Henry Brant?…never heard of him: A Centennial Sketch


Aerial photo: Santa Barbara, California

Aerial photo: Santa Barbara, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was sitting in the Sojourner Cafe, my favorite little restaurant/hangout just off downtown in Santa Barbara, California.  I was having one of many conversations with the great and interesting staff and patrons when I mentioned the name of Henry Brant, saying he lived in Santa Barbara.  “I never heard of him” came the response from Chris, a musician when not serving at the restaurant.  No one else showed any signs of recognition either.  I proceeded to tell him about the Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  It was then that flicker of recognition came across his face.  He told me that the frail figure using his walker was a familiar sight in the neighborhood, his eyes widened with interest as I told him about this major American musician.

Henry Brant

Henry Brant (1913-2008) was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to American parents.  His father was a professional musician. Henry played violin, flute, tin whistle, piano, organ, and percussion at a professional level and was fluent with the playing techniques for all of the standard orchestral instruments.   Henry went on to study at McGill University and later in New York at a school later named Julliard.  He was the youngest composer mentioned in Henry Cowell’s anthology, “American Composers on American Music” to which Brant contributed an article on what he called “oblique harmony”.

Brant, who had an early connection and affinity with the American experimental music tradition, would go on to develop “spatial music” in which musicians were scattered around the performance space as an essential part of the composition and performance.  He began writing music in the sort of post modern style of the time as in his Symphony No. 1 (1945 rev. 1950) and pithy little jazz inflected pieces like Whoopee In D (1938, Rev. 1984), Jazz Toccata On A Bach Theme (Toccata On “Wachet Auf”) (1940) and Double-Crank Hand Organ Music (1933, Rev. 1984).

He would write for unusual combinations of instruments such as Angels And Devils (1931), a concerto for flute and orchestra of flutes, Ghosts and Gargoyles (2002) also for flute and flute orchestra or Orbits (1979) for 80 trombones, organ and sopranino voice.  His first spatial composition, Rural Antiphonies (1953) predates Stockhausen’s famed experimental opus, Gruppen (1955-7).  In all he composed over 100 “spatial” works along with chamber music such as Homeless People (1997) for piano and string quartet.  His composition Ice Field (2001) commissioned by Other Minds and performed in Michael Tilson Thomas‘ “American Mavericks” series won him the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Brant had worked as an orchestrator and conductor in Hollywood assisting with scores by Alex North and with the likes of Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Douglas Moore and Gordon Parks.  His extensive knowledge of orchestration led him to write his textbook (published posthumously) ‘Textures and Timbres’.  And one of his last musical works was the orchestration of Charles Ives‘ massive and complex Second Piano Sonata which Brant titled the “Concord Symphony”.  This major opus has been performed several times and recorded twice.  A series of recordings on the Innova label have begun to release new recordings, many of them first recordings, of Brant’s huge catalog of compositions.

Brant was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the recipient several prizes and honorary degrees.  He was and continues to be a great force in music as well as a connection the American experimental traditions of Ives, Cowell and their contemporaries.  There is much to do in researching and documenting the work of this now past master who would have been 100 years old on September 15th.  His archive of over 300 scores is now in the venerable archives of the Paul Sacher Institute in Basel, Switzerland.   But I am left with the image of the frail figure walking the streets of Santa Barbara no doubt followed by more of his industrious efforts when he got back home to his studio.  Happy Birthday, Henry!

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