OBITUARY: Earle Brown ; Innovative and Influential Composer

By Potter, Keith | The Independent (London, England), July 5, 2002 | Go to article overview
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OBITUARY: Earle Brown ; Innovative and Influential Composer


Potter, Keith, The Independent (London, England)


THE AMERICAN composer Earle Brown was frequently associated with John Cage, to whom he was personally very close, particularly in the early 1950s. Yet the basic aesthetic thrust behind Brown's compositional output, which spreads over more than five decades, has almost nothing in common with the chance operations that made Cage famous.

Brown played jazz trumpet in his youth, but his early interests were as much scientific as musical. During 1944-45 he studied mathematics and engineering at Northeastern University in Boston, not far from his birthplace in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. Two years in the US Army Air Corps - where he gained his pilot's licence, as well as playing trumpet in the Air Corps Orchestra - were followed by a three-year period, between 1947 and 1950, of studies in composition, musical techniques and music history with the 12-note composer Roslyn Brogue Henning.

At the same time, he also took courses at the Schillinger School of Music in Boston (now the Berklee School of Music, which offers studies in jazz and popular music), which introduced him to Joseph Schillinger's rigorous attempts to use mathematical procedures in musical composition. Brown became so enamoured of these ideas that in 1950 he and his first wife, Carolyn, a dancer, moved to Denver, Colorado, so that he could disseminate Schillinger's methods there as an authorised teacher. Though these were soon to be challenged by Brown's first encounter with Cage, Schillinger's imaginative integration of music and mathematics remained an important influence on Brown throughout his life.

While the Browns were in Denver, Cage and his lifelong personal as well as artistic companion, the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, came to the city on tour. The Browns soon moved to New York, where Cage and Cunningham were based. Here, both Earle and Carolyn Brown quickly became part of the artistic circles in which Cage moved, which included the composers Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, the pianist David Tudor and, outside the inner Cage circle, the more senior composer Edgard Varese.

Many of the famous artists of the so-called New York School of the time, including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and, later, Jasper Johns, were then also part of this lively downtown Manhattan scene. Earle Brown worked with Cage on the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape, a heroically pioneering scheme for making electronic music. Carolyn became the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's female lead.

Ideas and methods then new in the art world had a crucial effect on the development of Brown's innovative methods of musical composition in the 1950s. December 1952 - still perhaps his most famous composition, with its Mondrian-like, slim black rectangles floating on a single page of white space - is the first musical score to use graphic notation in a conceptual way entirely disconnected from any specific instructions about pitch, rhythm, dynamics or timbre.

Twenty-Five Pages (1953), for between one and 25 pianos, is among the earliest works to employ what Brown himself called "time notation" - or, as it subsequently became known, "proportional notation" - in which time is suggested by spacing on the page rather than by conventional rhythmic means. Twenty-Five Pages also has what the composer called an "open form", meaning that the order in which the pages are to be played, and in this case the choice of which clef to use and even which way up the pages themselves are to be read, are up to the performer(s). The flexible deployment of musical material at the moment of performance - even if this material is, as is usually the case in Brown's subsequent output, itself quite precisely defined - remained fundamental to his approach.

All these techniques seem rooted in the immediacy and spontaneity that are crucial ingredients of jazz, and in Brown's natural joy in giving his performers the opportunity to make subjective choices, as well as the vividly imaginative attitudes to colour and form that he found among his artist friends.

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