Photo of Henry Brant, May 1999 (courtesy of Kathy Wilkowski)
Henry Brant, May 1999
Photo courtesy of Kathy Wilkowski

Photo of Henry Brant and Family

Photo of Henry Brant and Family

Henry Brant: Spatial Music to Evoke the New Stresses, Layered Insanities, and Multidirectional Assaults of Contemporary Life on The Spirit

Conducted by Caroline Crawford in 2006, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2014.

Henry Brant, 1913-2008, was a true maverick, a classical composer best known for bold works of spatial acoustic music in which performers, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, are placed on various levels of a concert hall or outside venue, even an entire city, as was the case in Fire on the Amstel, a work written for the canals of Amsterdam.

For Brant, space was a musical dimension equal to pitch, time and timbre. The Pulitzer prizewinning Ice Field (2001) featured woodwinds, brass and steel drums placed on concert hall balconies with the composer simulating earthquake vibrations at the organ onstage. Fire in the Amstel (1984) called for four boatloads of twenty-five flutes, jazz drum set and conductor, three mixed choruses, four street organs, three concert bands and four church carillons. Early music composers had written spatial music, notably Gabrieli for St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Brant expanded the concept to include musics from disparate cultures. For example, Meteor Farm (1982) was written for symphony orchestra, jazz band, West African drums, Javanese Gamelan and South Indian trio, with three conductors.

Brant began composing in this style in the 1950s, when he felt that traditional music “could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities and multidirectional assaults on contemporary life of the spirit.” The more than one hundred spatial works are complex polyphonically, each with different spatial placement. He used no amplification or electronic materials.

Born in Montreal, where his American father was on the conservatory faculty at McGill University, Brant began to compose at the age of eight. He moved to New York City in 1929 and joined Aaron Copland’s “geniuses” circle and other music societies, as he put it, “a young, unknown eccentric.” Encouraged by Henry Cowell, he wrote in many styles, conducted WPA orchestras that played his work and considered arranging music for Benny Goodman an education. He taught at Juilliard, Columbia and Bennington for many years.

The interviews were conducted at Brant’s home in Santa Barbara and edited lightly. His wife, Kathy Wilkowski,, took part in the interview. At ninety-two Brant spoke as he composed, with great exuberance and wit. Asked about future plans, he said a large orchestral composition was in the works: It would be entitled Tsunami Requiem.

See our Music and Dance Series for related oral histories.

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