Skip links

Henry Brant, Charles Amirkhanian, and Michael Tilson Thomas
Composer Henry Brant, with Charles Amirkhanian and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Henry Brant, America’s pioneer explorer and practitioner of 20th Century spatial music, was born in Montreal in 1913 of American parents and began to compose at the age of eight. In 1929 he moved to New York where for the next 20 years he composed and conducted for radio, films, ballet, and jazz groups, at the same time composing experimentally for the concert hall. From 1947 to 1955 he taught orchestration and conducted ensembles at the Juilliard School and Columbia University. At Bennington College, from 1957 to 1980, he taught composition, and every year he presented premieres of orchestral and choral works by living composers. In 1981, Brant made a new home in Santa Barbara, California.

In 1950 Brant began to write spatial music in which the planned positioning of the performers throughout the hall, as well as on stage, is an essential factor in the composing scheme. This procedure, which limits and defines the contrasted music assigned to each performing group, takes as its point of departure the ideas of Charles Ives. All Brant’s principal works since 1950 are spatial. His catalogue now comprises nearly 100 such works, each for a different instrumentation, each requiring a different spatial deployment in the hall, and with maximum distances between groups prescribed in every case. All of Brant’s spatial works were commissioned.

Brant studied the architecture and sound of the selected performance venue to create the site-specific sonic environments. His work incorporates a variety of musical styles, often involving ensembles of folk musicians, choirs, jazz groups, or circus bands, all playing their standard repertoire plus figures composed by Brant himself. Rather than the muddy texture that would occur if all were playing on one stage, Brant’s spatial placement of the musicians allows the audience to hear each voice clearly; this innovation expands the human brain’s capacity to process musical information from widely diverse sources.

In the composer’s words regarding the composition of Ice Field, “I would be interested in composing a 15-minute spatial piece with a large ensemble on stage, and smaller groups and solo players stationed out in the hall in widely separated positions. I would like to include an organ part, to be played by me. The title comes from an actual experience. In July 1926 my family and I sailed from Montreal to France in a mini ocean liner, up the St. Lawrence, and the second day out, in the North Atlantic, our little boat crept slowly, for 6 hours, through a maze of over 100 huge icebergs. I can’t imagine that space travel through a Martian landscape could offer anything more spectacular and fantastic.”

Henry Brant on Video

Prelude to an Ice Field, with Henry Brant

Promotional video made by Other Minds in advance of the premiere of Henry Brant’s composition, Ice Field. The piece was composed by Henry Brant, for large orchestral groups and organ, and commissioned by Other Minds for a December 2001 premiere by the San Francisco Symphony. It was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and premiered on December 12 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. A “spatial narrative,” or “spatial organ concerto,” and thus an example of Brant’s use of spatialization. The work utilizes more than 100 players.

Henry Brant
Handbook for the Spatial Composer

Henry Brant (1913 – 2008) was the pioneer of music for multiple ensembles separated in space. With over 100 such works his experience orchestrating for such forces is invaluable. In 2002 Preston Wright videotaped Henry talking in his Santa Barbara home, alongside Kathy Wilkowski and Philip Blackburn.

Henry Brant

Performance at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, of Henry Brant’s work Orbits. Part of the SoundSpace series of performances. This performance was conducted by Stefan Sanders, and played by Charlie Magnone, organ, Laura Mercado-Wright, mezzo soprano, and a host of trombones.

Concert Media: Audio

Henry Brant: Ice Field

Live performance of Henry Brant’s Ice Field by the San Francisco Symphony with the composer at the Rufatti Organ, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, December 15, 2001, Davies Symphony Hall.

Photos From The Event

Start typing and press Enter to search