Spaced Out with Henry Brant

Fitting Into The Tradition

FRANK J. OTERI: As long as we’re talking about this and tradition and having a connection to other composers, I want to ask you where you feel you fit in the tradition.

HENRY BRANT: Do I have to fit in?

FRANK J. OTERI: No [laughs] and I’m glad that you don’t! But I’m curious about where you view yourself because I remember reading somewhere that you don’t consider yourself a maverick composer. I thought that was very strange because I do consider you a maverick.

HENRY BRANT: Tilson Thomas says I’m a card-carrying maverick and that’s suitable for musicologists or publicity, but when you get through it, what does it describe? I’ll go a little farther. I’m a maverick composer, Tilson Thomas says so. Also, I can do a rope trick. How many other composers can do that?

FRANK J. OTERI: I play with strings too! [laughs] Well, when you talked to Molly about the Pulitzer Prize you said that you were just starting to figure things out and now that you’ve got that prize, you’ve reached a new plateau. That’s quite an amazing thing for someone of your stature to say and for someone who’s been writing music for such a long time.

HENRY BRANT: You figure the number of mistakes I’ve had time to make and after every one I know a little more than I did before.

FRANK J. OTERI: Since receiving the Pulitzer Prize, have there been more performances of your music? More recognition of your work?

HENRY BRANT: Not in any widespread way… There have been enquiries about the works. But the problem is still that there are rumors about my music that prejudice many people against it. It is said, for instance, that a piece of mine can only be played once, in the place it was written for. It is said that my music is so difficult and complicated that it can only be played once in a while. That isn’t true. It’s no harder than anyone else’s music. If it were, it wouldn’t be played at all. I wouldn’t be the person really to answer that question. As a winner of a Pulitzer Prize, I’m not unique.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, the Pulitzer Prize has meant different things for different composers over the years. You know, Ives got it for a piece that he had written 30 years earlier and he didn’t even want it and he didn’t even attend the performance, whereas other composers get it earlier in their career and it really helped to establish them. Charles Wuorinen got it when he was quite young and Aaron Kernis got it in the last few years and he’s still a relatively young composer and so that sort of sent those composers into different places in their careers. So what can the Pulitzer Prize accomplish for Henry Brant?

HENRY BRANT: I couldn’t tell you. I think more curiosity about what that is. Before the Pulitzer Prize I was vaguely known, my name was, and I was vaguely known as a kind of minor screwball music. Now they say, “Well, let’s look at this minor screwball music.” That’s about it.

FRANK J. OTERI: You told Molly that you were working on an oratorio based on the poetry of John Muir, that this is a project you’ve wanted to do for decades…

HENRY BRANT: Well, that one has been superceded by another project which is going to be for five choruses and two pipe organs, in a church which really has them, and also orchestra and I will be working with my old collaborator Leonardo da Vinci. I think the name is Clouds, Wind, Water, and Air and it’s supposed to be about what’s still left of the planet while I’m here to write it. It may not be possible to write such a piece in the future except about the past.

FRANK J. OTERI: And what about the settings of John Muir poetry?

HENRY BRANT: Well, I’d like to do that too. I can’t do anything though unless I have a performance and a commission.

FRANK J. OTERI: I know I heard that you were interested in writing more pieces for the Real Violin Octet, the Hutchins Consort.

HENRY BRANT: Sure. I’d be delighted but it isn’t so easy for a so-called “maverick” composer to find work, to find a market for his product, that is to say. Anybody who wants my kind of spatial piece, well you figure it requires a big outlay of performers and a venue where the audience expects the kind of product I make. I suppose if somebody wanted me to write a piece in a known style or a conventional style, I’d do it if the inducement were sufficient because it’s easy for me to write in many styles, but it would be principally something to make life a little more comfortable and to make opportunities for other kinds of music that I’d be more interested in. I’d like to write film scores but the lowly and humiliating position of composers of film scores I know about through personal experience and at my age I feel that I’m not inferior to a producer or a director in what the music should sound like and the worst thing is that the editor has the power of turning the volume. He can say what the dynamics are. So it’s not an optimistic time, I feel, for expressive music. I mean expressive music that’s really good for the nervous system, that’s not a sedative and not an addictive-sounding drug, but something that really feeds the nerves. Whereas there’s a big market for sedative music of all kinds and, as you know, much effort has been expended especially in recorded music of new kinds and technologies.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I’m glad at least that the Pulitzer committee acknowledged the great contribution that you’ve made and it’s wonderful that we got to spend an afternoon with you to talk about this music.

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