Spatial  Music  Composer  Henry  Brant

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Henry Brant

September 15, 1913 - Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Died: April 26, 2008 - Santa Barbara, California, USA

Henry (Dreyfus or Dreyfuss) Brant was a Canadian-born American composer, conductor, and pianist. An expert orchestrator with a flair for experimentation, many of Brant's works featured spatialization techniques.

Brant was born in Montreal of American parents in 1913. The son of Saul Brant, Henry began composing at the age of 8. He was enrolled from 1926 to 1929 at Montreal's McGill Conservatorium before permanently moving to the USA and studying composition with Rubin Goldmark, George Antheil, Aaron Copland, and Wallingford Riegger in New York, privately and at the Institute of Musical Art and the Juilliard Graduate School (1929-1934). Henry played violin, flute, tin whistle, piano, organ, and percussion at a professional level, and was fluent with the playing techniques for all of the standard orchestral instruments. On a recording of Macinations, he plays timpani, chimes, xylophone, glockenspiel, organ, E-flat flute, ceramic flute, double ocarina, double flageolet, and harp.

As a teenager, he was the youngest composer included in Henry Cowell's landmark book American Composers on American Music, demonstrating an early identification with the American experimental musical tradition. Brant was represented in Cowell's anthology by an essay on oblique harmony, an idea which presaged some techniques used in his mature spatial works.


Brant then went into commercial music, conducting and arranging for radio, ballet, jazz groups, and film, and later orchestrating Hollywood film scores including The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936). The stylistic diversity of these professional experiences would also eventually contribute to stylistic polyphony of his mature works. In the mid 1950’s Brant felt that “single-style music…could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities, and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit.” In pursuit of an optimal framework for the presentation of a music which embraced such a simultaneity of musical textures and styles, Brant made a series of experiments and compositions exploring the potential for the physical position of sounds in space to be used as an essential compositional element.

As a prolific composer and an audacious and inventive creator, Brant became an important figure in contemporary music in the USA. He was fascinated by esoteric instruments and the possibilities of antiphonal composition, for spatially separated groups of instruments. Brant's work also employed controlled improvisation and, beginning in the 1980’s, world music instruments. He also frequently called for unusually large forces (eg 80 trombones, 75 guitars). His earliest spatial work was Antiphony I (1953). The practice of placing the players throughout the venue dominated his work from that point. His own performance notes for An American Requiem for wind symphony illustrate this: ". . . performances must not be attempted with all the instruments placed on stage, or all together in any single area". The notes contain explicit instructions on placement of players in aisles, balconies, and elsewhere around the hall.

In addition to his works for the concert hall, Brant was active as an orchestrator for many Hollywood productions including the Elizabeth Taylor movie Cleopatra (1963), one of many collaborations with composer Alex North. Brant helped with the orchestration of North's score for 2001. Due to North's stress-induced muscle spasms, Brant had to conduct the recording session for the film score, which was eventually discarded by the director, Stanley Kubrick. Among the later film scores Brant orchestrated were Carny; and Good Morning, Vietnam.

Henry Brant also worked as orchestrator for composers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Douglas Moore, and Gordon Parks. Brant's work as an orchestrator was not limited to film and stage. His long-term affinity for the music of Charles Ives - whose The Unanswered Question was an acknowledged inspiration for Brant's spatial music - was ultimately found in the premier of Brant's arrangement of Charles Ives' Second Piano Sonata, Concord, Mass 1840-60 as A Concord Symphony. He conducted its world premiere at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, on June 16, 1995. [It was recorded, as shown below.]


Among other Brant works performed in Canada have been Ice Field (performed by Esprit Orchestra); and Ghosts and Gargoyles for solo flute and flute choir (premiered Toronto on May 26, 2002). His music was heard often at new music festivals in the USA and Europe. He received numerous commissions from Columbia University, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the American Composers Forum (New York City), the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and the Getty Research Institute.

Brant taught at Columbia University (1945-1952), the Juilliard School (1947-1954), and Bennington College in Vermont (1957-1980).


See my interviews with Vivian Fine, and Lionel Nowak

Brant stated, "Every new work of mine ... requires a differently constituted ensemble of instruments and/or voices. It is planned for a different occasion, has a different length, and is designed for a different space, auditorium, and audience capacity" (Strings, January 1, 2008). Describing Brant's particular brand of new music, American Record Guide said, "Brant's music is rooted in iconoclastic notions of what music is" (American Record Guide, January-February 1997). Brant continued composing well into his 90s. From 1981, he made his home in Santa Barbara, California where he died on April 26, 2008 at the age of 94.

Beginning with the 1953 score Rural Antiphonies (predating Stockhausen's Gruppen of 1955-57), Brant developed the concept of spatial music, in which the location of instruments and/or voices in physical space is a significant compositional element. He identified the origins of the concept in the antiphonal music of the late renaissance and early baroque, in the antiphonal use of four brass ensembles placed in the corners of the stage in the Requiem of Hector Berlioz and, most importantly, in works of Charles Ives, in particular The Unanswered Question. Brant was America’s foremost composer of acoustic spatial music. The planned positioning of performers throughout the hall, as well as on stage, was an essential factor in his composing scheme and a point of departure for a radically expanded range and intensity of musical expression. His mastery of spatial composing technique enabled him to write textures of unprecedented polyphonic and/or polystylistic complexity while providing maximum resonance in the hall and increased clarity of musical detail for the listener. His catalogue comprises over 100 spatial works.

In keeping with Brant’s belief that music can be as complex and contradictory as everyday life, his larger works often employ multiple, contrasting performing forces, as in Meteor Farm (1982) for symphony orchestra, large jazz band, two choruses, West African drum ensemble and chorus, South Indian soloists, large Javanese Gamelan ensemble, percussion orchestra and two Western solo sopranos. Brant’s spatial experiments convinced him that space exerts specific influences on harmony, polyphony, texture and timbre. He regarded space as music’s “fourth dimension,” (after pitch, time and timbre). Brant experimented with new combinations of acoustic timbres, even creating entire works for instrumental family groups of a single timbre: Orbits for 80 trombones, organ and sopranino voice [LP jacket shown below], Ghosts & Gargoyles for 9 flutes, and others for multiple trumpets and guitars. This predilection for ensembles of a single tone quality dates from Angels and Devils (1932) for an ensemble of 11 flutes. With the exception of pieces composed for recorded media (in which he used over-dubbing or acoustical sound sources), Brant did not use electronic materials or permit amplification in his music.


See my interviews with Garhard Samuel, and Michael Tilson Thomas

Brant is perhaps best known for his compositions Verticals Ascending (conceptually based on the architecture of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles) and HorizontalsExtending. A "spatial opera", The Grand Universal Circus (Libretto: Patricia Gorman Brant) was premiered in 1956. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Brant was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Ice Field: Spatial Narrative (2001) for Large and Small Orchestral Groups, commissioned by Other Minds and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas [CD shown above]. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and in 1955 was the first American composer to win the Prix Italia. Among other honors are Ford Foundation, Fromm Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and Koussevitzky awards and the American Music Center’s Letter of Distinction. The Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel has acquired Brant’s complete archive of original manuscripts including over 300 works (1998). In conjunction with Brant’s 85th birthday concert, Wesleyan University conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts (1998).

In addition to composing, he played the violin, flute, tin whistle, percussion, piano, and organ and frequently included soloistic parts in his large works for himself to play.

Later premieres included Wind, Water, Clouds & Fire, for 4 choirs and instrumentalists, commissioned by Present Music and premiered on November 19, 2004 at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tremors, for 4 singers and 16 instrumentalists, commissioned by the Getty Research Institute, premiered on June 4, 2004, at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Tremors was repeated in a Green Umbrella concert at LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall on November 1, 2004. Ghosts & Gargoyles, a concerto for flute solo with flute orchestra, for New Music Concerts, Toronto had its premiere on May 26, 2002.

Brant's handbook for orchestration, Textures and Timbres, was published posthumously.

==  The text of the biography in this box is mostly taken and edited (amazingly) from the Bach Cantatas website!  Photos are from other sources.  
==  Many of Bants works have been (and continue to be) issued on commercial recordings.  The illustrations used on this webpage are mostly the older LPs.  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


For just over 25 years, I was an Announcer/Producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  As part of my programming, I sought out recordings of
mostly living, mostly American composers.  Whenever possible, I would interview the creators, and incorporate portions into special programs celebrating ‘round birthdays’.

At the beginning of 1988, to prepare a program for Henry Brant, I contacted him and was permitted to call him on the telephone for a conversation.  Having used portions for his 75th and 85th birthday programs, I am now pleased to be able to present the entire chat on this webpage.

Bruce Duffie:   You’re fast approaching your 75th birthday.  Does that hold any terrors for you?

Henry Brant:   I wouldn’t say so, no, because this whole thing has changed so much.  People are living longer.  75 is no big deal anymore.  There are people and musicians in their 90s who are continuing their work.  When I was in my 30s and 40s, it was generally thought that when you were in your 60s, that’s about the end.  You might as well prepare for your own funeral, write the music you want because that’s probably the end of your active career.  But no, it doesn’t mean anything any more.  All that it means is that I understand a lot more about how to make music, and I can attempt more ambitious and more complicated things.

BD:   What is perhaps the most surprising thing that you have noticed in the development of music now that you’re approaching 75?

Brant:   That’s something else.  That would put me temporarily in the role of observer and critic, and I try not to do that if I can, because it’s well for people who make the product to think of making something, rather of the value of contemporary products or competing products.  I know very well that everybody who is making music of any kind is trying to make a living by it, and I no longer think it responsible and appropriate to say something that might injure somebody’s business prospect.  It would be easier for me to talk about what might happen in the future than about the general scene in music of the present.  I might mention one thing... I believe that it’s important for all composers at the present, to have a new kind of concert hall, and to please the minority.  I mention this to every composer I know, and nobody’s interested.  Nobody considers it to be the number one issue.

BD:   Would you want a more flexible concert hall?

Brant:   Yes, so it is possible to place performers not only in one area, but in many, and to the place the audience not only in one position in the hall, but many.  It could even be the kind of hall where the audience would be free to move around, as in a picture gallery, and could do this comfortably and safely.  But, as I say, nobody’s interested in it.

BD:   Why are they not interested?

Brant:   Their interests are in other things.  They are into the kinds of sounds, rather than the place where it is going to be performed.

BD:   You feel those are of equal importance?


Brant:   For me, the place is of great importance.  It’s a primary ingredient with me, and I run into this problem every time a piece of mine is played.  So, I’m very much aware of it.  Shall we talk about the place of music at this point, or were there other things you wanted to get into before?

BD:   Let’s just let the conversation go wherever it wanders, and we can pick up anything we missed later on.  Shall we start with ‘spatial music’?

Brant:   First, let me mention something else about the present, and this is advice about prejudice.  I don’t use electronic sound, because I suspect it’s not good for the nervous system.  I’m suspicious of loud speakers as a musical instrument.  I can see it being used for purposes of reference and study, or communication as we’re doing now.  But as food for the nervous system, sounding food, it’s inferior, and I suspect that it’s dangerous.  So, that is one aspect of composing where I have nothing in common with a good many composers.  So, when I’m talking about a hall, I’m talking about live music.  I wouldn’t even use amplification in my work.  I think it
s the difference between organically-grown food, and food grown with chemicals and preservatives.  There’s an obvious nutritive difference, and also an obvious hazard.  So, this is a considerable bias, and I don’t think there’s any composer who goes quite as far as I do in this respect.  Of course, I have recordings which show that I have to make compromises.  It would be pointless not to.

BD:   It’s seems that by relying on amplification just as a very last resort, you’re using that amplification in the best possible way, rather than letting it creep into your compositional style.

Brant:   I don’t use it at all in public performances.  That’s what I meant.

BD:   But you don’t mind it in reproducing your music on the radio, or something like that?

Brant:   At that point the damage has been done.  The recording is a fact, and it’s going to be reproduced at some level using an amplifier.  Over that I have no control.  The trouble starts with the microphone.  That’s my bias.


See my interviews with Vincent Persichetti, Hale Smith, Ross Lee Finney, Frederick L. Hemke, and John P. Paynter

BD:   Let me pursue this just a moment further.  Are you basically pleased with the recordings that have been put out of your music?

Brant:   Yes, but one thing that is important in all my music since 1950, is that I have utilized the entire hall as a source of sound.  I state that musicians have to be placed in certain parts of the hall.  On the first page of every such new piece, it says, “If you can’t do that, don’t play it.  Performances with everything together on a stage are not authorized.”  I’ve gone that far.  However, space is one thing that cannot be recorded.  I look upon space as one of the primary ingredients.  When we speak of primary ingredients, one of them is time, and that includes things like rhythm and meter.  Another is tone quality, such as the difference between a violin and a voice.  Then there’s pitch, and that is to say frequency.  You can’t have music of any kind without those three, and I say there’s a fourth which is equally important, and that is space, because even if you handle space conventionally, with the performers in one place and the audience in another, you’re using it, because without space there’s no place to put the musicians and no place to put the audience.  It’s as inescapable as the others, and for me it has to be recognized as a primary ingredient.  I even go so far as to think of it for myself as the fourth dimension in music.

BD:   You say without space, there’s no place for the audience and no place for the musicians.

brant Brant:   No!

BD:   Is there also no place for the music itself?

Brant:   Then there’s no sound.  There’s no place for the soundwaves to be generated or to travel.  There’s no sound without space, so this is something that can’t be recorded.  What comes out of the hi-fi speakers is not the arrangement of space as you heard it in the hall.  This can be managed, but only in a very cumbersome way, and it can’t be managed with a conventional hi-fi arrangement at all, except in one case.  I’ve written some pieces with this in mind, in which there’s an orchestra on the stage, and there’s another one in the back of a hall which is usually smaller.  That can be represented fairly well with stereo by recording each group separately in the empty hall, and then editing it in such a way that only one of them comes out of each speaker.  Engineers don’t usually like to do this, but it is possible.  Some of my recordings, such as Millennium Four [or called The Fourth Millennium (1967)] and Kingdom Come [LP jacket shown at right], were made in that way.  When you hear those, you take your two speakers and put them in the diagonally opposite corners of your room and sit in between.  Then you get a fair idea of the spatial arrangement that took place in the hall, but that’s the only case.  Now, that’s artificial.  There’s no reason for limiting a spatial arrangement to two sources only.  Some of my pieces have as many as a dozen.  Also, it doesn’t take into account vertical and horizontal uses of space, and other complexities.  So, that’s the first caution when you play my recordings.  Unless you have some hi-fi way of playing it, your listeners wouldn’t even be able to hear the space and the relationships in Kingdom Come and Millennium Four.

BD:   [With a bit of trepidation]  Do you disown your records?

Brant:   I don’t disown the records.  No, the records represent the piece, but they don’t show what happens in the hall.  But they do something else.  The editing holds together sounds that were meant to be apart, and the effect of physically separating sources of sound is to weaken or destroy their relationships.  In other words, they don’t affect each other.  This is especially significant in terms of harmony.  It’s not possible to make a chord between two groups of instruments that are 150 feet apart.  You’ll hear half the chord and the other half, but they won’t mix.

BD:   Even if you are directly in the center, being equidistant?

Brant:   That’s right.  You’ll hear them separately.  What happens in the case of editing is that they’re compelled to make head-on harmonic collisions, so that effects are produced which don’t exist in the original live performance of the music.  The compromise that I have to accept is a much more basic matter than what other composers have to accept, because this is a fundamental distortion to make harmony where there isn’t any.  Still, it’s better than nothing.  At least the recordings give some idea of the character of the musical material that I write, with such things as contrast.

BD:   Are you hoping that the recordings will be more of a catalyst for live performances?

Brant:   In a way!  It certainly is better than the state of affairs where recordings didn’t exist.  My composing career began in the 1930s, and nobody had a recording of anything then.  It’s true that people learned how to read a score a little better, but still, to get an idea of what a complicated piece sounded like was something that only a very few privileged and successful composers could manage to do.

BD:   Do you write your music specifically to be complicated, or is that just simply the way your music must be?

Brant:   My point of departure is Charles Ives, and to the extent that my music suggests procedures of Ives, I’m very pleased.  I look upon him as not only one of the important American composers, but the principal composer of the entire twentieth century.  I’m always pleased when somebody says Ives.  If somebody says any other composer, I’m not pleased, and this goes into another bias.  Ives did not invent spatial music, because that existed in the sixteenth century in the European cathedrals, especially in Venice.  Almost any composer employed by the Catholic church knew how to write spatial music.

BD:   The antiphonal pieces of Gabrielli?

Brant:   Yes!  Then it disappeared.  There wasn’t any spatial music during the time of Beethoven, for instance.  But Berlioz started a new kind of his own, which was not echo-space music, which was what the Venetians used.  It was something else.  In the Requiem, he has four brass bands in corners of the balcony, and they accumulate.  They don’t only play in succession.  What they accumulate is harmony.  They don’t accumulate counterpoint or contrasted material.  Against that, on the floor of the middle of the hall, he has other music
a symphony orchestra, choirs and so on.  This is something unique, and he was the only nineteenth century composer who did that, and he only did it in two worksTe Deum and the Requiem.  What Ives did was something much more radical.

brant BD:   Before we come back to Ives, let me ask about something like an opera of Verdi, where he calls for an offstage band.  Is that not spatial music?

Brant:   In a way, yes.  It
s not very emphatic, because the distance between the backstage and the front of the stage, from the point of view of the audience, is a matter of nuance rather than a question of different material.  The sensation of space is still something that’s forward of the audience.  That’s known as device in the theater for stage productions without music.  There’s a more essentially musical example in Mozarts Don Giovanni.  There’s the orchestra in the pit, and then there’s a backstage orchestra that plays entirely different materialat least highly contrasted from an eighteenth-century standpoint.  Then there’s a third group on stage which is still different.  That is spatial music in the sense that Ives used it, except that from the viewpoint of his time, it would have been inconceivable to Mozart not to have them rhythmically coordinated.  They play three different rhythms, but somehow they get them coordinated.  There’s also three different types of music, but again, it’s not terribly emphatic from the viewpoint of the audience spatially, because everything’s in front of them, and the entire amalgam of three sources of sound occupies a relatively small space.  But that and the Berlioz are the only examples I know of since the Renaissance until Ives.  Brahms and Wagner did not write spatial music, and neither did Richard Strauss, nor Schubert.  Any composer you can think of did not, and in the twentieth century, it was not used by Stravinsky nor Debussy.

BD:   Are the stage directors thinking of something spatial?  For instance, in Tristan, where they have Brangäne’s warning coming from the back of the theater rather than from off-stage?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, the Saxophone Concerto was later re-issued on a Varèse Sarabande LP with pieces by Ulysses Kay and Normand Lockwood.]

Brant:   I’ve never heard it in any place except back-stage.

BD:   Occasionally they’ll have it from a balcony, or from a grating some place in the theater rather than on-stage.

Brant:   Well, once they get into the theater, from my point of view, they’re talking about something spatial.  Ives wrote The Unanswered Question in 1908, and there are three musical elements intending to be separated as much as possible.  Each one plays a different kind of music, and although each group by itself is coordinated to maintain its own ensemble, all the groups together do not, and that’s a radical change.  That’s my idea of the twentieth century meaning of spatial music, because there is overall rhythmic non-coordination.  First of all, that’s a practical thing, because the way to get bad ensemble is to separate the players.  They can’t hear each other, and the audience hears them at different speeds.

BD:   This non-coordination is what you’re looking for?

Brant:   Ives was the first to see that not only is it a necessity, but he saw a practical advantage to it, an expressive advantage, because by not having them exactly together, we separate the material allotted to them and make it highly contrasted.  Then they become even more contrasted, because you don’t have the rhythmic coincidences which bring them together, and which establish an identity between them.  Those are the principles that I follow, except that in my pieces I’ve made much more complicated constructions, and used many more spatial sources.  I’ve experimented with horizontal as well as vertical levels.

BD:   You’ve used this word ‘complicated’ again.  Do you expect the audience to grasp one part of this, or all of this, or different pieces of it at differences performances?

Brant:   Yes.  It’s easy the way Gabrielli does it, because all of the groups have the same kind of music.  The direction does not identify who is playing.  With Ives and with my music, something in the back of you, or to your left, is always going to be one kind of tone quality, and one kind of music that won’t change.  You’ll know that whatever is going on there, you can know that’s what it’s going to be.  It assists your comprehension of the organization of the piece, and permits a much higher degree of complexity, because all the elements identify themselves, both by position and tone quality, and by contrasted independent character.  I got all this from Ives.  Another aspect of his style in general
aside from this one spatial work [The Unanswered Question], because I don’t think there’s another one which was carried out as consistently as thisis his idea that he would like his music to include many different styles simultaneously.  Also, he makes no distinction in the ingredients between what is popular in source, and what is supposedly formal or serious in source.  All of them have a place in his music, and all of them have a place either in sequence or simultaneously.  I do that too.  A good example is my piece Meteor Farm, in which there’s a jazz band playing jazz, and in a different part of the hall West African drummers and singers are playing their kind of music.  Then there are two different kinds of Japanese gamelan playing their music, plus a symphony orchestra playing my kind of music, and, of course, playing different kinds of music also of mine.  The differences between the music representing different cultural expressions in the same civilization, or the difference between different cultures, are musical advantages in a complex style, because they are further things which can identify each source.

BD:   You’re leaving the ultimate choice of focus up to the audience, and each audience member?

Brant:   That’s right.

BD:   Is there anything else that you expect from the audience?

Brant:   No!  Usually there isn’t any difficulty, because it’s the composer’s responsibility, as I see it, writing this kind of music, to make sure, first of all, that from every seat in the house you can hear something out of every group in the hall.  Of course, you’re going to hear it in a different relationship, but if there’s a seat in the hall where, let’s say, you can’t hear the second chorus, then the music has been written wrongly, or else it has to be adjusted in some way so that you can hear it.  In all of my pieces this is possible.  Minor adjustments are necessary in every hall.  Something that has to be very loud in some halls
like a section of trumpets onlymay need to be medium loud in another hall.  But unless these adjustments are possible, I consider that something has gone wrong in the way that the music has been calculated.  So, with these precautions, an audience has no difficulty.  What is there to be heard is, in effect, easy to be heard.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When we first started speaking today, you said you didn’t really want to talk about where music has been.  You wanted to talk about where music is going, so let me ask that question.  Where is music going today, and tomorrow?

Brant:   I represent a complete minority point of view.  I have no disciples, and, as far as I know, I have no competitors.  So, it does not seem to be going where I’m going.  One way it’s not going is my kind of spatial music.
BD:   Where do you hope it will go?

Brant:   I’m interested in the development of new acoustic instruments, and if that should happen, it would benefit all composers.  Everybody would use them.  They would need to be entirely acoustic instruments as good as the ones that we have, but make tone qualities which don’t presently fit.  I’d like to see that.  Another thing I’d like would be microtones on an organized basis.  That is to say something like what Bach did with the half tones and equal temperament.  Quarter tones would be the handiest thing, because it would keep the complete Western pitch system the way it is, and just add twelve new tones.  I’m not satisfied to just ask string players to slide around on their instruments, and find places for their fingers where such places don’t exist, or to ask wind instruments to bend their sound.  I want the notes to be as controlled and precise as the half-tones now are.  I’ve made a little progress on all this.  It’s possible on the French horn...

BD:   … by moving the right hand in the bell?

Brant:   No, because that changes the tone quality.  It can be done on what’s called the double mechanism horn by tuning the B-flat mechanism a quarter tone flat.

BD:   Pulling that one slide?

Brant:   Yes.  Players are accustomed to going back and forth from one mechanism to the other, and the result I found very satisfactory.  Two pianos are bad instruments to tune a quarter tone apart because they get out of tune so easily.  Harps are much better, oddly enough, and it’s possible that stringed instruments, especially cellos and basses in the lower positions, could have fingered quarter tones, where you put your finger down firmly on a prescribed place.

BD:   Is nothing of this being done by a composer such as Ben Johnston, who is working with microtones?

Brant:   It’s one thing to write the music, and another thing to invent the instruments that will play them.  You can write a quarter tone string quartet, and say just play the quarter tones, but that’s not solving anything.

BD:   But he’s been working with various pianos, and resetting various pianos for different numbers of microtones.

Brant:   You could do that, but the trouble is they’re not standardized.  Every performance is a special case.  I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than something which can be played on standard equipment which is available freely.  Otherwise, it seems to me that the problem isn’t really a serious one.  It’s the Harry Partch idea.  Do you know his music?

BD:   Yes, he wrote for all kinds of new instruments.

Brant:   Yes, and I was the first one to play his keyboard instrument in public.  His music is limited by his instruments.  The instruments are fine, but there aren’t that many made, and few people know how to play them.  I don’t see how that’s a solution to anything.  This is something that I’m very much interested in, and it seems to me that other composers would be, too, if there were good acoustic instruments available which would produce a fixed and accurate quarter tone.  It would benefit everybody’s music in that nobody would refuse to use them.  But again, I’ve spoken to no composer who seems to feel this is an absolute must.  We’ve got to stop everything and get these things invented, and such things don’t get invented unless composers make a big fuss.  The impetus comes from them.  We need a Bach, who, among his other activities, is going to make a good quarter tone piano, and sell it to all the piano people.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Looking through the biographies, you used the word ‘assault’
that music should assault the audiences.  Do you feel that all music should be assaulting?

Brant:   No, I don’t feel that music should be an assault.  That sounds like a quote from something in which I described the everyday event that assaults the consciousness and the unconsciousness.  I never meant the music itself, or the expression of that in music itself should be an assault at all.
BD:   Then let me ask the big philosophical question.  What should be, or what is, the ultimate purpose of music in society?

Brant:   I have no idea.  It can have many.

BD:   What are the ones you use?  [Vis-à-vis the LP shown at left, see my interviews with Elliott Carter, Richard Moryl, and Gerard Schwarz, as well as the recollections of Stefan Wolpe by one of his students, M. William Karlins.]

Brant:   For one thing, making it yourself and participating in the performance is a very remarkable process, and it’s unfortunate that so few people can experience it.  A lot of energy in the last twenty years in the classroom – although I don’t teach much anymore – has gone into the consideration of this problem, which is: how could everybody experience what it’s like to invent music so that it would be a normal form of educated human activity, like being able to write a letter, and I don’t think it’s quite impossible.  So, I invented this thing which I called ‘Instant Composition’.  I’ve taught it at conservatories here and in Europe.  It’s a way of starting right in with a group of instruments, and people who can play them with various degrees of skill.  The idea is to make the music on the spot in a way that’s not improvised.  The test being, can you play the piece twice?  If you can, there’s a strong suspicion that it’s composed, because composing means control.  Does that answer your question?

BD:   Yes, but you said music has many purposes.  Would you tell me of some others that you use?

Brant:   One of them I would describe as nutrition for the nervous system, for all of the human systems together.  It can be very nutritious if you actually do it.  I’m not at all certain how nutritious it is if it’s merely passive.  It needs to be active participation, and by that I mean not only inventing the music yourself, but performing it yourself.  There are composers nowadays who do not perform or participate in the performance of their music at all.  They don’t play it, and they don’t conduct it.  These activities are left to professionals.  The composers who don’t do these things cut themselves off from one of the most life-giving parts of inventive music, that is to say the final process.  My idea with my Instant Composing is to acquaint anyone who is interested in music with a complete process of producing a piece of music, including the performance and direction of it.  It probably would take more time than we have at the moment for me to explain how this works, but at least I’m able to say that this is the intention of what I attempt to do, and I get surprising results both from expert performers who had never composed, and from composers who had never performed.  I originally thought of it for those two groups of musicians, but then I found that it was applicable to people with very little musical training.  So, to answer your question, one of the important potentials of music is this process where you make it yourself and produce it yourself, and I’m convinced that this has a high nutritive human value.  It leads to health and well-being.  That’s the only one that I really know anything about.

BD:   You’ve been teaching music.  Has this been teaching composers, or have you been teaching music history and theory?

Brant:   No, I believe that music history and music theory should not be taught.  The only thing that can be taught is musical practice, that is to say, making it or performing, which is an obvious kind of musical practice that has to be taught.  Composing music is another kind, and composing music to me is meaningless if it doesn’t make sound.  So to me, a lot of the teaching of composing is artificial, because a lot of time is spent in talking about it, and producing these finite maps that don’t make any noise.  The amount of sound they make is only heard at rare times, and that’s the problem.  That’s why I don’t think there is such a thing as musical theory.  Musical theory is simply conversation, gossip and hearsay about music.  Musical practice is making it.  Making it can be making it in any style.  Musical practice means you don’t study a Beethoven score so as to compose statistics about it.  You study one to see if you can write in that style yourself, and learn what you have to do in order to make something that is expressed in that kind of language.  That’s musical practice, and it should apply to all styles of all periods, both popular and serious.  I don’t think musicology has any meaning at all, except to provide a way to perform music that isn’t accessible to us.  In other words, it should be musical practice, also.

BD:   Do you have any advice at all for young composers coming along?

Brant:   It depends what their objectives are, and very few of them seem to have one.

BD:   Do you want more composers to have your objectives?

Brant:   I don’t think so, no.  I don’t think that’s my job to state what the purposes and aims of other composers should be.

BD:   What if they come to you for advice?

Brant:   Not many do, because people who know what my views are, and what my products are, know that I’m the wrong person to fit them for the way in which they want to go.  What’s interesting to me is the statistics involved.  I often ask composers how many people they think there are engaged in the production of concert music in the United States
chamber music, orchestral music, operas, oratorios, ballet, but excluding commercial music and popular music, that is, not pop songs, and not movie scores, or jingles, or things of that kind.  Since we don’t have very many good statistics, and it is a little hard to establish a standard, it would seem that there are not less than 25,000 people in this country writing music.  I don’t say they are making a living by it, because that’s another story, but let’s say people who continue to produce and to have their music performed under professional auspices.  Of these 25,000, new ones are added every year, and it seems that new ones are added faster than the attrition rate for the old ones who are disappearing and dying out.  I’m very much interested in what are going to be the activities of these 25,000, and I’m frankly surprised that their work seems to divide up into only a few directions and tendencies.  I would like it if the 25,000 could each go their own way, and speak their own language, and tell their own stories, but it isn’t so.  Hundreds write music that you have to be an expert in order to tell one individual from another, and it would please me if this were not the case.  But it is the case, and the younger composers I talk to are pretty determined.  They know which direction they’re going in, and they know why, and these directions are few.

BD:   Then, are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

Brant:   The exercise of musical composition is an affirmation of a kind of optimism.  It’s difficult to imagine pessimistic people writing music at all.  If you mean optimistic about the future embodying the tendencies that I like, I don’t see it doing that, but then the tendencies I like are not necessarily what have to govern in order to produce a salutary state of affairs in music.

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BD:   When you’re getting together a concert of your music, and you need the variety of spatial effects, does it have to be a concert of only your music, or would your music fit into a concert with other new composers, or other standard composers?  [Vis-à-vis the LP shown at right, see my interviews with Roque Cordero, Leonardo Balada, and Jorge Mester.]

Brant:   It works quite well with composers of the past, because their music is so contrasted.  On a symphony concert let’s say that my piece is first.  Then comes a concerto, because there’s usually a soloist
a violinist, or a pianist, or sometimes a cellistand then will often come the Brahms Fourth Symphony.  If the solo concerto is a repertory piece, then being a twentieth-century piece is good for me.  That is often the way things line up at symphony concerts.  The worst thingboth for my music, or anybody’sis to have an entire program of contemporary music, because the pieces have too many features in common, which says nothing about the originality of any of the participating composers.  There’s not enough contrast for the last piece to make an impact.  You can tell this by the way people comment.  They’re trying to talk about the piece afterwards, and usually it’s hard to remember which one was which piece.  So, they try to think of something that identifies it.  If it’s the one with a lot of percussion, it turns out there were several with a lot of percussion.  This is enough to show that it’s not really to anybody’s advantage to have an entire concert of twentieth-century music, unless you go to great lengths to find composers whose works are really contrasted, and there are few trends that might be considered different enough to afford that.

BD:   Then, what advice do you have for audiences who come to concerts, either of your music or not of your music?

Brant:   A concert of only my music doesn’t produce much of a problem, because every piece is going to be for a different spatial set-up.  My music has a lot of contrast in it anyway, both in the position of the groups around the hall and in the different kinds of music that they play.  So, it’s not hard for an audience in that way because there are a few points of similarity, even between one piece of mine and another, partly because of the mixture of styles.  An audience which is trapped in a concert of all twentieth-century music is in trouble, because the nervous system just will not stand that much stimulus of a similar kind.  I try to avoid concerts of contemporary music.  So, I try to figure out the one piece I want to hear, and come for that.  I don’t think that there’s any successful way in which two pieces of contemporary music can compete with any pleasure to the audience.  It’s commonly done, but I think it’s a failure.  Audiences should make their wishes known
if these are their wishesand ask for music of one composer that has a special meaning, even if the composer does not write special music.  There’s one advantage to this.  If the audience decides to try and follow the workings of one mind, four different pieces are much better than just one, because they’re different aspects of the same mind, which are of immediate interest to an audience.  They are ways to press a bond with certain features of it, which you begin to understand better as you see them in different works.  So, a one-man show is good, and a mixture of twentieth-century with past centuries is good.  What’s unfortunate, and what fails, is the mixed-menu contemporary program.

BD:   What is next on the calendar for Henry Brant?

Brant:   I want to make a spatial opera which is going to take me a couple of years to do.  [From 1995-98, he worked on a project called 60 Minutes to the Beginning, a Cosmic Spatial Opera for Live Voices with Film Environment.  This was meant to be a site-specific work of music, film, and language, on the occasion of the year 2000.  Aside from a reference to this in a paper by Maurizio Corbella (2019), I have not been able to find any other information.]  I’m also writing a book on orchestration [Textures and Timbres, an Orchestrators Handbook, the promotional blurb is shown in the box below], which got started partly because of the new problems I ran into with spatial music.  But it will deal with all elements of orchestration, stopping only at electronic music.  It won’t say anything about that because I don’t regard that as my field.  I’m also writing a book on spatial music.

BD:   Oh good!

Henry Brant’s new guide to orchestration is, in fact, the result of his lifelong work as a conductor, composer, and teacher. Its first page was written in the 1940s, and its final page was written in 2005. In observation of other orchestration texts throughout his life, Brant realized that many were incomplete, in that they gave instructions based on hoped-for evocations of mystic visions rather than the actual, practical qualities of instruments. Textures and Timbres focuses on the study of acoustic instrumental tone-qualities, offering comprehensive systematic procedures for balancing and mixing them, both in harmonic and linear contexts. The lessons and inspiration shared in this text span Brant’s entire career, from his work in commercial radio to his orchestration classes at the Juilliard School and orchestrations of numerous Hollywood film scores. Textures and Timbres: An Orchestrator’s Handbook is an absolutely vital tool for the conductor. [From the listing]

Brant:   Those things, and my experiments in quarter-tone music will continue, and hopefully I’ll be able to encourage some instrument builders to make some models of the existing standard instruments with quarter tone possibilities.  That’s my approximate agenda, but also I hope to expand the circulation of ‘Instant Composition’ classes.  In a general way, the production of new works depends on many factors, so that I’m not inclined immediately to write more symphonic pieces or oratorios.  I hope to have some success in developing some new material, and in the meantime, I’m writing about what I’ve been able to find out myself.

BD:   I wish you lots of luck on all of this, and continued success with performances.

brant Brant:   Thank you!  I appreciate that.  I’ve enjoyed speaking to you.  In a general way, these things aren’t easy to talk about, because spatial ideas above all need the sound.  We haven’t had a single note of spatial music in the last hour, yet we’ve been able to discuss this.  You’ve made the format a very interesting one.

BD:   Oh good.  I’m glad you approve.  I look forward to putting your music on the air, and seeing what reaction we get.

Brant:   If you ever have the occasion to play a record or records in the course of ordinary programming, if you could provide a few sentences to the effect of the special kind of loss that my music undergoes in recordings, I would appreciate it.

BD:   Oh, sure!  Whenever we play any music, there’s always a live announcer, and if I schedule your music, it’ll be me.  I’ll be sure to spend a couple of minutes explaining the music, and your thoughts about the music, and the limitations of the recording.

Brant:   This will be very much appreciated, because as far as I know, this hasn’t happened.  My records are just played as any records, and so no one knows anything about it!  [Pauses a moment]  One question you did not ask me was how I came to write spatial music.

BD:   Do you want to discuss that a little bit?

Brant:   I think so, because it often comes up.  Until 1950, I hadn’t written any spatial music.  In fact, I really didn’t know anything about it.  I was an infant prodigy as a composer.  I wrote a string quartet when I was ten that was played publicly.  Writing always came easily to me, and so when I say my career began before 1930s, this explains it.  I started very early, and the only thing I knew in the first twenty years of my career was that I wanted to write in many styles.  I knew that even before I’d made the acquaintance of Ives.  I myself wanted to learn how to write in the different popular styles, as well as in the contemporary styles of the present, and in the styles of the past.  None of my teachers forced me to do this.  It was a program and discipline that I’ve imposed on myself.  The first thing that surprised me, when I heard the music of Ives, was the multiplicity of styles.  Before I’d heard The Unanswered Question, I wondered how he had you done it.  He did one style after the other in very close succession, and that was one answer to what to do with so many styles.  The only sense I had was not to stick to one style, because it might not be the one that was going to communicate best in the foreseeable future.  So, I first began to write music with a lot of styles, but in sequence, one after the other.  Then I liked Ives’s idea that music ought to have a lot in it.  His conception of a Maximal Music
though he never called it thatappealed to me, because it seemed even then that life is not minimal, so why should music be?  I’ve never taken seriously the music of Webern and its few notes.  It seemed to me that the people who wrote just a few notes didn’t want to take the trouble to write more than a few.  I never bought the idea that those represented such a concentration and distillation of experience that only a few are necessary.  It seemed to me that a plausible music would be profusive, and complicated, and maximal, just as life is.  So, I started writing my music, and made it more complicated.  What happened was that it was playable, because if the players are good, whatever you put in front of them they’re going to play.  But it was impossible to tell what was going on.  Tin noise played at once in the same location, and over the same range, because there isn’t enough room to play them in different ranges, was presenting unintelligible complexity.  Then, when I started to perform this piece of Ives, I saw that he’d found the way to make it complex and preferably intelligible, because no matter how many things are going on, if you identify them spatially, and also by tone quality and material, it’s possible to have an extraordinary amount of complication all in the same hall without any problem for the audience.  I made that discovery in 1950, when I was first a teacher at Juilliard.  That was when I heard Gabrielli and Berlioz, and we were able to play Ives and Gabrielli in my classes.  In the same year I heard the Berlioz Requiem in France in the place where it was supposed to be done.  I was fortunate that all these things came together just at the point where I needed them.  I wrote my first spatial piece in 1950, which is a date that some European composers ought to remember, because there are some who have claimed to have written the first spatial piece in 1957 and 1958!  That’s how I came to write spatial music.

BD:   Are you pleased that you made that decision at that time?

Brant:   Oh, yes!  Possibly I would have reached the same route in some other way, but it gave me the means to write the kind of music I wanted to write.

BD:   I’m glad that it has all worked for you, and it has been something that you have wanted to continue to work with.

Brant:   I regard it as something basic to music
not a new kind of icing on the cake, but something as fundamental as sound itself.  Once you’ve heard a piece of spatial music played live, what I’m saying will not seem so over-heated and exaggerated as I may sound.  People who have never heard a spatial piece often ask if it can really make that much difference.  If the piece is written with the space as an essential ingredient, of course it does.  The difference is fundamental.  It is basic.

BD:   From your point of view as a composer of spatial music, is there any correlation between a piece of spatial music and, say, a large house on a Thanksgiving Day?  There’s a lot of activity going on
the television is blaring in the living room, other people are fixing dinner and making noise in the kitchen, and there’s the clatter of dishes on the dining room table, and someone is standing in the central part of the house listening to all of these various things, and actually paying attention to them, rather than just letting them go by?

Brant:   Definitely!  That’s a good analogy.

BD:   When I’m explaining the music before playing a record on the radio, that might be something the Average Joe might be able to relate to.

Brant:   Yes, I think that would be a very good way.  That’s excellent, I think.

BD:   Good!  It’s been fascinating chatting with you.  I do appreciate you spending the time with me this afternoon.  [He then assured me, once again, how much he thought of our conversation, and asked me to send him a cassette-copy.]





© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on January 9, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following September, and again in 1998;  Copies of the unedited audio have been placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University, and in the Oral History of American Music archive at Yale University.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.