Henry BRANT (1913-2008)
The Henry Brant Collection - Volume 2
Nomads (1974) [17:05]
Solar Moth (1979) [23:17]
Ghost Nets (1988) [24:42]
rec. 1974, Finney Chapel, Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, Ohio (Nomads); 1979, 1750 Arch Studios, Berkeley, California (Solar Moth), originally released on 1750 Arch Records S-1795); 1989, College of Notre Dame, Baltimore, Maryland (Ghost Nets)
INNOVA 409 [65:06]
Sets of CDs bearing the umbrella caption “The [name your poison] Collection” are, far more often than not, examples of re-marketing ploys specifically intended to squeeze a bit more mileage out of old recordings, especially ones that have been through the reissues mill a few times already – and no doubt you’ve noticed that they are always The, never just plain A. This one is different. But, why different? I would have told you in my review of Volume 1, had I known it at the time. Anyway, I do know now: according to Philip Blackburn of Innova, the recordings in these nine volumes have all been selected, with Henry Brant’s active co-operation, from his own collection of tapes, so there you are.
I gather that what made it into this, justifiably The, Henry Brant Collection depended entirely on what Brant considered worthy of publication – and for one reason or another he rejected loads of them. Many of Brant’s works were written for what PB describes colourfully as “one-shot deals” – which I take to mean that further performances were not anticipated. Consequently, as PB said (again colourfully), “miking was guerrilla-style” – someone just went in, quickly or even hurriedly, set up a few microphones and everyone crossed their fingers in sure and uncertain hope that the quality of performance and recording might conspire to produce what is known technically as a “cracker” or, failing that, at least an adequate memento.
Right, let’s have a look at Volume 2. It’s not often that a CD has me thumbing through the dictionary to check the meaning of “curate’s egg”. Alright, I’ll admit it: this is the first time it’s happened – but it turns out that, as a description of the CD’s contents, “curate’s egg” is pretty near the mark. How much is “bad” and which parts are “excellent” will emerge in due course.
The three otherwise diverse pieces on this disc have one particular thing in common: they are all concertos. On the face of it, a concerto should offer both temptation and challenge to a spatial composer. So far as the works herein are concerned we can take temptation as read, but how well Brant rises to the challenge tends to be part of the curate’s egg. At this point I could say, “let’s suck it and see”, but as, in this context, that turn of phrase sounds less than attractive, I’ll opt for “let’s dive in and see what’s what”.
Concerning the first work the booklet says: “Nomads is a triple concerto for solo voice, solo brass instrument and solo percussionist. The solo parts are completely improvised and independent of each other and of the accompanying wind ensemble.” I asked the internet for more information, said “please” (and even “pretty please”) – and got nothing. That’s a pity, because I’d like at least to know why it’s called Nomads; the music itself offers no helpful clues (at least, not to my ears, as yet).
Whilst searching in vain for enlightenment, I came across a review of this CD. Regarding this opening item, the reviewer didn’t mince his words, rounding off his wholesale condemnation with, “Nomads is staggeringly awful.” Is it really that bad? Let’s see:
The wind and brass ensembles, including percussion, occupy the centre foreground, whilst the voice apparently emanates from high on the left and further away, with the saxophonist (aren’t saxophones generally regarded as woodwind, rather than brass?) similarly disposed on the right. The drumset player is “half-right” and seemingly shrouded in the mists of distance. I suspect this last is a “stereo artefact” resulting from the player actually being some way behind the listener, which would make more sense than him being somewhere beyond the innards of the organ, wouldn’t it? The important thing, though, is that you can hear the four protagonists sounding from different places.
At first hearing, it really does seem messy, a confusion of noisy winds, percussion and soloists apparently shouting one another down, or scrambling over one another, as they vie for your attention – and leave you feeling that there’s lamentably little that deserves it (your attention, that is).
The first bar or so momentarily teased me into thinking that I’d got Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony in the player. The music that Brant actually wrote, for the wind and brass ensemble (which play as a unit), is mostly characterised by adjectives such as massive, grim, stark, forbidding, menacing and declamatory. It does indeed occasionally bring to mind such as Shostakovich and, more particularly, Messiaen in their “granitic” modes, and it has the artistic advantage of continually evolving as the work progresses. When soloists are active, the ensemble is typically more reserved.
The “orchestra” makes a most impressive sound – full and solid in tutti, with some very tasty rasping trombones in their second tutti entry, and with disciplined ensemble in all their contributions. However, I can’t help wondering: in respect of their apparent position, their materials and the integrity of their parts the wind and brass ensembles do sound as though they are a unit – but if so, why are two conductors needed? I simply don’t know – after all, there’s nothing to tell us (either in the booklet or the sound-field) whether they’re really a unit, or one group in front and one behind, is there?
Be that as it may, the real problem is the soloists, who can play what they like, and seem ruthlessly determined to abuse that privilege. When Adam Rudolph is at work, he is always and ever going flat out in “drum-break” mode, a drumset equivalent to Nielsen’s famously disruptive snare-drum cadenza. Dave Dimmock seems hell-bent on shredding his saxophone, forcing from the reed furious flurries of noisy notes plus sundry squeaks, squawks and screams, sometimes “harmonised” by grating vocalisations. Not to be outdone Steve Fallon, using his voice alone, although he starts relatively sanely grows ever more manic, gradually descending into what I can only describe as the crazed gibbering of an irate tribe of monkeys (maybe nomadic monkeys?).
In fact, it seems to suggest a flaw, or perhaps a loophole, in Brant’s fundamental spatialist principle, which says you can make the sounds of groups playing, no matter how independently of one another, abundantly clear and intelligible by widely separating the groups. But, if the sound being made by any group is intrinsically unintelligible, is there any point in separating it (other than into a soundproof enclosure)?
In spite of all that, surely lifting it (however slightly) above the level of “staggeringly awful” is the fact that Nomads has a rigorously logical structure, due entirely to Brant’s compositional design. The massive music acts as a ritornello. The work falls into three sections, the first alternating ritornelli with solo episodes (one for each soloist), the second similarly involving duos (one for each possible pairing), and the third a trio (for all three, would you believe?). The ritornello introducing this last suddenly cuts off and, following a moment’s silence, recommences – on woodwinds in a surprisingly serene frame of mind! However, this respite is but brief, as the trio-cum-coda, where the massive ritornello itself finally becomes embroiled with the soloists, is if anything still more frenetic.
Clearly, though, there’s an obvious contrast (and conflict) between the disciplined, four-square solidity of the orchestral ritornello and the untrammelled ravings of the soloists. It’s probably a safe bet that, if we knew the meaning and intention behind the title Nomads, it would all make perfect sense – and thereby seem a lot less like a “jailbreak from the madhouse”. So, Nomads may be less than a masterpiece and the “bad” bit of the curate’s egg, but it’s far from being “staggeringly awful” – and it’s the shortest work on the CD, so even if you don’t fancy it, there’s still plenty of “good egg” to go at.
Going to the opposite extreme, the booklet bends over backwards to explain the “point of departure” of the final piece on the disc. This is the controversial use of driftnets for marine fishing (a candidate, if ever there was one, for outlawing globally, possibly with capital punishment for convicted offenders,) and, more particularly, the horrifically large-scale, long-term harm caused by discarded nets, commonly known as Ghost Nets.
Ghost Nets is a concerto for double-bass, two widely separated chamber orchestras and one isolated horn. In the recording, the double-bass soloist is central and “up front” – as he needs to be, seeing as the double-bass is hardly the noisiest kid on the musical block – with the two orchestras clearly behind, one to the left, the other to the right. Although they are separated, they do not sound to be widely so – the gap between them, comfortably filled by the bass player, could usefully have been more spacious. The isolated horn, apparently just off-centre at the back of the right-hand orchestra, doesn’t sound at all isolated. Hence, as with the drum-set in Nomads, it’s likely that the horn is actually behind us.
Although cast in a single movement, Ghost Nets is divided into several sections, generally demarcated by harsh, jagged orchestral music, again lending the character of a ritornello. However, in this work, written 14 years after Nomads, Brant provides his soloist with much more imaginative (and even apposite) orchestral “accompaniments” (or, as the music is generally independent of the soloist, perhaps we should say “backdrops”?). Also – I might say “thankfully” – the soloist is not given carte blanche, so even without the programmatic point of departure, this work is musically much more comprehensible and involving for the listener.
The booklet informs us that the soloist, Lewis Paer, has (or had) a multi-faceted career: principal bassist of the New York City Opera and American Ballet Theater orchestras, guest artist and academician, and occasionally popping up in surprising places like the Fame soundtrack and Newband (which keeps Harry Partch’s instruments before the public). Although I did once (about 50 years ago) go to a concert featuring the then young Gary Kerr, I’m not exactly an expert on double-bassists, but even so, Lewis Paer sounds like he’s well enough acquainted with his onions. He can mix it with the “gruff and ready” stuff, whilst higher up (often a lot higher up) he’s well capable of producing that searingly impassioned sound that we, I now have to say mistakenly, regard as the unique province of the cello.
The American Camerata for New Music is a real chamber orchestra, here just thirteen-strong including that one isolated horn. Splitting that ensemble creates more or less two groups of soloists, who nevertheless produce ear-tickling “backdrop” sonorities, but are not short of savagery when it comes to those jagged ritornelli; in fact, the very opening of Ghost Nets put me in mind of the famous Psycho “shower scene” music, which, even if accidental, is nonetheless very neat, considering the subject matter concerns needless slaughter.
A relevant question might be, “If the driftnets business is only a point of departure, does the music actually ‘portray’ anything?” Well, perhaps it’s a bit like Scheherazade, where Rimsky-Korsakov intended the movement titles to “direct but slightly the hearer's fancy”. Certainly Ghost Nets does paint pictures, but just what it paints is something that the individual listener’s imagination must provide.
For just one example of what it evokes in my mind, very early on the double-bass indulges in some deep growling alternated with very high notes (possibly, but don’t quote me on this, harmonics) and a slow, probing, exceedingly sad melody, all against a backdrop of eerie high notes from the orchestral strings. This conjured in my mind the image of a whale becoming ensnared by the ghost net, struggling and – unable to break free – keening, whilst its fellows in the distance lament its fate. This imaginative theme is taken up at the end of the work, when sul ponticello strings become harsh and angry; the double-bass answers likewise, deep and rasping, swooping downwards, its phrases gradually deepening and fading to silence.
The central work on this CD stands in strong contrast to both the other pieces, being a concerto for violin accompanied only by other solo instruments; there is no orchestral ensemble – and no written score! Solar Moths is only slightly less enigmatic than Nomads, the booklet offering just this one teasing clue: “. . . the infinite cycle of the Solar Moth directs its exit from the Solar System, fully protected, bringing solar energy to all . . . in another phase of its cycle, the Moth races defenceless and suicidal towards its own solar immolation.”
What is a “solar moth”? As far as I can gather, the solar moth exists only as a concept: a spacecraft designed to use huge outboard mirrors to focus the sun’s light onto a propellant tank, whose heated and hence pressurised contents can then be “squirted” out to accelerate the craft in the desired direction. Even without this definition to muddy the water, I have trouble squaring the moth’s “infinite cycle” with its “solar immolation”, and it “exiting the Solar System” with “bringing solar energy to all” (this last probably an allusion to Brant’s enduring concern for matters environmental). Fortunately, in a musical context consistency is largely irrelevant, and we can rest quite content with the naïve image of a solar-powered craft fluttering around our solar system, until its stock of propellant runs out and it’s obliged to do the “moth-and-candle” thing.
If that seems a bit involved, it pales into simplicity when compared with the genesis of Brant’s music. It’s “scored” for an ensemble of four violins, four violas, c-flute, alto flute, bass flute, harp, piano, marimba and voice. That’s a total of 15 instruments – but there are only three players, including the soloist. The difference is made up not only by some doubling but also by some multi-tracking. Responsibilities are divided in these proportions: Amy Snyder, the voice, takes only that part; Henry Brant plays six instruments; and Daniel Kobialka certainly earned his crust, taking on all nine violin/viola parts including that of soloist.
The booklet advises us that, “Because of the long association of the three performers it was possible for [Brant] to dispense with notational aids, proceeding by verbal instruction alone.” We are also reassured that, “Nevertheless the work was designed and realised with the pitch, time and timbral controls associated with fully notated music.” In other words, Brant composed it in his head and on the fly whilst, in and amongst all the composer/performer interactions, the other two learned their parts literally “from the horse’s mouth”. OK, fair enough, but, if it was all defined in such detail, why not write it down? For once, this is a piece of Brant that would be playable by lots of other folk!
Apparently, the enterprise was planned in terms of eight-track recording (I presume that this means eight channels, rather than one of those dreadful eight-track, continuous-loop tape cartridges), but as even that fell well short of one track per instrument, there must have been a fair amount of “over-dubbing”, which in those days of analogue recordings was a far more primitive – and difficult – procedure than it is now. I’ve no idea what is the maximum number of instruments playing simultaneously, but it’s clearly a lot more than three! I don’t know about you, but I get the idea that this must have been an alarmingly complicated undertaking – what these days would be called a “challenge”. Not surprisingly, then, it was recorded by a professional, Bob Shoemaker – who, I imagine, must have been kept almost as busy as the players.
The only problem with this is that, as a supposedly spatial work, why – other than the voice sounding a bit behind the instruments (which hardly counts) – does it not sound in the least bit spatial? Although in terms of materials there are intimations of instrumental independence (i.e. Brant’s quasi-independent polyphonies), there are no clearly defined and widely separated groups of instruments. Instead, the instrumental images are arrayed before our ears just like a “normal” chamber ensemble; I was slightly disappointed that the booklet didn’t say anything about this; after all, the question’s a fairly obvious one. However, by way of compensation, the close-up stereo image is very well defined, the sound quality is eminently listenable and, particularly considering the over-dubbing, noise levels are commendably low.
Daniel Kobialka has had a wide-ranging career – soloist, founding concert-master of the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Midsummer Mozart Festival Orchestra, principal second violinist of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, pioneering developer of the “Zeta Polyphonic” violin; plus, as a composer, he has been much involved in investigating the potential of (musical) sound in the field of complementary and alternative medicine. As a player, Kobialka’s relationship with his onions is very much on a par with Paer’s.
Partly because there’s no anchoring “orchestral” group, the structure of Solar Moths seems to be rather rhapsodic, at first hearing merely a sequence of mostly linked episodes. On further hearings, though, some logical sense starts to emerge, but nothing like as readily as in the other two works; I suspect that Solar Moth may appeal more to lovers of ballet music than to lovers of sonatas! One possible structural pointer is the voice, whose entries are infrequent and relatively short-lived, which tends to lend them the significance of “signposts”. These are, approximately, at 2:30, 7:30, 14:50, 19:50 and at the end. If the fancy so takes you, these can be regarded conveniently as an introduction, four movements and a coda.
Again, there is a sequence of episodes each of which features a different form of string attack. Also, amidst music that is predominantly textural in effect, certain episodes have strongly melodic leanings – the soloist’s first entry (0:30) is intensely expressive and impassioned, the three flutes (10:30) play warmly melodic phrases, the soloist (13:00) has a very cadenza-like slow melody and the strings (17:50), soon joined by the soloist, sound for all the world like a Baroque slow movement. However, thus far I remain unconvinced that the “signposted” movement structure is even real, and – other than I can feel immanence of it – the overall logic remains tantalisingly elusive.
That may bother you, but it doesn’t bother me – I’m happy to accept those vocal entries as signposts plain and simple, to regard it as “ballet music” and enjoy the parade of fascinating and involving episodes passing before my ears. And it’s worth noting that all the non-melodic material seems to be based on genuinely melodic motives, lent further intrigue by all manner of instrumental “special effects” – my listening notes included plucking the innards of the piano, pizzicati (several flavours), spiccati, sliding (“one way”, up or down), gliding (sliding variously up and down, but not necessarily through a fixed interval), slithering, sul ponticelli, tremolandi, glissandi, harmonics, trills – and all either singly or in various combinations. Many of these are quite graphic: some conjure mental images of the solar moth gracefully riding the currents of space, whilst others are more redolent of the flutterings of the Earthbound moth (and, to my imagination, of numerous other varieties of insects), which incline this work away from “concerto” and towards “tone poem”.
Between them, Kobialka and Brant do a tremendous job of weaving all this into an absorbing, entirely musical fabric, repeated hearings of which reward you with further layers of intrigue. However, they are somewhat upstaged by Amy Snyder’s brief but utterly mind-boggling, even transcendent vocalisations – some of the most remarkable sounds I’ve ever heard generated by a human voice (possibly excepting Karl Denver – anyone remember him?). Her first entry is high, pure and curving – a truly lovely, even angelic sound. Her second consists of short, sharp phrases, surreal and almost mouse-like. Her third comprises glides, not “pure” but fluttertongued, a staggering sound! Her brief fourth is a curious sort of oscillation. At the end, we hear very high looping glides, each cutting off abruptly; suddenly the instruments stop; there remains only the voice, turning over, itself cutting off – leaving but its ghostly reverberation, slowly fading into silence. Solar Moths is a fascinating piece.
Innova’s documentation continues the standard of Volume 1 – informative, although omitting certain crucial bits (which may simply be “unknowns”); clear, with no distracting background patterns; and another of those booklet covers craftily constructed from the letters of the name “Henry Brant”, a feature common to the whole series. The back of the booklet has a photograph of Henry Brant, hiding behind what appears to be a sheet of bubble-wrap. Unlike Volume 1, the CD label does at least bear the names of the works and identify the volume.
Given their provenance, I guess that we just have to accept each recording “as heard”. Happily Brant seems to have included sound quality amongst his selection criteria, as none of the recordings in this volume are less than adequate – in the cases of Nomads and Ghost Nets just don’t expect “top drawer”, whilst for the professionally recorded Solar Moth expect to be pleasantly surprised.
By some curious coincidence, in these three pieces the spatiality varies inversely as the musical quality. By now, the details of the curate’s egg should be fairly clear: Nomads is definitely a taste that the curate will need to acquire – or otherwise leave it discreetly on the side of his plate – whilst the other two, especially Solar Moth, are excellent, a full 48 minutes’ worth of nicely cooked and very savoury yolk.
Steve Fallon (voice)
Dave Dimmock (saxophone)
Adam Rudolph (drumset)
Oberlin Wind Ensemble and Brass Ensemble/Gene Young, Henry Brant
Amy Snyder (voice)
Daniel Kobialka (violins, violas)
Henry Brant (flutes, harp, piano, marimba)
Lewis Paer (double-bass)
American Camerata/John Stephens, Henry Brant