Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Joseph Byrd: Coop Flown

Joseph Byrd is my kind of people. Born in 1937, he studied first at the University of Arizona, where he showed promise as a musician. He moved on to Stanford, where he met up with folks like Steve Reich, La Monte Young and Terry Riley. In 1960, he came to NYC and fell in with the likes of Yoko Ono, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Virgil Thomson. He was only in NY for three years before moving back west, where he became a professor of ethno-musicology, founded two psychedelic rock bands (one released an album on Columbia), and worked with synthesizer pioneer Tom Oberheim. Somewhere along the way he produced Ry Cooder and Linda Ronstadt, helped Mattel with electronic sounds and wrote the theme music for the CBS Evening News. He is now a professor of music at the College of the Redwoods.

He's my kind of people because he pursues his passions without concern for making his output fit into a proscribed notion of what a career should look like. The only detriment to his quicksilver shifts is that he didn't leave as much of an impression as his work deserved - we know that now thanks to the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) and their terrific new album, Joseph Byrd - NYC 1960-1963.

Everything on the record receives its premiere commercial recording and the selections create a kaleidoscopic view of Byrd's compositions during his New York Sojourn. Animals, the opening track exists at the intersection of Reich and Harry Partch, all woody sounds, precise ticks and unexpected drama. The concision of the piece is an indication of Byrd's discipline as a composer, and his mastery of form and structure.

But he was not wedded to those ideals. His work with Cage and Feldman gave him leave to loosen his grip and employ indeterminacy as a compositional tool in several of the pieces on the collection. For example, Loops and Sequences gives a pianist and a cellist each a series of notated loops. They can play them in any order, as long as they play each loop only once. For the listener, the result is the sound of two individuals seeking commonality, and finding it only in the end result: a contemplative miniature.

Over the course of the album there are a variety of settings, from solo prepared piano to string trios, from quintets to solo voices, and from electronics to balloons. The last are used in the Prelude to "The Mystery Cheese Ball," a chamber opera composed in 1961 and performed at Ono's loft. Consisting entirely of the sound of air leaving the balloons at different pitches, the result is the definition of whimsy - unless you're too sensitive to high-pitched sounds.

Byrd's music is challenging, but never inaccessible, thanks to his compositional chops and the ACME's committed and engaged performances. The standout for me is the longest piece on the record, Water Music for percussion solo and electronic tape. This involving work gives the percussionist latitude in how he or she relates to the fixed sounds on the tape, which was created in the multi-track studios of Capitol records where Byrd was on staff for a minute. The tape is a lush tapestry and Byrd cannily chose percussion instruments that echo rather than contrast the electronic sounds. Water Music is a rich experience that would not be out of place among the classic Varese and Wuorinen works on Nonesuch's 1968 Percussion Music collection.

Part of the joy of listening to Joseph Byrd's work here, so lovingly presented by ACME, is the window it affords on the fecundity of the scene in NYC in those years. Not too long after Byrd left the Big Apple, Lou Reed met John Cale and the city's avant garde was primed to take quite a different turn.

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