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Charles Amirkhanian Interviews Henry Brant

American 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 Foundation’s Multi-Arts Production Fund and A Gathering of Other Minds.

Since 1950, Brant has pioneered spatial music, based on the planned positioning of performing groups throughout the hall as well as onstage, as an essential factor in his composing schemes. On Friday, August 31, 2001, Brant flew with his wife Kathy Wilkowski from their Santa Barbara home to San Francisco to meet briefly with Maestro Thomas to discuss the seating arrangements in the hall of the many different ensembles arranged throughout the architectural space and to test Davies Hall’s Ruffatti pipe organ. Thereafter, he spoke with Charles Amirkhanian about the new work and why he composes the way he does.


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 they’re not all compacted together on the stage, everybody’s perception is enhanced.

HB: That’s part of it. Of course all music is space music because it takes space to play any kind of music—space 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 section—trumpets, trombones, horns, tuba—with 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 don’t follow anybody. The stage conductor starts them off on each entrance, then they’re 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]. It’d be hard for me to say. I told a composer friend of mine recently that it’s always been my ambition to write something so beautiful that somebody would cry. And this has never happened, but very often people laugh.

CA: You’ve just met Michael Tilson Thomas for the first time, and you’ve 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 you’ll encounter this for the first time in rehearsal. Do you often make changes if there are things that can’t 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.

interview continues--