Sounds Heard: Joseph Byrd—NYC 1960-1963

Sounds Heard: Joseph Byrd—NYC 1960-1963

An undogmatic, uncommitted, exploratory spirit is one of Joseph Byrd’s chief virtues as an artist. Although it’s easy to see how this same quality makes him difficult to pin down in our increasingly soundbyte-based world.

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Joseph Byrd is a tremendously imaginative composer who spent much of his life moving in the same circles as experimental music luminaries Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, and John Cage, yet has remained a somewhat lesser-known name in part because of his incredibly broad range of output. “I had always been eclectic as a composer,” Byrd admits in the notes to an album by his psychedelic rock band The United States of America; “Indeed it was a detriment to my finding a single distinctive voice in the avant-garde, as I changed styles with almost every piece.”

This undogmatic, uncommitted, exploratory spirit is one of Byrd’s chief virtues as an artist, although it’s easy to see how this same quality makes him difficult to pin down in our increasingly soundbyte-based world while also being absolute anathema to the marketeers who preach branding and the kind of “image” that is not character, but a consistent act. This fantastically-performed disc featuring ACME and percussionist Alan Zimmerman reveals Byrd’s seemingly unquenchable curiosity and delight in uncharted territory, rarely settling into one aesthetic or approach to composition for very long and always pursuing new ground even as some of his cohorts pursued a narrower range of musical experience, with more single-minded purpose. This disc—the first commercial recording of Byrd’s “concert” music—fills a gaping hole in the recorded history of experimental music and should be one of the most exciting releases of 2013 for anyone interested in experimentalism or the New York scene.

Featuring music composed during a few of Byrd’s NYC years (1960-63), the material on this disc is nonetheless typically wide-ranging, with a greater aesthetic variety than most composers develop in their entire lives. The gamelan-like Animals which opens the disc wells up from whispers of rhythm into a climax of great textural richness, with a prepared-piano part negotiated with assurance and sensitivity by Timothy Andres, whose playing enlivens several of the album’s finest moments (particularly in the manic acrobatics in the solo prepared piano work, Three Aphorisms). In Loops and Sequences, Andres is joined by cellist Clarice Jensen for some Feldmanesque semi-improvisations on the composer’s given parameters; this kind of piece can easily become an indulgent slog unless invested with real attention and heart, and the musicians of ACME deliver plenty of both throughout the disc.

Four Sound*Poems is one of my favorite works on this disc, a work which develops small snippets of text by Gertrude Stein via an imaginative array of devices. The result resembles a kind of tripped-out, stuttering/hocketing polyphony that stands at the intersection of linguistics and musique concrète—a great introduction to the kind of unexpected combinations that result from Byrd’s imagination at its most anarchic and fertile. Likewise, Byrd’s Water Music—given a haunting and ultimately ominous performance by percussionist Alan Zimmerman—makes effective use of a tape part designed to resemble and resonate with a carefully-chosen battery of percussion timbres.

I would be derelict if I failed to mention the work that closes this album, Prelude to “The Mystery Cheese-Ball” for antiphonal rubber balloons, which was originally a relic of one of Yoko Ono’s famous loft parties. Byrd is most compelling when he’s flying free beyond the orbit of strong personalities such as the aforementioned Feldman, yet this short bit of Fluxus/Dada-inspired silliness is genuinely winning in the hands of the ACME musicians, who understand that a lot of what makes slowly releasing air from rubber balloons so interesting/funny/bracing is in the “how” part. If more presenters of obscure and experimental music approached the matter with the combination of genial nonchalance and curious attention that the members of ACME have mustered for this release, then the fate of Joseph Byrd and his varied successors will rest in trusty hands.