#194– April 10, 2023
Ghosts and Gargoyles, by Canadian composer Henry Brant is our Composition of the Week.
Commissioned by Toronto’s New Music Concerts, Ghosts and Gargoyles was composed in the summer of 2001.
The work is scored for solo flute (also playing piccolo and bass flute) with an octet comprised of piccolos, C-flutes, alto flutes, and bass flutes, plus a jazz drummer.
The stage is occupied only by the soloist, the conductor, and the jazz drummer. The four duos of the octet are spatialized in the four corners of the hall.
Occasional quotations from ecclesiastic music by Allegri and Palestrina are intended to suggest ghostly intimations.
The work is structured in 10 short and uninterrupted movements and has an overall duration of 20 minutes.
“In 1939 Henry Brant composed a flute ensemble piece titled Angels and Devils — before there were flute ensemble pieces. It is a large work for thirteen flutes and is a classic of the genre and in the canon of modernism.
Brant was one of the 20th century musicians who was as much an innovator in music as a composer. His passion was for exploring how sound came to the listener. As with Giovanni Gabrieli, whose cori spezzati (spaced choirs) exploited the cavernous spaces of St Mark’s in Venice, Brant wanted to exploit the spaces in which music was heard. To do so he would space apart players within venues, creating varied perspectives for the listener.
Brant’s 2001 mini-masterwork, Ghosts and Gargoyles for nine flutes, is the book end to Angels and Devils. In ten short movements, Brant asks his players to be placed about the hall in groups of two. He then has them play as antiphonal ghosts in various styles: jazz and bebop, collages of motives, unison gestures of bells or the blowing of wind.” (Program Note by Charles Peltz, New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble.)
Henry Brant began composing at the age of eight and studied first at the McGill Conservatorium (1926–29) and then in New York City (1929–34). The son of a professional violinist, Brant played violin, flute, tin whistle, piano, organ, and percussion at a professional level and was fluent with the playing techniques for all of the standard orchestral instruments. As a teenager, he was the youngest composer included in Henry Cowell’s landmark book American Composers on American Music, demonstrating an early identification with the American experimental musical tradition. Brant was represented in Cowell’s anthology by an essay on oblique harmony, an idea which presaged some techniques used in his mature spatial works.
Starting in the late 1940s, he taught at Columbia University, the Juilliard School and, for 24 years, Bennington College. In the mid-1950s Brant felt that “single-style music…could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities, and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit.” In pursuit of an optimal framework for the presentation of a music which embraced such a simultaneity of musical textures and styles, Brant made a series of experiments and compositions exploring the potential for the physical position of sounds in space to be used as an essential compositional element.
In addition to his works for the concert hall, he was active as an orchestrator for many Hollywood productions including the Elizabeth Taylor movie Cleopatra (1963), one of many collaborations with composer Alex North. Brant helped with the orchestration of North’s score for 2001. He also worked as orchestrator for composers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Douglas Moore, and Gordon Parks. Brant’s work as an orchestrator was not limited to film and stage: his long-term affinity for the music of Charles Ives — whose The Unanswered Question was an acknowledged inspiration for Brant’s spatial music — was ultimately found in the premier of Brant’s arrangement of Ives’ Second Piano Sonata, “Concord, Mass 1840-60” as A Concord Symphony in 1996.
He composed, orchestrated, and conducted for radio, film, ballet, and jazz groups. The stylistic diversity of these professional experiences would also eventually contribute to stylistic polyphony of his mature works.
Beginning with the 1953 score Rural Antiphonies (predating Stockhausen’s Gruppen of 1955-57), Brant developed the concept of spatial music, in which the location of instruments and/or voices in physical space is a significant compositional element. He identified the origins of the concept in the antiphonal music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, in the antiphonal use of four brass ensembles placed in the corners of the stage in the Requiem of Hector Berlioz and, most importantly, in works of Charles Ives, in particular The Unanswered Question. Henry Brant was America’s foremost composer of acoustic spatial music. The planned positioning of performers throughout the hall, as well as on stage, was an essential factor in his composing scheme and a point of departure for a radically expanded range and intensity of musical expression. Brant’s mastery of spatial composing technique enabled him to write textures of unprecedented polyphonic and/or polystylistic complexity while providing maximum resonance in the hall and increased clarity of musical detail for the listener.
In keeping with Brant’s belief that music can be as complex and contradictory as everyday life, his larger works often employ multiple, contrasting performing forces, as in Meteor Farm (1982) for symphony orchestra, large jazz band, two choruses, West African drum ensemble and chorus, South Indian soloists, large Javanese Gamelan ensemble, percussion orchestra and two Western solo sopranos. Brant experimented with new combinations of acoustic timbres, even creating entire works for instrumental family groups of a single timbre: Orbits for 80 trombones, organ and sopranino voice, Ghosts & Gargoyles for 9 flutes, and others for multiple trumpets and guitars. This predilection for ensembles of a single tone quality dates from Angels and Devils (1932) for an ensemble of 11 flutes.
He is perhaps best known for his compositions Verticals Ascending (conceptually based on the architecture of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles) and Horizontals Extending. A “spatial opera”, The Grand Universal Circus (Libretto: Patricia Gorman Brant) was premiered in 1956. In addition to composing, he played the violin, flute, tin whistle, percussion, piano, and organ, and frequently included soloistic parts in his large works for himself to play.
A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Brant was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Ice Field (2001), commissioned by Other Minds, and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. He received two Guggenheim Fellowships and was the first American composer to win the Prix Italia. Among other honors were Ford Foundation, Fromm Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and Koussevitzky awards and the American Music Center’s Letter of Distinction. In conjunction with Brant’s 85th birthday concert, Wesleyan University conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts (1998). The Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel acquired Brant’s complete archive of original manuscripts, including over 300 works, in 1998. Brant’s handbook for orchestration, Textures and Timbres, was published posthumously.
Other works for winds include:
- Angels and Devils (1931/1969)
- Whoopee in D major (1938/1984/2002)