Monday, February 23, 2009

Henry Brant

The Henry Brant Collection - Vol. 1 (lala)

Northern Lights over the Twin Cities - (1985) I already like a piece whose opening movement is titled "Battles of Gods" and is credited to the Combined Musical Forces of Macalester College, consisting of:
The Macalester Festival Chorale, Amy Snyder conducting, prepared by Kathy Romey
The Macalester Concert Choir, Kathy Romey conducting
The Macalester Symphonic Band, Henry Brant conducting, prepared by Edouard Forner
The Macalester Symphony Orchestra, Edouard Forner conducting
Mac Jazz, Carleton Macy conducting
The Macalester Pipe Band, Andrew Hoag conducting
The Macalester Special Percussion Group, prepared by Carleton Macy
Ten-Piano Ensemble, prepared by Donald Betts
The Macalester Dance Ensemble, prepared by Becky Heist

Vocal soloists, prepared by Alvin King:
Sarita Roche, Coloratura Soprano
Cindy Lambert, Soprano
Rick Penning, Tenor
Alvin King, High Baritone
Wayne Dalton, Baritone

This is suffice to say, monster: 100 minutes, requiring six conductors managing orchestras, choirs, singers, percussion, all carefully and purposefully placed around a hall to maximize the acoustic potential of the building. Spatial music is the key phrase with Brant, arranging things around the room, but I suspect focusing primarily on that is like looking at Jackson Pollock's paint-crusted dipsticks in deference to his paintings - especially when experiencing it in the limited auspices of a twenty-year-old recording streamed over the Internet.

Here are the liner notes from the Innova recording. Therein lies this description:
The gastronomic equivalent of his music, Brant says, would be a sumptuous meal where Mexican enchiladas, New York steak, and French bouillabaisse were prepared simultaneously. “If you were to put them together in a bowl, you would kill them all. If they are sufficiently separated, you can enjoy them all even if they’re eaten — or, in this case played — at the same time.”

There are the odd moments of Caribbean steel drums against moody dark-sky dissonance, but this is more of an emotionally controlled affair than one is led to believe. it reminds me a little of those giant Mahler pieces, where the universe is being depicted by the undulating enormity of the orchestra, but here Brant is just romanticizing the Aurora Borealis as he saw it over Minneapolis in 1982, and is using a wider brush than Mahler generally does. In the "Rarefied Air" segment, a stately Souza regiment of the damned meets a misguided yet determined jazz big band on the park gazebo to duke it out under the ionospheric psychedelics, and instead of jarring, it is rather funny, as if modern suburbanites were suddenly called from their dens and PTA meetings to stage an impromptu storm ritual for this event.

Northern Lights does get a little monotonous at points, but in the "Pulsating Arcs" movement toward the end there is great contemplative beauty, a trumpet sunrise over a static of strings and protuberance of the choir.

It is humanity rising above the din of life, the din which serves Brant as his architectural inspiration, to meet the the electric bullwhip of the heavens. Even the baby crying in the audience finds a place of sweetness in this movement. There is similarity to Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, but this is no existential test for competing string orchestras (The Unanswered Question is that and a whole lot more, mind you) but palpable honest wonder at the firmament. If I were an editor here, I would point to "Pulsating Arcs" and say more of this, less of all that.

Like all dreams, tranquility is rudely dispelled by bagpipes and a clamor of percussion, a shocking silence (twelve seconds of it in fact), and a movement named the same as the piece, where the reappearance of the townsfolk regaling what they just experienced, and the reemergence of the din tainted by the collective trans formative experience, and like all crowds, the experience instead gets absorbed into the mass. It is hard to tell whether this is a harsh critique of the American tendency to suck the life out of wonder, or a testament to Midwestern resolve that takes in wonder with the same strides as they do the mundane. Whichever is intended, the piece closes with what sound the world like a moony TV show ending theme from the golden era followed by a pastiche of incidental moments over the roll of the credits, life systematically returning to regular programming after Zeus ceased to reveal his blinding, luminous form.

A Plan of the Air - A 1975 24-minute tone explication of a poem by his first wife; the poem and the piece both inspired by an inventory of things from Leonardo DaVinci's notebooks. A choir and interwoven singers offer data like "Item: two figures in perspective. Item: a cat." Leaner in form than the above colossus, its calmer tonalities and spartan percussive routines, where instruments are seeming hit one at a time as if the performer is inventorying his kit the same way the libretto inventories the notebooks, is a relief. The singers nearly devolve into chant at points, and the orchestration drifts off into its own clouded thoughts, leaving you to the listener to yours.

At first I didn't think I liked Brant's music, or, rather, I thought it didn't really work, but I'm starting to see what it's doing: exactly as he stated, he is simulating the mundane, elevating it the way the Surrealists did with everyday objects, but unlike them, pulling back the same way the world pulls you back, leaving you to wonder if your thoughts are real or things as nebulous as you fear they might be.

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