Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Landmarks (28)

Henry Brant: On the Nature of Things (After Lucretius) (1956)

Brant, 94 years old and still very much an active presence is perhaps our last direct connection back to the "ultra-modern" music of the early 20th century, which was silenced by the nationalism and realism (socialist, or otherwise; whatever realism was supposed to mean in music) that accompanied the Great Depression and Second World War. He was one of the youngest composers included in Henry Cowell's essay anthology American Composers on American Music.

Brant, an eminently practical musician, survived the eclipse of the ultra-modern era as a copyist, orchestrator, conductor, and performer (i.a. he was a virtuoso tin whistler) in radio, for Broadway stage, and for the films. Indeed, his high esteem as an orchestrator for films has continued well into recent years, with his work for the great film composer Alex North perhaps best known*, but -- if the imdb is to be believed -- Brant was not only responsible for orchestrating Virgil Thomson's two Pare Lorentz films -- The River and The Plough that Broke the Plains and the Pulitzer-prize winning score to Flaherty's Lousiana Story, he also assisted on the orchestration for Aaron Copland's score to The City. (Brant also worked, for decades, as a labor of love, on an orchestration of Ives' "Concord" Sonata. A good discussion about this is here.) The skills that Brant picked up doing commercial work, often in the most time-restricted circumstances, are skills that Brant has maintained throughout his career; in particular, he often introduces improvisation into scores in place of writing a part out in whole and, in advance of a major composition, he writes a "prose report" describing the project in enough detail to eliminate any anxieties that might enter during the composing process proper.

Brant is best-known, however, for his spatial works -- pieces in which the performing musicians and sound sources are strategically distributed through the performing space. Brant came to spatial music when he resumed writing in the musical spirit that had been cut short by the 1930's and 1940's, realizing that spatial separation was an ideal solution to projecting the kind of dissonant polyphony that he was after. He knew some significant earlier examples of spatial music -- Berlioz**, Gabrieli -- but it was in Ives, as especially the small gem The Unanswered Question, that he recognized the potential for space as a dimension for integrating and segregating streams of music.

On the Nature of Things shows Brant in an unusually gentle voice, and of his spatial works it requires only modest resources: strings, woodwind, a horn, a glockenspiel, placed alone or in groups discretely around the space of a conventional hall. A tone poem, lifted more-or-less intact from a work of operatic dimensions called The Grand Universal Circus, it is also unusual for Brandt -- who often revels in a more comic mode -- in the philosophical substance of its subject matter, a passage from Lucretius's ontological poem.

A recording of On the Nature of Things, by the Louisville Orchestra, issued in the 1950's is online here. It's a bit rough around the edges, with the spatial elements substantially flattened by the microphone; a new recording would be a fine thing. Incidentally, this is a piece I first encountered via a page of its score, published in Guillermo Espinoza's remarkable series Composers of the Americas/Compositores de las Americas. Brant's cheerful manuscript with its clear instructions for making the spatial placement work made a lasting impression.


*If I had another day in the week, I'd write a long post about the Brant-orchestrated North score to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was not used in the final cut.
** There are a couple of non-trivial connections between Brant and Berlioz. Berlioz played flute and flageolet, Brant plays flute and tin whistle, a cousin of the flageolet. Both practiced heterodox harmony and counterpoint. Berlioz and Brant explored the use of physical space in music and both were great orchestrators (which I intend as a real compliment), writing substantial texts on the subject. I have heard from Mr. Brant's assistant that his orchestration book, with the superb title Textures & Timbres, has just finished final edits this week and will be published next year by Carl Fischer.

1 comment:

Charles Shere said...

On the subject of Brant orchestrating Thomson: I asked Thomson about this point-blank once or twice, and he denied it, saying he'd orchestrated the film scores (and, more to the specific point I'd raised, "Wheat Fields at Noon," with its cawing trumpets) himself. I asked Brant, and he was evasive. So I don't know.

Then there's the question of who orchestrated some of Debussy's orchestral music. I wish someone trustworthy would look into all this.