Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Blog #15, Orbits & Henry Brandt

The score to “Orbits” is enormous, as you can imagine. In the NY Times picture it is clearly visible, on the special black backing the folks at the Guggenheim made for me and placed on a music stand that they then adjusted so it would actually be straight on the ramp! On the subject of the oversized score, I have received the following Email from Peter Beck in Chicago. I have never met Mr. Beck, but we have several common interests, especially The Sacred Harp and Henry Brant. He read about “Orbits” and sent me the following Email, which I have annotated in italics:

“I was a student of Henry Brant's at Bennington during the time when he wrote the piece. You knew Henry, and everybody has their own stories to tell; here's one of mine.

“Henry was a brilliant composer but not particularly adept with mechanical things. (Do you know the story about him ‘learning’ to drive a car?)

I do not. But I can imagine. I never saw him drive, and I knew the man for twenty-eight years.
“I remember passing by the photocopier in the music building one day and encountering the abandoned and evidently unsatisfactory results of Henry's attempts to cut and paste to create a copy of the score for "Orbits." There was paper everywhere, taped (and glued?) into gigantic sheets, overflowing the wastebasket and covering the floor. Lots of it was crumpled up and there were toner smudges all over everything.

Frustration with getting this musical conception on paper is entirely understandable. And since the score was made, thirty years ago, the frustrations continue. Even in its final form (what one rents from Carl Fischer) it is awkward to handle. The noteheads are tiny, making it very difficult to read. I wanted to produce an oversized copy of it, for purposes of conducting, but I was totally defeated. You can’t really get the original onto the glass in a position to copy it efficiently, and I quickly realized that a lot of Scotch tape was going to be required, not to mention a paper cutter much larger than any to which I had access. After fooling around with the blowups for fifteen or twenty minutes I realized that it would take me an entire day, including the cutting and pasting, to do this job. The solution—I learned to live with the published score.

“Needless to say, I treated myself to a longish peek at what was there (but felt it would be wrong to walk off with any of it), and you could just see it, how it was absolutely essential for the performers to be separated in space in order for the polyphonic textures to be anything other than brutal sludge, but that if they were separated, there was a ton of cool stuff going on in the piece. (I prevailed upon one of my NYC friends to attend your performance, and he called me right away the next day to share his excitement and enthusiasm. I wish I could've been there.)
“I also remember a photograph of Henry with a diagram/model of where the performers would be placed when the piece was premiered in San Francisco, very cleverly using paperclips to represent the trombones.

I have seen this photo somewhere but it was decades ago. Peter sent me some suggestions about tracking it down.

“A little further afield—I don't know if this is something he routinely told everybody, or if I was somehow privileged, but one day when Henry was in one of his rascal/raconteur moods, he said that whenever one of his pieces was performed on a program with the works of other contemporary composers, he always proposed that, for a finale, all of the pieces would be played simultaneously. None of the other composers ever wanted to go along with this idea. He was somewhere between wistfulness and outright disappointment at the intransigence of his colleagues. (And that's Henry in a nutshell—his world was chock full of enticing sonic possibilities, and he figured out, early on, that the only way most of those possibilities would ever be realized was if he made it happen.)”

About Henry wanting to perform lots of pieces simultaneously—he used to say to me, along these lines, that "If any piece of music sounds good, it will sound better if you play another piece of music at the same time." He told me that, to demonstrate this, he arranged a simultaneous performance of the last five piano sonatas of Beethoven at Bennington. I pressed him on this point, and he admitted that he had used phonograph recordings. So I filed this information in the back of my head. When we did a big concert at Wesleyan for his 85th birthday I arranged for this to be done live, with six grand pianos! Why six, you ask? Because the "Hammerklavier" is so much longer than the other four, it needed to be split up. Henry played the first two movements, and I played the last two. The four other pianists were Christopher Oldfather (Op. 110), Jacob Smullyon (Op. 104), Paul Marquard (Op. 111) and William Braun (Op. 109). Needless to say, the six pianos were spatially separated, surrounding the audience. It was a brilliant success, and I would love to do it again some day.

The resulting Beethoven bash is called "Homage to Luigi." Elsewhere on this website it is listed in my catalogue. I was going to call it "Homage to Ludi," thinking that Ludwig's nickname would be, back in the early 19th century, what it would be today. But Henry informed me that Beethoven's friends actually called him "Luigi" because he was such a fan of Italian music. (Not the image that Luigi/Ludi has today, that's for sure.)

Peter Beck should have the last word on Henry today. In a subsequent Email he writes:

My first term at Bennington (I was a junior transfer), Henry was assigned as my faculty advisor. Not a role he was particularly well-suited for, but we did fine together because a) I wasn't a freshman and b) I was a musician. I fell into the habit of greeting him, “Hey, Henry, how’s tricks?” and he would always say, "Getting trickier!” and give me the eye-twinkle and impish grin.

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