Henry Brant Reflects in Glow of Pulitzer

Henry Brant
Photo by Kathy Wilkowski, courtesy of Henry Brant

On Monday, composer Henry Brant was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work Ice Field. The 20-minute organ concerto was commissioned by the San Francisco new-music organization Other Minds through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation‘s Multi-Arts Production Fund and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas on Dec. 12, 2001. Brant himself was at the organ as soloist for the premiere.

The Pulitzer, given officially to a “distinguished musical composition of significant dimension by an American,” comes with a certificate and a check for $7,500. This year’s jury included former Pulitzer winners John Harbison, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, as well as Peter G. Davis, Olly Wilson, and Yehudi Wyner. Their selection, seen as almost radical considering the award’s reputation for traditionalism, pleasantly surprised many in the new music community. Nominated as finalists in this category were: Rilke Songs by Peter Lieberson, premiered on July 18, 2001, in Santa Fe, NM, and Ten of a Kind (Symphony No.2) by David Rakowski, premiered on May 20, 2001, at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.

Brant, 88, says he never expected to win an award of this kind, but is, none-the-less, pleased with the recognition. “I find it very gratifying because I like to think that experimental and adventurous points of view in composing would be something that could be recognized from such a source.”

About Ice Field

Brant began writing spatial works in 1950 to express what he felt were the “multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit,” and Ice Field falls right in line with that philosophy. All the orchestral instruments are used, and the layout is complex. Onstage, the string orchestra in its usual position, the two harps, the two pianos and the timpanist situated together, organ console at stage right. Oboes and bassoons are in the choir loft. In the middle of the first balcony, the entire brass section-trumpets, trombones, horns, tuba-with its own conductor. A jazz drummer is located with this group. (The brass conductor does not follow or duplicate the stage conductor because his music is entirely different.) In the top balcony, at one end, are three piccolos and three clarinets. They contribute overhead outbursts. At the opposite end are glockenspiel and xylophone. These top balcony musicians don’t follow anybody. The stage conductor starts them off on each entrance, then they’re each on their own, a possible metaphor for situations occurring in everyday life where many unrelated events take place simultaneously. Situated down on the audience level at one extreme side, in boxes, are three large bass drums, three large gongs, and two of the lowest-pitched Trinidad steel drums, all aiming to provide ominous punctuations in dinosaur style. This is the entire armament except for the pipe organ, sounding of course from the pipes in back of the choir loft, and played in planned improvisation.

The title of the work was inspired by a childhood memory of traveling through an ice field while crossing the Atlantic with his family in 1926, though he says the work itself in not an attempt to paint the experience in sound.

Charles Amirkhanian, Artistic Director of the Other Minds Festival and a long-time champion of Brant’s work, was also especially gratified to see him finally get the attention.

Amirkhanian recalls first hearing Brant’s work live in 1970. “For me that was one of the pivotal experiences in my young musical life because I didn’t realize how powerful Henry’s music was– having only heard it on LP. There was a moment [during that performance] for example where the orchestra in the balcony lit up the hall with all sort of slide whistles and screaming circus music while the main orchestra on stage played sort of ’30s dissonant counterpoint. The contrast was so outrageous and funny that I was convinced that he was a genius.”

“What blows me away,” he continues, “is that in combination with the spatial aspect, there’s a meaning for it musically speaking, that is to say there are stylistic differences between every group and space in the hall. It gives you a multi-stylistic music like [Charles] Ives that is extremely energizing. It’s a kind of post-modernism before the word existed.”

Amirkhanian was told by panelist Olly Wilson that the performance “just jumped out at [the Pulitzer music jury] and that it was undeniably the most vital music that they were confronted with on this particular panel.”

Though admittedly unexpected, “I think they recognized that Henry has a talent that’s unique and it has to do with issues of orchestration, his life experience, his vision,” Amirkhanian concludes. “I think it was a very refreshing decision. Not since Charles Ives’ 1947 prize for Lou Harrison‘s arrangement of the Symphony No. 3 has anyone from Henry’s school, which is the Cowell-Cage-Harrison School, won the prize.”

Speaking from his home in Santa Barbara, Brant discusses the prize, his music and his plans for the future.

Molly Sheridan: How important is an award like this to you personally at this point in your career? You’ve obviously believed very strongly in what you were doing for a long time now, so what does recognition like this mean to you?

Henry Brant: Well, it means the possibility of opportunities to carry my work forward, perhaps on a bigger scale than I’ve been able to do in the past. Not that my pieces are of small dimensions, but it’s possible for me to think of the possibility of realizing in a practical way some very big new project involving space music.

Molly Sheridan: Any specific ideas at this point?

Henry Brant: Yes, I’m planning an oratorio, a large work that’s going to have voices as well as instruments–several choruses, several symphonic orchestral groups, and perhaps four conductors. And I have in mind something about California which has been my home for the last 20 or so years [with text by John Muir]. I also want to complete a large project which I’ve had in mind for forty years. I’ve been writing a book, a treatise on orchestration which I hope to complete this year and since such a large part of my life has been spent in this aspect of music, I hope it will have something in it that will be of benefit to composers.

Molly Sheridan: You’ve devoted so many years to spatial music. What is it that attracts you to doing so much work in that area?

Henry Brant: It’s the area that comprises all areas of music, because everything needs space, and the more involved the music, the more concentrated the music, the more space is implied. Not merely the platforms but the spaces–wherever they exist in the hall–where the music is heard.

Molly Sheridan: It seems like there is often an element of surrounding the audience inside the music. Is that a characteristic that you’re after, or is that just a secondary thing that happens logistically?

Henry Brant: Sometimes the music surrounds the audience and sometimes in other set ups the audience can surround the music, so the thing is that the further exploration of indoor spaces offers all kinds of new possibilities. It’s especially a way of making complex things clear to an audience because they don’t all come from the same place. I’m talking about several kinds of music being played at the same time without necessarily being related or coordinated. Now something like this could scarcely be made clear to an audience if it all came from one place. They wouldn’t know what was happening. In fact this did happen with my earliest attempts but now when each musical element, each stylistic element, has in own position in the hall and it’s own kind of instrumental sound, these are ways in which complexes of ideas and events can be simultaneous and still comprehensible to an audience.

Molly Sheridan: So in many ways each audience member hears a unique piece depending on where they are sitting?

Henry Brant: That’s so, yes.

Molly Sheridan: I read that you never use electronics or amplification, but you’re very fascinated obviously by sound qualities. Why have you adopted that philosophy?

Henry Brant: Well, I think first of all that the loudspeaker is a musical instrument and a very imperfect one. It has a tone quality of it’s own and when music comes through a microphone and then out of a loudspeaker, it loses much of its characteristic flavor and timbre and taste and takes on the flat sound of a loudspeaker. Even so, it’s extremely useful for purposes of reference but as something for the ears and the human nervous system, I think it’s a very poor kind of food. And amplification is a further distortion. So what I want is organic food for the nerves rather than fast food.

(left to right) Charles Amirkhanian, Henry Brant, and Michael Tilson Thomas
Photo by Marty Sohl

Molly Sheridan: Understood. I know that when you did Ice Field in San Francisco it was the first time that you had worked with Michael Tilson Thomas. And obviously this was a unique conducting experience, not something he could approach as he approaches much of the repertoire. How did that work out?

Henry Brant: Well, he has a very remarkable sense of the essential needs and purposes of the music he conducts and no trouble is too great for him to work out every detail that’s necessary. At the same time, he works with great efficiency and gets the essence of the music accomplished in very short time. So this piece, I feel, was extremely fortunate in the kind of direction it had. Of course the orchestra, very good itself and now very sensitize to his direction, was an enormous advantage for me and a great pleasure for me to work with. I like to be involved in the performance itself so it was a great satisfaction to me to be working in so fine a group.

Molly Sheridan: That must have been a great feeling, to be on stage playing your piece with them. Is that something that you do frequently in your work?

Henry Brant: Yes, I like to be involved. I don’t like to listen to my music as just a listener because there’s nothing I can do. It’s already done. I like to have some influence over what’s happening, so when I’m not the conductor, there’s usually some part for me to play.

Molly Sheridan: Are there any plans to have Ice Field done again, or do you expect this prize to generate some attention for it?

Henry Brant: I expect so, but I can’t discuss what the plans are at this point.

Molly Sheridan: To finish up then, NewMusicBox’s current issue features Leo Ornstein and we’ve been talking a lot about the “maverick” label to describe some composers and their works. Is that something you would use to describe yourself or your music?

Henry Brant: No, I just think of it as just the kind of music that I write. It’s the natural way for me to do things. I don’t particularly think of myself as writing an odd-ball piece or trail-blazing or anything like that. I think that Leo Ornstein, besides the example of his music, showed what a composer can do. I heard him play once in the late 20s. Maybe other composers can survive into their 110th year and continue to do their finest work. My own feeling is that it takes a lifetime of work before it really then becomes clear how things can be best done. I have a feeling now that in a way I’m just starting in. I see much better what has to be done in order to make music still clearer, still more direct, have still more impact, and still get closer to an audience.

Molly Sheridan: You sound like you’re just getting going?

Henry Brant: Well, I like to think that, yes.

Molly Sheridan: No plans to take this Pulitzer and go into retirement then, I guess?

Henry Brant: Retirement! [laughter] At a time when things are just getting started? Hardly!

The works born out of Brant’s spatial philosophy have been recognized with numerous performances, recordings, and awards. He will add this Pulitzer Prize to a list of honors that includes two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Prix Italia (which he was the first American composer to win), the American Music Center‘s Letter of Distinction, and election to the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters. In May 1998, The Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel acquired Brant’s complete archive of original manuscripts including over 300 of his works. Brant received the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts from http://www.carlfischer.com/brantworks.html.