Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blog #14, Orbits

There have been several events in the past few days worthy of mention here in these blogs, among them seeing the thought-provoking production of Dido and Aeneas by Mark Morris (I finally got to see it, in New Haven) and the death of Michael Jackson. But one must prioritize in blogging as in all else, and surely the most important thing for me to write about right now is the recent performance of “Orbits” by Henry Brant at the Guggenheim.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, here is a link to the review by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times:

The next edition of The New Yorker, on the stands Monday June 29, will have a feature review of the performance by Alex Ross. There are other reviews of the piece various places on the internet, and clips are already posted on YouTube.

On June 10, eleven days before the performances (June 21 at 7:30 and 8:30 p.m.) I wrote about this piece on my other website, This blog hasn’t been read by many people (it’s on a website devoted to Ives, after all), and it’s a good introduction to my ideas about “Orbits” and what the performance involved. So here it is:

“Yes I know it's a piece for 80 trombones. But it does have a single soprano voice in it, and Ives wrote songs, and it has an organ in it and Ives was an organist. Moreover, the two soloists improvise their parts, and Ives was a great improviser. So I'm going to write briefly about ‘Orbits’ by Henry Brant. It's been the main thing on my mind today. I've been spending most of my time, the last six hours, working on the rehearsal schedule. I've got eight groups of ten trombones, and one of them has already had its only rehearsal, and one of them has its rehearsal scheduled for late afternoon on Saturday 20 June. There's another group that has its rehearsal scheduled, but we have no venue. (Several people are working on that.) So that means I've got to find times and places for five groups of ten+ trombones.

“When Ives ‘gave up music’ to become a rich insurance man, he didn't just give up playing on Sunday morning and writing pieces he didn't really want to write. More than that, he gave up the scheduling problems, dealing with what some have called ‘ze artistique temper’ment,’ lugging instruments about, and all sorts of pesky real-life details that we can call ‘the business’ end of music. As the late great character tenor Jim Atherton (my long-time friend from back home in Alabama) used to say, ‘I hate the business part of this business.’

“I can't say I hate this sort of stuff, but sometimes it's a lot to juggle. And since the performance is only ten days away, and the rehearsal schedule isn't set, I have a right to be apprehensive. But this sort of grunt work is what makes the glorious artistic experience possible. My reward for doing the schedule is that I get to conduct 80 trombones (actually 87, we have a few extras and no one will hear the difference I assure you) in a fabulous space in one of my favorite buildings. Just as my reward for four years of preparation and Emails and negotiations was that I got to play all of the Ives accompaniments in three days!

“Performing is a funny thing, and it's not for everyone. The hard work isn't just practicing—in fact, the practicing is part of the fun, at least for me. The real hard work is ‘the business part of the business.’ Charlie is my hero, no doubt about it, but he didn't have the stomach for the business of music.

“Having said that, ‘Orbits’ is truly one of Henry Brant's finest pieces, probably the finest piece for a mass of instruments that I know. Amazing contrapuntal conception—eight masses of instruments, moving together (though not usually in unison), making dense chromatic clusters, and even at one point an 80-note quarter tone cluster (yikes!). Imagine eight groups of brontosaurs bellowing back and forth at each other from different points on a curving hillside. Rarely loud, and never too loud, nonetheless you get the impression they mean business.”
On Tuesday I’ll continue about “Orbits,” making reference to a particularly interesting Email I have received about Henry in the days when he taught at Bennington College. But this is certainly enough for today! It’s time to practice, not to mention to write some music.

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