Spaced Out with Henry Brant
FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a lot of stuff to cover, but I thought we should start at the beginning…
HENRY BRANT: 1913?
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah.
HENRY BRANT: Well, I remember the First World War… I was born in 1913, but in the next year, 1914, 1915, I asked my mother why the oatmeal didn’t taste better and she said that the men who knew how to make the oatmeal were in France fighting the war and the men who are making this oatmeal don’t know how to do it very well so we have to wait until the others come back.
FRANK J. OTERI: You were in Canada then.
HENRY BRANT: Montreal.
FRANK J. OTERI: But your parents were originally from the United States.
HENRY BRANT: Yes, both from the United States and I myself am an American citizen and have been from birth.
FRANK J. OTERI: But you were born and grew up in Canada.
HENRY BRANT: Montreal, until I was 14.
FRANK J. OTERI: Why did your parents move to Montreal?
HENRY BRANT: This is always interesting to me when I think of it. My father is from Savannah, Georgia. When he was about 12, he showed some ability on the violin and he’d been to New York. But his parents thought, “Our son, he should have the best.” In those days, the best was in Europe, so he went to Europe and stayed there 10 years and studied with the best teachers at the time, including Joachim. He was one of the first American violinists I think to have done all this stuff. Ten years later, he came back to the United States and started looking for work and, of the various places he could go, Montreal seemed the most interesting to him. By that time, he spoke three languages fluently and he liked the idea that French was spoken there. He also liked the idea that it was a university town. So he went there and stayed 18 years.
FRANK J. OTERI: Did you grow up speaking French in the household?
HENRY BRANT: Because of the division between the French and the English Canadian communities, although the French always learned some English, the English community managed to avoid speaking French and I was sent to an English school. I heard it and spoke it a little, but never fluently.
FRANK J. OTERI: I once read somewhere that by the time you were nine years old you were already building your own musical instruments…
HENRY BRANT: I started to write down my intended music when I was eight. I also had piano lessons, but I was nothing special. There were children of four and five that were first class at that age, but I was just an average child playing indifferent piano. But I wanted to write music. I heard the orchestra at McGill University, which was my father’s students, and also theater musicians who played in movie houses and the effects that they produced were very puzzling to me. So I asked my father to explain some of them to me and he said he couldn’t! If you had better players, you could get different sounds. So, my first idea was that I wanted to write something that could be done by an orchestra like that, fifty players, no matter what they sounded like. I heard a lot of music in Montreal that interested me. There were especially Salvation Army Bands. They went all over the city. They played in hospitals and in schools and even in the prisons. I followed them around and I thought I wanted to write music for that too. Then we had excellent organ grinders, both the kind with pipes and the kind with piano strings. I enjoyed the sound of them very much. But I didn’t know until later that it was the out-of-tune shape they were in which pleased me so much. I heard that and also my father’s sonata concerts; he gave concerts of chamber music. There was one good professional string quartet in Toronto. Whenever they came, they practiced in our living room. At the age of twelve I wrote a string quartet that they played and that settled it. I was certain that writing music was superior to hawking a crate or other things that boys my age were expected to do. But this didn’t happen often. It didn’t happen every day. So I thought, we’ve got to have some way of doing this ourselves. So I got together with my friends in the neighborhood, some of whom played instruments, and for the rest I made things out of plumbing pipe and also stringed instruments made out of cigar boxes and other boxes. And that combined with a clarinet or two, sometimes a trumpet, was my first orchestra. Some of these boys could read music and some of them couldn’t, so I found ways of explaining to the non-readers what to do. I still do this in something I call instant music. So the answer to your question is yes, I did make such things and I already explained what I felt was my need to have them.
FRANK J. OTERI: Do any of these instruments still survive from back then?
HENRY BRANT: I think it’s been a long time since they’ve left this world!
FRANK J. OTERI: You were saying that some of your friends could read music and some of them couldn’t. Would you write actual pitches for things like the cigar box stringed instruments? I imagine these had rubber bands for strings or something like that…
HENRY BRANT: For the people who could read.
FRANK J. OTERI: So you tailor made it for the people you were writing for?
HENRY BRANT: It would have been impossible otherwise.
FRANK J. OTERI: You mentioned hearing the orchestra at McGill University and you mentioned hearing music at silent movies. What other music were you exposed to growing up?
HENRY BRANT: Everything that came to town. Big famous virtuosi played in Montreal as part of their tour. So these were concerts we went to and one of them was a concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Stokowski. I heard that and I thought if that’s an orchestra, what do we have at McGill? And this enlarged my idea of what was possible. I heard that and I heard concerts by Rachmaninoff and Heifetz and Casals and other players on that level—Cortot was another one—and I considered it a point of honor. So after every concert I went and saw the great man and very few of them turned me down. Kreisler turned me down. He said, “I’m sorry my boy, I can’t.” Rachmaninoff just looked at me and said “…Right!” and I didn’t know what he meant but I finally figured out that I should send him something. So I sent a card to his hotel where he was staying and sure enough I got it back with his signature. I still have this collection. I have some signatures that my father got. I have Joachim’s signature. And some of them I got through older musicians. I have Ravel‘s signature. I forgot how we got onto this…
FRANK J. OTERI: We were talking about the people you heard growing up. The music you heard.
HENRY BRANT: It was pretty comprehensive.
FRANK J. OTERI: What was your first exposure to new music, to experimental music?
HENRY BRANT: Oh, yes. Well, one of the first was when the Hart House Quartet of Toronto came to our house. That same evening, the violinist Huberman was in town and my father persuaded him to come. So the first violinist of this quartet was Hungarian and he said ,”You want to hear some music that you’d hear in Europe?” And so they played Bartók‘s first quartet to the amazement of everybody present. Now, Bartók was about the same age as my father and my father said that in the early 1900s—Bartók was working then and so was Schoenberg and Berg and Stravinsky—he’d merely heard their names. He had a library of sonatas for violin and piano written mostly by contemporaries of his, people with names like Sgambati… These were esteemed composers and they were considered contemporary composers. Of course, Strauss and Mahler were known to my father, too. He played in orchestras conducted by them. But nobody doubted that these other conservative men were the contemporary composers. My father thought so himself, and this Bartók, he never heard anything like that and nobody else there had either. So I asked him what kind of music that was and he said modern music. And I said I’m going to write modern music and that was my start. Then my father recalled a classmate of his, a fellow violin student, Ernest Bloch, was a composer. So we got his sonata, which we considered really rough stuff—far out, wild stuff at the time. Besides that, it sounded to my father and his colleagues to be very ugly and human. I heard that and we learned to play together and I thought that settles it. So the question then was what kind of education should I have so I could become a composer of wild modern music. The word was in those times, that if you wanted to be a great wild composer like Strauss or Mahler, you had to have a solid background. Once you learned how to write solid music, perhaps you try to write something else. And there were many solid teachers in Montreal. Mostly Englishmen, English church organists, all of them Doctor somebody. So my father said, “Well, you’ve got to do that first. Everybody does.” He found out that Bartók had done the same, and as a teacher he taught strict counterpoint. So he said, “You’ll be no place unless you do what all your heroes have done.” So, it was textbook harmony and species counterpoint and I was terrible at it. I had three English teachers in turn and they all thought I was hopeless at it and I thought so too. My father was bewildered and he said, “How are you going to be any kind of composer, even the kind you want to be, if you can’t do what every composer has had to do for the past 500 years?”
FRANK J. OTERI: This is interesting then because from what you’ve just said about the instruments you were building and the sounds you were interested in, you were experimenting with music before you ever heard any so-called experimental music. You were doing this on your own.
HENRY BRANT: I didn’t think it was experimental. I wanted to write for a bunch of people, not just two or three, and I used what I had.
FRANK J. OTERI: So this idea of doing very large things was something that you had even as a child. Big, public music…
HENRY BRANT: That’s true, yes.