Henry Brant and the History of "Spatial Music"


The idea of “spatial” music—music that happens above, around, or behind the listener, whether in symphonic surround-sound, loudspeakers, or ambient installations—has been a dream of the last century. And the wide-open spaces of Bennington have attracted pioneering experiments with spatial music. In 1952-3, the first experiments in electronic music in the U.S. were carried out in the Carriage Barn, where Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky recorded Bennington cocktail parties, and turned them into reverberant, fluttering landscapes. They later premiered their experiments at MoMA as the first electronic music concert in the U.S., with titles like “Fantasy in Space” and “Sonic Contours”. Across the Atlantic, French composer Edgard Varèse was planning a symphony entitled “Espace”—where choirs in Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and New York would perform music simultaneously through radio transmission. Though the piece never was realized, the sketches eventually turned into “Déserts”, the first work for electronics and orchestra—which got its U.S. premiere in Bennington. After a performance at the Champs-Elysées in Paris, “Déserts” came to Bennington in 1955, where, too big for the Carriage Barn, it was premiered downtown at the Armory. There, the music could envelop the audience, and Varèse made a celebrated visit to Bennington to prepare the piece. Bennington student Ann MacMillan ‘45 helped Varèse play the tape part at the performance. MacMillan later went on to be one of the first composers to work in multi-speaker, surround-sound electronic music, working at IRCAM in Paris.

Otto Luening, Fantasy in Space

Unanswered Questions

Enter Henry Brant: a wunderkind from Montreal, who played flute, piano, tin whistle, organ, and percussion. He also orchestrated for Hollywood films such as Cleopatra and Dragonslayer, and late in life, won the Pulitzer for a spatial orchestral work, “Ice Fields”. Along the way, he taught at Bennington for 23 years. When he arrived at the college in 1954, he began experimenting with “spatial music”— a term he virtually coined. He was inspired by composer Charles Ives, whose gritty musical Americana evoked literally several marching bands crossing paths, or other complex soundscapes--distant bells, a boisterous camp meeting. Brant often cited Ives “Unanswered Question” as a watershed spatial work, in which a string quartet, woodwind quartet, and trumpet are placed at 3 corners of the hall, playing in almost metaphysical oblivion of each other.

At Bennington, one of Brant’s experiments was to perform different late Beethoven String Quartets—simultaneously—in the four corners of Greenwall, resulting in a complex, layered hum. For classes, he asked choirs to stand on the Jennings stairs and sing a single chord. He would then ask singers to step up and down the stairs, showing how position and proximity could deeply alter the sound of a chord.


For Brant, spatial music was how you made the “complex, layered insanity” of modern life intelligible. In his often thick, contrapuntal scores, groups of similar instruments were separated—brass in the balcony, six flutes on the catwalks. In Orbits for 80 trombones and organ, which was staged once on the spiral walkway of the Guggenheim Museum, both vertical and horizontal positioning creates the harmony. For Brant, “It's space that makes harmony possible, because space makes it possible physically for the pitches to be close together.”

Brant also experimented with movement. Electroacoustic composer David Jaffe ‘(year) says "I remember him having me run at top speed while plucking the E string of my violin to see if rapidly moving sound sources could be musically emphatic. He decided they could not." Another piece used hydraulic elevators. In all his pieces, large liberties were given to performers, because spatial separation often made coordination impossible. In the diaphanous, polyphonic textures that Brant composed, though, it all worked out.

Brant extended these freedoms to the audience: “What I'd like to do ideally is leave the audience free, go any place, as in a picture gallery. And I see nothing vague about this. What this means is that what they hear takes in every element from any position of the house, but of course always in a different proportion.”

Henry Brant, Orbits

Boats, Greenwall, and all of Amsterdam

For Brant, spatial music needs its own theater—ideally, with lots of empty space. Brant often said Shakespeare’s Globe Theater would be perfect for spatial music—tiered, in-the-round, with performing spaces surrounding the audience.

In this video, Brant describes his own dream theater: A boat, which would dock in harbors around the world, bringing this ideal acoustic theater to wherever he wanted. Brant consulted an architect in Boston about the concert boat, but the price (several million) was prohibitive. He kept this model, built by his son Linus, as an example throughout his life.

In 1970, Brant was asked, along with the musical faculty, for input on the architectural plan of VAPA. Greenwall was to be a “music workshop,” and Brant’s signature can be seen on the vaulted spaces, catwalks and performing locations at all levels. For 8 years after Greenwall was built, all music concerts were held here, while the Black Music division performed in the Carriage Barn. It’s unclear whether Brant liked Greenwall—it’s moored in concrete, an acoustical sink, not in water—but certainly Brant led many of his experiments here.

Brant did get a last chance at his dream of a floating theater. In 1990, the City of Amsterdam commissioned a new work from Brant, marshaling hundreds of performers. In Fire on the Amstel, flute ensembles floated on barges in the canals, calliopes answered them from bridges, and carillons rang Brant’s music throughout the city. The spectacle—diverse, everywhere, called up the work of Ives—and was a high point for the 76-year-old Brant.

Fire Trucks on Mountaintops

Brant retired from Bennington in 1980—and began a very prolific period, where he was commissioned by increasingly massive forces—80 trombones, three orchestras. One of his largest works, Meteor Farm (1982) was for orchestra, Javanese gamelan, jazz band, two choruses, South Indian soloist, and West African drum ensemble. These late works were more free-wheeling: Brant orchestrated entrances and exits, letting different traditions play their own music. Brant’s precision of orchestration and spatial positioning held together these enormous happenings.

Retiring to Santa Barbara, Brant kept in contact with Bennington. He often phoned up his longtime friend and collaborator Gunnar Schonbeck, a Bennington faculty member who built instruments for Brant’s pieces. Brant and Schonbeck talked about staging a piece in the Bennington valley that involved placing calliopes (fire truck organs) on West and East Mountains, where they would play in call-and-response.

Schonbeck continued creating large, spatial musical happenings a la Brant. Schonbeck’s Collage #500 involved his signature home-built orchestra, with dozens of triangular cellos, 9-foot banjoes, and drums made from airplane engine cones. These spectacles, often performed in Greenwall or in the top of Commons, also involved dance, text, and performers from the surrounding community such as the Girl Scouts or the college choir.

Neither Brant nor Schonbeck were keen about loudspeakers (Brant, jokingly: they “can cause cancer”), but “spatial music” has its largest heritage in electroacoustic music. Not only were Brant’s experiments a nascent form of 5.1 surround sound, they also helped pioneer the field of sound art and installation. Liz Phillips (73’), a student of Brant, became one of the first composers/sculptors in this emerging field of sound art. Philips installations run the gamut from huge metal mobiles sounded by wind, to gallery sculptures that would transmute the ripples of water, played by the viewer, into sound.

Text: Many thanks to Sara Wilson for research, and to Amy Betit, Michael Finckel, and Gail Schonbeck for their input. Text: Nick Brooke.