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Remembering Henry Brant

Henry Brant.

Sept. 15 would have been the 100th birthday of composer Henry Brant. Born in Canada to American parents, Brant forged a career that was similarly bilateral. An expert orchestrator, he plied that trade in a variety of commercial settings: big bands, radio, television, and film. (A partnership with film composer Alex North was especially symbiotic, Brant orchestrating North’s scores to everything from “Cleopatra” to “Good Morning, Vietnam.”) At the same time, in his own music, Brant pursued a distinct avant-garde path.

Precociousness (Aaron Copland tipped the teenage Brant as a composer to watch) and longevity (he died in 2008) made Brant the last great exemplar of ultramodernism, a branch of freewheeling experimentalism that had its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s. (Charles Ives, spiritual godfather to many of the ultramodernists, was an important mentor; Brant later engineered a dazzling, labor-of-love orchestration of Ives’s “Concord” Sonata.)


Around 1950, Brant became fascinated by spatial music, multiple ensembles arranged in different places around the concert hall. The concept appealed both to Brant’s musical problem-solving talent and his pervasive fondness for cheerful absurdity. (1982’s “Meteor Farm,” one of Brant’s biggest big tops, includes an orchestra, multiple choruses, a brass consort, a jazz band, and West African, Javanese, and Indian ensembles.) Brant used the old idea — spatial layouts were also the fashion in the churches of 16th-century Venice — to refine the ultramodernists’ atom-smashing dissonances into quantum entanglements, intervals and timbres mingling at a distance.

Though Brant is highly regarded in the new-music community — his spatial opus “Ice Fields” won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, 53 years after Virgil Thomson’s film score for “Louisiana Story,” which Brant orchestrated, earned the same award — chances to experience his landscapes were always rare. (Recordings hardly do justice to its 360-degree full-immersion.) In 1983, a springtime residency led Boston Mayor Kevin White to proclaim “Henry Brant Week”; but, apart from an Oct. 28 performance of Brant’s early “Angels and Devils” by the NEC Contemporary Ensemble, Brant’s centenary has, as yet, passed unnoticed here. Perhaps his music is considered a hard sell; but, then again, by its very nature, it invariably fills the hall.


Brant’s “Angels and Devils,” Oct. 28, New England Conservatory. 617-585-1260, www.necmusic.edu/brant-britten-harbison-heiss-ligeti

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.