SOUNDS AROUND TOWN : A Different Space : Composer Henry Brant, a creator of ‘spatial music,’ will accompany Michael Ingham in an evening of Charles Ives songs.
Henry Brant, the most celebrated contemporary composer to call Santa Barbara home, discovered space in 1950. His musical life has never been the same.
Brant has spent the last four decades writing “spatial music,” in which he sizes up a specific performance “space” and designs music around it. The time-honored frontal stage is meaningless to him, a stubborn anachronism. With Brant’s music, performers--sometimes in odd instrumental groupings--are situated in places other than the stage, making the musical experience customized, site-specific, and nearly impossible to record.
Since relocating from the East Coast to Santa Barbara a decade ago, Brant has staged periodic spatial works in the area, while also fulfilling commissions from afar.
For Brant’s upcoming event at Lotte Lehman, though, he’s swapping the composer-conductor hat for that of performer-protege. Pianist Brant will accompany baritone Michael Ingham in an evening of 31 songs by Charles Ives.
For them, doing a program of Ives songs is no casual affair, but rather the culmination of a lifelong affinity with Ives, the visionary whom some consider to be the Great American Composer.
The Ives connection between Ingham and Brant was established 10 years ago when Ingham, a UC Santa Barbara faculty member for 20 years, met Brant.
“I hesitated about what to say,” Ingham remembered, “because you never know with a composer--they’re all sensitive souls. I said to him, ‘It seems to me that your music starts out where the lost movement of Ives’ Fourth Symphony leaves off.’ Henry agreed. I think that was our first coming together.”
Brant grinned. “There could be no higher praises as far as I was concerned.”
The two first performed Ives songs five years ago in Holland, and the project evolved. Brant and Ingham went to Washington in August to record the song selection--featuring many of the obscure and/or technically difficult songs rather than more familiar fare. A CD release on the AM-CAM label is slated for this year. The upcoming UCSB concert will be the American concert premiere.
So it wasn’t surprising that, when they met at Brant’s home last week for an interview and demonstration, they had Ives on the brain.
“I consider the principal impetus in anything that I’ve done to have its origins in Ives’ work,” Brant said.
Fittingly, Brant played his first Ives song, “Afterglow,” in 1932 at the age of 19. It was at the same concert where his since widely circulated flute work “Angels and Devils” was premiered. Recently, Brant wrote an orchestration of Ives’ towering piano work, “The Concord Sonata,” which Brant hopes to present in the near future.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) is a textbook case of a composer who was ahead of his time. He prospered in the insurance business by day, and outlined the future of music in his off hours. Ives’ creative output was for the most part finished by 1925, but it wasn’t until decades later that his genius was discovered and celebrated. In 1947, he earned a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony--written more than 40 years earlier.
Along with his instrumental music, Ives wrote many songs in many styles. In 1920, Ives published 114 of these songs at his own expense and sent them to 750 people, as Brant explained: “Some of them at random--editors of music periodicals and so on--unpublished and uncopyrighted.”
“He’d set anything to music,” Brant said, “the grandest poetic and prose ideas and something that he just tore out of the paper.
“At other times, he would write something lyric, in a style that would make Schubert want to slit his throat,” Brant said. “He was capable of that. The idioms used in his songs cover just about everything in the 20th Century.”
As an example, Brant pulled out a comical song called “Slugging the Vampire.” He and Ingham went to the baby grand piano in Brant’s living/working room, to run through that and several other songs.
For the Ives rarity called “The Antipodes,” originally written for two pianos and voice, Brant arranged the music for a single piano. In the piece, thick tonal clusters occupy Brant’s hands while Ingham issues bold queries about the nature of nature.
With their project, the pair are fueled by a sense of mission and also a hope that Ives’ songs will assume a rightful place in the musical world. While certain Ives songs might pop up on recital programs, Ingham said, “usually there are just a couple of Ives songs on a program, as representing the token American composer. Usually, they’re either the cute or the lyrical ones, which is fine. I like those too.”
Brant added, “We’ve got some lyrical ones on this program, too, but usually with the ones we’ve picked there’s something else involved.”
Ingham is a die-hard Ivesian, and thinks the composer’s importance to 20th-Century music is still underappreciated.
“He was like a volcano that stuck up there. The landscape’s all flat all around him. I think the other composers are ignoring that. That’s why I admire Henry so much. As far as I know, Henry, you’re the only one who saw a future in that direction.”
Brant responded: “I’m astounded that no one else did. There’s a composer who offers you everything. You go that way, go that way, go that way, and find your own way.”
Brant and Ingham hope to present the recital elsewhere after the album’s release. But once the Ives project returns to the shelf, Brant will plunge back into the creative formation of his own current work-in-progress.
The aptly titled “500 (1492-1991)” is a commissioned work commemorating Columbus’ arrival in the New World. It will pit two military bands, a civilian band and a steel drum band against and with each other (a very Ivesian idea) outside of Lincoln Center in New York City.
Ingham, meanwhile, will be performing Brant’s mass called “Pathways to Security” in San Francisco, a mass using Brant’s own text in his own synthetic language.
Like Ives, Brant tends to want to be in on the ground floor of his creative productions. A true believer in self-reliance, he wants to forge his own language and stage his own stage.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Baritone Michael Ingham and Henry Brant, at piano, will perform songs by Charles Ives at UCSB’s Lotte Lehman Concert Hall, 8 p.m. Wednesday.