You are here
Length: 8 minutes
In 1950, Canadian-American composer Henry Brant (b. 1913) wrote that traditional music in a single style "could no longer evoke the new stresses, the layered insanities, and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit." One direction he began exploring was that of "spatial music in temporal polyphony" - in essence using space as another dimension in music. Concerned about the ability to discern contrapuntal details in dense textures, he found that the physical and sonic separation of performers solved some of that perceptual problem.
"At Juilliard, I studied and performed The Unanswered Question and other ensemble pieces of Ives. I saw that he was getting at the problem of greater polyphonic complexity in two ways: by physically separating the players, and by having them not maintain rhythmic ensemble," Brant said in a 1980 interview. "At that time, it seemed to me that these solutions were somewhat casual and slovenly, because my training had been like everyone else's - getting the music locked into the jail cells of bars and uniform tempi.
"So I attempted to find a way to apply Ives' two ideas in a more organized manner, and modified to the extent that every detail in the music must be easily and accurately playable, a restriction which Ives never worried about. My first effort was Rural Antiphonies. Since then all of my spatial pieces have been guided by these two Ivesian principles."
Brant often defined the character of his separated ensembles by instrumentation, texture, meter, style, and other elements. The son of a violinist, he had begun experimenting with homemade instruments while still a child, and he became a master orchestrator through a remarkably diverse career. He worked commercially in radio and film and taught at Columbia University, the Juilliard School, and Bennington College. He was the first American composer to win the Prix Italia (1955); his most recent major award was the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for Ice Fields, for large orchestral groups and organ. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony in the premiere, with Brant himself playing the organ.
Perhaps his most famous piece, Verticals Ascending displays many of Brant's concerns in a compact package. Composed in 1967, the piece reflects in sound the visual counterpoint of the Watts Towers, particularly the two tallest spires. Built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia from scrap materials and cement, the Watts Towers is a fantastic folk sculpture suggesting the better-known work of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí.
Verticals Ascending is scored for two small wind bands of distinct character. The first group is the brighter sounding, with double reeds, trumpets, trombone, and piano. It also includes a rather jazzy, soloistic part for alto sax that helps pictorialize verticality, particularly in its ascending glissandos. The mellower second group includes flute and piccolo, clarinets, horns, tuba, electronic organ (more reed sounds), and pitched percussion. Within each group the instruments are further defined as familial mega-instruments, the oboes and bassoons in Group I, for example, often playing together in octaves against the trumpets and trombones, also in octaves.
The two groups are further defined by meter, Group I playing in 4/4 throughout, Group II in 3/4. Brant spells out his intention quite clearly: "One measure of 4/4 is equal to one measure of 3/4; the first beat of each 4/4 measure must coincide with the first beat of the corresponding 3/4 measure, and the resulting effect will be that of '3 against 4' throughout, whenever both groups are heard simultaneously." As the Watts Towers challenge contextural perceptions, Verticals Ascending requires a complex interaction of performers and listeners in space, integrating a sort of meta-polyphony.
Verticals Ascending is dedicated to Alex North, composer of the score for the 1963 film Cleopatra, a project on which Brant also worked.
-- John Henken is the Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.