Spaced Out with Henry Brant

On Orchestration

FRANK J. OTERI: What you’re mostly known for is a heterogeneous music—different groups of people playing in different styles in different places—but some of my favorite pieces of yours are homogenous to the extreme, music for ensembles of the exact same type of instrument. I’m thinking of Angels and Devils scored for an ensemble of flutes. It’s nothing but flute sound. And then there’s Orbits, that 80-trombone piece!

HENRY BRANT: Nothing in my thinking is against music of one timbre only. Since writing Angels and Devils I’ve gotten the idea that, unlike the flute pieces which are only four and half octaves, the family should be extended with different instruments. My newest piece, the successor to Angels and Devils written 70 years later, has bass flutes.

FRANK J. OTERI: You were the first composer to get involved with the Violin Octet, which is supposed to be a real violin ensemble of eight identically designed instruments across the pitch range.

HENRY BRANT: It’s a more rational string orchestra. Carleen Hutchins built these instruments at my suggestion to fill the missing gaps. For instance, the instrument between the viola and the cello should have been there a long time ago and she made one and she finally made a very good one. Also, an instrument an octave above the violin so that you’re not playing the violin way up, so that things could be done with lower tension, and larger basses… With the trombones I was able to get four and half [octaves] at most. There I had all the sizes that are now made. It means that some of the most elementary things in music you hear for the first time—what harmony sounds with perfectly rational and natural layouts played in the same tone quality. Most of our music exists in five octaves, but mostly in the middle range.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, you’re working on a book about orchestration, which you talked about with Molly Sheridan after you won the Pulitzer and I saw it on the table here. How is this book different than other books on orchestration?

HENRY BRANT: It’s conventional in some ways. I don’t take up spatial orchestra, which is so different a field and so elaborate that it wouldn’t meet the immediate needs of most composers. Most composers need to find recipes so that what they’ve got will first of all be clear and secondly have a range of timbres that they didn’t know about and a book that limits itself to that and says nothing about the mechanism of instruments and technique is going to be about five pages anyway. There are many examples, all of which I composed in a neutral style. Now, neutral style nowadays takes in a lot of ground. It has no quotes from any music of mine or anybody else’s. There are things I’ve written down over the last 50 years—whenever I heard something that was unusual I made a note of it.

FRANK J. OTERI: This was all done with a typewriter.

HENRY BRANT: I can’t even type I’m so far back in the Stone Age.

FRANK J. OTERI: You send email to people, don’t you?

HENRY BRANT: Yeah, but it’s put together by Kathy.

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