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Henry BRANT (1913-2008) The Henry Brant Collection - Volume 5 Autumn Hurricanes (1986)
Janice Jenkins, Molly Rich (sopranos)
Craig Maddox (baritone)
Nancy Maloney, Jean Rickman (flutes)
Vocalists and Instrumentalists of Stetson University
Henry Brant (chief conductor)
Tim Maloney, Robert Rich, Thomas Sleeper, Amy Snyder (collaborating conductors)
rec. 1986, Stetson University Elizabeth Hall Auditorium, Deland, USA INNOVA 412 [58:42]
How should recording teams tackle one of Brant’s large-scale spatial works? Autumn Hurricanes is subtitled A Spatial Cantata for Widely-Separated Vocal and Instrumental Groups, which gives a fairly broad hint of the sort of problem facing them. According to the booklet, this piece is for eight distinct performing groups, listed as: female choir, male choir, orchestra (woodwind, horns, percussion, two pianos [four players] and organ [two players]), jazz group (saxophones, trumpets, trombones, tubas and drum-set), brass group (trumpets, trombones, tubas and drum-set), string section (four separated groups on-stage, four separated groups in the hall, and six “isolated” soli), two soprano soli, solo baritone, two flute soli and solo chimes (this last being anonymous).
If you’re having trouble squaring the stated “eight distinct performing groups” with the listed six (or up to thirteen, depending on how you count them) separate ensembles plus a dozen soloists, don’t worry – you’re in good company! I’m equally puzzled as to how all these, each “maintaining specific tempi, contrasted throughout with [all the others]”, are managed by a “mere” five conductors, but that’s by the bye. Other than as already indicated, no details are given of the spatial deployment; but clearly, to be “widely separated”, they’ll have to be dotted around all over the auditorium – and probably at differing heights.
So, where amidst this profusion of performers do you put your microphones? In thinking about that, we’ll have to bear in mind several incidentals. Firstly, we’re talking about more than thirty years ago, so there’s no sophisticated modern “surround sound” technology. Secondly, a work such as Autumn Hurricanes fell into Brant’s “one shot” category: it was written specifically for one performance, with no expectation of there ever being another. Thirdly, this being a “one shot”, we have to make do with whatever recording kit and operatives happen to be at hand – there is no professional recording team at our disposal. Fourthly, the numbers and dispositions of the performing groups pose a very particular problem.
We know that, contrary to the common assumption of most composers (and reviewers, for that matter), Brant neither intended nor expected every listener in the hall to hear the same sound-balance; to some extent, he designed his works to be effective, albeit not identically so, from all the varying perspectives. But, accepting that this would hardly do for a recording (well, would you buy a record on which half the performers happened to be inaudible?), we do need to capture at least something of everything. Ideally, then, the recorded sound must represent the legendary “best seat in the house”.
You could individually mike each of the ensembles and soloists, but that would be not only a hugely complicated undertaking but also, in all probability, way beyond the means of our ad hoc recordist – and, with the best will in the world, studio-style multi-miking would almost inevitably result in a completely contrived, unrealistic sound, bereft of any sense of the all-important spatial perspectives. The obvious alternative, speaking purely stereophonically of course, is simply a crossed/divergent pair of cardioid microphones.
Brant, in his Spatial Music Progress Report (originally published in Quadrille, A Magazine for Alumni & Friends of Bennington College, Volume 12, Number 3, 1979), said, “In a few instances sound engineers have produced what I consider true spatial recordings via two-speaker stereo”, using what he described as “one sound source for each speaker”. However, I’m not sure that this is a validation of the crossed pair technique, because Brant’s “sound source” seems to refer to a single performing group rather than the output of a single microphone!
Nevertheless, a correctly-adjusted divergent pair above the audience “sweet spot” would be your best bet for a faithful and effective (not to mention economical) stereo recording; the placement will (by definition) take care of the balance between the various groups, and the divergence setting will take care of the directionality, perspectives and ambience. Is that what we have here? Although the answer is partly “yes”, I’m afraid that it’s mostly a resounding “no”!
You can indeed hear “something of everything”, but instead of the performers being wisely spaced, half of them seem to be bunched up on the left and the other half just as squashed together on the right. By way of inadequate compensation, the vocal soloists are apparently above and slightly beyond the rest. Some instruments (and even some “packets” of ambient decay) seem unsure as to which side they belong. The stage (assuming that we are sitting facing it) is effectively devoid of inhabitants. This – the “hole in the middle” effect – is what you get if you set your crossed pair at too wide an angle, and its main impact is to screw up any real sense of the performance space, and hence of Brant’s spatial design.
However, it’s not necessarily irremediable; in most cases, you can retrieve a fair proportion of the sound-image by the simple expedient of introducing some cross-talk. Of course, I tried. However, on opening a track file, I found myself diverted by another problem entirely; I gawped, aghast, at the displayed waveforms: they appeared to be clipped – and I mean decapitated wholesale (this is something that would be laid at the door of the digital transfer engineer).
Aware (from long experience) that first appearances can be deceptive, I zoomed right in to a “clipped” portion. Immediately, I could see that the waveform’s peaks were not flat at 0 dB., that is, the maximum level of a CD. Nor were they flat at a slightly lower level, which is the case more often than you might imagine (some engineers seem to believe – mistakenly – that “backing off” a clipped waveform actually ameliorates the effect of clipping). No, the waveform was still wiggling sensibly in the top two or three decibels.
Thus this was not hard clipping such as you get when the signal is too loud to fit the digital “word” (which exonerates the digital transfer engineer), but the spoor of that savagely unmusical beast, the Automatic Limiter. Readers of my generation may remember, probably with an icy shudder, certain cassette and even one or two minidisc recorders that “boasted” one of these. It was designed to banish forever the risk of overloading your recordings. A more comprehensive version continually adjusted the recording level at both ends, doing away with manual recording level controls altogether – and effortlessly producing recordings with strangulated dynamic ranges. I’ll grant you, these were just the job for pocket voice recorders and dictaphones; but how could anyone have even imagined that they had any place whatsoever in otherwise high-fidelity equipment?
This recording sounded as though it had been managed (or should I say “mangled”) by the more comprehensive version of the beast. Small wonder, then, that one web reviewer mentioned that there was “some congestion” in the louder passages – of which, it so happens, Brant had provided perhaps a few too many for comfort. This reviewer should also have mentioned, but didn’t, that there was also a distinct lack of any quiet passages.
Yet, even this condition is at least partially curable, basically by using a compressor/expander function to apply the inverse of the beast’s characteristic curve. The difficulty, need I say, is that this characteristic is unknown. Nevertheless, there’s no harm (in the privacy of your own home, at least) in experimenting with guesswork, educated or otherwise. Eventually I came up with a result that, whilst it was of a quality nowhere near commercially viable, was sufficient to convince me that my suspicions were not unfounded. I should think that someone like Pristine could have a whole heap of fun rendering this ragamuffin of a recording presentable in polite society!
It’s only fair to point out that the booklet provides no recording credits, which confirms that this recording must have been made opportunistically, probably by a student who happened to own a stereo tape recorder and a couple of microphones. Without the efforts of this anonymous benefactor, Brant aficionados – and anyone else of an adventurous frame of mind – would have had no recording at all of Autumn Hurricanes. And indeed, in spite of its faults, the actual quality of the sonic substance at lower levels is really very passable – certainly well above the minimum acceptable to the fabled Mr. Hobson.
Nevertheless, the recording is so defective that ordinarily I would have to dismiss this CD out of hand and direct you to worthier alternatives. However, this is no ordinary case. As a recording of a Brant “one shot” it is a unique document so, regardless of the recording quality, I am honour-bound to consider the quality of the content. Listening two or three times to my somewhat “Heath Robinson” partial restoration was more than enough to stay my dismissively twitching hand.
The work is cast in seven movements, which Brant describes as “separated sections, each offering impressions of a different area of Caribbean hurricane history.” As the music is by no means “impressionistic”, these impressions are conveyed primarily by the sung text of each section, which describes a particular autumn hurricane, starting with the Great Autumn Hurricane of 1780 and ending with the Mexico Hurricane of 1967. The texts are not in the least poetic; in fact, they read like edited extracts from newspapers – not that this matters, since (as Brant was well aware) in any typical vocal work, the words are intelligible only through the printed copy of the text nestling in the listener’s lap.
In keeping with Brant’s environmental inclinations, descriptions of death and destruction are, in the even-numbered sections, interspersed with assurances that hurricanes can be “blessings” as well as “curses”. In case you’re wondering, examples of blessings include, “they maintain the thermal balance of the world”, “their winds cleanse poisons from the air”, “[they] replenish crops and groundwater with torrents of rain”. By now, the full list may well have been expanded to include, “they help to moderate the numbers of that planet-ravaging parasite, homo sapiens” (which some would consider as elevating the curse to a blessing, as far as the planet is concerned).
From that, you may reasonably presume that the work would derive its dramatic contrasts from juxtaposing frenetic “storm music” and periods of beatific contemplation. Sadly, it doesn’t. Even with the benefit of the increased dynamic range of my “restoration”, it still seems that Brant’s score is somewhat short of markedly meditative music to reflect (quietly) on those “blessings”. There’s also the narrowness of the subject-matter – a quick skim through the texts soon convinces you that hurricanes have something in common with sheep. The upshot is that the immediate impression, as Autumn Hurricanes unfolds, is of something tending towards the “samey”. I’m left feeling that Brant’s inspiration, for once, was a bit short of white-hot.
Yet, if you persist, you’ll find that the said inspiration is nevertheless way above flat-cold; there’s much more going on “under the hood” than first meets the ear. While Brant may possibly have left us short-changed in the serene meditations department – the penultimate section’s music for strings, although exceedingly beautiful, is nowhere near enough of this good thing – he has firmly resisted the temptation to blast us with wall-to-wall musical onomatopœia. In fact he went one better: Autumn Hurricanes is 100 per cent free of your average storm-music. However, this is a far cry from saying that there are no impressions of the unbridled violence visited upon Man by the aroused forces of Nature.
Each section has its own distinct formal structure and materials, with some of the latter recurring as variants in later sections – and I dare say that these recurrent variations have some particular significance, although I haven’t worked it out (yet). Let’s take a couple of examples. The first section is, roughly speaking, a simple “verse and refrain” form, whose verses are declaimed by the baritone against a choral babbling and whose refrains are different instrumental episodes.
At the other extreme comes the fourth section, which opens with three brief, bright piano/percussion “fanfares”. Crawling woodwind are overlaid by choirs, washing wave-like over one another, all cut off by black pianos/percussion resonances. Against a polyphony of rather Baroque-sounding strings, soprano and baritone soli sing of the duality of hurricanes (if the recording had let it, this could have qualified as a reflective passage). This mood is cut off by a short episode of intense, firecracker percussion. A polyphony of astringent, soloistic strings is overlaid by overlapping choirs, singing in disjointed dotted phrases of the violence of the winds, all cut off by further black pianos/percussion resonances. These last, fading, are gradually supplanted by agitated solo flutes, joined by agitated solo sopranos (more on the duality of hurricanes), which are under-laid by Baroque-sounding strings that steadily overcome the voices/flutes, thence to be joined by solemn woodwind. Over this enters the solo baritone, on the topic of duality, until all is cut off by further intense, firecracker percussion. Crawling woodwind are pitted against string groups re-using materials originally given to vocal soli, expanded by the choirs in “disjointed dotted phrases”, until the proceedings are halted by an elaboration of the opening “fanfares”.
The above description suggests the possibility of there being two (or maybe more) superimposed patterns at work. Here I don’t need to dig any deeper (and I have to draw the line somewhere), because it’s already clear that there’s plenty to occupy listeners’ cerebra. Comparing these two extremes, the common factor is the music’s episodic nature; the difference lies in the complexity of and inter-relationships within and between the episodes, involving (over and above any thematic development) shuffling of styles and performing groups as well as materials. Yet, the 10½ minutes’ duration of the fourth section is only 40% longer than the first’s 7½ minutes, making the former more concentrated as well as more convoluted. These same principles seem to apply in varying degrees to the remaining movements.
In passing, it’s worth bearing in mind that, much as Brant often favours the technique, being episodic is not intrinsic to the nature of spatial music. Yes, in music that involves independently moving strands, co-ordinated only by a chief conductor’s start and stop signals, the use of episodic full stops is convenient – but it’s by no means unavoidable. For example, in my summary of the fourth section, you can see instances of strands starting and stopping within a stretch of otherwise continuous music.
For those of a more sensual bent, it’s fair to mention that, while of necessity less wide-ranging than elsewhere, Brant’s use of his resources is imaginative, varied, ear-catching – and often spectacular. The choirs don’t just sing; the very opening finds them creating a wash of babbling sound, in Section 6 they are heard both chattering and swooping downwards – and indeed they close the work on a huge upward slide. I’m sure that some of the female voices are actually girls, as opposed to youngwomen, and a very pleasant sound they make. Likewise the vocal soli can be variously heard singing sweetly, barking stiffly somewhat in the manner of Daleks, jerking out the text in mechanically angular phrases, or (final section) proclaiming the words in something between recitative and speech, with the phrase ends turning sharply upwards in incipient yodels.
Brant also turns up many intriguing instrumental textures, for example: ripe, miry tubas (Section 1); sliding pedal tympani, huge piano sweeps and crunches with sustaining pedal floored (Section 2); what sounds like steel drums and glockenspiel in unison (Section 5); fluttertonguing flute soli, a menacing miasma of pianos and percussion, looming string chords (Section 6). Inevitably, the Jazz Group enjoys some of Brant’s fairly “laid-back” swing and – at one juncture – something suspiciously like moody “modern jazz”. I’m not at all sure of the relevance of these to the matter in hand; but then I suppose, if the pre-defined forces include a jazz group, it seems only fair that Brant gives it something to get its teeth into. Incidentally, have you noticed that, if you add together the Orchestra Group, the Brass Group and the String Groups, you get a full symphony orchestra?
So, we have a decidedly duff recording but eminently worthwhile content; now, what about the standard of performance? As I can’t be comparative, I guess that this question boils down to whether the music is “well played”. I’ve previously reviewed two examples (see Volume 1 and Volume 4) of extravaganzas that Brant wrote specifically for “one-shot” performance by a university’s entire musical resources. As you’d expect of a university, the performers were all technically competent and nearly all were mettlesome young adults. Moreover, it’s odds-on that none of them would have had any previous experience of Brant’s brand of large-scale spatial music – and hence, youngsters being what they are, they would regard it rather like a gauntlet thrown down.
The Stetson University forces were made of the same stern stuff; they seized the gauntlet of Autumn Hurricanes with the same Siegfried-like fearlessness and a quite blood-curdling but entirely gratifying enthusiasm. This electrifyingly palpable energy is judiciously tempered by both a very considerable degree of technical accomplishment and, no doubt, by the firm guiding hands of the conductors whose chief, you may have noticed, was Henry Brant himself. I’m not saying that everything’s squeaky clean (after all, this is an unedited “live” recording), but performance-wise you will hear precious little, if indeed anything at all, that will actually make you wince, whilst there is so much to admire – and, once you’re into the swing of it, enjoy.
The booklet, sporting another teasing design based on the letters of Brant’s name, is sadly short of a booklet note, by which I mean an essay about the music itself. You do get a basic “historical” note, details of performers and page-and-a-half of biographical background on Brant (reproduced from Volume 4’s booklet). Happily, and very much so in view of my above comment on its usefulness, the full text is provided, although there are a few small factual inaccuracies and one statement which may puzzle you. Section 4’s text mentions that, “Barometric pressure was at an astounding [sic] low 26 degrees.” What on Earth, I had to wonder, is a degree of pressure? My guess is that this should have read “inches” – that is, the nowadays somewhat archaic unit “inches of mercury”. If so, then “26 degrees” would equate to about 880 mbar (or hPa in new money), give or take a little depending on whether your inches are Imperial or American!
In summary: this review has been something of a wrestling match, because it transpired that Autumn Hurricanes is what I might call “top end of division 2” Brant, music that’s well worth investigating and enlivened by a fervently committed performance, but saddled with a recording that leaves an awful lot to be desired. Making a recommendation is thus a bit tricky, because I can’t see any way of avoiding a barrage of conditional clauses.
If you’re an out-and-out Brant devotee, then recording quality will be irrelevant and this will be an essential purchase (which you’ve probably already got). If you’re intrigued and fancy your chances at licking the recording into shape, then give it a whirl by all means – at the very least you’ll have hours (or days, or weeks) of fun trying to coax out of it the best that you can. If you find bad recordings utterly anathema, then steer well clear. If you find bad recordings generally anathema but are attracted by the musical prospect, then buy it – but only if you’re comfortable with the possibility of writing off the cost of your investment. If you are wanting simply to test the water Brant-wise, then don’t start here – try dipping your toes in Volume 1, Volume 3, Volume 4 or possibly Volume 2 (there may be others, but I haven’t reviewed them yet) And, finally, if this is of no interest to you at all, then keep your dosh firmly in your wallet (I include this just for completeness).
My comment about “someone like Pristine” was no jest: the quality of both music and performance would easily justify a professional attempt at restoration; my own efforts in that direction suggest that substantial improvements will result. OK, so it’s not all that likely, but it still makes my mouth water.
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