Thursday, June 20, 2013

On Henry Brant's Music Stand and Summer Diversions

Portrait of Henry Brant, from his home, Santa Barbara

In the spring of 2004, I drove to Santa Barbara every week with a tape-recorder to interview Henry Brant (b. 1913, d. 2008), one of the most original “mavericks” of American concert music.  Henry had just won the Pulitzer Prize for his monumental orchestral composition, Ice Field, premiered in 2001 in San Francisco with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and Other Minds Festival (with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting). 

The Ice Field, for 100 musicians dispersed throughout the concert hall, from the stage to the top balconies, was inspired, like so many Brant’s pieces, by an apocalyptic, violent environmental event, the breaking of the ice field. He also wrote music about hurricanes, meteor showers, waterfalls, sun spots, and the destruction of rainforest.

The Ice Field is made of clashing layers and eruptions of sound from many directions. In the words of the composer,  the piece features: “extreme high register outbursts, extreme low register volcanic suggestions, melismas both sustained and jagged, spatial textures of polyphonically dense complication, and sections of unmistakably jazz character presented in harmonically strident contexts…” I spent a fair number of years studying Brant’s unique spatial music among other approaches to connecting music and space.  

Brant loved the music of Charles Ives (1974-1954), a pioneer life-insurance-salesman-turned-composer (or vice versa) whose “Unanswered Question” (1906) is a 20th century classic, and “The Fourth of July” should be in every American home. Is it? I was amazed after moving here that my American students have never heard of Ives. Who heard of Brant in his centennial year?  I learned about Ives and Brant in Poland.  

My home country’s Parliament declared 2013 to be the year of composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994), and his centenary was celebrated around the world, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Alas, the U.S. Congress did not declare 2013 the Henry Brant Year.

Kathy Wilkowski and Joel Hunt. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
Kathy Wilkowski and Joel Hunt with Brant's materials. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
My book of interviews will be among very few commemorations of Brant’s unique and visionary talent. Emerging Brant scholar, music theorist and saxophone player Joel Hunt will transcribe them.  The details of life and music will be thoroughly reviewed by Kathy Wilkowski, the composer's dedicated widow, who finally finished cataloging his works before shipping the manuscripts and documents off to the Sacher Stiftung in Basel... Yes, a book will definitely be lots of fun.

I have not written any poems about Brant yet, though the old music stand with Brant’s German inscription is begging for some verse (a gift from his widow, Kathy Wilkowski).  Let me try...
Maja Trochimczyk with Kathy Wilkowski and
 the Music  Stand. Photo by Joel Hunt.

The Music Stand

~ for Henry Brant, in memoriam and for Kathy Wilkowski

(c) 2013 by Maja Trochimczyk

Three ornate cast-iron legs
Dark, polished wood inscribed in German
Luften! Nicht Schleppen!

The faint red ink of the composer's warning 
Fades away, erased by death, melting into 
Timelessness - Lift! Do not Drag!

It stands in the corner, beneath a portrait 
Of a lady in an intricate golden frame. How do they
Bear surviving? Oh, the mindless cruelty of things!

Lift your eyes, child, when you speak to me.
Don't drag your feet. You'll wear out your shoes 
And who's going to pay for them to be fixed?

Do not drag me into this sorry affair
You are too good for that! Sing, sing, 
Sing along! Lift your spirit up to heaven!

Who knows what the music stand has heard? 
Who gave a German name to this antique wood?
Lifted before and after the rehearsals

In the most unlikely places - the top balcony, 
On the stage, between the aisles, under 
The maple tree in the courtyard

On the roof, by the pond - music transcends 
Space, weaving distant streams into a tapestry
Of sound and whimsy, crashing icebergs

Fountains and volcanoes. Here, four boats 
Of flutists float along the river Amstel, 
Under the din of Amsterdam's carillons 

There, a South-Indian trio, with a jazz band 
Gamelan, and Caribean steel drums. Don't forget 
A hundred trombones orbiting in a circle

A hundred guitars strumming an elegy 
For the rosewood trees killed to make them
They died in the rain-forest that will not grow back

Luften! Nicht Schleppen! Look up to the sky
Catch your vermilion days in a lucid net 
of notes, words - found, scribbled, counted

Lift! Do not Drag! Keep your spirits high
with the Angels and Devils, Verticals Ascending
Instant Music and Unanswered Dreams

Mojave Valley Yucca, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
Mojave Valley Yucca, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk


Not to get overwhelmed with existential and environmental drama, I wrote a rhapsody on the flavors of summer.  The flavors of past summers in Poland, mixed in with intense, fragrant summers of Southern California. 

Mojave Valley Yucca, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
Mojave Valley Yucca. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
The Flavors of Summer

(c) 2013 by Maja Trochimczyk

Pink clouds of raspberry sorbet float in
A large bowl of cherry soda at the museum.
“The signature recipe of my Grandma”
She offers, “the taste of my childhood.”
Not my flavor, not my taste.

The cold sweetness fizzles on my tongue
In the idyllic country of Ramona, the siren
Of almond blossoms and winter sunshine,
The tragic heroine from pages of an old romance,
And a tourist attraction, rolled in one.

Foreign story, distant times.  I long for
Hand-picked cherries bursting with delight
While my bare legs dangled from the tree branch.
I dream of my mom’s famous zupa nic, soup nothing –
Egg-white clouds frozen in a yellow yolk sky.

I see scarlet droplets scattered in a forest clearing
Wild strawberries hiding under fern fronds
Discovered in a burst of sunlight, bittersweet
Treasure preserved in small jars of confiture –
A teaspoon for each dark night of winter.

Bittersweet grapefruit ripens on my tree
Pink juice wells up under sunny yellow skin.
Birds got to the apricots before I did, leaving
A memorial of round holes in soft orange fuzz.
I find comfort in the scent of lavender and rosemary.

The dangerous whir of hornets (run if you hear one)
Morphed into a low din of bejeweled hummingbirds
Bombing each other away from the sugar water
In a ruby feeder, among flowercups of mandevilla
And white star jasmine climbing the roof of my patio.

I let the grass grow tall in my backyard this July
To remember the orchard of my aunt, the juice
Of cherries and pears on my chin, angry circles
Of yellow-jackets that sting and sting again
Unlike noble honeybees, dying with honor.

My neighbors of immaculate lawns and pristine
Driveways look at the Slavic jungle with disdain
And a warning: “Beware of snakes. Rattlers are hiding
In your grass. They are thirsty. They come from the desert. 
Watch out for the snakes of California summer.”


Mandevilla in a garden, Maja Trochimczyk 

As the readers may have noticed, the inspiration  for this poem came from attending a Ramona lecture by Dydia Delyser at the Bolton Hall Museum… Who heard of Ramona? A fictional heroine of a 19th century novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, an activist, Indian Affairs inspector (who in vain bombarded the Congress with documents and reports about abuse and injustices inflicted upon Native Americans).  Mrs. Jackson decided to fictionalize the many grim and tragic events from the history of Mission Indians that she described in her somber reports and books. 

Estudillo Museum or Ramona's Marriage Place
Escodillo Museum, Ramona's Marriage Place in Old Town San Diego.
The end result, a tragic love story in a novel "Ramona," became an unofficial guide to Southern California for visitors by train and the automobile, and a myth. Charles Fletcher Lummis, D. W. Griffith, and other luminaries became fascinated by the story, that became the subject of three movies. The book itself had more than 300 editions and spawned a tourist industry, with Ramona-themed locations and attractions in Ventura, San Diego, and other counties.  In addition to the various places and companies named after Ramona, her story has survived the past 80 years in the town of Hemet that has held the annual Ramona Pageant in late April. 

I visited San Diego and stopped by the Casa de Estudillo in the Old Town Historic Park. The U-shaped house is filled with artefact from Californio life - the Spanish-themed house includes a small tribute to Ramona, the novel that saved the building, known as "Ramona's Marriage Place" to the book's readers and lovers.

Casa de Estudillo, Old Town San Diego, by Maja Trochimczyk

Ramona at Casa de Estudillo, Old Town San Diego, by Maja Trochimczyk

Porch in Case de Estudillo, Old Town San Diego, by Maja Trochimczyk

Mojave Valley Yucca in Big Tujunga Wash, (c) Maja Trochimczyk


Photos by Maja Trochimczyk, unless otherwise indicated.

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