|An interview with Henry Brant
Listen to the interview (51:47s)
MPR's ALAN BAKER: Do you prefer to conduct your pieces?
HENRY BRANT: Well, they all have unusual technical problems which if somebody else does it, he has to learn how to do it; cueing people that are way out in the hall and the kind of cue that they'll understand; directing groups that are not following the beat at all, but they start on cue and continue independently of everyone else; to keep track of those, and to give cues that they understand, both are stopping and starting, and perhaps at the same time, beating time conventionally for a bigger group that's closer to me. These are all things that conductors have to learn. I can save time, since I've been doing this ever since I started doing this kind of composing fifty years ago.
The training I have as a conductor in the old days of radio, when everything went out in the air live and you couldn't make a mistake. You had to communicate by sign language only, and very often there was emergency work; things like background music and music to separate different parts of the program. All had to be done live and on the spot. Frequently this was changed, especially during the war years. Somebody would approach me on tiptoe with a piece of paper saying, "In 10 seconds explain to the musicians that you're going to play a piece that's triumphant in character." So I'd have to explain this to them silently, without saying a word, by sign language, or by writing things quickly on a piece of paper." Go to number 32 and take the first four bars, and play them until I give you a cue, and then jump to number 46, but only the brass." Things of that kind. This kind of thing comes in very handy now when I do my own pieces which are much more musically complicated.
Where were you doing radio? Was that here?
In New York, ABC, NBC, and CBS.
That was in the '50s?
What was your relationship with George Antheil?
I was his student during '35 and '36. Later in '51, he happened to be present at the first performance of my first spatial piece, so he heard that. In between, there were odds and ends of time when I met him one way or another, but the only extended times were those two.
What was he like as a man, and a teacher?
In personality, easy going agreeable. Not aggressive; not intense; very approachable and his manner was low key.
He cultivated that bad-boy image?
Well, it wasn't in his personality or his manner at all.
Do you have any history with Ballet Mécanique? Do you remember that piece when it was premiered?
That was in Paris in the '20s. No, but the revival of it; I was present at that performance. I'm talking about the one that was later recorded on Columbia, because on the other side of it were two pieces of mine.
Which of your pieces?
"Signs and Alarms" and "Galaxy Two". They were early efforts of mine in an avant-garde and controversial style after a long period of writing bland and non-provocative music, as every one had to who wanted to survive through the '30s and '40s. I think the reason why those two were put together on one record was because of my suggestion that first they thought that either one of them (this was now '54 or '55) would be too controversial to be on a record with another controversial piece. I said, "That's just the reason to put out such a recording!" Actually, I thought at that time that I wanted to compete with my former teacher. They took my suggestion, and that's what was done.
The instrumentation of Ballet Mécanique at that time had four pianos. I understand (this is only hearsay) that the original performance in Paris had eight. This, I don't know. I think it was so.
I think you're right.
Yes, it's an important point, and the Carnegie Hall performance that didn't turn out so well had sixteen. Reasonably there's been a new recording that used synth claviers and things like that attempts to reproduce the intended effect of 16.
As I recall looking at the score, there were only four actual parts for piano in the score, so eight pianos or sixteen I think must have been the result of duplication, and not of additional parts for pianos. The direction of what I heard was not particularly good. It wasn't first class. It must have been much better in the other performances. Anyway, that was the recording. It wasn't precise or exact, but that didn't seem to discourage the composer particularly. Also, Antheil made a very much-simplified version of Ballet Mécanique to go with the film, playable by two people at one piano. That was performed in that fashion with the, I think, leje film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in the late '30s, and I played one of the parts with Antheil. This was not in any way a startling experience. It lost so much being compressed in that way. That's about all I know first had about the Ballet Mécanique, except that in 1953 we were talking about these pieces, and he said, "The Ballet Mécanique is an explanation in musical terms of the time process." That seemed to me pretentious and naive because all music has time, and is an explanation of some kind of the time process. But he spoke of this for the first time, as if this had definitely been done in one work. I think that's about all I can tell you.
What other music was being performed at that time? You mentioned that the record company was telling you that it was too avant-garde to even put one of your pieces on that record. What did they prefer to publish?
I will make a general comment. During the 1920s there was a fair amount of experimentation among American composers to write unusual music in various ways. I don't need to go into the details; they're well known. Then came the stock market crash of the Depression, and it became difficult to get any non-popular music played at all. So the choice among composers was; write a more easy-going kind of music, or a conventional kind of music, or stop writing, or find some third way out of it. Composers like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thompson found a good way. They got interested in American material and found ways to simplify their music in such a way that this could be incorporated in it without using the clichés of 19th century concert music by doing it. That was one way, and they did it with success. Now, I found that there was another way. I could use satire or caricature. That was acceptable. Nobody objected to that. I wrote a piece about the Marx Brothers. For the most part, a kind of middle road, very cautious kind of novelty was introduced into music, so that it couldn't offend anybody. It sounded only slightly different from the music written for films - for Hollywood films.
If we're talking about 1953, that was the time when most composers in this country were in a general way writing in this fashion. The avant-garde movement had not resumed. It hadn't really revived itself from its collapse around 1930. The innovators that I can think of - the old innovators - were Varèse, Ives, and Carl Ruggles among Americans; to some extent, Harry Cowell and the later ones, particularly Harry Partch, were hardly known. There isn't much I can tell you about the music I heard because as yet there wasn't much. If you look at a book by Elliot Schwartz, "Music since 1945," there was. You can see that it's very full of new ideas of all kinds. This hadn't really happened, or if it had, it hadn't really disseminated very much. I like everyone else realized that there could be more styles than one. I would write them one at a time. The idea of writing simultaneously was the invention of Charles Ives, and I didn't get to that until the 1950s.
Did Ives provide a model for how to compose for you?
So what was Ives most significant contribution to other composers and to music?
I can't say. They'll all tell you something different. Most composers will talk about his influence as being very general; philosophical or something like that. What I got from his music was definite nuts and bolts technical procedures, which I use in my music. In 112 spatial works, I carried out his spatial ideas in different ways which he hadn't done, and in practical ways, which he never attempted. I'm very sympathetic to his thought, which was in general terms, a sort of pan-humanistic kind of music a universal kind of music that included everything. A lot of it written before the First World War, so it's idealistic in a way that would seem meaningless now.
I'm like everybody else (or almost everybody else who's very interested and sympathetic towards me.) It seems that's an example for composers everywhere. But unlike many other composers, I was interested in the way he went about doing it, which he only did in a few works. There are only a few spatial works, but those are so significant that they pointed to something that I decided to make use of, and I still do. It's the idea that by separating the performing forces, instead of having them all in one place, you can have much more going on and have it intelligible, and also that you can use the shortcomings of separating them as an advantage. If you separate them, the players can't hear each other very well, they can't play in tune together, and they have trouble keeping together. It's difficult for them to follow a conductor. Everything about it seems to be negative. On the other hand, they're much more distinct (the separate parts) then they ever could be together in one place. If what you want is to have different kinds of music played at once, well, that's the way to do it so you'll hear them all.
That's a practical principle which I got from Ives, but the important thing to me was that he demonstrated it in actual music, not in just talking about it in a manifesto, technical journal, or something like that. He not only described it, but also wrote pieces of music which show this in action: "The Unanswered Question." Not only were they separate, but they made no attempt to play the same music or even keep together.
I first came across "The Unanswered Question" in 1950. It was in a publication of Latin American music from various countries in Uruguay. I got hold of one of the volumes in this book, and there it was with its title in Spanish, "Le Pregunte Uncontestar". That's where I first saw it. I was a teacher at the Juilliard School at that time, and I decided to perform it with my class just as he said it should be done. I thought," We're just doing it, and nothings going to happen." Well, everything happened. That was my teacher. From that point I decided, "This is a big thing!"
Ives himself had said as a boy that he'd been present at experiments of this kind that his father had undertaken of an even more elaborate kind. I read Ives' account of this. It's in a long postscript to the Fourth Symphony.. It explains very lucidly and without any musicological pretense what happened, what his impression of it was, and what other people's impression of it was. That's how I got started.
I had other models around that time, one of which was the Berlioz Requiem performed in Paris. The way it was done originally; a totally different use of space, and one of the two spatial pieces written in the 19th century. There was that much interest in it. No composer you can name wrote a single spatial piece in the 19th century, hardly anybody in the 18th. 17th and 16th centuries were another matter. That was a big spatial time.
So, I had the advantage of being able to hear this piece in Paris, and it's a different kind of spatial thing entirely. There's only one subject matter, but with four brass bands, each in a corner of the balcony, participating in the same harmony but coming in one at a time, and piling it up. That was a way to use the space that Ives hadn't used. In the 16th century, most every composer knew that spatial music was especially for churches. The big name is Giovanni Gabrieli. I had heard of his music too, and read that it was played in this manner. I didn't believe it, so I did it with my class again, and I was astonished by the result.
These three experiences and real evidence were the solution to my own problem. My problem was I decided to go back to where I left my experimental music, 1929, cut short by the Depression. I wanted it to be complicated. I thought then as I do now that there are few things in ordinary life that are simple. All kinds of things are always happening. You've got a routine down to the same thing day after day. Something gets in the way, changes it, and it's frustrating. So, it seemed to me that was a mistake. It seemed to me simple, dumb, and stupid. There are a lot of simple, dumb, and stupid things in everybody's experience, but it's not necessary to have music to express those. In fact, there's too much of it. So, I was writing complicated music with everybody on the stage, and everybody keeping together, playing in meters and in bars. They could play it all right, but you couldn't tell what was going on. I couldn't tell what was going on. My wish to return to experimental music and make it even more complicated ran into trouble right away. I wrote it, but "so what?"
These three experiences, and especially the example and the simple lucid way which Ives explained it, showed me the way to go. That's what I've been doing ever since. I've found that with every piece I do something different; a different set up of performances. I don't write for string quartets. Everything is for a different combination and for a different set of logistics and locations in the hall. From as few as three players to as many as four-hundred.
You were really trying to figure out a way to make the complex music that you wanted legible. People could take it in, and hear how it was working together when amassed on stage. It was just too much coming at you from one source.
What about recordings? Are you happy with recordings of these spatial pieces?
Is there a way to do it perhaps?
If you listen to engineers, they talk about surround sound and all this kind of stuff, but the space doesn't record. The way I started out to attempt to do this in the early '50s was I'd have four tape recorders. In those days the play back and the tape recorder were in one box all together. So I'd record separate tapes without trying to mix them. I'd feed one through each tape recorder, separate them in the room, and start one and the next one. It had to be lined up so that it can start 15 seconds later; rush from one to the other. I got a truer kind of spatial recording than the fancy stuff they do now with mixing and a 140 tracks all mixing the same thing. I don't know how many speakers, but all the stuff was coming out of all of them. Well, that's the most that recordings have been able to do.
Recordings are clearer now, but the recording of space is no further than it ever was.
Let's talk a little bit about Lou Harrison. You're friends with Lou right?
Yes, especially in the last few years when we're both in our eighties. You can talk to him about any subject. He's not limited to music. He thinks about every possible subject you can imagine that's important. When I see him, I look forward to a few hours of just discussing things. We discuss everything from social questions to musical questions; usually not musical questions. We're both musicians. What do we need to talk about that for?. Except we've both been acquainted with some of the same people like Harry Partch. Lou knew Ives personally and I didn't, so there's a lot he has to tell me. He's very sympathetic to my aims, and I am to his. We have some common enthusiasms, such as Harry Partch and Ives.
About Harry Partch.
Well now, I think the first event that made Harry Partch's work known was in the early 1940s. It was a concert of his music in New York given by the League of Composers. There were three players: himself and I, and Alix Young Maruchess who was a gamba player and violist I recruited. [The soprano was Ethel Luening.] We rehearsed for two months. The first time I met him I thought, "Well, I want to help him as much as I can." I saw right away that this was something out of the common; it's something very big and substantial. He started talking about his ideas, which I had no difficulty understanding. I'm not much up on acoustics so it didn't bewilder me the way it bewildered other composers. I saw that he was up to something big and when it turned out that he had the backing to give a concert in New York, I said, "Alright, I'll learn how to play this and I'll get somebody else."
I played in the first performances of "US Highball," the song settings of Joyce, and the song settings of text that he found written on telegraph poles, and things like that; people riding the rails. He's unique. Composers use instruments invented a long time ago by other people and played by still other people, and he made his own. He made his own tuning system, and he played them himself, so he was in a different class than any other composer I can think of. It wasn't just a perfunctory use. He showed a real talent and inventiveness with both building the instruments and in his performing; in the way he wrote his music for them.
If you want to talk about a maverick, there is your maverick number one; he invented his own tuning, and he invented his own instruments. He built his own instruments. He wrote the music to show how it went. He included a new kind of vocalization, which he could do and teach others how to do. The one drawback is, of course, you can't use conventional instruments at all for his music. At least he didn't bother with space, so in his recordings he didn't have the problem that I do.
For someone who is hearing Harry Partch for the first time, there are some pretty good recordings of his work. What should they be listening for? What caught your ear when you first heard his work?
Just listen. It's all there. I feel that way about every kind of music.
Just take it in and don't worry about analyzing it?
What could you analyze? You hear it all through. Do it. Play it and listen to it.
What music and sounds were around when you were a kid and do you pull from your early development?
In Montreal during the First World War years there were various kinds of music. The place where my family was living was out in the sticks and it didn't even have sidewalks. It had houses that sort of stood in mud flats. Across the field was a military school; they blew their bugle calls morning and night. I couldn't have been very old because I was in a baby carriage bundled up and I was put on the porch. I remember seeing the sun go down. Nobody told me this stuff. I told the adults. I heard the bugle calls. .I looked forward to them every day. Then when they took me inside I could hear my father practicing. He was a professional violinist and I heard the things that violinists practiced.
Later on when I was older, there were the Salvation Army bands, and they seemed to be all over the place. They played parades, in school courtyards, and in hospitals. Sometimes they'd make pilgrimages around the city playing in different places. Whenever I could I'd just follow them.
Another good feature of Montreal music was the hand organs. There were quite a few of those. I later used all of these ideas in pieces. It was sort of Ives' idea, although I didn't know anything about Ives at that time.
I had many early impressions. Later on, there was chamber music because my father gave concerts of sonatas. There was one professional string quartet in Canada, and whenever they came to Montreal they practiced at our house. I got the idea when I was 10 that I was going to write something for them to play, and I did finally write it when I was 12. The main thing I wanted to put into it was something that I'd heard which was called "modern music." So I asked my father, "What's modern music?" He said, "Nobody knows what it is, but it sounds very crazy. You can't tell what's going to happen." I thought that's what I'm going to write. I'm going to write modern music.
I heard a little. My father got some music by an old friend of his, Ernest Bloch, not the most modernistic composer, but then considered very wild, which we played together. Somebody gave him some music by Bartok. I wanted to get as much of this stuff as I could. I heard of the Rhapsody in Blue, and I had a record of that. All of this was modern music, so it was clear to me that was the right kind of music. I put into this quartet (which nobody showed me how to write or anything like that) everything I could think of to make it as truly modern as possible. What was surprising was that it was actually playable. They played this thing. There was great astonishment that they could play it at all. That settled it.. I knew I was going to do that and nothing else.
That was at age 12?
What was the name of that string quartet?
String Quartet Number One. (Laughter) I was going to write about 40 of them.
From there where did you go? Once you've made that decision, was it music full ahead?
Yes. It had to be. My father agreed with that. He said, "You must study. Every musician studies. Every composer studies." I had teachers who taught me things named Harmony, Counterpoint, and stuff like that. They were all transplanted British musicians. Most of them church musicians and organists. They all agreed on one thing. I was hopeless. I couldn't learn harmony. I couldn't learn counterpoint. I couldn't seem to get anything right. I had a succession of these, but my father never gave up. He said, "To be a solid musician, you have to study solidly." Later in New York when I went to the Institute of Musical Arts, (which was the precursor of the Juilliard School) the same thing happened. I had another teacher who taught me, or tried to, strict Counterpoint, which I'd learned badly before and I did it badly again, but in a different way.
When it came to composing, that thing was easy. Left to my own devices I could compose long sonatas. I even attempted orchestral pieces and I could use any idiom that I came across. It was easy for me to win the prizes they had because nobody else could compete with me, but I never got to be a solid musician. Finally, when I met Wallingford Rieger, my father said, "Now here's somebody you know and respect. Do me a favor, see what he says." He said, "Well yes, every German composer has studied this stuff the same way they've all done it. It won't hurt you." So I tried again with him. It was different. It was a German method instead of the English or French method. Again I was terrible at it, so I quit.
Later, I had to teach these things!
Did it just not sink in, or was it one of those things were you just couldn't bring yourself to stay within the boundaries? It is a fairly structured pursuit.
I saw something that's clear to me now: these studies are artificial. No music was ever based on harmony exercises or species counterpoint exercises. I found out that the species were written by a composer named Fuches, who was I think a contemporary of Mozart or Beethoven. What you could learn from that was how to write music like Fuches. Whoever wants to do that should do that.
It wasn't you.
Wallingford Rieger is significant. Did you work with him for a long time?
Yes, for a while. He was very helpful to me once we gave up on this solid instruction stuff. When he wrote his big piece, I think it was just called Music for Brass; it's for a lot of brass and has extremely harsh and violent harmony. There are Henry Cowell's tone clusters. What Henry Cowell put in his piano, Wallingford Rieger did in that piece. He got these chords with a different trumpet on each note.
An opportunity arose at a concert where this piece was going to be played, and the conductor said, "Do you want to write something for this concert?" So I said, "Well what do you suggest, you've already written a piece." He said, "I've done it harmonically. Why don't you try something contrapuntal?" So I did. That's my piece, Millennium Two.
That was on the same concert with this Brass piece?
Yes, and my second spatial piece.
What year would that have been?
Well, all this stuff that I'm telling you about "Unanswered Question," and finding out about these other spatial pieces was during 1950 and 1951. I was cautious. I didn't quite get it yet. I didn't want to start in. The thing that made up my mind was something that one of my students, Teo Macero, did.
Teo Macero is still living. He had been a student of mine at Juilliard, a first class jazz musician, and extremely ambitious as a composer. He was present at all of these attempts of mine to explore spatial music and he said, "Would you mind if I wrote a piece for 5 jazz orchestras, all playing different things, and none of them keeping together." I said, "Well, if you can do that and make it work, go ahead and do it!" He said, "I think I can do it"; and he did.
His piece was performed at Juilliard to the greatest astonishment of everyone when they heard it. It was his piece that gave me the idea, not to make something for 5 jazz orchestras, but to go ahead with this spatial thing because there is a way to do it. I then found an opportunity to get an orchestral piece played, so I wrote my first spatial piece in 1952, and it was performed in 1953.
Antheil was present at the first performance of this first spatial piece of mine. It had 5 orchestras and 5 conductors, and they were all over the hall. He happened to be there. I hadn't seen him in all this time. We talked. He hadn't the slightest interest in the spatial aspect of the piece. He spoke as though there was nothing special about the space. He said that there were sounds that he had never heard in his life, like the stuff that I got out of the horns. Then he looked at the strings and said, "But now, six strings. That's too thick." Of course there were five different things going on in the strings contrapuntally. I got what I wanted to. This made no impression on him whatever. I told him about the piece I was going to write. A contrapuntal piece for brass, and I said, "My model is going to be the music of the 16th century, except in 20th century harmonic terms." He said, "Oh yes, when I studied with Bloch, he made me study Palestrina for a year. No, he kept me on it for two years."
To him it was just a chore of some kind; he hadn't any conception of what I could see in 16th century music. He regarded the living music of Palestrina, which I consider the number one product of western music, as a mere routine academic chore. He couldn't see why I would be the slightest bit interested in it.
You ask whether I continued to write non-spatial music? I did write those pieces for the Columbia recording, which had to be non-spatial to work. They were quite adequate. They were able to compete with Antheil and Ballet Mécanique on the other side, although I don't think it was the most effective performance of the Antheil piece.
Let's talk in general terms about what is American music and the maverick tradition.
The mavericks: Partch should certainly be one, and so should Nancarrow, Ruggles, and Varèse. Those are composers and music which I know and think very highly of. Those are real mavericks and Henry Cowell, more because of his ideas and what he's done for a music written in the Americas, than for the actual example of his music.
Those composers that you picked out as mavericks, what do they share?
Independence. Going their own way. Seeing different aspects of American life from which they can find a musical counterpart.
A lot of them were West Coast composers.
Cowell was out here.
Well, he started here, but I think that's an artificial point. Composers these days have been all over the place and they've worked in different places. To try to find something in their music that's a factor related geographically to anything, I think is looking for something where there isn't anything. Is Ives' music eastern, or New England particularly? Or is Ruggles music? I don't see it that way.
How about the American aspect of things. You've got someone like Frederick Rzewski who is an American living in Europe. Is he writing American music like these composers on this list? Is there such a thing that's recognizable perhaps?
I think it would be if American composers of non-popular music knew more about jazz. They don't. They don't know how to use it. They can't play it. They don't know how to put it in their music, and jazz musicians who have the ability to play it don't know about what non-popular composers are able to do with long musical continuities and complicated textures. It's a matter of mutual ignorance and snobbery. I don't mean jazz in the sense of Gershwin's Copland's jazzy music. Those don't even get to it. I mean jazz materials of the kind that jazz musicians say themselves are the real thing. Composers don't know anything about this. This is really unfortunate. I've always taken it seriously. I've had opportunities to work with jazz musicians in the commercial part of my career, and I now use it in most of my pieces; my own adaptation. I want the jazz figurations the way jazz musicians would improvise it, but I've thrown out entirely the harmony of popular music, which I think is pure junk. The chords and the chord changes, none of them are of any use as far as I'm concerned. The single lines invented by jazz musicians are so far in advance of what the modern classical, if I may use that term, musicians can do. There's no possible comparison.
Do you know any composers who are doing a good job of that? Composers that have, or up-and-coming composers that are doing a good job of it? I know you pay a lot a attention to it. Who do you think's making it?
I don't know a single one. If there are, lead me to them. I've met former jazz musicians who are really good at their work. They can improvise. They go to a conservatory, learn everything, and then you know what they do? They stop, they take all jazz and throw it out of their music from then on.
What are your other passions other than music?
Nothing we're talking about makes any sense unless you survive. I hope to keep surviving. A good example was set by the late Leo Ornstein. If he could live to be 100, well then perhaps other composers can too.
He was quite a figure himself. Did you know him?
I didn't know him, but I admire him for surviving. The only thing I don't understand is why did he stop writing when he was only 90? Somebody writing music should live as long as possible and keep working. At my age, you begin to see how the thing works and how to do it a little better, and how to avoid some of the more obvious and dumb mistakes. That's the time to hope to survive longer, and to write more.
All the lessons you learned are making you write better and better pieces every turn, right?
I think so, yes. In the sense that I come closer to getting them to work the way I intended; the larger implication that I question, though, isn't simple. If we suppose that music has subject matter aside from music, and the subject matter comes out of daily events in the world, what should we be writing about? Not so simple. Suppose there was a composer capable of doing that. Would his music be well performed or ignored? These are hard questions.
Do you feel like music should come out of daily experience?
Yes, if one has the talent to figure out how to do that.
Do you find that you filter out, because so much of what seems to be going on is scary. Do you filter that out, or does it all go in unfiltered.
What I try to filter out is the trivialization of important events that seems to be having a bigger and bigger place in our culture. When I was in my 20s, there were the older composers (everybody knew everybody else in those days; there weren't so many of us.) I knew then about maybe 25 or 30 composers my own age. We felt that these older people who were successful American composers were sort of patrolling the block. They were protecting us. They were our line of defense. Now these older composers have grown up, and most of them aren't here anymore. So, who is taking their places? Who are the people that we're supposed to be protecting? These are hard things.
Do you work with students?
Mostly in performance. I haven't been in a classroom steadily as a teacher for about 25 years. I'm reluctant to do this now because, as a teacher you are supposed to be able to answer questions. Have a point of view and stick to it. I change my mind every day. As a composer that is a much easier way to keep your brain working. I don't know what I could pass on anymore. The only thing that I'm certain of is not a matter of talk; it's a matter of seeing that your student's work gets played. That they keep hearing it all the time. You don't find many classrooms in this country where that's carried out. I was able to do this myself in two schools. That's all I would do.
Then you know what you've got. We play it, or perhaps we can't play it. You see we're having trouble, and you've heard it. Now listen to it until you're blue in the face and talk it over, and beat yourself to death with it, but at least you've got something. I don't think there's anything else to teach. This isn't so easy in a school because it takes organization to find people who are going to be there and play it on a certain date. It can be done, but the composer-teacher has got to work it more than just talking about the assignment. He's got to find ways to see that that's going to be done.
What do you feel like people appreciate most in your music?
I don't know. (Laughter) I like it when they stand up and applaud!
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