Henry Brant's spatial music has been turning heads for more than 30 years, and last night's audience at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater got a lesson in the art of noggin-spinning -- a necessary talent for taking in instruments scattered throughout a fixed-seat auditorium. Brant and the American Camerata for New Music performed five challenging works, proving that space may indeed be the final frontier, even for composers.
Space is not simply a matter of strategically placing musicians in a hall. It also involves having different sections or solo instruments play contrasting ideas simultaneously. The effect is like tuning in a weak radio frequency and hearing three distinct signals broadcasting at once. Charles Ives developed this technique of overlapping dissimilarities. Brant, who has been composing for all but eight of his 72 years, has further explored and magnified it. His "Fire on the Amstel" alone calls for four boatloads of 25 flutes each, four jazz drummers, four church carillons, three brass bands, three choruses and four hand organs.
The pieces last night were minuscule by comparison. "Crossroads" used but four string players engaged in distant, tedious monologues. Far more effective was "Knot-holes, Bent Nails and a Rusty Saw," for violin, piano, vibraphone and clarinet (Brant himself added some xylophone). Violinist Joel Berman, using a fiddle strung with two E andG strings, performed relentless lines resembling a giant intoxicated gnat buzzing at the audience's neck.
"Inside Track" was nothing if not a bizarre "fourth-stream" piece. A Salvation Army-style parade band, plus a collection of war whoops, chirps and yelps by assisting conductor Amy Snyder, jolted against and joined in with a battery of strings, percussion and assorted winds. There wasn't a straight face in the house.