Campus News

Henry Brant, Pioneer of Spatial Music, Gives Demonstration and Improvises with Bowdoin Students

Story posted March 15, 2001

There are certain things we expect when we attend a concert, regardless of whether it’s by a symphony orchestra, Aerosmith, Snoop Doggy Dogg, or a bunch of yodelers. For example, we expect to stand or take our seats in the auditorium or arena and face in the direction of the stage. After all, that’s where the performers are.

Or are they? The answer is “No” if you happen to be attending a concert of music by composer Henry Brant, considered one of the pioneers of 20th-century “spatial music.” Brant writes music in which the position of the performers throughout the hall, as well as on stage, is an essential factor in the composing scheme. At a concert of his music, the strings might occupy half the stage, the flutes might be out in the audience, the trumpets up in the V.I.P. boxes, and the chorus under the auditorium floor.

Brant, a spry 87-year old now residing in California, was on the Bowdoin campus Monday, March 12, meeting with music students and members of the community to lecture about and give a demonstration of spatial music. Brant claims to be just about the only living practitioner of spatial music. He has written hundreds of works over the last 40 years; any competitors he might have, he says, have written perhaps a half-dozen. “They give up,” he says, “because it’s logistically difficult, and they run into resistance from the performers.”

No doubt. Imagine telling members of the New York Philharmonic they have to leave the stage and play from the top of the balcony. Not too many composers probably have the influence to pull that off. But Brant does. For his work Desert Forests, the strings of the Philharmonic occupied the right half of the stage, the timpanist was in the back right corner, trumpets along the right wall of the auditorium, trombones along the left wall, and the winds in the balcony.

In 1990, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (augmented for the performance) premiered his Prisons of the Mind, a spatial symphony for 314 instrumentalists in eight separated groups, with eight conductors. Other works have been composed separately for 100 trumpets, for 75 guitars, for 80 trombones and organ. Fire in the Amstel (1984) is for four boatloads of 25 flutes each, four jazz drummers, four church carillons, three brass bands, and four street organs. This three-hour aquatic procession premiered on the canals of Amsterdam.

As Brant explained to his audience, if the traditional elements of music are harmony, tempo, texture and timbre, one must add a fifth element: space (Brant expanded Charles Ives’ concepts of stylistic contrast and spatial separation). But, he warns, the composer cannot simply write music, separate the musicians, and expect it to sound good. “Not all music can be performed by moving the musicians – that would sound awful, because you’ve broken up the ensemble
.You can’t separate a quartet, because the space dilutes the harmony. You have to write the music specifically for the space.” The composer must know the “grammar” of spatial music in order to write it, he explains.

Brant enlisted the talents of seven Bowdoin music students to help him demonstrate spatial music. Two pianists (one piano) Colin Thibadeau and Francis Kayali were positioned at the front of Gibson Hall, Room 101. Violist Paul Hsiao stood along the right wall, a third of the way back. About ten feet from him stood flutist Nicole Davis. At the back of the hall, right side, was soprano Arlyn Davich. At the back of the hall, left side, sat percussionist Allison Robbins, with the glockenspiel. Half-way down the left wall was mandolinist Steve Kemper.

Brant instructed them to play, or sing: some staccato notes, others long, languid lines. “Don’t listen to each other,” he instructed. “You should all sound different.” The result of this improvisation was what one might call spur-of-the-moment spatial chamber music. And while the location of the listener’s seat might affect his or her overall impression, it was clear that this polyphonic “piece” of contrasting ideas worked together to form a whole.

More improvisation was to come, as Kayali, a student composer, stepped up to lead the group. He was followed by Professor Elliott Schwartz, who took a turn. The results of each demonstration can be summed up by a comment of Brant’s Schwartz repeated in his introduction of the composer: “Music can be as complex and as contradictory as life.”

Click here to learn more about Henry Brant.

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