Out of Bounds

Breaking the rules, thrillingly, with composer Henry Brant.


Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave. in First Hill, 425-831-5073, $10-$17 7:30 p.m. Sun., Nov. 17

THE INDIVIDUALITY of even the most original artists gets subsumed in labels, which file everyone into Slot A or Slot B. Despite the fact that the 20th century boasted music's most diverse array of styles, we persist in reducing our musical comprehension to a series of either/or: classical vs. popular, tonal vs. atonal, avant-garde vs. conservative.

Case in point: the 89-year-old Henry Brant, a "progressive" composer who began his career in the '20s and '30s, the first heyday of American experimentation and envelope-pushing, but whose music differs as much from the other iconoclasts of his generation (Carter, Copland, Sessions, Thomson) as it does from even the most reactionary academic throwbacks. For one thing, there's his sense of humor; early titles like Whoopee in D Major and Hommage a Fr貥s Marx presaged an interest in pop culture and folk music that led Brant to compose for all sorts of world-music ensembles alongside traditional orchestras and chamber groups.

Brant experienced this minor apostasy about 1950, believing that "single-style music could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities, and multidirectional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit." He then translated this into physical terms and began to experiment with space, placing musicians—and whole ensembles—at various locations in a performing area. Stereo, echo, and ever-shifting background/foreground effects all add what Brant calls a "fourth dimension" to his music. In Ice Field, which this year earned Brant what many feel was a scandalously belated Pulitzer Prize, he deployed the members of the San Francisco Symphony not only onstage but in the balconies and among the audience.

Brant has composed even grander spectacles for outdoor performances—in arenas, public squares, even river-barge parades. Fire on the Amstel (1984), for four boatloads of 25 flutes each, four jazz drummers, four carillons, three brass bands, and four organs, is maybe his most extreme example; Millennium II (1988) includes among its gigantic forces a gospel choir, a bluegrass band, and a gamelan.

BRANT'S FIRST MAJOR piece, and probably his most often performed, is 1932's Angels and Devils for 11 flutes. Seventy years later, he's following up with Ghosts and Gargoyles, a sequel suggested by Cornish College faculty member Paul Taub, who'll play it this Sunday at Town Hall. It's a sort of concerto for one solo flutist (who plays regular C flute, bass flute, and piccolo), an "orchestra" of eight flutes (in four pairs stationed around the hall), and jazz drums. Here again, Brant brings together music from disparate sources, jump-cutting among quotes from renaissance choral works, jazz interludes spotlighting the drummer, and free contrapuntal sections in which each flute's part is written out but individual entrances are determined by the conductor (here Roger Nelson). Taub calls Ghosts and Gargoyles "a very youthful" piece, and compares the jazz sections to the music of Leonard Bernstein: "He has a way of making written music sound like it swings."

But it's a mere bagatelle compared to the other Brant work on Sunday's program, Mass in Gregorian, also for flute choir. Here, Brant asks for as many flutists as possible; the Seattle Flute Society hopes to amass 100. Encircling the audience, the flutists play melodies based on Gregorian chant in almost unison—each flutist is asked to play slightly out-of-sync with his neighbors, uncannily simulating the shimmering reverberation of a choir in a cavernous stone cathedral. In an age when practicality, pragmatism, and accessibility are constantly preached to composers, hardly anyone else is writing music of such epic idealism as Brant. No one does it as compellingly.


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