Issue 3, Article 13

Henry Brant Tribute

by Samara Rainey

If your neck is sore, take ibuprofen before attending a Henry Brant concert.

When I spoke to a friend of mine and explained that I was going to attend a concert honoring the 85th birthday of composer Henry Brant, I was met with a blank stare. "Who the hell is Henry Brant?" A composer. The thought of explaining to him that Brant was influential in the development of spatial music, and that he's received numerous awards and is very well-known in the music sphere came to mind, but I didn't want to sound like someone who was trying to impress her personal taste upon a friend. I eventually mentioned that Brant is in the same genre of music as Meredith Monk, and most of my friends are at least familiar with the name Meredith Monk, because most of them have heard her music on my CD player at one time or another and have told me to turn it off, because the music was scaring them. "Oh, God, he's one of those composers," was the response I got from my friend. I have a way with explaining things, I suppose.

Yeah, he's one of those composers. Scary ones? No. Interesting ones? Yes. When Andy Warhol's film, "Sleep" was shown in a theater, a fight broke out between one disgruntled, outraged viewer who argued that the film wasn't art, and another audience member who was outraged at the other's lack of respect for Warhol's work. Similar arguments have arisen over music. Henry Brant, however, doesn't reside in the fistfights at the theater realm of composers, nor does he reside in the cozy warmth of traditional European composition techniques. Had I mentioned to my friend that Brant was a central figure in the spread of spatial music, I would have had to answer more questions: "What the hell is spatial music? Is that more of that weird shit?" I suppose it would depend upon one's interpretation of the word "weird." Brant's music is different from most of the music most people listen to most of the time. Brant's performances are different. When listening to a concert of his works, one should expect to turn around in one's seat several times. Instruments are placed along the sides of the seating area, and even behind the audience. If you are a veteran concertgoer, you might arrive at the concert early and take a seat at the front of the auditorium to see and hear the performance better. Bad move. Henry Brant has been known to stand in the middle of the audience or at the back of the audience so as to be able to conduct all instruments. Brant himself is different. At the concert, the performers wore unique hats. (One way to spot Brant in a crowd is to look for his visor.)

The "A Tribute to Henry Brant" concert was fairly well attended. Crowell Concert Hall was full of students, alumnae, professors, and fans of Henry Brant. Fortunately, I took a seat somewhere near the back of the auditorium, because when Brant later conducted from the center of the audience, I was sitting behind him and could see most of the performance, while those in the front rows twisted in their seats in a nearly futile attempt to "take it all in." The trouble with some of the evening's program, however, was that it was essentially impossible to "take it all in," especially if it was the first time you had heard one of the pieces being performed. Several of the pieces were debuts, so the audience was experiencing them for the first time. Brant used a wide variety of percussion instruments, ranging from a steel drum band to the gamelan, to saws.

Anyone who has visited San Francisco or is at least familiar with its geography would have smiled at the performance of Brant's piece, "Lombard Street," in which an organist, placed near the front of the stage, played the street. His feet moved up and down the pedals of the organ to convey the motion of someone walking down Lombard Street in San Francisco, otherwise known as "the crookedest street in the world." The music in the first piece also made me smile, because many parts of it were written with a sense of humor. In addition, seeing Neely Bruce playing "Lombard Street" on the piano made me glad that I wasn't onstage playing the piece. It sounded, at times, like an extremely difficult piece to play. I sat with a smile on my face throughout most of the performance — not the sort of smile I use when I am laughing at a joke or seeing an old friend, but the sort of smile that quietly says, "I don't understand this, but I love it." At the end of the concert, the audience thanked Brant with a standing ovation. He enthusiastically conducted an encore, and the audience was content.

I later saw Henry Brant walking down the stairs in the campus center, and I thought for a minute about telling him how much I had enjoyed his performance, but the time didn't seem right. There is something intimidating about a man who, at 85 years of age, can bang Beethoven out of a piano while 5 other pianists do the same (Neely Bruce's composition, which was performed at the "Tribute to Henry Brant" concert, involved six pianists simultaneously playing different Beethoven sonatas) and still compose such complex pieces of music. At the same time, Brant reminded me very much of my grandfather, who was always an intimidating figure, whom I admired from a respectful distance. I wanted to thank him for the performance, but instead I mumbled, "There goes Henry Brant," to the people sitting next to me. "Who?" they asked. Henry Brant. The composer.

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