Mind Over Clatter

A Pulitzer surprise notwithstanding, Other Minds continues its noncommercial quest to make the world safe for weird music

Eighty-eight-year-old composer Henry Brant lives in a modest bungalow that sits opposite some actual shacks on the outskirts of paradisiacal Santa Barbara. As he leans through a crack in the screen door to say hello, his most immediately apparent feature is the set of suspenders that holds up his impossibly loose sweat pants. Coke-bottle glasses and the absurdly crooked brim of a corduroy baseball hat pop through the doorway next, followed by the wiry hair sticking out behind his cap as he turns toward his study.

The interview will be upright, in the middle of the room; his sore back is making it difficult for him to sit. Is he up for an interview today? "I feel great," he says, with a Woody Allen shrug. "I've been the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for three weeks, and I'm still not used to it."

Traditionally, the Pulitzer Prize for music -- one of the most distinguished awards in the field -- recognizes achievement within the strict bounds of classical music and, occasionally, jazz. It's understandable that Brant remains surprised at winning. No one has ever accused him of working within bounds.

New music icon Terry Riley is frequently credited with 
introducing minimalism and repetition to Western 
Betty Freeman
New music icon Terry Riley is frequently credited with introducing minimalism and repetition to Western music.
Jazz clarinetist Don Byron and then-unknown (but now 
Oscar-winning) composer Tan Dun at an artists' 
retreat in the days before the 1995 Other Minds 
John Fago
Jazz clarinetist Don Byron and then-unknown (but now Oscar-winning) composer Tan Dun at an artists' retreat in the days before the 1995 Other Minds Festival.

The work that earned him the Pulitzer, "Ice Field," is a composition of "spatial music" that was performed by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall. In most orchestral pieces written and played since the Renaissance, the musicians and conductor assemble on a stage or in a pit at the front of a music hall. In Brant's pieces, musicians and conductors are placed where Brant wants them -- which can be just about anywhere.

"The first thing I do," he says, "is go all over the hall and see where there are places to put musicians without violating fire laws."

During four December evenings last year, symphony subscribers with first-tier balcony seats probably were not expecting to find themselves seated next to the orchestra's brass section, its jazz drummer, and a conductor (who was under explicit instruction not to pay attention to another conductor, operating onstage). Audience members seated on one end of the hall's second tier had piccolos and clarinets for neighbors; people sitting at the opposite end of the tier were next to a glockenspiel and a xylophone. Occupying the best seats in the house -- the orchestra-level side boxes -- were booming percussion instruments, among them giant steel drums. Above the stage, oboes and bassoons resided in the organ loft, and onstage, aside from a conductor, only the string section and a tiny old man playing a massive pipe organ remained.

"Ice Field" itself felt, at times, cold and jarring -- barely musical -- and at other times warm, raucous, funny, jazzlike. The bizarre arrangement of musicians allowed the piece to evoke these contrary perceptions simultaneously. In its 21 minutes, the composition provoked shudders and laughter and more than one audiencewide jolt, caused by waves of music coming, it seemed, from every possible direction. To an untrained ear, the work came across as oddly fascinating and totally new. To a trained ear, it was something more.

"It's very in-your-face, brash, and energetic," says Yehudi Wyner, a professor of music at Brandeis University and a Pulitzer juror. "It's American the way Whitman is American. ... It glorifies diversity. ... All these different kinds of music are coming together in a composition that thrives on collision."

Whether "Ice Field" is a newly realized musical conception of America or just plain odd music, one thing is certain: The work would not exist had it not been for an unlikely collaboration among an unorthodox composer in Santa Barbara, one of the nation's better symphony orchestras, and the Rockefeller Foundation. And that collaboration almost certainly would not have occurred without the intervention of a tiny San Francisco-based nonprofit organization named Other Minds.

If you know Other Minds at all, you probably know it for an eponymous festival, held each spring, that brings a mix of well-regarded and little-known experimental musicians to the Bay Area, where they play in front of cult audiences of anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand people. From year to year, the focus has been on producing the most interesting festival possible -- and on simple survival.

Now that its credentials include a Pulitzer Prize, however, Other Minds is a little more ambitious. With five full-time employees who work out of a snug office on Valencia Street, it wants to rule the world -- or, at least, the part of the world that enjoys musical weirdness. "If there are 14 people in Capetown who listen to this stuff," says Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian, "I want them to think of Other Minds first."

Of course, that kind of global presence -- even in a fringe field such as experimental (or, as devotees often call it, new) music -- requires more than presenting three days of strange music each year. And Other Minds is a year-round venture. Within the realm of new music, the organization acts as part archaeologist, part curator, and part circus barker, striving to discover little-known musicians while preserving the obscure works of established ones.

It also tries to keep its favored artists working. Those artists have little in common other than being, as Amirkhanian puts it, "a little over-the-top." And while its members all tend to pray to the same iconoclast gods, the international fraternity includes artists influenced by European classical music, Chinese opera, rock 'n' roll, hip hop, and jazz. The group obsesses over newly invented instruments, and invents new uses for old ones.

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