EARLE BROWN (1926–2002) was an American experimental composer whose works in graphic notation and open form were seminal to the history of postwar music. He explored the limits of traditional staff notation to the point of abstraction in Folio and 4 Systems (1952–54) and prompted performers to make their own determinations about pitch, time, intensity, timbre and attack—an approach that contrasted sharply with the composer-controlled treatment of sound implicit in serialism and total organization. Brown used graphic notation sparingly after 1960 when he began writing large-scale open form works for orchestra. He had composed 25 Pages (1953) for piano in open form, but to achieve collective mobility among 18 musicians and conductor in Available Forms 1 (1961), and 98 musicians and 2 conductors in Available Forms 2 (1962), Brown wrote predominantly through-composed events and devised a cueing system for conductors to signal in-performance decisions about the order and phrasing of these events. This cueing system appears in over a dozen open form works across his career. Brown described his sound ideal as spontaneous, warm and responsive to the moment. Unbeholden to the stylistic boundaries that dictated new music during his time, Brown embraced a wide range of influences including jazz improvisation, twelve-tone technique, the Schillinger system, the indeterminacy of his New York School colleagues (John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff), electroacoustics, action painting, collage and the mobile sculptures of Alexander Calder.
Born in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, Brown studied piano briefly before turning to trumpet. He played in numerous school ensembles and in high school began arranging for local dance orchestras in which he also played trumpet. Brown recalled from his formative years hearing radio broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic in his home, listening incessantly to Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata at a local record store, hearing dance orchestras perform big band and popular music at the Whalom Ballroom, and at age 12 meeting future wife and Cunningham dancer Carolyn Rice, whose family lived nearby and shared an active interest in the arts. When Brown was drafted into the Air Force in 1945, he spent much of his time in the Army Air Corps ensembles playing from the classical, military and jazz repertories as well as directing a dance orchestra and studying music theory in his spare time. He later credited his performance background as crucial to shaping his “orchestral ears” as a composer and fueling his interest in performer involvement. Brown attended Northeastern University intermittently to study engineering, but in 1946 enrolled at the newly opened Schillinger House in Boston. He studied composition with Kenneth McKillop, arranging with Jesse Smith, trumpet with Fred Berman, and took additional lessons in counterpoint and music history with recent Harvard doctorate Roslyn Brogue Henning. Graduating in 1950, Brown accepted an offer to teach in Colorado as a certified instructor of the Schillinger system, and he and Carolyn moved to Denver after marrying that summer.
In Denver, Brown composed Three Pieces (1951), Music for Violin, Cello and Piano (1952) and Perspectives (1952) using row forms according to what he described as “an extended twelve-tone Schillinger serial mode.” At the same time, he explored ways of incorporating the immediacy of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings into his compositional process. He made several small drip paintings and experimented with automatic drawing as the armature for compositional lines he would then fill with pitch (he later collaged segments of these experimental sketches into his 1965 String Quartet). Brown considered heading to California to study with Schoenberg after being accepted into his seminars at Colorado College in 1951, but instead moved to New York in 1952 after meeting Cage and Merce Cunningham during their 1951 concert stopover in Denver. Brown spent his first year in New York splicing tape for The Project for Music for Magnetic Tape, which included his own Octets I and II as well as works by Cage, Feldman and Wolff. He also worked as a recording engineer and mixer at Capitol Records on projects with musicians such as Count Basie, Nathan Milstein, Milt Hinton and Bobby Hackett.
A visit to Europe in 1956–57 set the stage for a succession of commissions abroad. There were 16 over the next 17 years: Pierre Boulez’s Domaine Musicale (Pentathis), Darmstadt Ferienkurse (Hodograph 1; Available Forms 1), Radio Orchestra of Rome (Available Forms 2), l’ORTF (Times Five; Modules I–II ), Radio Bremen (Corroboree), Donaueschingen (String Quartet), harpsichordist Antoinette Vischer (Nine Rarebits),Diego Masson and the First Percussion Quartet of Paris (Calder Piece), Festival de Zagreb (Module III), Festival de Royan (Event: Synergy II), Fondation Maeght (Syntagm III), City of Kiel for the 1972 Olympic Games (Time Spans), Venice Biennale (New Piece Loops), and London Sinfonietta (Centering). Brown’s transatlantic perspective offered a unique lens on new music and between 1961 and 1973 he produced the historic Contemporary Sound Series for Time/Mainstream Records, captured on 18 albums with 48 composers from 16countries.
Recognition for Brown grew in the U.S. during the 1960s. A Guggenheim fellowship in 1965–66 enabled Brown to complete Calder Piece (1966), a profoundly symbolic work in his oeuvre because Calder’s mobiles had been the exemplar of precision and transformability in a work of art. Calder created an original mobile, standing over six feet in height spanning across twelve feet, which four percussionists strike to set in motion and whose position in space dictates how the musicians will perceive their notes in Brown’s score. In 1968, Brown began a pair of long-term residencies at Peabody Conservatory (1968–73) and CalArts (1974–83), during which time he was invited widely to guest lecture in numerous American academic music departments. From 1984 to 1989, he served as a co-director of the Fromm Music Foundation and a curator of its new music concert series at the Aspen Music Festival through 1990.
Brown’s output slowed over the last decades of his life, but works such as the Koussevitsky commission Cross Sections and Color Fields (1975) for orchestra, Windsor Jambs (1980) for voice and ensemble, and Tracking Pierrot (1992) for chamber ensemble continued to explore variability of form while revealing Brown’s richly textured harmonic and timbral writing. Brown also continued to compose in the electroacoustic medium with Tracer (1985) and WikiUp (1979), the latter of which he toured as a sound installation with his second wife Susan Sollins. Among Brown’s final projects was Folio II, which he began in 1970 as a collection of single-page scores comparable to the first Folio and to which he contributed periodically as late as 2000. Brown’s works have been conducted most notably by Bruno Maderna, Luciano Berio, Leonard Bernstein, Hans Zender, Dan Asia, Richard Dufallo, Stephen Mosko, Michael Tilson Thomas, Petr Kotik and Stephen Drury. Brown was an ardent ambassador of his works and conducted dozens of performances. His approach to conducting speaks to the spirit of his own works, as told to Joel Chadabe in 1993: “I just try to live in the moment, right smack there in the moment, without thinking of the past or the future.”
— Rebecca Y. Kim
Rebecca Kim is the editor of Beyond Notation: The Music of Earle Brown (University of Michigan Press, 2017), the first comprehensive survey of Brown’s life and work. Kim is a musicologist based in New York. For more information, visit the book’s Facebook page.