Music by Henry Brant -
''Most of us like to put composers in pigeon-holes but Brant is too big for that.''
Henry Brant was born in Montreal in 1913. He studied with Antheil and others at the beginning of a long and distinguished career in the USA which included a period teaching at Columbia and Juilliard (1945-54). His last major works were premièred in 2004, when he was over ninety, and he passed away in April 2008.
He has been overlooked by the recording industry, presumably because his work has challenged prevailing tastes and/or studios' logistic capabilities, but innova has been making amends recently by releasing his works in a series comparable to that dedicated to Harry Partch. Volume 8 brings us eleven works and Volume 9 another three, with a generous total of 150 minutes spanning some 65 years (no, that is not a typo) and a range of genres, so my review can do little more than introduce them.
The two over-arching themes of Brant's compositional process are spatial organisation and the mixing of genres. To begin with the latter, here's his Whoopee in D (1938, revised 1984):
Listen -- Whoopee in D
(Volume 8 track 1, 0:00-1:03) © 2007 American Composers Forum
Playing 'spot the influence' is almost as much fun as the music: Leroy Anderson, brass band music, a genuine understanding of the Bach he adopts, and lots more as the piece progresses.
Jazz is a frequent component of his earlier music, and it's one he knew from the inside after working as an orchestrator for Benny Goodman while still a teenager. His Jazz Clarinet Concerto is comparable in date and scale to Rhapsody in Blue but is arguably superior to it, in that it is good jazz extended by classical means rather than Gershwin's uncomfortable hybrid. Here is the soloist's first appearance:
Listen -- Jazz Clarinet Concerto
(Vol 8 track 6, 0:40-1:35) © 2007 American Composers Forum
Later, Brant came to believe that 'single-style music ... could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities, and multi-directional assaults of life on the spirit' and his large works often combine forces as disparate as orchestra, gamelan and jazz band.
Brant followed Charles Ives in his exploration of the spatial aspect of performance. In bigger works his players are typically spread around the venue in small, almost autonomous groups. Their spatial separation allows him to manipulate complex layers of texture and rhythm, challenging the listener's comprehension without overwhelming it. Ceremony, commissioned by Columbia University for its bicentennial in 1954, is an early example. It calls for four trios widely separated on stage and another dozen players and singers spread right across the back balcony.
Revenge Before Breakfast (1982) has three isolated duos (piccolo and clarinet, xylophone and vibraphone, and violin and cello, all of whom play percussion at times) and a solitary piano accordion. Brant says of it that the 'schedule of events includes plotting sessions, inconclusive arguments and synthetic nostalgias.'
Listen -- Revenge Before Breakfast
(Vol 8 track 3, 7:50-9:06) © 2007 American Composers Forum
Is this the same composer? Yes, for a given value of 'same': forty years do make a difference. Jokes aside, Brant's later works are more abstract and tend to be more difficult to listen to than the earlier. If Whoopee in D and Music for a Five and Dime Store (1932/84) are party music, the end of Altitude 8750 (1990) sounds like nothing so much as a drunken argument in the party's aftermath.
But the three bigger works on Volume 9 are not so abrasive. The first is a 35-minute single movement for percussion ensemble, a difficult medium in which Brant sustains the interest admirably through his mastery of timbre and dynamic.
Homeless People (1993/97) actualises its title by isolating the pianist on stage, the four members of the string quartet in the four corners of the hall, and the accordionist in the centre -- but they play together beautifully:
Listen -- Homeless People
(Vol 9 track 3, 16:22-18:19) © 2007 American Composers Forum
Incidentally, the canonic opening of that extract is far clearer with good stereo separation (eg headphones) than without it. It's a pity that none of this repertoire seems to be available in surround sound; on the other hand, we can be grateful that we can hear such commercially precarious work at all and especially thankful that innova has been so conscientious in presenting it to best advantage.
Most of us like to put composers in pigeon-holes but Brant is too big for that. Stylistically, he belongs with Ives, Antheil, Gershwin and perhaps Glass. He could be compared to Stravinsky, for his absolute mastery of texture and orchestration and for his continual contemporaneity through a very long career, and to Partch and Cage for his willingness to ignore boundaries. If you are as intrigued by him as I think you should be, Vol 8 may be the best starting point because of its variety but Vol 9 is more representative of his mature style and the major works on earlier discs of innova's series.
Copyright © 28 August 2008
Malcolm Tattersall, Townsville, Australia
The Henry Brant Collection, volume 8
innova 415 Stereo FIRST RELEASE 75'14" 2007 American Composers Forum
Henry Brant (1913-2008):
Whoopee in D (1938 revised 1984) (Netherlands Wind Ensemble; Henry Brant, conductor)
Music for a Five and Dime Store (1932, revised 1984) (Vera Beths, violin; Reinbert de Leeuw, piano; Henry Brant, percussion)
Revenge Before Breakfast (1982) (New Performance Group, Seattle)
Inside Track (1982) (Yvar Mikhashoff, piano; Barbara Hannigan, soprano; ensemble; Henry Brant, conductor; Robert Aitken, conductor)
Jazz Toccata on a Bach Theme (Toccata on 'Wachet Auf') (1940) (Henry Brant, piano; Gerrit Hommerson, piano)
Jazz Clarinet Concerto (1946) (I; II; III) (Jacques Meertens, clarinet; Netherlands Wind Ensemble; Werner Herbers, conductor)
Double-Crank Hand Organ Music (1933 revised 1984) (Gerrit Hommerson, piano; Henry Brant, piano; Amy Snyder, percussion; Ernestine Stoop, percussion; Eduard van Regteren Altena, percussion)
Attitude 8750 (1990) (Telluride Glacial Spacial Ensemble; Henry Brant, conductor; Vocal Ensemble; Neely Bruce, conductor)
Dialog in the Jungle (1964) (Frank Baker, tenor; Modern Brass Ensemble; Arioso Winds; Henry Brant, conductor)
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The Henry Brant Collection, volume 9
innova 416 Stereo FIRST RELEASE 73'04" 2007 American Composers Forum
Henry Brant (1913-2008):
Dormant Craters - spatial events for sixteen percussionists (1995) (Pheeroan akLaff, solo percussion; Michael Veal, solo percussion; Pulse Percussion Ensemble; Gamelan Son of Lion; Tropical Soul Steel Drums; Henry Brant, conductor)
Ceremony (1954) (Doanna Weissgerber, soprano; Svetlana Kagan, mezzo; Laurent Martin, tenor; Adam McLearan, baritone; University of California, Santa Cruz Orchestra; Nicole A Paiement, conductor)
Homeless People (1993, revised 1997) (Henry Brant, piano; Richard Yaus, accordion; Onyx Quartet - Anna Presler, violin; Phyllis Kamrin, violin; Kurt Rohde, viola; Leighton Fong, cello)