Michael Byron

Dreamers of Pearl

You’d think that in this high-tech age the solo piano as a medium would be neglected—so Romantic, so 19th century, so humanistic. But no, it seems there’s something personal, visionary, even transcendental about the act of conjuring up an entire musical universe “by hand” from a single source that’s a challenge and an inspiration to composers. One certainly gets this sense from listening to Byron’s Dreamers of Pearl.

Composed in 2004–05, the piece is in three big movements, each over a quarter hour. With its essentially fast-slow-fast structure, it’s sonata in everything but name. And in its expansive dimensions and ambitious rhetoric, it certainly projects an affinity with the grand classic repertoire. But its aesthetic and practice are quite different.

I’m starting to feel there’s a wing of American experimental music, concentrated in composers currently in their fifties, that’s quite different from several other more prominent trends. Though it takes some inspiration from minimalism, world music, and the improvisatory spirit (if not literal improvisation), it’s also quite different. A key recent ancestor-figure seems to be the recently passed James Tenney, a musical polymath who pioneered several early classics of computer music, played piano virtuosically, studied or collaborated with Cage, Partch, Ruggles, Varèse (among others!), and wrote pieces ranging from the conceptually virtuosic Postal Pieces (which I reviewed in Fanfare 28:1) to fearsomely complex microtonal and algorithmic works. Tenney was a teacher of several of the composers of whom I’m thinking—Peter Garland, John Luther Adams, and Larry Polansky. And Byron. What Tenney seems to have imparted was a love of complexity and information density, though not based on the serial model. Instead, he is a kind of digital-brainy update of the American ultra-modernists of the early 20th century. Music that is intense, uncompromising, that invents its own relentless forms and processes, and seems both highly constructed, yet also like something from a parallel natural world.

To describe Byron's music, I think you need to look at it from different perspectives of scale (objective) and taste (subjective). If one starts from the small-scale, moment-to-moment experience of the piece, it can be frustrating—or exhausting. It starts (movement 1, “Enchanting the Stars”) with a rush, nervous jabbing figures all over the range of the instrument. One feels a little as though a big pitch gamut has been stretched from high to low and then animated by some sort of statistical process or program. Or maybe by a flock of animals let loose on it; once again, we have the intersection of the artificial and natural. In one way it’s always the same, but in another it’s changing at every instant, never repeating itself literally. I couldn’t help but think of the total serialist music of post-WW II, in terms of this conundrum mixing stasis with change, though the harmonic basis for Byron’s music is resolutely not atonal. So subjectively, if your attention span is oriented towards judging after the first five or so minutes, you’re going to be irritated or bored.

But moving to a larger-scale perspective, the following two movements have similar structures, but sound quite different. The second (“A Bird Revealing the Unknown to the Sky”) is quite liquid, extremely consonant, and changes from one harmonic region to another in a manner more reminiscent of Reich. It’s still too edgy to be New Age, but it is far more contemplative. The final movement (“It Is the Night and the Dawn of Constellations Irradiated”) returns to the energy of the first, but the rhythms and gestures feel more jazzy. So over the whole span of the work, there is real expressive contrast.

As for scale and pacing, I also feel that though he tests my limits, the composer times things right. The movements are long enough for you to enter into their worlds, explore the micro-differences within, and give up most expectations that something dramatic is going to happen (though in fact the last movement is a progression to continuously flowing 16ths in both hands, as the rhythmic gaps are gradually plugged). Simultaneously, they’re not so long as to be insufferable; when they cut off, it feels at a good point.

So this is challenging music. It has real ambition and lyric aspiration. I’m both intrigued and a little put off by its approach, which seems to take certain templates that are close to minimalist practice, and put them through a stochastic (i.e., statistical/Xenakisian) filter. I should qualify that; I’m not saying this is actually what Bryon does, only the impression left on me of the final product. But my ambivalence is perhaps a testimony to the strength of the music—the fact it can’t be easily pigeonholed. I do feel that it unquestionably has great integrity.

One final word about Joe Kubera. Performance of this piece is a feat of enormous stamina. It’s unrelenting and knuckle busting. He maintains a deep, intense engagement with the music that never flags, and you can tell he’s mining it at every moment for its maximum impact. I’ve heard him in a lot of recordings by now, and sometimes in live performance. I think he may well be this era’s David Tudor—virtuosic, smart as hell, far more eclectic in his tastes than you might think, with a marathoner’s strength to deal with any transcendental performance challenge.

Robert Carl, Fanfare, 2008