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.

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, www.ivesvocalmarathon.com. 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.