Composer Henry Brant went about his revolutionary work for more than a quarter century on an otherwise tranquil street on Santa Barbara’s Westside. Wearing color-coordinated outfits and hats, his impish humor matched to a deep-thinker intensity, Brant stood at a worktable in his craftsman home/laboratory and wrote notes while his wife, Kathy Wilkowski, faithfully attended to real-world details and logistics, not to mention muse duties.
Known internationally for his five decades of work in the “spatial music field”-in which musicians are distributed around a space rather than constrained to a frontal stage-Brant has been Santa Barbara’s contemporary music celebrity regardless of how many realized it. For those who knew Brant and his iconoclastic musical mission, Chino Street took on a whole new resonance for many years.
Brant’s passing last week, at the age of 94, surprised those of us accustomed to hearing of the composer’s latest commissions, for intriguing pieces produced all 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 for the San Francisco Symphony. Those present for that great piece will never forget the experience. Musicians were scattered all about Davies Hall, with the mild-mannered visionary Brant playing the pipe organ onstage, like a lightning rod around which mind-expanding sonic 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 still living. He was 107. It’s impossible to catch up with that.”
Shortly before the Ice Field premiere, Brant met me at his house to speak about his new project. He bemoaned that orchestra music was “pretty much the same as it was 100 years ago.” He explained that, ironically, his experimental daring was partly inspired by his time spent working in Hollywood, where he orchestrated for the great Alex North, among others. “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.”
A rare combination of pragmatic and visionary, Brant made things work both on his own fiercely individualistic terms and in the real world.
Brant was a New Yorker and New Englander for much of his life, teaching at Julliard, Columbia, and Bennington, migrating westward to Santa Barbara in 1981. We had the opportunity to hear several of Brant’s projects, including the elaborate “Rainforest” at-and all over-the Lobero, one of Brant’s many works with an ecological theme. The idea of a rainforest’s enveloping reality perfectly suited the Brantian spatial design. He put on the multi-ensemble “Millennium 2” at the UCen at UCSB. In 1989, Brant supplied the wonderfully odd and apt music for UCSB theater professor Robert Potter’s play The Lady in the Labyrinth. In 2002, Brant premiered his piece “Prophets” at the First Methodist Church.
Brant’s list of more than 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 carefully placed around the newly opened Dallas Symphony Hall in 1990. In 1979, his “Orbits” blended 80 trombones and organ.
Recording Brant’s music has always been a tricky, and incomplete, business, given the multiple points of sonic data. But we can at least hear its fabric and essence thanks to an ongoing series of releases on the Innova label.
As avant garde as his musical universe was, Brant also set his nimble mind to reworking past classics-gestures of homage to his list of mentors. These included the finishing up of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
When Brant was commissioned to write a string quartet for his 80th-birthday celebration, a piece called “Four Score,” he reconfigured the quartet to a more equitable violin, viola, tenor cello, and traditional cello (“why have two violins?” Brant reasoned, reasonably). Brant then perched the musicians in the four corners of Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.
Brant was a rebel with a cause, a sense of humor, and a solid grounding in music, not only the classical tradition but jazz and other genres. He took no convention or institution for granted.
“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 sublime and witty king of space music.