Born Earle Appleton Brown, Jr. on December 26, 1926, in Lunenburg, MA; died on July 2, 2002, in Rye, NY. Education: Studied engineering and mathematics at Northeastern University, Boston, MA; attended and graduated from the Schillinger School of Music, Boston, 1946-50.

American composer and conductor Earle Brown is considered a crucial force in the progression of modern music. In the 1950s, he and associates John Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff comprised the so-called New York School. Unknown to these avant-gardists at the time, their individual writings and new ideas about the possibilities of music and sound would ultimately influence the course of composition for generations to come. Influenced by the surrealist movement in literature and abstract expressionism in art, each set about creating works that likewise evoked the random nature of modernism. Although each concentrated to a large extent on time, the New York School composers approached the concept in different ways. Whereas Cage broke it apart and Wolff sought to minimize it, for example, Brown treated time as both a static and dynamic occurrence.

"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," Brown once remarked, as quoted in the Musical Times. Brown's other artistic influences included the mobiles of Alexander Calder and the collages of Robert Rauschenberg. The big-band sound of jazz leader Stan Kenton also had a significant impact on the young Brown.

All of these forces played an important role in Brown's musical development. Early in his career Brown made significant discoveries, inventing open form (indeterminate contemporary music in which some details of a composition are clearly indicated, but the overall form is left to choice or chance) and graphic notation (written music using graphs to indicate pitch and rhythm) as illustrated in his composition December 1952. During his later years, as seen especially in orchestral pieces such as Available Forms I and Available Forms II, Brown alternated between what David Ryan in the Wire described as "a sense of gigantic repose and a nervous, intense, sometimes aggressively quickfire combination of musical figures." Throughout his career, he maintained a concern for the freedom of the performer, as well as for the defined input of the composer.

Rooted in American Music

While many now associate Brown with European modernism, his true roots lie in the traditions of American music. Born on December 26, 1926, in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, Earle Appleton Brown, Jr. took up the trumpet at an early age, participating in his school's marching band as a youngster. Inspired by big-band jazz--he very much admired the energy of big-band orchestras and their composers and arrangers--as well as the flexibility of improvisation, Brown formed his first jazz group in high school.

But rather than pursuing music, Brown instead embarked on a career in aeronautics, studying engineering and mathematics from 1944 until 1945 at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. It was here that Brown was first introduced to the theories of Russian-born mathematician and musicologist Joseph Schillinger, whose theories were constructed using highly mathematical procedures and governed by strict parameters. He then spent two years with the United States Army Air Corps, earning his pilot's license and playing in the Corps orchestra alongside jazz saxophonist Zoot Sims, whom he befriended. During his lifetime, Brown also encountered such jazz greats as Bob Brookmeyer, Gerry Mulligan, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy.

Thereafter, in 1946, Brown enrolled at the Schillinger School of Music in Boston, studying music theory with Kenneth McKillop and, starting in 1947, composition with Roslyn Brogue Henning. He graduated in 1950. That same year, he moved with his first wife, a dancer named Carolyn, to Denver, Colorado, to teach Schillinger orchestration. Immensely attracted to the avant-garde in writing and the visual arts, Brown decided to apply the same ideas to his music, and he delved into a period of experimentation and investigation of a more kinetic method of composition.

In 1951 Brown shared some of his experimental compositions for the first time with John Cage, who was in Denver on tour with Merce Cunningham. Carolyn Brown, at the time involved with the Jane McLean Dance Company, so impressed Cunningham during the visit when she danced in his master class that he asked her to join his company in New York City. Consequently, in 1952, the couple relocated to New York, where Carolyn became a central creative force with the Cunningham Company.

Began Work with John Cage

Between 1952 and 1955, Brown worked with Cage on the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape. He soon adopted advanced composition techniques, experimenting with serial methods and aleatory forms. (Serialism is a method of composition in which various musical elements such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and tone color may be put in order according to a fixed series. In aleatory music, the composer introduces the elements of chance or unpredictability with regard to either the composition or its performance.) Brown's continued fascination with abstract art and musical flexibility led him to develop graphic notation in 1952 and open form in 1953. One of his key early graphic notation works included Folio, composed in 1952-53, a series of scores that explores the parameters of space and time in various ways. Another significant work, 25 Pages, exemplifies Brown's open form. Written for one to 25 pianos in 1953, the piece is precisely notated but, because of its clever design, each page can be performed in any order and either way up (right to left, up or down).

December 1952, a series of floating rectangles composed as a musical equivalent to Calder's mobiles, remains one of the most famous of all graphic scores realized through improvisation. "I designed a lot of things that were motorised," Brown recalled in an interview with Ryan. "The origin of December 1952 was to be a box that was to sit on the piano ... with a series of bolts and pulleys which moved things through space. Before this, I designed another piece--Buckminster Fuller and Calder influenced; it was to be a globe with strips of music paper interacting with the circumference; the globe was to sit in a bowl of water. The pianist would play whatever came up closest to him."

By the mid-1950s, Brown's reputation had extended to Europe, and in the 1960s, he created some of his most brilliant and explosive works. For example, with 1962's Available Forms II, for 98 musicians in two groups, Brown created 48 "events" (called such because they were not typical formal musical works), which were directed by two conductors. He likewise drew attention for Corroboree for three pianos in 1964 and String Quartet in 1965. Returning to orchestral work the following decade, he composed Cross-Sections and Color Fields, 1972-75, Modules 1-3, 1966-69, and Time Spans, 1972, earning critical praise for his freshness and musicianship.

These achievements, Brown always believed, resulted from a strong belief in his ideas. "You have to use your musical sensitivity, you have to use your memory," he said to J.D. Hixson for the Studio for New Music online magazine. "You have to know where you're going, from where you came. You have to know what you're building, what the continuity looks like. You also have to have the self-confidence to walk out there and conduct these pieces and help the musicians enter into the process. The conductor has to be gentle, to be firm, with a great deal of confidence, and no fear about 'making a mistake.' It's like something I read recently, that said that sometimes in making a mistake, you can find something you never would have otherwise! But the confidence is essential."

Brown's later compositions added a layer of warmth to his musical experimentations. His most celebrated later work, Tracking Pierrot, composed in 1992 for small ensemble, features open solos. His final piece was Special Events, which premiered in February of 1999 in Stuttgart, Germany. Brown died at the age of 75 on July 2, 2002, at his home in Rye, New York. He was survived by his second wife, art curator Susan Sollins.

Earned Numerous Honors

Throughout his career, Brown received numerous honors and awards, and he accepted many lectureships. He served as composer-in-residence at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore from 1968 until 1973; at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado in 1971, 1975, and 1981; at the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Conservatory in 1974; at the California Institute of the Arts from 1974 through 1983; at the American Academy in Rome in 1987; and elsewhere. His visiting professorships included positions at the Basel Academy of Music in 1975; the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1975; the University of California at Berkeley in 1976; the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 1978; and at Yale University from 1980 through 1981 and from 1986 until 1987.

From 1965 through 1966, Brown held a Guggenheim fellowship, and he received an honorary doctorate degree in music from the Peabody Conservatory in 1970. He was also president of the American Music Center in New York from 1986 through 1989, was awarded the Letter of Distinction by the American Music Center in 1996, received the John Cage Award for Music from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in 1998, and was elected a member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, in 1999.

by Laura Hightower

Earle Brown's Career

Composer-in-residence, Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, 1968-73; composer-in-residence, Aspen Music Festival, 1971, 1975, 1981; composer-in-residence, Rotterdam Philharmonic and Conservatory, 1974; composer-in-residence, California Institute of the Arts, 1974-83; visiting professor, Basel Academy of Music, 1975; visiting professor, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1975; visiting professor, University of California at Berkeley, 1976; visiting professor, University of Southern California in Los Angeles, 1978; visiting professor, Yale University, 1980-81, 1986-87; president of the American Music Center in New York, 1986-89; composer-in-residence, American Academy in Rome, 1987.

Earle Brown's Awards

Guggenheim fellowship, 1965-66; Letter of Distinction by the American Music Center, 1996; John Cage Award for Music from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, 1998; elected member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, 1999.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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