Henry BRANT (1913-2008)
The Henry Brant Collection - Volume 3
Wind, Water, Clouds and Fire (2004) [35:09]
Litany of Tides – Spatial Antiphonies for Solo Violin, Large Orchestra, Small Orchestra and Four Solo Sopranos (1983) [26:45]
Trinity of Spheres (1978) [11:28]
rec. 1979, Boettcher Hall, Denver, Colorado (Trinity); 1983, San Jose Center for the Performing Arts (Litany), originally released on LP by Sonic Arts Corp.; 2004, St. John’s Cathedral, Milwaukee (Wind)
INNOVA 410 [73:41]
You know how it is; you listen hard, trying to get your head round something completely new to you, and just when you think you’ve cracked it, a really awkward question bobs up and pokes a great big hole in your incipient glow of self-satisfaction. And that’s how it was. I’d reviewed two volumes of Innova’s The Henry Brant Collection, and was feeling quite comfortable with Brant’s concept (I nearly said “brand”!) of spatial music – and, right on cue, up bobbed that really awkward question. It’s quite important (otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered you with this tale), so let’s just walk through it.
If you have several groups of performers squeezed onto a conventional concert platform, each group playing its own music without any regard for the others, we all know that the result will be unmitigated chaos. That much is glaringly obvious, especially to anyone who’s listened to such as Ives’s Fourth Symphony (where, of course, the chaos is entirely intentional).
Brant, though, stumbled upon something rather less obvious and utterly unexpected. If you separate the groups widely, both laterally and vertically throughout the performing space, instead of chaos order would reign. However, experience also showed him that how well this worked depended on several factors. For instance, the more different the groups, the better it worked; the more distinctive the various materials, the better it worked; and the more independently of the others each group proceeded, the better it worked. These, along with other “parameters”, were not absolute – hence you could (so to speak) get away with less of some if you balanced it against more of others.
This much I’d gathered from doing a bit of homework, and the music I’d heard thus far seemed to confirm it well enough. At this point, of course, came the aforementioned awkward question: “But what about harmony? Shouldn’t the accidental collisions of dissonant notes be peppering this music with nasty-sounding discords?” Common sense (in spite of Kant’s savagely deprecatory definition) tells you that, if you are exposed to certain combinations of notes, they sound nice or otherwise entirely in accordance with the “rules” of harmony; an F, an F-sharp and a G (say) sounded simultaneously, from whatever directions they come at you, will always sound discordant. I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? Yet the remarkable fact is that in spatial music, unless deliberately “engineered” by the composer within a given group, there are no unduly nasty noises. Mull that one over! I did – for ages.
Naturally, this angle didn’t seem to be covered in any of my reading. To cut a long story less long, after much brain-wracking, I eventually came to this tentative conclusion: remarkable as it is, the harmonic fact is no more remarkable than the rest of this “order from chaos” thing, since what we might call the “principle of spatiality” quite evidently includes all the components of the music. Maybe my sources (who included Brant), assuming that this was self-evident (which with hindsight seems to be the case!), just didn’t bother to mention it. Maybe they should have – because it wasn’t “self-evident” to me, and I’m sure that I won’t be the only one to embroil myself in a mental wrestling match over it.
Rather annoyingly, that raises yet another question: “How come, then, when I’m hearing a “normal” musical work from very close quarters, so that (say) the cellos and violins are widely separated, I hear them in harmonic relation?”
At this point, to avoid mental melt-down, I think that we should get on with looking at Volume 3! This features two pieces from Brant’s “middle-period” and one work written the year before his death. On this last, the booklet is a bit confusing. It suggests that “Wind, Water, Clouds and Fire may be described as ‘an extraplanetary, environmental oratorio’”. I’m glad it said “may be”, because I’m inclined to reject the offer. And, having baulked at it, I feel duty-bound to justify myself.
Firstly the texts, which are taken from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, consist entirely of observations of terrestrial phenomena. Secondly, there’s a complementary suggestion that the work “is concerned with a contemplation of the workings of the natural world, and of the extent to which the increasing complexity of human affairs may conflict with basic planetary processes”. Going by the five words that I’ve italicised, “extraplanetary” doesn’t get so much as a look-in. However, the second suggestion actually adds to the confusion, because “human affairs”, complex or otherwise, are equally conspicuous by their absence, certainly from the texts (what you care to read into the music is entirely your own business).
Yet, the adjective “extraplanetary” has one further claim for its inclusion – Brant has pitched every note of the entire work above middle C, apparently to suggest “distances far beyond the planet Earth”. That would be well and good if, given the context, any real point in invoking that remote realm had been established. Happily, there happens to be a rather more pertinent reason much closer to home. It could easily, and I reckon more convincingly, suggest the light, fluid nature of the four, mostly atmospheric phenomena. So, can we settle for a straightforward “environmental oratorio”, do you think?
Spatially speaking, Wind, Water, Clouds and Fire is the most ambitious work thus far in Innova’s conspectus of Brant’s music. It may well be that Brant’s design was prompted by an unusual – but rather handy – feature of St. John’s Cathedral in Milwaukee, whose apse has been re-jigged (not without some fierce controversy) to form a “musician’s area”. The performers are distributed thus:
There are three women’s choruses, one halfway along each of the side aisles and one in the gallery (centre rear), and a children’s chorus in the apse area. With each women’s chorus is a solo wind player: oboe and soprano saxophone (aisles) and flute (gallery), plus two unison clarinets embedded in the children’s chorus. On one side of the apse is a tuned percussion group and on the other are two pianists (one doubling on harpsichord) and a harpist. At the rear, beneath the gallery is a (unison) group of violinists. There are six trumpeters: one at each corner of the congregational (audience) area; a jazz trumpeter on one side of the apse; a piccolo trumpeter on the other. Finally, the composer improvises on the gallery organ and a second xylophone.
That’s a total of fourteen locations – and, you’ll no doubt have noticed, there are several identically constituted groups: three women’s choruses and the six separate trumpeters. Of course, this being a two-channel recording, the groups behind our viewpoint sound as though they are in front. That adds up to a very crowded stereo sound-stage, with the children’s chorus, the third women’s chorus and the violins all apparently together near the middle – a cramped situation that is eased somewhat by the different impressions of distance courtesy of the cathedral’s pleasantly generous acoustic. You’d imagine that this apparent “crowding” together of what started as spatially separated sound-sources would revive those “nasty noises”. Yet, remarkably it doesn’t – and as yet I haven’t the faintest idea why not!
The work’s structure is complex, so I’ll just summarise. The music plays continuously (apart from a few GPs) and, as I see it, is divided into six broad sections. Each section comprises two or more episodes. The first episode of each section is purely instrumental. Somewhat in the manner of Nomads (see review), the choruses appear progressively, as four “solos” in Section 1, as two “duets” in Section 2, as a “quartet” in Section 3 and in various combinations thereafter. In each of Sections 1 to 4, the instrumental episode ends on the violins, which go on to create a running backdrop, which is never twice the same, to the whole section.
Section 5 breaks this pattern, and steers the musical argument into realms at once more contemplative and more perturbed. From this darkening of the mood you may, if you wish, divine something of the unvoiced concerns about “human affairs”. It opens with an instrumental episode that sounds remote, lonely, subdued, reflective – followed by an episode wherein the choruses “name their phenomena” in an imposing antiphony. Section 6 begins on a brief, agitated instrumental episode, yielding to very quiet choral notes, from which grows a big tutti pile-up whose climax is endowed, curiously enough, with some striking sense of synchronicity between the groups. The work ends in surging, up-sliding then stabbing, jubilant declamations of the name “Leonardo da Vinci!”
As with the violin group each of the choral groups has its own conductor. When playing, each group proceeds at its own pace, independently of all other performers. All entries and exits – I presume including the six solo trumpets (each a group of one), the keyboard/harp group and the percussion group – are co-ordinated by the chief conductor, Kevin Stalheim.
Each chorus is assigned a text relating to one phenomenon. However, other than “fire” being allotted to the children’s chorus, there’s nothing to distinguish them one from another. The full texts, English adaptations from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, are printed in the booklet. It’s just as well, because you can’t make out what words are being sung. You might be tempted to conclude that words are something that spatiality doesn’t render clear and comprehensible. Well, maybe you should hold your fire, because it’s nothing to do with the “spatial” rendering – even when just one chorus is singing (as happens right through Section 1) unintelligibility reigns just as supreme as it always does in opera and oratorio as we know them. I just made do with reading through the text before settling down to listen.
Apart from the choral skyrockets at the close, in terms of sheer decibels it is a relatively subdued work. This I’d put down to Brant’s aiming for a predominantly “light and airy” feel, consistent with his subject. However, the music itself is wonderfully absorbing, simply brimming with atmosphere, colour and interest, to the extent that – for me at least – the 35 minutes’ playing time just flies by.
Choral “attack” ranges from strutting, pecking phrases, through Brant’s favoured style of broadly curving, melodic chant to (at the end) those surging crescendi and something approaching shouting. Smoothly blended and unanimous, they make some gorgeous sounds. I was particularly struck by the children’s chorus – these gutsy youngsters could have made a pretty fair stab at Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. The woodwinds, who form part of their respective groups, produce some tremendously engaging obbligato commentaries and, sometimes, helpfully preface the entries of their respective choruses.
Not surprisingly the percussion (two players; chimes, glockenspiel, xylophone, cowbells, wood-blocks and steel drums) are called on to generate scintillating “atmospheric” textures, complemented by glissandi from the keyboards and harp – although of course they all do more than just that. I was pleased to find that, seeing as it can’t play “piano e forte”, the harpsichord was given due consideration, as it can clearly be heard combining very nicely with the piano and harp. Most of the violins’ running backgrounds have a slightly rustic, folksy fiddling feel, which sort of “harmonises” with Leonardo’s – to our modern minds – quaint observations.
The jazz trumpeter and the piccolo trumpeter seem to act as complementary “correspondents”, the riffs and blues of the former being earthbound and the clarion purity of the latter being aerial. The four trumpets aimed directly at the audience, though, are altogether “something else” – if Brant had used seven, they could have been described as “apocalyptic”! As it is, and in spite of our particular perspective foreshortening them into two pairs, their impact is truly nape-tickling. Surely, this must be a distant echo of Brant’s hearing in Paris, some fifty years previously, Berlioz’s Grande Messe, one of his professed seminal experiences.
Considering how much is going on, this unedited live performance, astonishingly, seems to be nigh-on fluff-free. More to the point, all the playing and singing seem remarkably focussed and well-articulated.
The second work, Litany of Tides, which we might term an “environmental violin concerto”, was written and first performed in 1983 to a commission from the (sadly, now defunct) San Jose Symphony Orchestra. The spatial layout is as follows. On the platform are the string section, horns, tubas, double-reed instruments and two pianos. In the balcony are six widely separated groups: 3 flutes, 3 clarinets, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 3 percussionists (bells) and plucked strings (harp and mandolin). Under the balcony and behind the audience are the tympanist on one side and bass drum and gongs on the other. Four soprano soloists are situated, two on either side of the front stalls, behind grilles 30 feet above floor level. Finally, the violin soloist, Daniel Kobialka, plays from a corner of the balcony and, in the later stages of the work, from the platform (in the recording, it sounds as though he’s moved only from the back to the front of the platform). The platform orchestra is conducted by George Cleve, whilst under the baton of the composer the balcony groups function as small orchestra (i.e. although spaced widely, they are apparently treated as a single “group” in the spatial sense).
The musical materials of the solo violin, each orchestra and the group of four singers are all distinct. The effect, says Brant, should be of “four different compositions played at once, the listeners being the connecting factors.” As presented here, this effect is debatable. Certainly, there are running through the course of the work several distinct “threads” – variously overlapping, superimposed and dovetailed – which I can imagine to be the music of what could be several separate movements woven together. Unfortunately, from the perspective of a listener to the recording, even through headphones, it tends to sound more like a single, admittedly complex, composition. As I see it, the reason for this presumed misapprehension is twofold.
On the one hand, our old friend stereo is, as ever, obliged to transpose everything at the back to the front and, on the other, the recording engineers have spread the platform orchestra’s often imposing image all the way across the stereo field, leaving no elbow-room to accommodate without overlapping all those virtual “immigrants” from the back of the hall. This inevitably squeezes out some of the spatiality, making it harder for us listeners to differentiate those threads as we presumably should.
Innova’s Philip Blackburn says that most recordings of Brant were impromptu efforts by keen amateurs, who at the time may not have realised the importance of the “imaging” of spatial music – or (more kindly) may not have had the time to give it anything like proper consideration. However, this recording is one of the few made by professionals, or at least a combination of professionals and knowledgeable amateurs (students of the College of Recording Arts). I’m a bit surprised that one of this team of nine didn’t spot the problem – which is a pity, as it might well have made all the difference. Having said that, the sound itself is remarkably good, rich and ample yet, given the complexity of the music, clean and clearly focused.
Structurally, Litany of Tides is as well bolted together as Wind, Water, Clouds and Fire, only the form is somewhat more diffuse. Following the prelude (see below) the work falls into two broad sections, each ending with a “landmarking” pair of vocal entries sandwiching brief orchestral passages. The materials introduced in Section 1 are developed – or perhaps we might say “re-imagined” – in Section 2. However, the sheer numbers of different “subjects”, whose treatments in the latter section are (shall we say?) very liberal, are something I wouldn’t pretend to having yet sorted out to my own satisfaction; I’ll just make do with a (fairly limp) suggestion that I did more or less immediately get a gut-feeling for the overall sense of it, that with repeated hearings connections between the two sections have started to emerge – and that in parallel the music itself grew on me no end.
On discovering that, in the concert, Litany of Tides was to be preceded by Bach’s Suite No, 3 and followed by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Brant lit on the nice idea of “building bridges” between his new piece and these flanking “old masters”. Thus, near the end he wove into “several [of his] passages” allusions to the famous opening phrase of the Beethoven. However, don’t be caught out – like I was at first – by the coda’s pounding pianos – they are hammering a Brucknerian “3+2” rhythm; the Beethoven quote is clearly audible a good five minutes earlier, deep down in the “bass-ment”, just before the second pair of vocal entries. Mind you, as yet I haven’t spotted any of the others, so I am anticipating some good times ahead, trying to winkle them out.
At the beginning, though, Brant really went to town on the Bach! Having recognised a kinship between Bach’s use of violins and trumpets and that of a mariachi band, he opened Litany of Tides with a gloriously uproarious mariachi take on Bach’s Gavotte, which, as it happens, is the only arrangement of Bach I’ve yet encountered that doesn’t sound at all like Bach – which in my book constitutes a tremendous achievement. Having said that, Brant’s “mariachi” does seem somewhat shy of violins.
The members of the San Jose Symphony really get their collective teeth into the music, by turns electrifying and ætherial, percussion and woodwind contributing much to the latter. I’d give particular credit to the sumptuous strings who, when given even half a chance, produce a burnished emotional intensity, and fairly rattle through a bit of “modern jazz” between the first two vocal entries. Then again, the horns and tubas are an imposing presence, in places massively sonorous, whilst the other brasses attack their parts with real gusto.
Throughout, violinist Daniel Kobialka is rarely out of the picture, his prominent rôle amounting to a wide-ranging series of commentaries and cadenzas (even unto the odd moment of unalloyed lyricism), most of which demand considerable virtuosity. During the first pair of vocal entries, his instrument seems to be indulging in bird-like twittering although, part of the time at least, I get a distinct impression of wordless “speech” (yet, during the second pair of vocal entries, this effect is not repeated – make of that what you will!). Come to think of it, Brant has written the solo violin part almost entirely in his “chant-cum-arabesque” style, which Kobialka spins as if a continuing conversation.
The four sopranos, whose parts are “rhythmically independent”, sing like bona fide card-carrying angels, even though their texts are hardly what you’d call “liturgical” – the texts comprise observations of the properties and behaviour of tides (of course). Each soprano has her own distinct set of four statements, one for each of the work’s four vocal entries. Curving and coiling coolly and elegantly, their beauteous tones weave an enchanting, almost auroral glow over the proceedings.
In the light (!) of this, it is nothing short of scandalous that no-one thought to include their names in the credits. This is not the fault of Innova, but, it would seem, of Sonic Arts, from whom Innova inherited the recording. I am endebted to both Kathy Wilkowski (Brant’s widow) and Daniel Kobialka, who made strenuous efforts to turn up the information, alas without success (so far). If any of the four ladies in question (or anyone else with any relevant information) happen to read or hear of this review, I hope that they will get in touch so that we can, albeit belatedly, put this wrong to right.
Little seems to be known about the final and much the shortest work on this CD, Trinity of Spheres. It seems to have drawn the short straw regarding its share of booklet space, presumably because what we get it all that’s known. Searching the web proved a singularly fruitless exercise – there’s not so much as a hint, even of what the title might mean. But, we can at least guess that it is something to do with the spatial arrangement of the performers: a symphony orchestra divided into three separate groups.
The layout is nice and simple: on the platform is a large band comprising the strings, two harps, piano and percussion; to the rear of the hall and on either side of the audience are two small bands of wind and percussion, one comprising only high-pitched instruments and the other only medium to low pitched instruments (could it be that the title’s “trinity” refers to this layout? We can but speculate). Stereophonically, then, the small bands seem to be on either side of the large band. Happily, the (uncredited) recording engineer(s) managed to push them to the extreme left and right; slightly less happily, the large orchestra’s image is a bit too wide to fully disentangle it from the others (by way of compensation, this image beautifully captures the strings’ spine-tingling polyphonic sliding about half-way through).
As it happens, we need all the separation that we can get because, musically speaking, of the three works on this disc Trinity of Spheres is by far the knottiest. Although a couple of very nice melodies put in cameo appearances, the tenor is otherwise uncompromisingly harsh and angular in the late Twentieth Century’s finest “make ’em wince” style. Nevertheless, whilst a conservatively-minded listener might well call it noise, many others would qualify that by adjectives like “colourful”, “dynamic” and “exciting”.
As regards form, Brant said that its one movement consists of 15 contrasted events – an average of one event every 45 seconds – each one signalled by percussion announcements. I have to wonder what was Brant’s idea of an “event”, because what I think of as “events” seem to be whizzing by faster than machine-gun bullets (well, almost). It’s easy enough to tell when a new event has got going, but until I’ve figured out what distinguishes an announcement from all the welter of other percussive goings-on, I’ve no idea at what point a new event is actually starting. Ah well, not to worry; practice makes perfect, doesn’t it?
Again – or should I by now be saying, “As usual”? – this is a live performance, which explains the abrupt decay of the concluding reverberant tail in what otherwise comes across as a warm and spacious acoustic. The three parts of the Denver Symphony Orchestra, ably guided by the trio of conductors, play brilliantly, fairly storming the barn and clearly reluctant to let so much as a shred of the music’s often red-eyed aggression escape their tender ministrations.
If you have a habitual hankering for “something completely different”, these three works, highly contrasted yet each – particularly in view of the extreme challenges posed by Brant’s spatiality – as decently recorded as we’ve any right to expect, and each given a fervent and astonishingly assured performance, are well worth investigating. On the other hand, if you’re just mildly curious, well, why not give them a whirl anyway? I did, and I’m feeling all the better for it.
Wind, Water, Clouds and Fire
Present Music Ensemble / Kevin Stalheim (chief conductor):
Eric Segnitz, Pamela Simmons (violins),
Marie Sander (flute), Linda Donahue (oboe),
Les Thimmig (soprano saxophone),
Don Sipe (piccolo trumpet), Mike Plog (jazz trumpet),
Jim Haynor, Aric Madayag, Jim Brus (trumpets),
Philip Bush (piano), Martha Syiehl (harpsichord, piano),
Alison Attar (harp),
Terry Smirl, Carl Storniolo (percussion)
Henry Brant (organ and xylophone),
Kelly Patitjean, Emily Sholl, Dan Paprocki (clarinets),
David Nagel (trumpet)
Senior Members of Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra / Margery Deutsch:
Ashley Barret, Justin Chou, Julia Chou, Karen Landay,
Benjamin Mather, Rachel Yang, Alyssa Yank
Milwaukee Children’s Choir – Cantorei Choir / Emily Crocker
Milwaukee Choral Artists / Sharon A. Hansen
Brookfield Central High School Women’s Chorus / Tina Glander
Advanced Treble Choir of Pius XI High School / Lisa Shimon
Litany of Tides
Daniel Kobialka (violin)
Four soprano soloists [not named]
San Jose Symphony / George Cleve, Henry Brant
Trinity of Spheres
Denver Symphony Orchestra
Conductors: Bruce Hangen (large orchestral group), Carl Topilow (high-pitched instrumental group), Henry Brant (low brass, bassoons, percussion)