Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Bones and Spatial Ponderances

Henry Brant has been on my mind lately. I first became aware of Brant's music when attending the 1990 Composer-to-Composer conference in Telluride, Colorado. Brant was one of the featured composers and he made an impression with his enthusiasm and unique ideas about tailoring compositions for performance spaces. He composed something specifically for the small opera-house in town using the talents of the composers and performers on hand (which included Pauline Oliveros on accordion and James Tenney on marimba as I recall). His ideas had a real freshness to them as he thoughtfully and artfully considered the physical location of the audience as a significant compositional parameter. He seemed to effortlessly strike a balance between heady ideas and whimsical humor.

At the same conference there was a showing of a wonderful documentary where Henry Brant presents a scale model of his "ideal music performance space." I'd love to see that again. I remember it being essentially a Shakespearian era style theatrical building constructed on a barge that physically transports the audience out into open water for each performance. His aesthetic is striking in its rare ability to incorporate audience considerations within some aggressive avant garde conceptualizing.

Later that same year I found myself sharing a ride with Henry Brant on the way to a concert in downtown Toronto. He was running late for a pre-concert discussion. All the way down he was telling me how tired he was of talking about his music and he wasn't going to talk about it tonight. He said, "if anyone asks me to talk about my music I'll just talk about skeletons instead." And that's exactly what he did. "Have you ever seen your own skeleton? I bet you haven't. You wouldn't even recognize your own skeleton if it came walking up to you from across the street." Which oddly enough captures an essence of Brant's music. I remember thoroughly enjoying his piece (programmed last on that evening) as it was completely devoid of pretense or forced seriousness. It had a great Ives-like quality mixed with the wonderful "acoustic surround" of the spatial placement of the players. It was like a concert-hall rendering of the perspective from within a marching parade. Words and recordings simply don't do it justice. (That said, the recordings of Brant's music that are available are really good).

Brant's ideas and aesthetic came to mind as I was absorbed in the experience of attending major league baseball games last week with an ear focused on the sonic environment. The sounds of the game and the crowd are so rich and multi-layered and the event is a performance that incorporates the audience in a manner so completely different from concert hall etiquette. The sport is the focal point that drives so much of the interplay between the event, the stadium PA system and the crowd. The game itself is a long sequence of tension-and-release as each pitch sequence moves toward a resolution of each pitcher/hitter combination that sends ripples into the overall sound fabric. I remain fascinated by all the individual variables that impact the sound of this experience from the effects of stadium architecture, physical location of the viewer or participant, the quality of the teams on the field, the regional quirks of the crowd and even the way sound travels in the open, outdoor spaces.

Henry Brant's music, personality and ideas are a reminder to keep one's ears fresh and open to the experiences of life. I find disarming wisdom in his comments about skeletons. If my own skeleton approached me from across the street I'd hope to be observant enough to realize that I'd become a formless puddle while my skeletal system was away. Which pretty well sums up the plight of "classical" music within this current cultural climate. (A topic of frequent deliberation on several music blogs). Perhaps the contrast in attendance and enthusiasm between "high-art" music and baseball wouldn't be so vast if we could drop the serious pretense and quit "making bones" about "classical" music. Each experience is richly rewarding for the mind open enough to take in the experience.

Though I do wonder what would happen if the respective economics of orchestras and baseball switched places. In such a world Patricia Mitchell would be an all-star oboe player making ten million dollars a year with her very own bobble-head doll and trading cards. And the Yankees would be struggling to pay for their own road trips while they attempt to market games to a younger audience without alienating the blue-haired old ladies who faithfully subscribe every season (even though several quit coming after they introduced that "modern" designated hitter rule).

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