Classical Music Review: New Releases

Henry Brant × Orbits, Hieroglyphics 3, Western Springs. Orbits, A Spatial Symphonic Ritual for 80 Trombones, Organ and Sopranino Voice (20'49). Bay Bones Trombone Choir and assisting artists; Henry Brant, organ; Amy Snyder, voice; Gerhard Samuel, conductor. Hieroglyphics 3 (11'08). Jacob Glick, viola solo; Catherine Satterlee, mezzo-soprano; Henry Brant, organ; Phyllis Martin Pearson, vibraphone & piano; Marianne Finckel, harpsichord; Louis Calabro, timpani & chimes. Western Springs, A Spatial Assembly for 2 Orchestras, 2 Choruses and 2 Jazz Combos. La Jolla Symphony & Chorus; Henry Brant & Thomas Nee, orchestral conductors; David Chase & Amy Snyder, choral conductors; Jazz ensembles prepared by James Cheatham. CRI American Masters CD 827.

Henry Brant is one of the most singular figures in contemporary music. A pioneer of the avant-garde, the inventor of spatial music, a master orchestrator, and one of the few serious composers capable of writing music with wit. In some ways he may be thought of as the thinking man's Spike Jones, but nothing he does is calculated for effect. If, as in Orbits, he scores a work for 80 trombones, he uses this unique gathering of forces to produce a work that sounds like no other, without overtly drawing attention to its constituents.

Inspired by Berlioz and Ives, Brant has spent much of his composing career exploring the effects of three-dimensionality on music (it's no surprise that his son is a sculptor). He is not the first composer to investigate these effects. Mahler, famously, placed a brass band offstage for a critical section of his Third Symphony and Ives often experimented with the effects of distance and sound. Brant, however, differs from these composers in making spacial effects the center of his compositional method.

Western Springs is scored for two orchestras, two choruses of fifty members, and two jazz combos, attached to the choruses, consisting of a drummer, four saxophones, one trumpet and one trombone. Since each group is required to play at different tempi, four conductors are required. The orchestras sit at the extreme sides of the stage (there is a distance of at least 60 feet between them) and the chorus/jazz combo groups are placed at the rear of the venue in the back corners. Obviously, much of the effect is lost in a recording; however, listening to the music on this disc one never has the sense of "missing out" so palpable in, for example, recordings of operas. Perhaps this is because Brant uses spacial means for purely aural ends. He downplays any visual component to his work.

This release offers a taste of Brant's soundworld and is highly recommended. You may also want to check out a recent release of Brant's music on the Phoenix label. This features two works, Kingdom Come and Machinations. The latter piece an "instant composition" scored for timpani, chimes, xylophone, glockenspiel, organ, e-flat flute, ceramic flute, double ocarina, double flageolet and harp -- all played by the composer. Brant calls it "a last warning from the the natural world to the human species."

Tony Gualtieri
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