In Memoriam: Earle Brown

Musical Times, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

In Memoriam: Earle Brown


Students of twentieth-century music, even those unfamiliar with the sound of his music, will recognise at least one score by Earle Brown: an elegant arrangement of Modrianesque rectangles entitled December 1952. A treat as much for the eye as for the ear, it assumed classic status almost as soon as it was written, and was routinely reproduced in textbooks on modern music. Today, it continues to exert its enigmatic fascination on intrepid performers unfazed by its notational peculiarities.

Yet for all its legendary allure, December 1952 is atypical of Brown's work as a whole. Although he was an early, keen exponent of graphic notation, and a close friend and colleague of John Cage, he was reluctant to leave the creative input entirely to the whimsy of the performer. He believed each work should inhabit a precisely defined soundworld that was in the gift of the composer, however great the freedoms conceded to the players. To this end, he pioneered the concept of `open form', an idea later taken up by composers as diametrically opposed to him in aesthetic outlook as Boulez and Stockhausen.

Although graphic and indeterminate notation became a pre-occupation for many significant composers worldwide during the 1960s and 70s, including the leading lights of the European avantgarde, its heartland was the New York of the 1950s and its catalyst the visual arts. As Brown himself recalled: `My primary esthetic influences were the spontaneity, direct contact, the "now-ness" and the in-the-moment immediacy of the Abstract Expressionist painters, especially the "improvisational" techniques of Jackson Pollock and the subtle coloristic effects of Philip Guston and Bill de Kooning'. Other important influences on Brown were the mobiles of Alexander Calder, the collage techniques of Robert Rauschenberg, and - from his early years playing jazz trumpet - the spacious, energetic big-band sound of Stan Kenton.

Born in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, Earle Brown initially embarked on an aeronautical career, studying engineering and mathematics at Northeastern University (1944-45). After two years in the US Army Air Corps - where he gained his pilot's licence and played trumpet in the Corps orchestra - he attended the Schillinger School of Music in Boston (1946-50), while studying the trumpet and composition privately Together with his first wife Carolyn, he then moved to Denver to teach the Schillinger method. There he painted and, even then under the spell of Pollock and Calder as well as the poetry of Kenneth Patchen and the music of Webern and Varese, began to compose a kind of Schillinger-based serial music which exhibited remarkable though unintentional parallels with the contemporaneous work of Messiaen, Boulez and Xenakis in Europe.

A meeting with Cage and Merce Cunningham resulted in a further move, to New York, where Carolyn became leading female dancer in the Cunningham troupe and Brown worked laboriously on Cage's mammoth Project for Music for Magnetic Tape. One result of this grand if primitive exercise in electro-acoustic music was Brown's lively Octet 1 for eight channels, using the disjecta of other tape works.

For a short while, Brown continued to write serially-oriented works. At the same time he was pursuing the investigations into the relationship between performer, composer and score which culminated in the infamous December 1952. …

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