Brant explores music's links with space

April 30, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

"Like everybody else, I'm alarmed by what is happening to the rain forest," says the composer Henry Brant in explaining why he wrote what he calls "a spatial, secular cantata." "Rainforest" -- which calls for voices, two orchestras and two conductors in an arrangement that will surround the audience on all sides -- will be given its East Coast premiere tomorrow night at Towson State University's 20th Century Music Festival. It will give listeners a chance to hear music by one of America's most original voices -- a composer whom some listeners class with Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles and Harry Partch.

The 77-year-old composer is best known as the man who invented "spatial" music. While that may sound like a peculiar, newfangled concept, it is really a very old one, says the composer, who began to write such pieces in 1950. All composers write for space and all sound comes through space, he says. But throughout history many composers wrote with specific spaces in mind.

"In 1950 I heard the Berlioz Requiem in Paris in the place it was written for," Brant says. "With four brass bands in four corners of the balcony, with 16 timpani on the audience floor and with a symphony orchestra and chorus on either side of the audience, the piece really opened my ears." Shortly thereafter, Brant had the experience of conducting Ives' "The Unanswered Question" at the Juilliard School, where he was teaching at the time, and he decided to try to perform the piece exactly as the composer specified.

"Ives calls for three different pieces of music in three different places -- that made no sense to me at the time," he says. "But when I performed the piece that way I was astounded by the clarity with which everything was heard. Those experiences are the basis for everything I've written since."

Those pieces have included such extravaganzas as "Fire on the Amstel," which used four traveling barges, each containing 25 flutists and a jazz drummer, church carillons, three brass bands and four hand organs, all located at different places throughout the canals and squares of Amsterdam, and "Meteor Farm," which combines an orchestra, choirs, jazz band, gamelan ensemble and African drummers.

Brant's music is beautiful and his reputation ensures performances. But wouldn't life have been simpler for him if he wrote simpler music?

"I've never noticed that ordinary human life is simple," he says. "Unless the idea is that music should be separated from life, I don't see why music should be simple."


Where: Towson State University Fine Arts Concert Hall, Osler Drive.

When: May 1, 8:15 p.m.

Tickets: $3-$8.

Call: 830-ARTS.

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