Henry Brant (1913-2008)

brant.jpgNeely Bruce informs me that the great Henry Brant has died within the last few hours. He was a phenomenally creative figure, though one hard to wrap one’s ears around, because his specialty was spatial music; his works, often involving multiple ensembles separated by distance, were too enormous to stage often, and recordings hardly do them justice. I was privileged to have heard his 500: Hidden Hemisphere live, a mammoth piece in celebration of Columbus for three wind ensembles and steel drum band, placed around the fountain at Lincoln Center in 1992. He was born in Montreal, and thus Canada gets to claim him, but his primary inspiration was Charles Ives, and he began composing for instruments widely separated from each other in an attempt to clarify dense, Ivesian polyphony. Even when not writing spatially he composed for unconventional ensembles, like the ten variously sized flutes of his delightful Angels and Devils (1931), or his Orbits (1979) for 80 trombones, organ, and sopranino voice. A work called Fire on the Amstel employs four boatloads of 25 flutes each, four jazz drummers, four church carillons, three brass bands, three choruses, and four street organs. Live performances of it remain rare, for some reason. His reputation as an incredible orchestrator (he made part of his living doing filmscores from the 1930s through ’60s, but didn’t like to talk about them) was confirmed with his 1994 orchestration of Ives’s Concord Sonata, titled A Concord Symphony, a splendid reimagining of a great work. 

Brant was an odd character, always wearing a visor, bristling with energy, and not liking to sit down at public appearances. I interviewed him on the phone once and met him briefly, but didn’t get to know him or his music as well as I would have liked. Combining diatonic, Roy Harris-y harmonies, frequent quarter-tones, and massive clusters in the most radical performance situations, he was a curious amalgam of mid-century populism and the post-Cage avant-garde. His output remains a discovered but yet unexplored musical continent.


  1. Wendy Collins says

    Innova Recordings (www.innova.mu) has released a nine-volume collection of Brant’s work. Supervised by Brant himself, this definitive collection documents and celebrates Henry’s long career and joy for life.
    KG replies: Thanks, forgive me for forgetting to mention it.

  2. says

    I’m sad to hear about the passing of Henry Brant. As a flutist I played his music often especially his solo flute piece “Mobiles” based on Calder mobiles. I only spoke to him once – we had a telephone interview when I was programming the Andiamo series at The New School in the 1990’s. I asked him what he thought about the state of contemporary music at the time and he said ( this is the gist of it) ” When he first started to compose there were not so many composers, he could keep track of what they were doing and even who they were, but today there are so many people writing contemporary music, an explosion of them – you could never know them all and what they were up to.” A relatively optimistic response I think!

  3. Adam Stern says

    I once met Mr. Brant in the late 1960s. He had been the composition teacher of my high school music teacher, Mary Robin, at Bennington College. Several of Mary’s students were gathered at her house in North Hollywood one day, and Mr. Brant was there visiting his erstwhile pupil. He had brought with him a reel-to-reel tape of “Kingdom Come”, which had just been given its world premiere by the Oakland Symphony under the direction of the late Gerhard Samuel. All of us were thrilled by this new composition, and Mr. Brant was gracious enough to answer all of our questions about the work, its conception, the performance, etc. He couldn’t have been nicer to that gaggle of young teenagers. I have since come to know more of his compositions, and have enjoyed them immensely. He was indeed a true original, and I am sorry to hear of his passing.

  4. says

    Very well put, Kyle.
    I had the privilege of being in Mr. Brant’s conducting and orchestration classes at Bennington College in the early 1970’s. He was a magnificent teacher. I remember two primary things:
    1. Conduct with a large white wand so everyone in the orchestra can see you beat the tempo. Our first class activity was to cut dowels into 12-18″ pieces and paint them white.
    2. Music sounds good only if the orchestration is good, and good orchestration follows a simple model: It takes 2-4 string instruments to equal to volume (not loudness) of a woodwind. It takes 2 woodwinds to match a brass instrument. Ensembles that consist of these ratios can make good sounding music, and those that don’t keep the ratios sound bad. I can’t think of anything else that I learned in college that held up so well as those two pieces of information.
    KG replies: You’re sure yellow won’t work?

  5. says

    As a freshly minted college graduate, I taught in the Caldwell, New Jersey public schools. Their high school band commissioned Brant to write a piece – “Immortal Combat”. This piece pitted brass and fixed-pitch percussion against woodwinds and non-pitch percussion at opposite ends of the auditorium, and included “slide clarinets” (clarinet shaped objects played with a normal mouthpiece, but producing pitches by sliding the body of the instrument like a trombone) invented by Brant for the occasion. After its first performance in Caldwell, Brant had the idea to play it on the Plaza at Lincoln Center, and it was arranged. On the day of the performance, with three groups of players on the various building balconies, the performance began. As it did so, the cloudy skies produced a rumble of thunder and clearly visible lightning. Brant was standing just in front of me, dressed in his overalls and blue/white striped railroad engineer’s cap. He looked skyward as all this was taking place, and said repeatedly “Oh WOW!…Oh WOW…!”
    A wonderfully imaginative and inventive composer.

  6. mclaren says

    You mentioned that “recordings hardly do his work justice.”
    Well, we do have Dolby 5.1 surround sound today. I’ll grant you that classical music using spatial effects hasn’t been recorded or released in that format very often, but the option is there.
    More generally, it’s shocking that even the most highly spatially-dependent contemporary music has mostly all been recorded and released in stereo. John Chowning’s Turenas, which uses sounds moving in Lissajous curves in space, was composed originally for a 4-channel version…it’s only been released in stereo. Ditto’s Gareth Loy’s Nekiya — composed in quad, released only in stereo.
    There’s a crying need for a whole line of classical music releases, including but not limited to Brant’s music, that’s recorded using at least 4 mics (possibly 2 binaural pairs, or a pair of coicident X-Ys, or perhaps 4 mics in a tetrahedral geometry) and takes full advantage of Dolby 5.1 surround.
    Even more shocking: there is, as far as I know, no digital downloadable universal format for multi-channel (more than 2 tracks) music. And we’re supposed to be living in the 21st century…!

  7. Ben Johnston says

    I greatly value Henry Brant. Like Charles Ives and Henry Cowell–or like Conlon Nancarrow.
    A difference: some personal contact: in the Sixties, Jerry Hiller called him a composer UIU-C’s new music concerts needed; and much later, Jerry’s annual New Music Festival at SUNY/Buffalo enabled Henry and me to meet and exchange ideas as composers.
    To me, Henry’s great talent and experience as an arranger was almost as valuable as his spatial-acoustic innovations. I said that to him during an evening spent eating Buffalo wings and getting to know each other. I saw again how I valued him.
    I still do.
    KG replies: Hello, Ben, lovely to hear from you. I hope you’re well, and would love to see you sometime.

  8. says

    We’ve just added Henry’s massive 35-minute percussive work Dormant Craters to our website artofthestates.org, having broadcast it on our international radio service around the time of his passing. It may be a stereo diminution of a vast spatial creation, but it’s what we have (thanks to Philip Blackburn at innova). Here’s to Henry and his remarkable music…