4.59. Henry Brant, composition ‘Prophets’ (2000)

Prophets: Old Testament Quotations for Four Male Cantors and Shofar (2000) by the American composer Henry Brant (1913-2008) is a piece of spatial music. Brant considered space the fourth dimension of music, after pitch, timbre, and time. In order not to spoil the spatial effects by loudspeakers located in other places than the musicians, Prophets is a purely acoustical composition, performed without amplification. A special detail of this composition is that even the words deal with the subject of space.

The material of Prophets consists of the four traditional shofar blasts and four excerpts from four different Bible books. These four Bible passages, in order of exposition, are Joel 2:1-10, Jonah 2:1-10, Job 28:1-11, 13, and Ezek. 10:6-16, which represent four literary genres: prophecy, prayer, meditation, and vision respectively. In the verses from Joel, God gives the order to blow a shofar alarm; what follows is the frightening description of a locust plague, represented as the unstoppable march of enemy forces. Jonah refuses to answer God’s call and flees; his ship ends up in a storm and he is swallowed by a big fish; however, he repents in a prayer and is saved. *Cf. Gluck, Jonah under the Sea. Chapter 4.56. The verses from Job deal with wisdom as a rare and difficult-to-acquire attribute, while the imagery is related to mining, the extraction of valuable minerals from distant, deep shafts in the earth. The verses from Ezekiel are part of a vision in which the prophet witnesses God’s departure from the disgraced Jerusalem; the fire, needed for the ritual cleansing of the city, is given to man by cherubim.

The four cantors are positioned in the four corners of the hall: Joel left back, Jonah right back, Job right front, and Ezekiel left front; the conductor is positioned in the center and the shofar blower stands in the “altar area” behind Joel and Jonah. *Both the subtitle “Old Testament Quotations” and the term “altar area” in the “Notes on performance” are unusual, given the Jewish character of the composition. The composer may have thought of the square altar area, measuring 50 x 50 cubits (26 x 26 meters), of the biblical Tabernacle. The shofar blasts, the excerpts from the Hebrew Bible, the order of the entrances and the combinations of the four Bible excerpts are given.



There are four episodes. In episode A, Joel, Jonah, Job and Ezekiel recite their verses after each other; in episode B, two cantors on the same side recite their verses together; in episode C, there is a clockwise circular movement; and in episode D, a diagonal movement (Fig. 11). The conductor cues the entrances; every cantor recites his entire excerpt and then repeats it until the cutoff; the duration of each episode is determined by the conductor. The cantors recite their verses in their own rhythm and tempo and at their own pitch; this pitch may be determined by the shofar, but this is not an obligation.

Prophets has much ground in common with the High Holy Days services. The shofar blasts are those of the Rosh Ha-Shanah service, albeit in a different order and repeated four instead of three times; just as in the Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur services, the tekiʿah gedolah is the concluding blast. The entire book of Jonah is the haftarah of Yom Kippur; Joel 2:15-27, which follows immediately after Joel 2:1-10, which is recited in Brant’s composition. It is in the Ashkenazi tradition read on Shabbat Teshuvah, before Yom Kippur.

From the selected Bible chapters, Brant does not quote the key verses with God’s judgments, namely Joel 2:12: “Turn back to Me with all your hearts, / And with fasting, weeping, and lamenting”; Jonah 2:11: “The LORD commanded the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon dry land”; Ezek. 11:12: “Then you shall know that I am the LORD, whose laws you did not follow”; and Job 28:28: “See! Fear of the Lord is wisdom; / To shun evil is understanding.” Instead, he chose the awe-inspiring descriptions of nature. In each excerpt, one of the four classical elements predominates: in Joel, air; in Jonah, water; in Job, earth; and in Ezekiel, fire. Moreover, each excerpt contains references to two or three other elements. Joel refers to fire: “3 With a noise like a blazing fire / Consuming straw” and to earth: “Before them the land was like the Garden of Eden / Behind them, a desolate waste.” Jonah alludes to fire, that is, to a burnt offering in the Temple: “10 But I, with loud thanksgiving, / Will sacrifice to You[;]” and to earth: “7 The bars of the earth closed upon me forever.” Job alludes to air: “7 The falcon’s eye has not gazed upon it”; and refers to water: “11 He dams up the sources of the streams”; and to fire: “5 Earth, out of which food grows, / Is changed below as if into fire[.]” To conclude, Ezekiel refers to earth and sky: “16 and when the cherubs lifted their wings to ascend from the earth.”

As mentioned above, even the words of Prophets deal with space, as each of the four scriptural passages expresses a spatial movement, either horizontal, on the earth, or vertical, into the earth or into the sky. Joel 2 remains on earth in his account of the advancing locust swarms: “7 They rush like warriors, . . . And each keeps to his own track”, whereas this horizontal movement is so powerful that even the celestial bodies are affected: “10 Heaven shakes, / Sun and moon are darkened, / And stars withdraw their brightness[.]” Jonah 2 descends into the underworld: “3 From the belly of Sheol I cried out” and resurfaces from it: “7 Yet You brought my life up from the pit[.]” Job 28 pictures the vertical movement of the extracting of precious minerals in “2 Iron is taken out of the earth”, “4 They open up a shaft far from where men live[,]” and “9 Man . . . overturns on mountains by the roots” and imagines this from a bird’s eye perspective: “7 The falcon’s eye has not gazed upon it[.]” To conclude, Ezek. 10 describes a vision with both an ascent from earth into heaven and a movement into four directions: “11 And when they [the wheels] moved, each could move in the direction of any of its four quarters; . . . The [cherubs] moved in the direction in which one of the heads faced, without turning as they moved”, “16 and when the cherubs lifted their wings to ascend from the earth, the wheels did not roll away from their side[.]”

This biblical concept of space can be traced in the chronotope of Brant’s Prophets: whereas verticality is prominently present on the abstract level of the texts, horizontality—the four directions of the wind—is present on a concrete level, in the use of the space of the hall with its four corners and the positioning of the cantors. Every chronotopic change in the form of an entry of another cantor in another corner of the hall is announced by a shofar blast from the “altar area.” The shofar blower is positioned, as it were, outside the world of the prophets, represented by the cantors, and outside the world of the people, that is, the audience. The shofar blowing in the “altar area” is authoritative discourse; it is, as Bakhtin puts it, “located in a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher . . . It is given (it sounds) in lofty spheres, not those of familiar contact[.]” *Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” 342.

In the synagogue liturgy, shofar blasts announcing chronotopic changes in four corners—more precisely, the ingathering of the exiles from the four quarters of the earth—can be found in Blessing 10 of the Amidah, a prayer to which Brant does not refer explicitly:

Sound the great shofar for our freedom,
raise high the banner to gather our exiles,
and gather us together from the four quarters of the earth.
Blessed are You, LORD,
who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel. *The Koren Siddur 120.

In Prophets, not only the shofar blasts, but also the Hebrew textual fragments are presented as authoritative discourse; in the words of Mikhail Bakhtin: “Authoritative discourse . . . remains sharply demarcated, compact and inert: it demands, so to speak, not only quotation marks but a demarcation even more magisterial.” *Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” 343. Brant brings about this “magisterial demarcation” by placing the cantors in the four corners of the hall: “This positioning is essential to the purposes of the music; the work may not be performed with the four cantors close together in one location.” *Brant, Prophets, Notes on performance. Essential in Prophets are the spatial effects, that change with every shofar blast and every new entry of a cantor, and that are, moreover, different to every individual listener, depending on his position in the hall. In “Discourse in the Novel,” Mikhail Bakhtin states about playing with distance: “[T]he distance we ourselves observe vis-à-vis this authoritative discourse remains unchanged in all its projections: a playing with distances, with fusion and dissolution, with approach and retreat, is not here possible.” *“Discourse in the Novel” 343-4. Notwithstanding the playful spatial effects in Brant’s Prophets, the biblical texts remain authoritative discourse. In the same essay, Bakhtin characterizes authoritative discourse as follows: “It enters our verbal consciousness as a compact and indivisible mass; one must either totally affirm it, or totally reject it.” *Ibid. 343. This applies to the scriptural passages in Prophets; first, because they are recited in Hebrew and not printed in a program, provided with a translation; second, because the cantors in the episodes B, C, and D are reciting simultaneously, as a result of which the words are hardly or not at all audible.


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