“JOSEPH BYRD: NYC 1960-63” = Animals; Loops and Sequences; Three Aphorisms; Densities I; Four Sound*Poems; Water Music; Prelude to “The Mystery Cheese-Ball” – American Contemporary Music Ens./ Clarice Jensen and Alan Zimmerman – New World Records 80738-2, 62:30 [Distr. by Albany] ***:
This is one of those albums that provide more in the way of historical perspective than sheer entertainment value, which isn’t a bad thing once in a while. You’ll probably never hear the music on this disc in concert, unless you happen to live in a city where the likes of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble holds forth. In Atlanta, where I hang my hat, that’s an iffy proposition, so I’m glad for the opportunity to sample this music from a seminal time and place associated with the history of modern art.
Enthusiasts of alternative rock are more likely than classical music mavens to know about Joseph Byrd (b. 1937), who was leader of two prominent rock groups of the psychedelic sixties: United States of America and Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies. Byrd studied music formally at the University of Arizona and Stanford, where he earned an M.A. as a fellowship student. While at Stanford, he hung out with other young artists that would one day be the founding members of the minimalist school: La Monte Young (generally considered the first minimalist composer), Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. But Joe Byrd was not inclined that way; for a guy who started out playing vibraphone in pop bands and ended up founding seminal rock groups himself, it seems incongruent to say he stood apart from his fellow students because of his grounding in traditional music. “I was steeped in tradition. But worse, I could write with fluidity in styles ranging from Renaissance to Impressionism. . . I’m probably the only experimental composer of my generation who can write a crab canon, a six-part madrigal, or a concerto grosso.”
This kind of protean eclecticism stood Byrd in good stead when he came, on the recommendation of composer and critic Virgil Thomson, to work for Capitol Records, where “he arranged and produced a recording of Civil War music. . .as well as recordings of synthesized Christmas music, patriotic songs, and a critically acclaimed jazz album for Ry Cooder.” . . Byrd also turned his hand to music for film, television, and advertising. But before all of that, he landed in New York City, in the midst of an anti-formalist art movement known as Fluxus, which claimed among its leading lights Yoko Ono, Charlotte Moorman (the Topless Cellist), artist Al Hansen, and Beat poet Diane Wakowski. The composers associated with the Fluxus movement were influenced by John Cage’s ideas of indeterminacy in music and came to pioneer what, for want of a better term, is known as “noise music” because it elevated noise, including sounds extraneous to the performance itself, to the status of music.
In fact, Byrd had gone to New York in 1960 intending to study with Cage but instead wound up taking lessons from Morton Feldman, another pioneer of indeterminacy in music, who changed his thinking altogether. Feldman criticized Byrd’s addiction to contrapuntal lines. “He took one look at my work and said, ‘Wrong, wrong. You are writing lines, not sounds. You must listen vertically, so that every event is a sound you played on the piano scores of times until you are sure it’s right.’” Cage’s and Feldman’s celebration of sounds are translated into the early music by Byrd contained on this disc.
Animals (1961) shows the influence of both composers. Scored for solo prepared piano (Cage’s favored medium) and six-string or percussion instruments, the piece embraces both structure and indeterminacy: “The score indicates preparations for a collection of thirteen pitches, subsets of which appear within specific timeframes. Each of the ten staff systems is equal to one minute, with the duration of notated events to be determined by approximate spatial relationships. Although the performers are instructed to play an ‘even and continuous’ pulse, the specific order and rhythm of the music figures are indeterminate.” The results are a collection of, well, musical noises that because of the indeterminacies built into the work create lines of sound moving in different rhythms. They collide in ways that do recall Feldman’s advice to think vertically, each collision creating a musical incident that focuses the listener on the musical lines, which in turn focuses the attention back on those points of intersection. It’s a fascinating, mesmerizing experience if you let yourself go with the music.
Among the other pieces on the album, the most interesting is Four Sound*Poems, in which four speakers (mixed to stereo) recite poems written by Byrd himself, but not whole lines—instead, only “those phonemes or syllables that are underlined at random points, which amounts to approximately half of the text.” Byrd notes that the effect “should be that of turning up and down sharply the volume control on a radio so that only parts of the words or phrases are heard.” It’s fascinating to hear the idea of noise music translated to the sounds produced by the human voice, resulting in a strangely inhuman panoply of gulps and gasps.
Water Music and the Prelude to the “Mystery Cheese-Ball” also stand out by virtue of scoring. Water Music uses a prerecorded tape of electronic noises plus percussion instruments, the percussion (including gongs, marimba, and cowbells) chosen to replicate the electronic sounds, the percussionist called on to match the “quality or mood” of what’s playing on the tape. The result is again eerily mesmerizing. Not so the prelude to the mock chamber opera The Mystery Cheese-Ball written for performance in Yoko Ono’s loft in 1961. It’s to be performed by seven players running their fingers over rubber balloons in a series of antiphonal noises that, I guarantee, won’t have you crying for more!
As I say, this is more a slice of musical history—indeed, an almost extramusical experience—than a program you’ll listen to for diversion, edification, or whatever else you usually draw from quality time with your stereo. I’m glad to have been exposed to it even if I won’t seek out the experience very often in future. Performances, by the way, are magisterial (as far as I can tell), and the recorded sound, even of those antiphonal rubber balloons, is pleasingly natural.