Above: Brant with violinist Daniel Kobialka in the late 1970s
For more than a quarter century, composer Henry Brant went about his revolutionary work in a Santa Barbara craftsman-home laboratory on an otherwise tranquil Westside street. In color coordinated outfits and his signature hats, and with his impish humor matched to a deep-thinker intensity, he would stand at a work table and not only write out notes, but extend his artistic focus to such matters as where to place musicians and what unusual instrumental forces might be involved.
Known internationally for his five decades of work in the “spatial music field” — in which musicians are carefully placed around a space rather than constrained to a frontal stage — Brant was Santa Barbara’s contemporary music celebrity regardless of how many here recognized him. While he forged forward on a path of his own devise, Brant’s wife, Kathy Wilkowski, faithfully attended to real world details and logistics, not to mention muse duties. For those who knew Brant and his iconoclastic musical mission, Chino Street took on a whole new resonance.
News of Brant’s passing last week, at the age of 94, came as a surprise for those of us by now accustomed to hearing of the composer’s seemingly ceaseless creative energy and flow of commissions. Brant produced a steady stream of intriguing pieces, around the world, but mostly outside general public awareness. A rare public moment came in 2002, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his dynamic orchestral work Ice Field, commissioned by the Other Minds Festival for the San Francisco Symphony. Those who were in the hall for that great piece (and, with Brant’s music, to coin a phrase, you had to be there) will never forget the experience. Musicians were placed all about Davies Hall, with the mild-mannered visionary Brant himself playing the pipe organ onstage like a lightning rod around which mind-expanding sonic mayhem and inspiration ensued.
Back in 2001, Brant said with his characteristic casualness, “I think I’m getting to be the oldest composer around. Carter is older: he’s 92 or 93, and (Alan) Hohvannes is recently-deceased. He was 87 or something like that. Two years ago, Leo Ornstein [was] 107. It’s impossible to catch up with that.”
It was just before the premiere of Ice Field and Brant met me at his house to speak about his large-scale new project. He bemoaned that orchestral music was suffering from dusty conventions, and that the orchestra was “pretty much the same as it was a hundred years ago.”
Brant went to explain that, ironically, his experimental daring was partly inspired by the time he spent working in Hollywood, arranging. (He orchestrated for the great Alex North, among others.) “I’ve had advantages which few composers have had in the 20th century, because of the commercial work I’ve done. In films, all they say is `our budget is such. You can have this much for music.’ They don’t tell you what the instruments are to be or what they shouldn’t be. Nobody has ever stated anything like that. So the Hollywood composer is free to experiment, but none of them do. They use the same old symphonic sounds that we’ve been hearing in the concert hall.”
As indicated in these comments, Brant was that rare combination of the pragmatic and the visionary. He made things work, both on his own fiercely individualistic terms and in the real world.
Born in Montreal in 1913, Brant was a New Yorker and New Englander for much of his life, teaching at Julliard, Columbia, and Bennington in Vermont, but he migrated westward to Santa Barbara in 1981. Thankfully, he interacted with the local community–especially in the ’80s. We had the opportunity to hear (and spatially experience) several of Brant’s projects, including the elaborate Rainforest at-and all over–the Lobero. It was one of Brant’s many works with an ecological theme, and the idea of a rainforest’s enveloping reality perfectly suited the Brant-ian spatial design. He also put on Millennium 2, A Spatial Assembly for Voices and Instruments, a multi-ensemble festival-in-a-box piece, at the UCen at UCSB, where his champions included baritone Michael Ingham. In 1989, Brant supplied music for UCSB theater faculty head Robert Potter’s play The Lady in the Labyrinth, a wonderfully odd and apt theater-music experiment. Most recently, in 2002, Brant was the featured composer in the final UCSB New Music Festival, and he also premiered his piece Prophets at the First Methodist Church.
More importantly, Brant’s music was a sound heard and felt around the world. His list of over 120 completed spatial works includes 1984’s `Fire on the Amstel, for mobile boatloads of musicians on Amsterdam’s canals, and Prisons of the Mind, 314 musicians positioned around the newly-opened Dallas Symphony Hall in 1990. In 1979, his Orbits blended 80 trombones and organ, and, NYC-wise, he staged works for Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
Recording his music has always been a tricky, and incomplete, business, given the multiple points of sonic data in his work. But we can at least hear the fabric and essence of his music, thanks to an ongoing series of releases on the Innova label (volumes 8 and 9 were just recently released).
As unique and reputedly avant garde as his musical universe was, Brant wasn’t at all lost in his own world. In addition to his wholly original work, Brant set his nimble mind to reworking past classics in new forms-gestures of homage to his list of mentors. These included an orchestration of the Concord Sonata by Charles Ives (a great American maverick and inspiration for Brant), a finishing up of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and an orchestration of a movement from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet.
When Brant was commissioned to write a string quartet for his 80th birthday celebration, a piece called Four Score, he reconfigured the classical quartet to a more equitable violin, viola, the tenor cello, and the traditional cello (“why have two violins?” Brant reasoned, reasonably). He then perched the musicians perched in the four corners of Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.
Brant was an important American artist, let alone composer, because he was a rebel with a cause, a sense of humor, and also a solid grounding in music, not only the classical tradition, but jazz and other genres. He took no convention or institution for granted, instead bringing every facet into question-right down to the practical question of where a musician should be placed.
“Nobody wants to write space music,” Brant said in 2001, standing in his kitchen, and not really complaining about the situation. “Well, I don’t blame them. It’s asking for trouble.”
As a pioneer in the field in the ’50s, did he think spatial music would catch on? “I was afraid that it would, and I’d just be one more spatial composer,” he grinned. Instead, Henry Brant was-and maybe always will be–the king of “space music,” and a sublime and witty king at that.