Henry Brant life and biography

Henry Brant picture, image, poster

Henry Brant biography

Date of birth : 1913-09-15
Date of death : 2008-04-26
Birthplace : Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Nationality : Canadian-American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2011-11-21
Credited as : composer, Pulitzer Prize in Music, Ice Field

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American composer Henry Brant won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his spatial-music composition Ice Field. Brant is a twentieth-century pioneer of spatial music, a form of live music in which various instruments are positioned on the stage and at times even throughout a concert hall to achieve a desired effect. Some of Brant's works have debuted out of doors, in parks and plazas.

Brant is Canadian by birth, born in 1913, in Montreal, Quebec. He studied at the Conservatory of that city's McGill University for three years, until 1929, when he moved to New York City with his family. Just 16 years old, he began writing experimental music around this time. It was the height of the Great Depression, however, and both demand and cultural stipends for such avant-garde artistic efforts were minimal at best. He spent four years at the Juilliard School, during which time he wrote his first large ensemble work, Angels and Devils, a 1931 concerto for ten flutists.

During World War II Brant found work as a composer and conductor for documentary films made by the U.S. Office of War Information and the Department of Agriculture. He also wrote for various radio network series of classical music, and he taught at Columbia University until 1953. He also taught at Juilliard, and from 1957 to 1980 he was on the faculty of Vermont's Bennington College. It was his work for film and radio, however, that he believed ignited his creative spark.

Brant began composing in earnest in the 1950s, and his 1953 work Antiphony 1, which premiered at a performance hall in New York City with five groups of musicians, marked the first instance when he was finally able to achieve what he considered a three-dimensional sound. In 1955 he became the first American composer to win the Prix Italia. Works such as the 1956 spatial opera Grand Universal Circus, Concerto with Lights from 1961, and Total Antiphony in 83 Parts, a 1963 work, followed. One Brant work, a 1970 piece titled Kingdom Come, features an orchestra on stage playing dissonant music, but also a noise orchestra in the balcony, replete with buzzers, whistles, and air compressors.

Brant worked in a genre the proponents of which included composers Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Harry Partch, all avant-garde spatial music pioneers. A conductor familiar with Brant's work, Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, called him "a sort of musical equivalent of Alexander Calder--the wonderfully exuberant wackiness of it all--and at the same time it's very well thought out," Thomas told San Francisco Chronicle writer Joshua Kosman.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Brant continued to compose and conduct his works for orchestras and various other combinations of instruments. A Spatial Piano Concerto was written in 1976, and Orbits, published three years later, featured 80 trombones and one organ. A 1984 work titled Fire in the Amstel, referring to the main river of the Dutch city of Amsterdam, featured a floating symphony on the city's network of canals. Four barges carried dozens of flutists, jazz drummers, brass bands, and even a church carillon. In 1982 Brant used a brass band, a Javanese Gamelan ensemble, the Wesleyan University orchestra, and a host of singers and other performers in Meteor Shower, his tribute to the university's world-music program.

A large roster of performers was also necessary for Northern Lights over the Twin Cities, a Brant piece that debuted in a sports arena in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1986. It boasted two choirs, an orchestra, a jazz band, large wind and percussion ensembles, five pianos, a quintet of vocalists, and a bagpipe band. In 1990 he helped inaugurate a new Dallas Symphony Hall with Prisons of the Mind, a work written for 314 musicians, each of whom were carefully scattered throughout the I.M. Pei-designed hall to showcase its superb acoustics.

Brant's 500: Hidden Hemisphere, dating from 1992, was an hour-long outdoor work with three concert bands and a steel-drum ensemble that played at one another from across the reflecting pool of New York's Lincoln Center. The plaza of this Manhattan arts center hosted another Brant premiere in 1995 with Dormant Craters. Jazz drummers, a steel drum group, Wesleyan University's Pandemonium percussion ensemble, and various other performers wielding tin pots and even power saws took the stage for this piece.

Glossary, a 2000 chamber work from Brant, had its premiere in Los Angeles in December of 2001. It includes a mezzo-soprano delivering lyrics consisting of computer terms and acronyms, and a dozen other performers surround the audience as well. Swed reviewed it in a Los Angeles Times article: "Brant conducted in his way, which was cueing performers by making gestures that mimicked the playing of invisible instruments" during its 25-minute duration, which Swed termed "wonderfully well performed and an utter delight."

Brant conducts his own works, and his performance attire is always colorful; he usually favors a track suit with a matching visor. Since the early 1980s he has been a resident of Santa Barbara, California. His Pulitzer Prize-winning Ice Field was commissioned by Other Minds, a San Francisco new music group. This 20-minute organ concerto had its premiere in December of 2001 in a San Francisco Symphony engagement. Members of the San Francisco Symphony played string instruments and pianos on stage, while a side terrace of Davies Hall was host to a section of oboes and bassoons. Percussion players were ensconced in the orchestra boxes, and a large brass ensemble played in the first tier. As Swed explained in the Los Angeles Times, "the piece asks each group of instruments to play in a distinctive style--brash and jazzy or dark and melancholic. Some groups are on their own; some are controlled by one of two conductors the piece requires. At one end of the second tier, three piccolos and three clarinets make chaotic background noise that doesn't connect with anything--Brant said it represents everyday life."

The composer, meanwhile, took center stage playing the organ himself for Ice Field. Swed asserted that "Brant's contribution to the performance was the most distinctive of all. He set loose the organ's tallest pipe, creating near earthquake-strength vibrations. The result is an antidote to concert-hall claustrophobia, a feeling that space can expand to include whatever we need to fit in it." Swed concluded that Ice Field leaves the listener with a sense of gratification. "You feel not that you have been given a respite from fractious modern society (which is what some listeners have come to expect from classical music), but that you are now better prepared to deal with it," asserted Swed.
Not every critic was receptive to Brant's iconoclasm. The New York Times sent critic Bernard Holland to San Francisco for the Ice Field premiere, and Holland wrote that the composition and its performance "lies somewhere between precision planning and controlled chaos, a mixture of smart bombs and dumb ones. Things happen regularly but never in quite the same way at every performance. Mr. Brant's organ chords and manic passagework seem to cue each new onslaught."

Brant was surprised to be honored with the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Music. "I never expected that the kind of music that I write would win a Pulitzer," he told Los Angeles Times writer Diane Haithman. "It's also an encouragement to me to continue along these general lines. I hope to write some very large works, for big choral groups, and big instrumental groups, with the addition of ensembles from other cultures." In a less serious vein, he has also cited his longevity as a crucial factor. "The main thing is for a composer to stick around as long as possible and keep working," he told Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle article, "otherwise you miss things like this." That same year, Brant was invited to serve as composer-in-residence for the University of California Santa Barbara's New Music Festival.

A short piece titled Prophets had its premiere in Brant's hometown in the spring of 2002. Santa Barbara's First Methodist Church and Congregation B'nai Brith hosted the ecumenical event, with Prophets drawing upon Old Testament texts in Hebrew for inspiration. Four cantors sang, "while the ceremonial Jewish horn called the shofar punctuated the incantations," wrote Woodard in a Los Angeles Times review. The critic asserted that "the indecipherable mesh of parts conspired toward a uniquely meditative effect. True to the nature of many Brant works, it wasn't the specifics, but the spirit, that counted."

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