Henry Brant, 94; Daring, Prize-Winning Composer

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.

Mr. Brant formalized his study of music theory under Leopold Mannes at what became the Juilliard School of Music in New York. His private teachers included George Antheil, who was pivotal in freeing Mr. Brant's mind from traditional uses of instruments. It was a success, and Mr. Brant's unorthodox compositions included kitchen utensils and tin whistles, the latter for a 1938 tribute to the Marx Brothers.

One of his later works, "Orbits" (1979), called for 80 trombones and an organ. Still another, "Kingdom Come" (1970), featured two orchestras, one on stage playing dissonant sounds, while a second in the balcony used buzzers, whistles and air compressors.

Mr. Brant worked in academia for much of his life and taught music at Bennington College in Vermont from 1957 to 1980.

He also contributed to the orchestration of several Depression Era documentaries ("The Plow That Broke the Plains," "The River" and "The City"), wrote incidental music on radio broadcasts in the 1940s and helped orchestrate music for Hollywood films, including "Cleopatra" (1963) and "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987).

He told the Los Angeles Times he found those commercial assignments liberating. "I've had advantages which few composers have had in the 20th century, because of the commercial work I've done," he said. "In films, all they said was 'our budget is such. You can have this much for music.' They don't tell you what the instruments are to be or what they shouldn't be."

Mr. Brant's most important early venture into full spatial sound was "Antiphony I" (1953), which was performed at Carnegie Hall and featured five parts of the orchestras positioned throughout the auditorium. Two years later, his cantata for orchestra and 100 voices, "December" (1955), became the first piece by an American to win the Prix Italia, a prestigious international competition sponsored by Italian radio and television.

He spent 60 years sporadically writing an orchestration textbook, "Textures and Timbres," scheduled for publication this year.

His first two marriages, to Maxine Picard and Patricia Gorman, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 19 years, Kathy Wilkowski of Santa Barbara; three children from his second marriage, Piri Friedman of Portland, Ore., Joquin Ives Brant of Escazu, Costa Rica, and Linus Corragio of Manhattan, N.Y.; a brother; and four grandchildren.

Of Mr. Brant's major contemporaries, only composer Elliott Carter, born in 1908, survives. After winning the Pulitzer, Mr. Brant told the San Francisco Chronicle, "The main thing is for a composer to stick around as long as possible and keep working -- otherwise you miss things like this."

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