘You’ve got to learn about life.'” So he said, “How much music could you compose by next week at this time?” I said, “I don’t know; maybe 15 pages of orchestral score.” He said, “Could you do 30?” “Well, yes.” So he said, “Do 30 or 35 and come see me and then we’ll talk.” That’s how I became a student of his. His idea was, compose as much as possible. It can be anything you like, but it’s got to be very playable. He thought my music wasn’t sufficiently playable; he thought it was too much on paper. He said I should compose 30 pages of which every note will play right away and every sacrifice should be made to make it practicable in performance. This was just what I needed. The idea of switching styles and putting them together with incongruous simultaneous contrasts, such as he did in his own music, and changing your whole point of view every time circumstances demand it – that’s what he did himself. He’d go to a different country and write a different kind of music, in the belief that the market was different and the product that would work would be different. All that suited me fine. So that’s how I happened to do it. And I orchestrated his music. In fact, my first union job was a movie scored by Antheil and orchestrated by me.
MF: What about that?
HB: Well, that’s an amusing story. I was playing piano in an orchestra that was recording for this film at the Paramount Studios in Astoria, Long Island. There was a lot of music, much of which I had orchestrated so I knew it quite well. They sat me down in front of a very battered grand piano – it had most of the notes but some of them didn’t play anything. So I played on this thing for a while and during one take I realized that the keyboard wasn’t responding quite right. And presently one leg fell to the ground, just missing me by about a millimeter. So there I was with a diagonal keyboard, and the British conductor looked at me with contempt and asked in what language I would prefer to be addressed. So they finally got a bunch of bricks and propped the thing up, and we continued. Later this movie was released and it was billed as the worst picture ever made, to try to get people to see it as a gag.
I just thought of something else – I played a late Beethoven Sonata for him once and he said, “You’re a musician, you play like a musician.” But he said, “There’s something that your playing doesn’t have.” He himself was a tremendous player, and he said, “You’re playing like a decent man, like a good boy, and that’s not the way to keep control of an audience. The audience has to be assaulted and shocked and horrified or else you don’t have any audience at all.” I got to find out what he meant very thoroughly, because he often played for me. He had – in those days – a violent and frantic style of playing. At the same time, it was extraordinarily clear and precise; he hated anything slovenly. But he also wanted me to be violent and rambunctious at times which was just what they were not teaching me at Juilliard. He said, “Keep your eye on the audience. If you find that they’re not paying attention, do something immediately – otherwise, you’ve got no audience.” That did me a lot of good.
MF: For the past 50 years you’ve been almost exclusively writing music which explores spatial deployment of instrumental forces throughout a performance arena. What is it about spatial music that has kept your interest all these years?
HB: All music is spatial. Any kind of music needs space. It needs space in the most practical, direct sense. Space for the people who make the music, space for the performers, and space for the people who are going to listen to it. Those things are impossible without space. Even if you consider a recording, space is needed. To take it to an extreme point of view, it’s hard even to think of a silent piece of music without any space for the silence.
The main thing is that it’s a way of having a lot going on, which is my conception of music anyway. I don’t think music should be separated too much from the ordinary daily activity of human life in which there is always plenty going on: the part you are aware of, the part you’re not , and all of it on different levels. I think of music as being able to represent complex states of that kind very well, because it’s temporal in a way visual art for instance is not. Conventional music, with everything on the stage and the audience in the rest of the hall, is of course spatial. But the use of the space is a convention, really, it’s only a device for using all the space economically so that the greatest number of people can get into the hall. It’s mostly in order to sell tickets. But space can do a lot more. If the idea is to have a lot of things going on, then the thing is to separate them. Suppose for instance a composer wants in his music a gamelan orchestra playing Indonesian music and also a church hymn sung by a choir and accompanied by an organ, and he also wants a sort of Duke Ellington jazz group and he wants them all at the same time. Now, put them all on the stage and say “Go” and what will you hear? Nobody will know for sure. But separate them in different parts of the hall, and not just by a few feet but by a maximum amount – at least 20 feet, 40 feet better – and you’ll hear all of them separately and distinctly and it’ll be perfectly clear what’s going on. Now, I’m not trying to say that anybody might want that kind of music or might not want that kind of music, but as a technical procedure it can make complex things very clear. This is my view of it and my practice of it. The idea I got from Charles Ives, most of all, and also somewhat form Berlioz and Gabrielli.
MF: Roughly how many spatial works have you written to date?
HB: There are I think around 112 pieces now. And they’re not little one-minute piano pieces…
MF: Last February you received news of the Pulitzer Prize, awarded for your orchestral work Ice Field – what has the prize meant for you?
HB: It means e-mail coming out of the computer and that the phone doesn’t stop ringing – people I haven’t heard from in 5, 10, 20, 25, 30 years appear, and many that have never appeared. People inquire about my music: how can I get it? Where is it? So far there hasn’t been anything formidable. But perhaps something will happen in Europe as a result of it. In Linz, Austria, the new conductor of the Bruckner Orchestra is Dennis Russell Davies, and next year he’ll be performing my piece for symphony orchestra and band, which has already been played in Austria but by a different orchestra. Also on the concert is my completion of the Schubert B Minor Symphony. And there was a recent Canadian performance of my latest work for orchestra of flutes, Ghosts and Gargoyles, and it’s going to be done in Seattle in November (2002) and in New York the 30th of March, (2003). So, all of these things – I can’t say that that’s the result of the Pulitzer. But, instead of being ignored and finding books about American composers in which my name doesn’t even appear, now the atmosphere is different.
MF: Returning to Copland – you’ll be spending a little more than a month as a guest of the Copland House early this fall (2002).
HB: Aaron Copland’s residence, for the last 30 years of his life, is now a residence for visiting composers, who stay there four to eight weeks, and everything is taken care of. All they have to do is compose and work. Every expense, every facility is there. I’m the first senior composer, so called, who’s been invited.
MF: What are you planning to do while you’re there?
HB: I want to complete a project that I’ve been working on ever since I started as a composer, which is a book on orchestration. It’s based not on any classical or contemporary repertory, but only on recipes, mixtures of sound that I know work from personal experience. So I can say, “Follow the directions on the box; don’t change anything, and you’ll get what I say you’ll get.” It’s going to be constructed out of memos I’ve been taking at every rehearsal, whether of mine or anybody else’s, and whether conducted by other people or by me, since those early days in New York. There’s a lot of material. It’s going to be published by Fischer and I hope to finish it by the end of this year. Also, my wife, Kathy is working on a biography and is collecting every episode that has to do with what I’ve been doing in music for the last sixty years. The first piece of mine that is still played, Angels and Devils, was written and performed in 1932. Now, how long ago was that? Sixty years?
MF: More, seventy years!
HB: Well, then I’ve been a sort of exploratory composer for 70 years since that piece is still being played and its successor, Ghosts and Gargoyles also for choir of flutes, was written only last year. That’s been performed. So those are the bookends of my composing career. And I don’t consider that it’s stopped, or that it’s going to stop. What I find is that I’m getting used to the up and down bumps of an experimental composer’s life. Sometimes it seems that new audiences foe Brant and new generations of interested performers have suddenly developed and then suddenly I’m demoted to square one, rejected and substantially forgotten. But I’ve come to understand what the activity is like and there’s more to do all the time, and more discoveries to make.
MF: Any future composing projects?
HB: I’m going to write a new piece next year for Milwaukee. It’ll be called Wind, Water, Air and Clouds, an optimistic piece containing only notes above the open G string of the violin; no pitches below that. There are no low notes. Four choruses, two pipe organs, flute, oboe, clarinet, soprano sax, soloists, and four trumpets. And harp, bells, stuff like that. For Thanksgiving 2004 in a big church that actually has two pipe organs. I’m putting together the text from notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. A big piece. Five conductors. That’s what’s next.