Spaced Out with Henry Brant

Popular Music and Formal Processes

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s so funny now to look back at a time when jazz was considered evil music because now jazz has even moved into academia. The role that jazz had then is a role that rock music doesn’t even really have anymore in our society. I think that nowadays most musically trained people accept rock. I think the only thing that comes close is maybe rap music, hip-hop. A lot of people, including classical and jazz players, harbor negative feelings about rap. I don’t know what your feelings are about recent popular music.

HENRY BRANT: My view of it is quite different. I think that popular music in its instrumental form is in a crisis that the musicians don’t know how to solve. It’s evil is the evil of all pop music that we know, that you mentioned. The harmony is the dregs, the refuse of European music from fifty years ago and until they throw that out, every Goddamned bit of it, it’s going to sound like that. Also, although improvised jazz, especially its earlier form, did have something contrapuntal about it, most of what you hear now has none. It has harmony and the harmony is the harmony of corpses in my opinion. That’s its real crisis and for that reason, I take none of these styles seriously. And it’s serious because our so-called classically trained musicians learn nothing about jazz. There ought to be the best jazz performers teaching at Juilliard and everybody ought to learn that just like they learn Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin. And the inability to do that means the people who are the most gifted instrumentalists and conductors are embarrassed when they’re confronted with something that’s in a popular idiom of any kind and that is a serious matter.

FRANK J. OTERI: Juilliard recently started a jazz department.

HENRY BRANT: Well, there’s another side to it. Jazz musicians know nothing about how to construct. They construct as far as a chorus and then another one and another one. What they do is, when they learn how to make big kind of melodies, usually they abandon their jazz material. They’re intimidated by the tremendous weight of this formidable tradition and they don’t write jazz. The boys that do know the constructive thing never play in a band and never learn to perform really well. They don’t take it seriously; they don’t even take their own kind of performance seriously, which is one of the things that I think is sort of a suicide. Many young composers don’t practice. Other people perform our music. If you don’t practice it means you lose the sense of what it means to make a note and make a sound. Well, there are some of my prejudices. In 89 years, I’ve accumulated a good many and they get more bigoted as time goes on.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, since you say that popular music is stifled because it can’t get past an outdated harmonic vocabulary, are older forms and instrumental combinations still valid for music being created today. Do you feel that there’s no point in writing a concerto or a string quartet? Could new things still be said in those tradition bound forms?

HENRY BRANT: It’s a very complicated and far-reaching question. For one thing, I feel that what is called “form” in music, very pretentiously, is very arbitrary. The whole tradition is based on absolutely nothing. The idea of writing 100 movements all of them in sonata form can be explained by musicologists who can explain anything. But you can make an arbitrary form and if you’re Stravinsky or Bartók or Beethoven or Bach you can make it just as convincing as the sonata form. I’ve made that test many times myself and, for what I am doing now, what makes the form is the room where the piece will first be played because that place will show where the groups of instruments can be. There are only certain places where they can be and that already dictates the continuity of the piece. It already says something about the way the piece is going to sound and that’s what I do. I go into the hall, look around, ask the stage manager and somebody from the fire department where I’m allowed to put players and I decide—already there are eight groups consisting of this or that type of players. That’s the form before anything else has happened, because those are the ingredients. Now, if you want to be sure that you will know exactly what’s going to happen then just have them all at once it is doesn’t matter where they are. But the whole point in placing them in certain locations is they should be able to articulate materials more sharply, more clearly, because of their position. Out of that will then come, “Well this one will be first and that one further along the line and then maybe there’ll be these three sections together, and that is form. All that form means is continuity. My hearing and memory are no worse than probably the average person. If I tell you honestly what I hear when you play me a ten minute symphony piece, whether old or new, I’ll tell you I don’t remember anything beyond the first two minutes. My mind wanders. Now if my mind wanders in that way, possibly other people’s do too, both people who are educated musically and people who aren’t. But you hear nothing about this. What do you remember about a new piece? You remember the beginning and you remember the end because they stop playing and it got louder there or softer there. That’s the form that most people remember; they do not remember the third variant of the fourth tone row in retrograde and its reverse form was hinted at. Nobody hears that; don’t let anybody kid you! I don’t hear it and it may be that I’ve got rotten perception but it probably isn’t worse than most people’s.

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