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Henry Brant, 94; Daring, Prize-Winning Composer

Henry Brant won the Pulitzer Prize for
Henry Brant won the Pulitzer Prize for "Ice Field," one of his spatial music compositions, in 2002. (By Mike Eliason -- Associated Press)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Henry Brant, 94, a Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer best known for audacious works of spatial music, in which performers were dispersed around a concert hall -- even an entire city -- died April 26 at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. The family declined to provide the cause of death.

In a seven-decade career, Mr. Brant created hundreds of musical works for radio, film, ballet and jazz groups, as well as the concert hall. He won the Pulitzer for "Ice Field," a 20-minute organ concerto that the San Francisco Symphony premiered in December 2001.

With Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, "Ice Field" featured strings and pianos on stage, while woodwinds, brass and percussion (including bass steel drums) sat among the balconies and terraces. The composer, at the organ, kept hitting the lowest notes to simulate an earthquake.

Mr. Brant was regarded as an iconoclast, sometimes as a crank, sometimes both simultaneously. Writing of "Ice Field," critic Bernard Holland in the New York Times said the performance "lies somewhere between precision planning and controlled chaos, a mixture of smart bombs and dumb ones."

Composers since the Renaissance and early Baroque periods had experimented with a spatial approach, but the music remained fairly homogenous. Mr. Brant's significance was his ability to unite disparate styles of music -- classical, Indian, Javanese, jazz, burlesque and others -- without them obscuring one another, said composer Charles Amirkhanian.

Mr. Brant's "Windjammer 1969," which required the musicians to keep moving, was seen as fresh and provocative. New York Times music critic Theodore Strongin wrote, "The fascination -- and the fun -- in 'Windjammer' came from listening for the shifting values and changing relationships as the sounds moved in space."

The works became increasingly eccentric. Mr. Brant's 1984 work "Fire in the Amstel" used four barges to carry flutists, jazz drummers and brass through the canals of Amsterdam as cathedral carillons rang along the way.

The composer helped inaugurate I.M. Pei's Dallas symphony hall in 1990 with "Prisons of the Mind," a piece featuring 314 musicians scattered about the hall. The piece paid tribute to the architect's acoustical skill.

Some reviewers found spatial music gimmicky, but Mr. Brant defended his method as a vital form of communication.

"By 1950," he said, "I had come to feel that single style music, no matter how experimental or full of variety, could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit."

Spatial music, he added, spoke "more expressively of the human predicament."

Henry Dreyfuss Brant was born Sept. 15, 1913, in Montreal, where his father, Saul, headed the violin department at McGill University's music conservatory.

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