Memories of Earle Brown, by Alcides Lanza, as told to Meg Sheppard [Montreal, November 2006]

[Montreal, November 2006]

In the early 1960s, a group of young composers in Buenos Aires formed the Agrupación Música Viva to play and promote avant garde music in Argentina. I was a founding member of the group, and we were very excited about and interested in what was happening at the time in the United States – especially the works being produced by that great gringo trio of Cage, Brown, and Feldman. My first introduction to the work of Earle Brown dates from this time. His work had a tremendous influence on us, with its experimentation in the areas of aleatoric music and different approaches to performance. Brown was also integrating ideas from the world of painting and plastic arts into his pieces. He readily acknowledged the influence of Calder’s mobile sculpture in his works like Event Synergy II which created flexible and «mobile» performance options. Another interesting connection was with Pollock’s action painting techniques as they might be applied to musical expression. All this was fascinating and stimulating for us, and had a liberating effect on our own experimentation as composers.

I first met Earle Brown when I went to New York in 1965 on a Guggenheim Fellowship. New York – then as now – was a tough town for newcomers. I remember that one day a friend and colleague of mine – Peruvian composer Edgar Valcárcel – suggested that we take in a lecture being given by Earle Brown at the Lincoln Center Library. After a great lecture, we went to introduce ourselves, and immediately experienced the warmth and charm we came to know as his characteristic manner. He was very interested in our work, and invited us to come to his apartment to play some music, and talk about our work. We went and were welcomed, and listened to, and generally made to feel that he had a very genuine interest in what we were doing as artists. We were very impressed with his knowledge and interest in the visual arts and modern dance – the apartment was full of books and paintings and photos of all the artistic disciplines. His interests and knowledge were indeed eclectic, and he was a wonderful conversationalist. At that time, he introduced Edgar and me to the writings and teachings of Joseph Schillinger (with whom he had studied). We were unfamiliar with Schillinger’s theories, and this introduction really had an impact on us.

I remember Earle had a particular gift for generosity toward other people’s work. With other young composers I had formed the composers/performers group [c/pg] for the diffusion of our works, and Earle was one of our most faithful audience members. He attended many of our concerts, and really enjoyed getting to know our music. Out of this and other encounters came an offer from him as producer for Mainstream Records for us to record an LP with music from Latin America featuring music by Gerardo Gandini, César Bolaños, Marlos Nobre, Oscar Bazán, Manuel Enríquez, and myself. This recording was extremely important for us as artists, and was an example of the very concrete support that Earle gave to many emerging artists.

Over the years, I have conducted many pieces by Earle Brown. A piece that is a particular favorite of mine is Event Synergy II, and I have done multiple performances with different conducting partners. The score requires two conductors, and is one of the most significant examples of his vision of collaborative process-relationships during performance «inherent in the score, but not in detail foreseeable BEFORE the act of performing and perceiving» [1]. The conductors conduct simultaneously, but independently. The score is an open-form work in proportional and graphic notations, and permits the performers to make spontaneous decisions during performance. With all this freedom, it is still a work requiring considerable skill and a fair amount of rehearsal. It is not at all a piece of pure improvisation, but is a somewhat directed series of opportunities for improvisation and interaction for the musicians. It is interesting to note that the musicians in the various venues where I conducted the piece usually began rehearsals with some trepidation, only to be completely convinced in the end that Brown knew exactly what he was doing, and the performances were always a tremendous success. Well, almost always. The only time that I saw Earle really upset was at the «Simposio della Nuova Grafia Musicale», in Rome in 1972, where I had recommended the piece be played, but was not hired to conduct. It was a disastrous performance, with the conductors evidently not committed to the piece (one of them conducted the entire piece with one hand in his pocket!), and substitutions in instrumentation – the most egregious of which was the substitution of the required English horn by a…French horn. Well, some people just don’t «get» it – spontaneity and improvisation don’t translate into «anything goes». As I said, Earle was understandably irate, but he forgave me when he realized that I couldn’t do much about it if I was not permitted to conduct.

Earle Brown’s music definitely had an influence on my own notational system. Perhaps this is most obvious in my piece sensors II, for multiple trombones. There are echoes of the rectangular shapes that I had seen in 4 Systems. In terms of sound textures, this influence is evident in the moments with very high activity [busy moments] in all my pieces titled eidesis. I am sure my having conducted his Available Forms gave me some ideas. My eidesis III requires dividing the orchestra in two and utilizing two conductors, clearly something I considered after conducting Event Synergy II. His music showed many of us ways to explore new techniques, and different ways to achieve interesting and unique sounds.

We encountered each other again in Berlin in 1972 when we were both guest artists of the then West German government [for the Berliner Künstler Programm, administered by the DAAD (2)]. We didn’t work together at the time, but had a chance to reconnect.

The last time I saw Earle was during his week as composer-in-residence at McGill University in 1974, where I was teaching composition and electronic music. It felt good to be able to bring him to McGill where our students could experience meeting him as I did so long ago as a student myself. Full circle.

My memories of Earle Brown? A supremely self confident artist who was never afraid to be open to other artists’ work, who was always ready to lend an ear, lend a hand, lend his influence …… a warm and generous and constant friend and mentor to us all. It was a privilege to have known him.

(1) From the program notes included in the score of Events Synergy II [Universal Edition]
(2) Arts Program for the city of West Berlin, run by the Deutschen Akademischen Austauschdienstes [German Visiting Academic Program]

Performances of music by Earle Brown, programmed or conducted by alcides lanza:

Event Synergy II [1967-68]:
– V InterAmerican Music Festival: Washington, DC, 1971; conductors, Antonio Tauriello and alcides lanza, The Festival Orchestra, Department of Commerce Auditorium, May 18, 1971
– Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Nutida Musik Radio program: Malmö Konzerthus; Febr. 1972; conductors: Mesias Maiguashca and alcides lanza

Event Synergy II: programmed at the «Simposio della Nuova grafia musicale», organized by Nuova Consonanza, Rome; 1972

Modulos I and II [1966], for two orchestral groups: Primer Festival de Música de las Américas, Rio de Janeiro, March 30, 1969; Orquestra Simfonica Brasileira, Teatro Municipal, Rio de Janeiro; conductors: alcides lanza and Armando Krieger

Available Forms [1961], for 18 musicians : McGill Contemporary Music Ensemble, alcides lanza, conductor; Music from the Americas and Spain: 1; Dec. 5, 1989, Pollack Hall

Corroborèe [1963-64], for three pianos: McGill Contemporary Music Festival I «around keyboards»; pianists: Anat Benor, Roger Lord and Margaret Wada, Pollack Hall, March 19, 1982

LP record produced by Earle Brown [Mainstream Records]
NEW MUSIC from SOUTH AMERICA: LP disc programmed and conducted by alcides lanza and released by Mainstream Records, New York. This ground-breaking recording series was established and directed by Earle Brown.
The recording for «New Music from South America» was realized in New York, at the Columbia Studios. The ‘composers/performers group’ [1] was conducted by alcides lanza. This LP included compositions by,
Oscar Bazán: Sonogramas [1963], for two pianos; Manuel Enriquez: Diptico I [1969], for flute and piano; alcides lanza: penetrations II [1969-IV], for wind, string, keyboard, percussion instruments, with voices, electronic sounds and electronic extensions; Gerardo Gandini: Soria Moria [1968], for ensemble; César Bolaños: Divertimento III {1968], for ensemble and electronics; Marlos Nobre: Tropicale [1968], for ensemble.

[1] c/pg: this ensemble was created in New York in 1966 by alcides lanza, Edgar Valcárcel and Gitta Steiner. The c/pg was devoted to the promotion and performance of music by its composer members, and of compositions from the Americas.

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