Spaced Out with Henry Brant

Spatial Music

FRANK J. OTERI: The notion of music existing in space as well as time was a very radical notion when you first started doing this. Were there precedents for you?

HENRY BRANT: Yes, there were and I will tell you how I came up with it. I like music that is complicated. I like a lot going on because you have some chance of remembering it if there’s more stuff to remember than the alleged manipulations of material. In ordinary life it’s never simple. You’re aware of so many things and music has the advantage. It’s temporal, like ordinary experience. Well, I’ve never been a great fan of the simpler, cut down music with fewer things. It seems to me that’s arbitrary. It just isn’t true in ordinary life. Even now, look at the amount of things that are happening in this room both known and unknown to us and things that each of us is aware of. Why should music (I’ve figured after a long tortured cogitation about this) cut itself off from the experience of the most ordinary kind of life? It seems to me that since many different things happen, they should happen. My first experience was writing a very complicated texture and they were on the stage playing it all together. Well, to tell the truth, with more than ten linear parts, I didn’t know what was going on. I assumed they were playing the right notes, or approximately the right notes, but something was the matter here and the answer is: Don’t be simple; be pure. Abase yourself. One note is good enough… I don’t like that kind of thing. That is my temperament. So I thought there’s got to be some way to make complicated music intelligible. So that’s the whole thing. Now, usually the word form is given to you as the thing that makes music intelligible. I think it’s the thing that makes music unintelligible in the case of most music. And then, three things happened in about a year. I heard the Berlioz Requiem in Paris in the place where it was first performed. There were four brass choirs in the corner of the balcony and there were sixteen timpani in the middle of the floor and a symphony orchestra to one side of that and a chorus on the other side of that and I began to see that there’s a lot going on. He’s doing it harmonically because he despised counterpoint. That was one thing. Then when I was teaching at Juilliard, somebody told me about the music of Gabrieli which used to be played in St. Mark’s. So I got hold of it and saw that he writes for two, three, four groups of instruments, mostly brass, sometimes with voices too, and it is known that they were placed in different parts and I thought he put them in different places because he wants them to be identified in a different way. It’s not the same as Berlioz. I spoke to Stokowski about this about twenty years before all this. He’d been there in Venice and his idea was to try to play some of this Gabrieli in St. Mark’s and was told we can’t do this; the building has to be repaired. The police won’t allow it. This stuff is so out of date anyway; nobody listens to it. But he finally got permission to do this and he found out one thing which solved the one puzzle. All those Gabrieli pieces end with a place at the end where all of those choirs perform all at once and you hear a time lag every time, and what’s supposed to be sublime is sublimely out-of-tune harmony, a sublime messy ensemble. He found that no matter where you placed the groups, there was a time lag. So, I’m beginning to get some of this through my dull head and then I got a collection of Ives and it had a piece called The Unanswered Question. It said there were actually three pieces being played at once in different parts of the hall by different instrumental groups and I didn’t believe it, so I played it with my students. Then I got a commission to write an orchestral piece. So I said I’ll do it. I waited all this time without knowing what I should do and then it became clear. All music is space music. Every piece of music is situated in some space where it’s being played and it couldn’t be played otherwise. There has to be a space for you to play your trumpet and a place for me out in the audience to hear it and for the sound waves to move and space for them to reverberate in the hall. Space is a convention. It’s set up in such a way that the performing part is over here and the listening part is over there, but it’s just as much space music as anything else. It then occurred to me that it might be possible to use the space more expressively, and that would be a much more natural way and so I wrote my first spatial piece. Before I wrote it, my gifted student Teo Macero, whose name is probably known to you, succeeded in producing a jazz concert at Juilliard for the very first time. He asked me if I’d mind if he’d do a special piece for five jazz orchestras, separated, each playing something different, improvisation as well as written music. So I said, “Teo, if you can make that thing go, go ahead and do it but I don’t see how you’re gonna do it.” [laughs] He did this. He brought in this piece and performed it. So that, I would say, is the first spatial orchestral piece along the lines I worked. Mine followed that by about six months and had no jazz in it.

FRANK J. OTERI: When you’re writing a piece like that, you mentioned going into a room and experiencing it before working on the piece. That’s very different from the notion we have of a composer creating music out of his or her head and completed on paper. There’s a real connection to the physical world in what you’re talking about that there really isn’t in the standard, abstract tabula rasa idea of how a work is created.

HENRY BRANT: That’s very true.

FRANK J. OTERI: So do you always write a piece keeping in mind the place where it will receive its premiere? And if so, how does that translate if the piece is ever done somewhere else? Are these all one-time deals?

HENRY BRANT: Fortunately, I’ve had a very practical musical life. I’ve had to do things that have got to be ready tomorrow and they’ve got to be playable. So I realized that that was what I want. I didn’t want to write complicated music that would require a lot of rehearsals and never get played. I admired Ives but I didn’t want to produce music in that manner. So it occurred to me that in order for it to be practical, the spatial aspect had to be transferable, within reason, to any hall and all my pieces say in the prefatory note, “If you can’t do this, then don’t play the piece. Do not attempt or presume to play it all from the stage.” This is very difficult to convince conductors of.

FRANK J. OTERI: When you’re working on a piece, you’re obviously not in the hall, so your memory of having been in the hall before you started working is what shapes the music. So, let’s say, if you’re thinking of a piece that has a flute over here in the left corner and a group of trombones in the right corner and maybe a piano hanging from the ceiling and a group of percussionists in the back of the hall. I’m just making this up…

HENRY BRANT: That’s O.K.

FRANK J. OTERI: Or maybe there’s a flute on the left side and another flute on the right side…

HENRY BRANT: No. I don’t do that. That’s like music in airports. That’s confusing. You never know where it’s really coming from.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you would always group the same instruments together in one location? You never have the same instruments in more than one location?

HENRY BRANT: No. That’s asking for trouble. If what you want is clarity and the directionality gives you that clarity, then you’d wipe it out. That’s the fault of Stockhausen‘s Gruppen, which he claimed was the very first spatial piece ever written and he didn’t know that I did the second one eight years before that and performed it.

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

HENRY BRANT: That’s the trouble with spatial pieces that you may hear. I’ve written 112 for big and little combinations, up to as many as 400 and down to as few as 3. It takes a long time to learn how this thing works. You have to write a lot of pieces and make a lot of mistakes. Many composers give up after a few, half a dozen. They say it’s no good. You can’t make it work. Well, they can’t make it work. So, let’s take your spatial piece that you’ve given me. The next question is what should those trombones play so there’s a reason for them being in those places. First of all, they must be highly individualized so that they never play the same material. You don’t toss material back and forth in the way you’re supposed to with traditional orchestration. Keep the same material for each tone quality or the same kind of material. I’ve heard spatial pieces that were wrecked because the composer didn’t know that. So, once you’ve decided those things you know a good deal about your piece.

FRANK J. OTERI: These pieces are designed to work theoretically in a variety of places even though the result might never be exactly the same as the result in the hall it was originally intended for.

HENRY BRANT: I’d say it should be 85 percent the same plan. If the piece is written with enough care, it can stand that much punishment. But it cannot be changed so that there’s only 50%. I’ve run into conductors who actually have the presumption to change the position of some of the groups. One of them, a well-known conductor, said, “Well, I can’t hear this.” And I said, “It’s not for you to hear; it’s for the audience to hear. It’s for you to produce.”

FRANK J. OTERI: This is a problem with preserving your music on recordings because almost all recordings put all sound onto two speakers. There haven’t been a lot of recordings of your music. And, for better or worse, in our society today, recordings are the predominant way that music is transmitted and discovered. In fact, even I have to admit that most of the music I know I know only through recordings; most pieces I’ve never had a chance to hear live. You might say I don’t really know those pieces…

HENRY BRANT: Well, you know who decides the spatial arrangement that’s going to get on a recording. The engineer, not the composer… Who the hell is the engineer? Did he write the piece? Did he figure it out? Did he figure out a spatial plan? Did he participate in the performance? No, but he’s at the top of the totem pole. He’s very grand and the composer is some little worm that put this insignificant thing together. I apologize for the violence of my language but I’m long suffering. So, the first thing is this: My recordings of which you’ve heard, they sound good. They sound as good as anybody else’s recordings for one reason: I know more about orchestration than most composers. I’ve had more experience. I made something that has a good orchestral sound even if you take the space away. Nobody’s ever complained about how thin my music is on recording. Have you heard any of it live?

FRANK J. OTERI: Very little.

HENRY BRANT: Anybody who’s heard a piece of mine live will tell you, although you may find it satisfactory in some ways when you hear it in recording, something comes to you when you hear it live that recordings don’t even hint at. But without the recordings, I’d have nothing. At least with the recordings, there’s some interest in my music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Of course, there are now new technologies out there that might better serve to document your music. I’m thinking of something like 5.1 surround-sound DVDs, for example.

HENRY BRANT: It’s an engineer’s concept that aims at a generalized diffusion of the sound. That’s exactly the opposite of what I do. I want directional sound. I want it to come from there and nowhere else and I don’t want the illusion where you’re fooled into believing that something’s coming from so many places when it’s really only coming from one position. Also, the absolute insane disproportion between the role of the engineer and the role of the composer is to me absolutely destructive. A recording is, in my point of view, an engineer’s creation.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you don’t feel that surround sound would work for your music?

HENRY BRANT: I’ve heard the effects of it. There is some music—I was talking to Tilson Thomas about this—in which a generalized distribution of the sound all over is appropriate and there are some places where he told me he goes to some length to try to get that. This is a comparatively small area of expression in the western tradition.

FRANK J. OTERI: Using this same technology though, couldn’t it somehow be used for a different end? Rather than having the sound come from everywhere in all the speakers, couldn’t the speakers have more focused, directionalized sound so that, in essence the recording would be trying to recreate the spatial distribution you are doing in a hall?

HENRY BRANT: A recording could do that. The technology is fully capable of having sound coming from six real sources and not speakers picking up many sources mixed different ways. But it’s neither a composer’s concept nor is it commercial. Who’s going to make a set-up of that kind that requires six speakers in your living room? If it fits six, it does not fit five or two or three. They are very different things and that difference is a very simple matter to a composer.

FRANK J. OTERI: I know that you’ve said that you dislike amplification and electronic sound.

HENRY BRANT: Well, first of all, a loud speaker is a musical instrument with a tone quality of its own—a very poor tone quality! What we’re told is that it’s even better than the original in some ways, that it lacks the drawbacks of acoustic instruments and the imperfection of human performance. This kind of thing I can’t believe. Also, the organic constituents of the sounds that are electronically produced are vastly different, not a little different, but vastly, fundamentally different and they affect the nervous system in different ways. I’m sure that careful studies of this will show this and I think it’s very much my business to think about such things. I don’t have to think of them very much when I deal with live performers on acoustic instruments; I know I’ve got one thing and when I’ve got synthetically derived sounds I’ve got another. One is organic and the other one is not and you can taste it on your dinner table.

FRANK J. OTERI: So have you ever written for electronic instruments?

HENRY BRANT: Yeah. When I want microtones

FRANK J. OTERI: You didn’t feel you could write microtonally for standard acoustic instruments?

HENRY BRANT: I did and I still do, but if I want microtones, I want someone to press a key and play the note. I don’t want a slide in between unless it’s a whole concept that involves sliding. A friend of mine, a composer, told me, “We’ve got a Japanese thing here that will give you microtones, anything you want.” “Well,” I said, “all I want is quartertones to start with.” So I wrote this piece and I heard my quartertones, but I realized there was something the matter because of the way they combined resultant tones, which is not the way music acoustically produced would. So I’m the worst possible person to talk to about any of the new magical solutions for sound, recording, composers, and stuff like that. I can’t talk to many composers about this; they don’t know what I’m getting so excited about.

FRANK J. OTERI: What do you think of this whole notion of making music on the Web? There are now musicians who collaborate from different locations, in different rooms, in different cities, by being hooked up through the Internet, which creates a whole new realm of spatial music…

HENRY BRANT: It’s not very realistic. Who can hear music in different cities live?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, of course, they’re hearing it through the speakers. [laughs]

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