|Charles Amirkhanian Interviews Henry Brant|
composer Henry Brant, who turned 88 on September 15, 2001, has not decided
to call it quits. On the contrary, three months after this benchmark he
will appear onstage as organist in his new work Ice
Field, for over 100 orchestral musicians, as Michael Tilson
Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony present its world premiere at Davies
Symphony Hall, December 12, 13, 14, and 15. The work was commissioned
for the SFS by Other Minds, with support from the Rockefeller Foundations
Multi-Arts Production Fund and A Gathering of Other Minds.
CA: Henry, I gather that one of the ideas of "spatial music" is that you can have a lot of things going on, but if theyre not all compacted together on the stage, everybodys perception is enhanced.
HB: Thats part of it. Of course all music is space music because it takes space to play any kind of musicspace for the musicians, space for the people listening and space for the sound waves to move. The only thing different in my music
Henry Brant with Charles Amirkhanian at Davies Hall
is that for me space is not a convention with performers and audience always in the same prescribed locations, but anexpressive device. I locate some of the performers in different parts of the hall to identify certain contrasted elements in the music more sharply, to make them more intense. To do this, space must be an integral part of the composing plan from the outset. To each chosen location I assign a particular class of tone-qualities and a style of music that no other group plays. In this way the audience can identify placement, direction, musical style and tone-quality all at once. Spatial composing also affects the resonance of the hall. If several contrasted kinds of music are proceeding simultaneously from different points in the auditorium, it will resonate in more complex and varied ways, and the audience will hear sounds coming from points of origin that are ordinarily not used.
CA: Now in Ice Field, this new piece for the San Francisco Symphony, what are the sort of styles that are associated with the different groups, and what sort of instruments will we be hearing?
HB: I might mention extreme high register outbursts, extreme low register volcanic suggestions, melismas both sustained and jagged, spatial textures of polyphonically dense complication, and sections of unmistakably jazz character presented in harmonically strident contexts. All the orchestral instruments are used, deployed as follows: Onstage, the string orchestra in its usual position, the two harps, the two pianos and the timpanist situated together, organ console at stage right. Oboes and bassoons in the choir loft. In the middle of the first balcony, the entire brass sectiontrumpets, trombones, horns, tubawith its own conductor. A jazz drummer is located with this group. (The brass conductor does not follow or duplicate the stage conductor because his music is entirely different.) In the top balcony, at one end, three piccolos and three clarinets. They contribute overhead outbursts. At the opposite end, glockenspiel and xylophone. These top balcony musicians dont follow anybody. The stage conductor starts them off on each entrance, then theyre each on their own, a possible metaphor for situations occurring in everyday life where many unrelated events take place simultaneously. Situated down on the audience level at one extreme side, in boxes, are three large bass drums, three large gongs, and two of the lowest-pitched Trinidad steel drums, all aiming to provide ominous punctuations in dinosaur style. This is the entire armament except for the pipe organ, sounding of course from the pipes in back of the choir loft, and played by me in planned improvisation.
CA: The use of humor in your music is sometimes a prominent element. Is there going to be anything kind of amusing and funny, or is this all dead serious music?
HB: You never know what people are going to laugh at. [HB laughs]. Itd be hard for me to say. I told a composer friend of mine recently that its always been my ambition to write something so beautiful that somebody would cry. And this has never happened, but very often people laugh.
CA: Youve just met Michael Tilson Thomas for the first time, and youve seen Davies Symphony Hall for the first time. What now do you anticipate will happen? How is the hall going to work with your spatial music?
HB: In 99% of first rehearsals of my spatial music, balances are immediately clear and satisfactory. The exact "flavor" of the spatial sound-amalgams can hardly be predicted in advance. It would be something like looking at a menu before tasting the dinner.
CA: So youll encounter this for the first time in rehearsal. Do you often make changes if there are things that cant be heard?
HB: Very seldom, and then only for minor adjustments in volume. Some halls are over-resonant; others excessively dry with "dead" spots. In such cases, adjustments in dynamics or balance have little effect on spatial textures.
CA: So what precautions do you take?
HB: I study the hall with the stage manager who advises me on fire regulations, available spaces for musicians out in the hall, locations where the presence of musicians might inconvenience the listeners, and positions where the resonance is particularly good. In Davies Hall I anticipate that the acoustic effects of my spatial combinations in Ice Field will be unusually clear and well projected.