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Henry Brant: Experimental composer who scored for instruments ranging from massed trombones to kitchenware

Friday 02 May 2008 00:00 BST

Henry Brant was one of the youngest of the pre-Second World War American experimental composers. He scored for odd instruments and instrumental combinations and equalised "high" and "low" art forms and topics. He was best known for his work in spatial music, a kind of "surround sound" effect informed by Renaissance antiphony, Berlioz and Charles Ives, which both predated and outstripped similar efforts by the European avant-garde.

Brant was born in 1913 to American parents in Montreal, where his father, Saul, a violinist, lectured at McGill University. As a child, the high-art music of his father's associates, orchestras for silent movies and street musicians fascinated Brant equally. He created his own instruments from cigar boxes and piping, writing pieces for his friends to play and making directions for those who could not read music. He was later to score for both readers and non-readers in his "instant compositions".

When only 12 years old, Brant was introduced to the experimental composer Henry Cowell, who encouraged his parents to send him to New York (in 1933 Cowell would include Brant as the youngest of notable composers in his introduction to American Composers on American Music). Brant studied first at McGill, then, when the family returned to New York City in 1929, at the Institute of Musical Art with James Friskin and Leopold Mannes and at the Juilliard School with Rubin Goldmark.

He studied privately with Wallingford Riegger and perhaps more influentially, albeit more informally, with Aaron Copland. Brant developed his concept of "oblique harmony" at this stage, using a family of relationships between different voices in different chords. He won prizes in composition and in 1934-35 studied with George Antheil. Antheil was famous for his Ballet Méchanique (1924), consisting of player pianos and percussion, as well as electric bells and aeroplane propellers.

Brant found much in common with Antheil's approach to unusual instrumentation and modern, popular subjects: he had already written Music for a Five and Dime Store (1931-32), for violin, piano and assorted kitchenware and later The Marx Brothers – Three Faithful Portraits (1938), dedicated to Chico, Groucho and Harpo Marx, scored for tin whistle in D and a chamber group including an accordion. Later works used bottles, bell instruments, fire truck sirens, gamelan and steel drums.

Brant's music at this time lay firmly in Depression-era American experimentalism, of invention and pragmatism, exploring vernacular, rather than high-art, culture. He distrusted 12-tone serialism, which Riegger was one of the first Americans to adopt. Brant's melodic style was, none the less, often angular and modern, even in his jazz-influenced pieces of the 1940s.

He grew interested in music in which instrumental groups are separated in the performance area: Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts (1837), in which brass ensembles are situated at each of the corners of the space, Gabrieli's brass music (he did not hear Thomas Tallis's 40-voice Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui (1570) until 1958, when he supervised a circular spatial performance) and particularly Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question (1908), in which strings, solo trumpet, and winds play from separate areas of the hall. Brant called this kind of "surround-sound" antiphony "spatial music". His Antiphony I (1953) for five orchestral groups is the first non-jazz spatial piece, although he dated his experiments in this area to 1951.

Brant emphasised the spatial effect by grouping different instruments in each area, to avoid confusion, even though he is also known for extremes of similarity – Angels and Devils (1931, for 10 flutes) and Orbits (1979, for soprano, organ, and 80 trombones). As with other musical innovations, Karlheinz Stockhausen claimed that he had invented spatial music with Gruppen (1958), but Brant's spatial music was both earlier and more complex. Brant experimented with the properties of space, including aspects of direction, projection, spill (the interaction between two group sounds), density, and the perception of movement. He had written 112 spatial pieces by 2003.

In 1987, he expressed his regret that he could not score music for players in fast-moving machines, such as rollercoasters, as the musicians tended to become too sick to play. His student David Jaffe said, "I remember him having me run at top speed while plucking the E string of my violin to see if rapidly moving sound sources could be musically emphatic. He decided they could not."

Throughout his life Brant worked as an arranger and orchestrator, for André Kostelanetz and Benny Goodman in the 1930s and in films, from The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) to Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), although he did not talk of this work. He orchestrated Charles Ives's Concord Sonata as the Concord Symphony (1994), a monumental task that lasted over 30 years and which exhibits both his skill as an orchestrator and his affinity for Ives's music. Earlier this year, Brant completed Textures & Timbres, an orchestration book on which he had worked for 50 years, and which will soon be published.

Henry Brant was a striking man with thick wavy hair and a keen demeanour. He was renowned for wearing caps and eyeshades and for preferring to stand, even when playing piano. Brant taught composition and orchestration at Columbia University (1945-52), Juilliard (1947-54), and then at Bennington College, Vermont from 1957 to 1980. David Jaffe, a student of Brant's at Bennington, remembered that "Henry would make thought-provoking meta-comments like 'Have you considered finding a place for satire in your music?' One of the most profound lessons he taught me was that original music often sounds peculiar, and that this is precisely because it's unfamiliar."

In 2002, Brant was finally recognised as a major American composer with the award of a Pulitzer Prize for an orchestra work, Ice Field. He was unaffected by the honour. "Before the Pulitzer Prize my name was, and I was, vaguely known [for] a kind of minor screwball music. Now they say, 'Well, let's look at this minor screwball music.' That's about it."

Virginia Anderson

Henry Dreyfus Brant, composer: born Montreal 15 September 1913; married 1938 Maxine Picard (marriage dissolved), 1949 Patricia Gorman (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1989 Kathy Wilkovska; died Santa Barbara, California 26 April 2008.

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