Spaced Out with Henry Brant
FRANK J. OTERI: When you did finally study composition, you studied with some of the leading experimental composers at the time, people like George Antheil, Wallingford Riegger, Copland, whom you studied with informally… What led to you meeting up with these people?
HENRY BRANT: Henry Cowell was what made it possible. He came to Montreal in the mid-20s and gave one of his concerts in which he played with his elbows and played inside the piano and things like that. He played at McGill University and shocked and horrified everybody, but my father liked him and brought him to the house and he immediately took an interest in what I was doing. He spent a lot of time with me. One of the things I showed him was Symphony No. 1, nine pages long. I wrote this because I’d heard that sick composers usually wrote masterpieces during their illness. I had an ear abscess and the only treatment was to stick a needle through it, which meant a long convalescence, just the right time for me to write a symphony. I didn’t have many orchestral scores, but I had a German dictionary that had the first page of Beethoven‘s Fifth Symphony in score. My father got me a couple more scores and he had some from his student days so I thought, all right I’m ready to do this. Later when I showed it to Aaron Copland, he looked at it carefully and on one page he said, “There’s something very strange about this page…It wouldn’t sound at all bad if it were played!”
FRANK J. OTERI: This isn’t the same Symphony No. 1 that was recorded at some point?
HENRY BRANT: It was nine pages of homemade, 12-year old writing.
FRANK J. OTERI: Is that score still around somewhere?
HENRY BRANT: No.
FRANK J. OTERI: You got rid of it?
HENRY BRANT: No, I didn’t. In rattling around the country for the last 75 years, a lot of music disappeared.
FRANK J. OTERI: So Cowell introduced you to Wallingford Riegger?
HENRY BRANT: What he said to my father was, “Henry might amount to something. He’s got some talent and ability, but in this town he will do nothing. He will disappear. If you possibly can, get him to New York where there are people who can help him.” Now, my father took this very seriously and he said, “We’re moving to New York.” Just like that! That’s how I moved to New York. Once I got to New York, things happened very fast. A friend of the family knew Aaron Copland’s piano teacher, Clarence Adler, and I played for him. He said with piano playing I knew nothing, but with the kind of music I was writing I ought to meet a real modern composer and he’d arrange it. So he set up an appointment for me to see Aaron Copland and I played what I’d written for piano so far and he said right away, “You want to play this in two weeks at one of my concerts?” The Copland-Sessions concerts. After this, things happened quite rapidly, and I’d met most of the up-to-date, forward-looking, self-esteemed geniuses at the time. There weren’t so many at that time—if you’d met fifty that was the entire modern music active group.
FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of your studies with these people—with Copland it was rather informal.
HENRY BRANT: Yes. I went to The Juilliard School at the same time. I was able to get scholarships throughout. I discovered that the way to exist was to write one kind of music for The Juillard School, for my conservative instructors, and another kind for downtown where they really composed music. So I did these simultaneously and on one occasion, my Juilliard teacher, Leopold Mannes, met Aaron Copland and discussed me. And they discussed two pieces that seemed to be somewhat alike and Leopold Mannes said, “I prefer the one that he wrote for me.” And Copland said, “Well, the other one is the one that gets my vote.”
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, at that time, Riegger was one the first American composers, if not the very first, to embrace the methods of twelve-tone composition.
HENRY BRANT: Yes.
FRANK J. OTERI: Was that something that was an influence on you at that time?
HENRY BRANT: No. I’ll say two things. Riegger was one of the most active people in the so-called modern music establishment and my father was still worried about my lack of solidity, so he finally said to me, “Now, look, here’s Riegger. He’s no washed out radical as you consider others to be. He’s really way out there.” And I asked Riegger about this sort of thing and he said, “I studied the species counterpoint and I studied the textbook harmony and so has every composer I know of.” So my father said, “Do me a favor; study this stuff with him.” So I tried it again and it was a little different. It was German style. I preferred the French and Italian style that Mannes had learned in Italy and France, but once again, I was just terrible at it. So I finally consoled myself. I ran across the history of Beethoven’s studies with Albrechtsberger and other people and, although he was anxious to learn it, he too was terrible. So I said if he could be terrible, so can I. So it was worth absolutely nothing at all to me. I had a solid background with half a dozen teachers and if they all could be around now they’d say unanimously that they’d never seen a worse pupil in their lives. On the other hand, when I tackled an imitation of a contemporary style it was very different. I easily won all the Juilliard prizes at the time. Nobody could compete with me. Nobody could write a symphony. I wrote one there; it was never played. And long pieces of chamber music that were a mixture of the more conservative contemporary styles at the time and for concerts downtown, I wrote music as experimentally as I could.
FRANK J. OTERI: So, Riegger never taught you twelve-tone composition.
HENRY BRANT: I want to talk about that. I’d heard of it and by that time I knew Schoenberg‘s earlier music, the middle music, and tone-row music and I made up my mind about several things. One of them was never to follow a trend and this seemed to me to be an obvious, superficial trend. His premises were dishonest because the music that was written never followed it in any case. Not only have I never written a tone-row piece, but at one time I had a standing challenge to any composer. I’d give any composer five bucks who could tell the difference between two pieces that I wrote: one tone row and one not twelve-tone row. I maintain that you don’t have to go by the tone row to get music that sounds like that, just like Schoenberg didn’t have to. And nobody ever took me up on it.
FRANK J. OTERI: So you never wrote those two pieces?
HENRY BRANT: I did.
FRANK J. OTERI: So, you did write a twelve-tone piece!
HENRY BRANT: Hopefully to show that it could be faked.
FRANK J. OTERI: How did you come into contact with George Antheil?
HENRY BRANT: I was studying with Copland and I reached a point where I was bringing him a symphonic movement fully scored every week and they were in a sort of international up-to-date style of the time, such that was played at symphony concerts and European music festivals. So one day I brought him what I think was my seventh or eighth such piece and he said, “Your problem is that you don’t have any musical problem. Everything’s too easy for you. There’s nothing that you can’t do. You can write a symphony piece in a week and you do it all right. But there’s something missing and that something missing is that there’s nothing that’s really internally experienced.” So, the next week I tried to write something that was internally experienced. And he said, “I can tell that there’s the effort to experience something internally, but it’s not really there.” So I said, “How am I going to get this thing?” And he said, “You must live. It’s clear that you haven’t had a personal life at all. And what composer can write without something personal that he puts into his music.” This had never occurred to me, and I said, “What do you suggest?” And he said, “Well, go off for a year and learn about life.” So I left his presence and thought, I’m a composer but I’ve got to learn about life whatever life is, and I bumped into George Antheil whom I’d met on previous occasions and who was very encouraging. He said, “What’s up with you?” So I told him that I’m about to learn about life and stop composing. He wanted to know how I arrived at that and I said, “Well, a mutual friend of ours, a composer, so advised me.” So he said, “You’re a composer. Your life is composing. How can you live if you don’t compose?” And I said, “I don’t know.” “How many pages could you write in a week?” And I said, “I don’t know. Maybe twenty-five orchestral pages.” “Could you write thirty-five?” “I think so.” “Come and see me next week and bring me thirty-five pages!” After, he became my teacher informally, and the idea was to write a lot—”Never stop writing, there’s no time to stop writing, you don’t know enough.”
FRANK J. OTERI: Now I find the connection to Antheil very interesting because he was somebody who was very interested in the idea of a musical composition as an event, certainly with a work like the Ballet Mechanique, and so many of your compositions much later in life are these big events. At the same time, Antheil was very influenced by jazz and a lot of your earlier music is influenced by jazz…
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s true.
HENRY BRANT: Well, I got many things from him which were extremely valuable to me. And one of the things was in order to manage with composing in difficult times—and this was the Depression now—was to be able to write in many styles, both popular and formal and classical and the method of doing this I first learned from Copland. At the first meeting I had with him I think he said, “You must be very fond of Scriabin‘s music.” And I said, “I never heard the name, what is it?” And he said, “Go to the library and get as much Scriabin as you can carry and play nothing but that for a few weeks.” That was the method. I found if I wanted to learn any style the thing was to get hold of the printed music and spend time with that and that alone. That was my method and I still recommend it. And that was before there were many recordings and before the things we have and I recommend it to composers now, but none of them will. It’s a lot of work to do that. Antheil also impressed me because he was a great pianist. What a player, especially of his own music. I was studying piano with James Friskin and I’ve never been sorry for it because he taught me the music I wanted to know about: the German classics. He said once, “Sit down and play something for me.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “Some piece you like.” So I played part of the Hammerklavier Sonata. And he said, “It’s good. You’re a musician but that’s not enough. You have to play like a devil. You’re playing like a good boy. You have to play like a bad boy otherwise the audience won’t listen.” So I thought this over and he showed me very often what he meant. I’d have a few pages of something and he played them and then continued the piece impromptu, improvising the rest, and it was tremendous piano playing, showing what he meant by the bad boy devil side of playing and this I understood. I hadn’t understood the learning about life thing, but something mean and nasty and getting an audience upset, this became clear to me by the way he played. Now, jazz was something else. At first, I had my parents’ idea that it was sort of an evil practice that led to disease and debilitation and even death and only people who were either foolish or depraved had anything to do with it. And also I knew that it was something that existed in sheet music on upright pianos in parlors, but when I was fifteen I was sent to a summer camp and all the boys had scratchy little phonographs on which they played various kinds of jazz, mostly the sort of country-club, easy-going stuff, but also some Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and when I heard that I thought I’ve got to learn how to do that. It’s just another style. It wasn’t so easy because the best kind of jazz wasn’t notated. Nobody knew how to notate it and what was notated, classically-trained musicians didn’t know how to read. Eventually, I solved this and now I can write things for a symphony orchestra and without telling them anything, just having them play what’s there, some jazz will come out. I don’t think I got this from Antheil. What I got was his violent way of playing jazzy parts in his own music. Violent, but not random, every time he played he hit something he wanted.