Cross-Sections and Scholarly Fields: Earle Brown Symposium in Boston

Cross-Sections and Scholarly Fields: Earle Brown Symposium in Boston

Fenway Center

After performing a four-hands version of Earle Brown’s seminal December ’52 at Calderwood Hall in Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, pianists Steven Drury and Steffen Schleiermacher flipped the score 180 degrees and started from the top (which had been the bottom). They also switched places at the keyboard. A facsimile of this early graphic score was projected on a large screen for all to see. That theatrical moment, which took place Friday afternoon, January 18, toward the end of the first day of a vast Earle Brown symposium in Boston, exemplified one aspect of this important mini-festival—its embrace of openness and possibility.

An early associate of John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff, Earle Brown was most famous for his development of and commitment to the idea of open form in music beginning in the early 1950s. It’s often textbook images of his scores for these early works, rather than all-too-rare performances of the music itself, that form the basis of his reputation for many musicians. It was the goal of the Earle Brown: Beyond Notation seminar to rectify this situation and expand the understanding and status of this great American composer and conductor.

Susan Sollins-Brown Photo by Anthony De Ritis

Susan Sollins-Brown, president of the Earle Brown Music Foundation
Photo by Anthony De Ritis

Sponsored by Northeastern University and organized by Northeastern and the Earle Brown Music Foundation with the cooperation of the Gardner Museum, the idea for the symposium had its beginnings when Anthony De Ritis, head of Northeastern’s music department, heard about Brown’s death in the summer of 2002. Brown, a native of Lunenburg, Massachusetts, was a student of mathematics and engineering at Northeastern in the mid-1940s before joining the Army Air Corps, and later went on to study at Schillinger House, which became Boston’s Berklee College of Music in the 1960s. De Ritis got in touch with various of Brown’s colleagues and scholars of his music; meanwhile since the composer’s death these same colleagues and scholars had been unearthing and organizing a wealth of information and source material. Three years ago, Northeastern brought musicologist Rebecca Kim on board expressly to organize the events that took place January 18 and 19. Among her main collaborators were Thomas Fichter, director of the Earle Brown Music Foundation; Susan Sollins-Brown, president of the Foundation; Anthony De Ritis; and Steven Drury, pianist and director of the Callithumpian Consort, a new music ensemble based at the New England Conservatory (but made up of freelance musicians). Other participants included pianist Steffen Schleiermacher, a longtime Brown advocate, as well as numerous composers and scholars with various perspectives on the composer’s life and work. (Since I won’t be touching on every one of the many papers, I direct the curious to the symposium website.) Fichter suggests that the last ten years of research and organization have made this just the right time for this endeavor, and going forward the Earle Brown Music Foundation hopes to provide unprecedented access to the archives. (In a panel on Friday, Fichter discussed the former and present status of Brown’s scores and materials.)

Symposium principals

Symposium principals (l-r) Thomas Fichter, Susan Sollins-Brown, Rebecca Kim, Stephen Drury, Carloyn Brown, and Anthony De Ritis
Photo by Sara Haefeli

In addition to the presentation of a number of papers, the two-day symposium featured several performances of Brown’s music, culminating at the end of both days with a full-length concert of his work, juxtaposed with music by composers allied with or influenced by him. These events took place in Northeastern’s Blackman Auditorium; the converted church concert space of the university’s Fenway Center, and in the Gardner Museum’s unusual, Renzo Piano-designed Calderwood Hall, which opened a year ago in January 2012. Due to other commitments, I was unable to attend all of the presentations over the course of the two days, but Northeastern was kind enough to provide audio transcripts for those papers I didn’t hear in person; thus I was able to create my own “available form” of the festival by hearing the papers in a different order. I also had a chance to talk to several of the participants to get an insider’s take on the proceedings. Rebecca Kim, Anthony De Ritis, Carolyn Brown, and Susan Sollins-Brown helped put things in perspective for me.

Without performances of Brown’s music in the immediate context, many of the ideas explored in the informative, and in some cases illuminating, papers would remain in the abstract. In addition to Friday afternoon’s piano four-hands performance of December ’52, Steffen Schleiermacher also gave a single-piano performance of the composer’s 25 pages in Calderwood Hall during that same session, which featured papers on the influence of visual art in Brown’s work. “Workshop” sessions the following morning had Drury and (in a separate presentation) flutist Shanna Gutiérrez playing open-form works with consideration of aesthetic and performative issues.

In the early afternoon on the first day, during one of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s semi-regular Friday afternoon chamber music concerts at the Fenway Center, BSO cellist Mickey Katz and pianist Aaron Likness performed Brown’s Music for Cello and Piano (1955) on a concert with Verdi’s String Quartet and music by William Grant Still and André Previn. The full-length concert Friday night included performances by the musicians of the Callithumpian Consort (one of few ensembles experienced in performances of this music) of the composer’s String Quartet (1965) and Times Five (1963). Schleiermacher performed Folio (1952-54), followed immediately by Stockhausen’s open-form Klavierstück XI. The Callithumpians also performed Christian Wolff’s recent, open-instrumentation Microexercises and Lee Weisert’s New England Drift. The concert opened with Brown’s brief tape piece Octet I, realized during his work with Cage on the “Project for Magnetic Tape.” Although a later mixed-down version of this piece has long been known, it was only recently that Octet I’s eight individual tracks, allowing for octophonic projection, were discovered. (Volker Straebel discussed the composition of this piece in his Saturday paper.)

Available Forms

Available Forms
Photo by Robert Kirzinger

Saturday night’s concert began with Schleiermacher’s performance of Pierre Boulez’s Constellation-Miroir from Sonata No. 3 and continued with Schleiermacher, Drury, and Yukiko Takagi’s performance of Brown’s three-piano Corroboree. The Callithumpians, led by Drury and featuring violin soloist Ethan Wood, performed the latest of the Brown pieces in these concerts, Centering—a wonderful example of the supple and colorful, and very musical, textures and harmonies of his post-1950s music. Substantiating this attractive later style was Sign Sounds (1972), which ended the concert, and of which Drury and the Callithumpians gave two very different performances, our sole (and very valuable) opportunity to hear how different from one another two performances of Brown’s open-form ensemble works could sound. Also on the program were John Zorn’s cut-up piece For Your Eyes Only and Brown’s Available Forms I (a central touchstone in Richard Toop’s Saturday-morning keynote paper read by Rebecca Kim).

Kyle Gann’s Friday morning keynote talk, which delved a little into technical musicology, also succinctly made one of the big points of the festival. Gann said, “I look forward this weekend to rescuing Earle Brown from this ‘New York School’ limbo that he seems to have fallen into…. He came into the 1950s New York with his own set of ideas and it is high time we completed the story of where those ideas uniquely led. Let this weekend mark the point at which musicologists quit talking about ‘Earle Brown, one of the composers of the New York School,’ and start talking about ‘Earle Brown.’ Full stop.” This view was seconded in Rebecca Kim’s paper later in the day, in which, after creating a distance between Brown and the New York School, she spoke of Brown’s influences outside of the Cage sphere, such as the surrealism of Max Ernst and the mobiles of Calder, along with providing an overview of the early Brown musical biography. This also offered context for some of the other presentations. Kim’s talk also provided a useful connection to the installation in Northeastern’s Gallery 360, which featured a number of historic images Kim had unearthed from the Lunenburg Historical Society, along with materials from Brown’s archive. The audio aspect of the installation was Brown’s Music for Galerie Stadler in its first U.S. hearing.

Kyle Gann and Carolyn Brown Photo by Anthony De Ritis

Kyle Gann and Carolyn Brown
Photo by Anthony De Ritis

The most delightful presentations were by Earle Brown’s first wife, the dancer Carolyn Brown, and his second wife, Susan Sollins-Brown, an art historian and producer. Carolyn (who refers affectionately to Sollins-Brown as her “wife-in-law”) gave an entirely biographical talk about Earle Brown’s early years around Lunenburg, where he was virtually an additional member of her family. Her mother was a dance teacher; Carolyn later became a key member of Merce Cunningham’s company, and the physicality of dance in combination with the activity of jazz without question deeply informed the composer’s music. Susan Sollins-Brown, along with an incidental debunking of the idea that Brown and Morton Feldman maintained lifelong animosity from the early 1960s onward, presented some twenty minutes of her unfinished, ongoing film on the composer, created from new interviews and archival footage. (Sollins-Brown is the executive director of PBS’s valuable Art21 series of artist documentaries.)

Brown’s interest in the visual arts was the crux of papers by David Ryan and by art historian Natilee Harren, whose illumination of direct connections between Brown’s music and the Fluxus artists was particularly revelatory (especially given the Fluxus group’s ties to Cage). Both were richly accompanied by visuals of the art being discussed. (These were appropriately presented at the Gardner Museum.)

Among the more musicologically oriented papers were Louis Pine’s somewhat technical illustrations of Brown’s applications of the Schillinger technique, which he applied from his earliest important works and throughout his career. (Unstated in Pine’s presentation but arguably salient to this discussion was Brown’s connection through this technique to commercial and jazz composers including Gershwin and Benny Goodman; although it was touched upon, little was made in any of these papers of Brown’s relationship to jazz from an early age, except anecdotally.) Richard Toop was unable to attend due to ongoing treatment for cancer, but following his pre-recorded preamble his rather warm and personal reminiscence, Saturday’s keynote talk, was read by Rebecca Kim. The subject was Brown’s relationship to European composers of the 1960s era, with a rundown of the remarkable number of prestigious commissions (“all-star gigs,” Toop calls them) he received during this period. So many works we just don’t hear! Drury spoke to Brown’s longtime colleague Christian Wolff about the milieu in which the New York School composers worked, as well as suggesting a view of performance of their works today. Several other papers on Saturday also touched on musicological aspects of open-form and process in Brown’s music, as well as the composer as a teacher and colleague.

Stephen Drury and Christian Wolff Photo by Anthony De Ritis

Stephen Drury and Christian Wolff
Photo by Anthony De Ritis

It was perhaps inevitable that consideration of Earle Brown’s music still canted toward the early works, since that’s where his innovations took root and were most clearly presented; nonetheless it’s a pity that not many of the later works were discussed in depth (in lieu of more general principles). It’s a great shame that resources were not available for performances of any of the larger orchestral works. Still, the Earle Brown: Beyond Notation symposium provided a fine foundation for the hopes of all involved that Brown and his music will be the subjects of much future research and, more importantly, that there will be renewed U.S. interest in performances of his works.


Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is on the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a writer, editor, and speaker. He is the program annotator for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, works with several Boston ensembles, and teaches occasionally at Northeastern University.

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