Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony team up with iconoclastic organist Cameron Carpenter to release a one-of-a-kind recording of Henry Brant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning spatial composition, Ice Field. Put on your headphones for a unique Dolby Atmos immersive experience that allows us to hear Brant’s work as it was intended: as a vast acoustical soundscape for 100 players scattered throughout Davies Symphony Hall. Visit streaming and download stores everywhere to hear this groundbreaking recording.
Michael Tilson Thomas on Henry Brant’s Ice Field
Ice Field is a significant work that came from a joint commission with the San Francisco-based group Other Minds. Charles Amirkhanian, as steward of that group for many years, has had personal associations with some of the great and most original figures in contemporary music, including Henry Brant. Henry was born in 1913, which means his youth overlapped with the worlds of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and other iconic avant-garde American musical mavericks. I first met him during rehearsals for the San Francisco Symphony’s 2001 world premiere of this piece. I regarded him with awe—he was a living legend of the maverick days of American music! Over the course of our rehearsals for the premiere we became friends. Henry was an amazing personality, showing up to rehearsals in his classic outfit of a jumpsuit and baseball cap . . . he laid out simply enormous musical canvases.
Henry’s compositions create a huge world of sound. He had a Fellini-esque approach to music (although Henry was doing this long before Fellini). His Ice Field is a vast sonic landscape on a huge scale that was written specifically for the acoustics of Davies Symphony Hall. The piece is a kind of concerto grosso for organ and orchestra. Not only are the forces of a huge orchestra divided from the top balcony to positions on (or seemingly under) the stage, but they are coupled with the full power of our Ruffatti organ. When we played the premiere, the organ part was partially improvised by Henry himself. He was a very slight guy, yet one of the wildest people I’ve met as far as his musical imagination and spontaneity.
There is one particular sequence in Ice Field that to me sounded like a group of street musicians that had been out in the cold too long, musicians who perhaps had had a few too many nips in order to get them through one more chorus of a hymn
tune . . . . Every time that section came around it struck me as more and more amusing. As we rehearsed I tried so hard not to laugh that I actually started crying as I was conducting! When we took a break, Henry came up to me and said, “You know, it was always the dream of my life to create music that would bring people to tears, I just never thought it would happen quite like this!” From that moment on we were great friends.
When organist Cameron Carpenter joined us for this recording of Ice Field, he too had a reputation for being one of the wilder people in music. I shared with Cameron my experience of Henry’s free spirit and imagination, and from that moment on, Cameron pushed the instrument as far it could go. He remarked that this piece required him to prepare in very different ways than he was accustomed to, and that for him, the best way to approach Ice Field was actually in just letting go.
Although Ice Field gives the impression of a mobile, floating, world collage with a certain amount of play in the way the piece is constructed, the timing of when certain sounds come in and how they overlap are all within very cleverly imagined parameters. The degree to which Brant had things figured out was extraordinary. In this piece, we learned by doing. When all the players are in the space and working to put the piece together, you feel the incredible plasticity of the music—something that was impossible for us to know until we experienced it in the space.
Davies Symphony Hall is large, and experiencing the music in the full space was essential to its character, one that can’t be heard on a normal recording. It’s been so exciting to partner with Dolby so that listeners can experience the piece much as we performers do in the space itself. Henry Brant would have been delighted by how this matches his work in the realm of the experimental approach to sound and music. This recording will fascinate audiophiles but will also offer people with varied musical backgrounds a chance to experience the spontaneity and emotionally affecting qualities of this wonderful piece!
Why did you want to produce this recording using Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos enables us to put all kinds of different elements into a listening experience that includes sound images from the front, center, back, side, and above the listener in ways that are very convincing.It is a superior technology when compared to anything else in the music world. It is the perfect compliment to Brant’s Ice Field!
Is there a big difference between listening to a 5.1 surround recording and this Dolby Atmos immersive experience?
There is a huge difference between what Atmos can do and typical surround formats. Early on we experimented with trying to get the elements of the Brant to localize properly within a normal surround format—we tried 5.1, 7.1, and other hybrid formats. In the end, anything that was in the back of or above us just wouldn’t work; we could not get it to sound convincing. As soon as we started experimenting with Atmos, the whole sonic world changed. Atmos allowed us to be able to represent the piece the way it should be heard: The listener has a very clear sense that there is activity behind them, above them, in front of them—all over—and is able to pin point accurately where each sound is coming from.
How did the idea to produce Ice Field in Dolby Atmos happen?
The collaboration between Dolby and the San Francisco Symphony in representing the Ice Field recording in Atmos happened organically. We originally recorded the performances in 2014. At that time we didn’t know how we were going to deliver this piece, and so it was challenging on the engineering side. We had to figure out how we were going to capture this uniquely spatial piece. We ultimately put up a lot of microphones, covering ourselves so that somewhere down the line we’d somehow be able to get the capture to work. John Loose from Dolby happened to be in the audience during one of the Ice Field performances. Afterwards he came running up to me and exclaimed, “We have to do something with this piece!” I replied, “Well, what are we going to do?” and he simply said, “I don’t know! But we have to do something with this.” So that was the germ of the idea: We knew we had a work that was potentially going to represent an Atmos presentation really well, and at the same time, we didn’t know how we were actually going to deliver it to anybody or how they were going to hear it. The combination of the Dolby/SFS partnership gelled over the subsequent years and now, here we are in 2019 and Dolby’s technology is now not only able to produce an Atmos production of Ice Field but also abinaural representation as well.
What were the unique challenges you faced during recording?
The main challenge in trying to capture Brant’s Ice Field is the fact that the environment is a compositional component. Now, that might sound like “It’s just a concert hall—what does it mean when you say the environment is a compositional component?” Brant wrote the piece for Davies Symphony Hall. Everything from the hall size, the volume, the distances, and the locations of the players has a unique relationship to one another, and they have to be presented in a way that listeners can understand them. A stereo recording isn’t able to do that as it just takes all those elements, crams them together, and listeners are forced to decipher and parse the music through a dense blur. Once you hear this piece in Atmos you realize that the compositional part of the hall is as important as any of the playing you hear; that aspect of the production was a very difficult thing to capture and reproduce properly.
Ice Field: Spatial Narratives for Large and Small Orchestral Groups
HENRY DREYFUSS BRANT
BORN: September 15, 1913. Montreal, Quebec
DIED: April 26, 2008. Santa Barbara, Ca
COMPOSED: Ice Field: Spatial Narratives for Large and Small Orchestral Groups was commissioned for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony by Other Minds (a San Francisco-based organization devoted to the music of pathbreaking composers), with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Multi-Arts Production Fund. The work was completed in Santa Barbara in June 2001
WORLD PREMIERE: December 2001 Pan-American Mavericks performances. Michael Tilson Thomas and Brad Lubman conducted, with the composer on the organ
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 piccolos (all doubling flutes), 3 oboes (second and third doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (third doubling E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns (plus a 5th to play in unison with the 1st, if available, and a 6th to play in unison with the 3rd), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (5 of them), xylophone, glockenspiel, 3 gongs, 2 bass steel-drums, 3 orchestral bass drums, a drum set (consisting of snare drum, pedaled bass drum, pedaled hi-hat cymbals, 5 tom-toms, 2 large suspended cymbals, large cowbell, and large Chinese block), a large pipe organ with a 32-foot stop (and preferably a 64-foot stop as well), 2 harps, 2 pianos, and strings. 2 conductors are required to coordinate the instrumental forces, which are arranged on the stage and at specific places around the hall
DURATION: About 20 mins
THE BACKSTORY When you boil a piece of music down to its essentials, what you have are pitch, rhythm, and timbre. Nearly every piece every composer has ever written, at least in the Western tradition, is simply an elaboration of those three properties—that is, unless the composer is Henry Dreyfuss Brant (1913-2008)—or one of those who have followed his example. For Brant, music has a fourth dimension: space. In his creative universe, where a piece sounds is a fundamental aspect of how a piece sounds. Brant elaborated in an interview with Charles Amirkhanian: “With me, space is not a convention, with the audience in one place and the artists in another. To me, space is an expressive device. I put some of the instruments in different parts of the hall to make certain elements with music more expressive and intense. The way I do it, space is part of the composing plan. If you change the space in a piece of mine, it’s no different than changing the notes or the rhythms in someone else’s piece.”
He wasn’t always a spatial composer, but even from the beginning he showed clear signs of being a maverick. Even as a child he created homemade instruments and composed works for them. He received a thorough musical education at the Montreal Conservatory, the Institute of Musical Arts in New York, and the Juilliard Graduate School, all the while continuing his experiments with unusual or “found” objects (as in his 1932 composition Five and Dime, for E-flat clarinet, piano, and kitchen hardware) and with deploying multiple members of the same instrumental family in a single piece (as in his 1931 Angels and Devils, a concerto for three piccolos, five standard flutes, and two alto flutes).
But by the early 1950s, Brant, who by that time was distinguished enough to have served on the composition and orchestration faculties of Columbia University and the Juilliard School (a long stint at Bennington College, from 1957 to 1980, still lay ahead), found himself drawn increasingly to the idea of space. He was strongly attracted to the idea of writing an abundance of contrapuntal lines but found that the ear couldn’t really sort them out when they started to approach a dozen simultaneous parts. Space, he thought, might help clarify things. There were precedents in Western composition, to be sure. Monteverdi and his contemporaries made telling use of the acoustics of the San Marco Basilica in Venice by dispersing their performers throughout the space. Berlioz, Mahler, and Ives all provided specific directives about the locations of performers in certain of their works, and many in the audience can probably recall examples from the standard symphonic repertory in which offstage instruments are used effectively, as the distant trumpet in Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. Operagoers are accustomed to hearing the sounds of secondary ensembles waft in from afar—military parades, ballroom orchestras, chanting monks—but, apart from the three orchestras that overlap in Don Giovanni, the effects are rarely all that astonishing. In most of these cases, spatial separation amounts to only a gesture—an interesting and sometimes commanding touch, but hardly a factor in motivating how the piece works.
In 1953, Brant therefore unveiled Antiphony I, in which the music was divided among five instrumental groups separated from one another by considerable distance. From then on he created more than 100 works in which space is an essential part of the makeup. (He also continued working in a “non-spatial” idiom.) As he got more deeply involved in realizing spatial music, he became aware that his musical choreography came at a price. Distantly separated performers are difficult to coordinate precisely, and the musical result is a slackening of rhythmic point. Rather than fight this essentially imperative characteristic, Brant adapted to it by giving his musicians an improvisational freedom over many rhythmic details.
The nature of Brant’s music guarantees that performances will be relatively rare, and, as you might expect, recordings have in the past served his music poorly because they compress an art that relies on expansion. Many of his pieces are site-specific, and quite a few demand intimidating logistical planning. The orchestrations themselves are sometimes daunting, the sort of combinations that can be assembled only on very special occasions. Ice Field, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was specifically crafted to the expressive spatial possibilities of Davies Symphony Hall.
THE MUSIC The score provides specific instructions about the placement of instruments. Brant explained to Amirkhanian: “On the stage will be the string orchestra in the place where it usually sits, all together. The only other instruments on the stage are two pianos, two harps, and the timpanist. So the sound that comes from that area of the stage is not what you ordinarily hear. It’s more intensified because you hear each tone quality by itself, not duplicated by anything else. Behind the stage, in the organ loft, I put the oboes and bassoons. What they play is a kind of music that the strings, pianos, harps, and timpani never play. In the first tier is the entire brass section, plus a jazz drummer. This group has its own conductor, who pays no attention to the conductor on stage, because the music here is entirely different. At one end of the second tier are three piccolos and three clarinets. They play what they have to play without keeping together because I want their sound to represent the kinds of elements that happen in everyday life—a lot’s going on, without connecting with anything. At the opposite side of the second tier are the glockenspiel and xylophone. Low percussion instruments are on the orchestra level, in side boxes. There’s nothing left except the huge pipe organ of Davies Symphony Hall, which I will play myself.”
The work’s title relates to an experience Brant had in 1926, when he was 12 years old. His father, a violinist, decided to go to Europe to have an eminent violin dealer examine an instrument that had come into his possession and was reputed to be by Stradivarius. He took the whole family along, and in the course of the transatlantic voyage they spent an entire day passing through a field of icebergs. “I claim that the memory of that experience is reflected in Ice Field,” says Brant. “But it’s only a title. I was thinking about this when I started to write it, but the idea of trying to depict an iceberg in sound is something I wouldn’t want to attempt.” (The presumed Stradivarius, by the way, turned out to be authentic.)
What we hear will be largely controlled, partly improvised, and unusually spontaneous. Prepare yourself for a sonic feast. As with all his spatial music, Brant believed it is a kind of music appropriate for the modern world. “By 1950,” he said, “I had come to feel that single-style music, no matter how experimental or full of variety, could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities, and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit.” In his spatial music he found a solution that he believed would “speak more expressively of the human predicament.”—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.
Ice Field: Spatial Narratives for Large and Small Orchestral Groups was commissioned for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony by Other Minds (a San Francisco-based organization devoted to the music of pathbreaking com-posers), with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Multi-Arts Production Fund.
Composer: Henry Brant (1913–2008)
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director and Conductor
Cameron Carpenter, Organ
Edwin Outwater, Supporting Conductor
Producer: Jack Vad
Engineering Support: Roni Jules, Gus Pollek, Jonathon Stevens, Denise Woodward
Post-Production: Jack Vad, Mark Willsher
Dolby Atmos Post-Production: John Loose, Jack Vad, Mark Willsher
Cover Photo: WanRu Chen / Getty Images
Cover Design: Karin Elsener
Photos: Kristen Loken
Video Production: Tal Skloot
Editorial: Jeanette Yu
Label: SFS Media
Recorded: September 18–21, 2014. All works recorded in PCM and 24-bit/192kHz audio live in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.
Release Date: May 17, 2019
Total Run Time: 00:24:31
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