Composer Henry Brant, who died in Santa Barbara on Saturday, April 26, at the age of 94, was American music's first full-time proponent of Spatial Music -â€“ the dividing up of separate instrumental bodies and redistribution of them over a wide area. This course of action, just as radical now as it was in the early 1950s when he started, was suggested to Brant upon hearing Charles Ives' work The Unanswered Question, and in a sense, Brant spent the rest of his long life trying to answer it.
Brant was an exceptionally hard working composer whose compositions could involve hundreds of musicians. For example, Autumn Hurricanes (1986) calls for eight string groups, six string soloists, a wind group in threes (though including five horns), four percussionists (including three steel pans), two pianos with four players, organ, a full jazz band, a separate group of seven brass with its own drum kit, chorus, soloists and five conductors. By its very nature, Brant's work led to combinations never before heard in music.
Brant earned nearly every accolade an American composer could hope to accumulate, including the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his work Ice Field. When interviewed for a Classical Corner feature in 2005, Brant evinced a sort of bitterness about the lukewarm reception his music accorded him in many circumstances; sometimes he broke out into a Bob Dole-like tirade where he spoke of himself in the third person: "So we have Henry Brant â€“- who is this Brant? Is he any good and why should I like him?" No matter how eccentric and crazy his detractors may have thought he was (and many of them were in the very academic circles where he plied his trade) Spatial Music is a significant development that has been adopted widely in Europe, from Karlheinz Stockhausen right on down the line. Brant also forged a living link to a musical past that seemed almost unthinkably remote: he attended the premiere of Colin McPhee's Concerto for piano and eight winds in 1928, took composition lessons from George Antheil, and made arrangements at CBS Radio when figures like Bernard Herrmann and Raymond Scott were also working there. However, Brant tended to foil most attempts to take him down memory lane; he was always more focused on the present. When last interviewed, he was interested in getting a recording out of his orchestration of Charles Ives' Concord Sonata, which ultimately did appear in Innova's excellent series The Henry Brant Collection. This series helped to open the door to the public to a great deal of Brant's work, as very few recordings of his music appeared during the better part of his life.
Below are a few choice samples from Brant's work and a link to the Classical Corner interview from April, 2006. Henry Brant was a true American maverick, and though it might be awhile still before his work is considered mainstream, if it indeed ever attains that status, it represents a visionary statement with an audience -- out there, somewhere in the future.
Classical Corner Interview
The New York Flute Club - Brant: Angels and Devils (1931)
Music for a Five and Dime Store (1932)
Brant: Meteor Farm (1981)
Brant: Autumn Hurricanes (1986)
Brant: Homeless People (1997)
Brant: "Thoreau" from A Concord Symphony after Charles Ives (1958-1996)