Michael Byron

The Pure of Heart

The Pure of Heart is a setting by Michael Byron of a poem by Anne Tardos that was commissioned by baritone Thomas Buckner—and written especially for his distinctive vocal range and color—and with particular emphasis on the clarity of his diction, honed by some 40 years of collaboration with America's foremost experimental composers. The piano part is an integral element in the work, not merely an accompaniment, and is written in the idiosyncratic piano style in which Michael Byron has been composing for Joseph Kubera, perhaps "new" music's most dedicated interpreter, during the last four or five years. Byron's astonishing one-hour solo piano piece, Dreamers of Pearl, was first presented by Kubera at another Interpretations concert on March 18, 2007. Anne Tardos is a celebrated poet, perhaps best known for her earlier multilingual poems, but also active in New York for many years as a visual artist, composer and performer.

The text of The Pure of Heart was written in an initial draft one evening in 2009 after Tardos and Buckner happened to sit near each other at an exhilarating concert by composer/percussionist Adam Rudolph, and began a serious conversation about the sense of community and the ensuing feelings of security engendered by musical and artistic gatherings of this kind. Thus, the very first line of Tardos's poem, "I use the words of the tribe to inscribe my singularity" lays the groundwork for both Tardos' sense of groundedness (her position in the close-knit New York arts community for many years, and her 30-year relationship with poet Jackson Mac Low) and the sense of loss and sense of mortality that follows ("The parrot-meter is running") and particularly the loss of Mac Low that pervades the poem ("They are separated now. One of them is gone and the other is extending the gesture of their time together"). But this barely captures the vivid imagery and language of the poem, and above all Tardos' pugnaciousness in facing her reality ("Fight back as long as possible") which is almost a corollary of the original Kierkegaard quote "Pureness of Heart Is to Will One Thing," which inspired the title of her poem.

Tardos's gutsiness is more than matched by Byron’s punchy piano writing—at once jagged two-part writing and arpeggiated chords that build up in sonorous harmonies that, in Byron's own words, "provide a place where the poem can live." Byron and Tardos are simultaneously 19th century Romantics and 21st century Experimentalists. The lush piano part of The Pure of Heart is as responsive to every change in the emotional rhythm of the text as Robert Schumann's piano writing is, in the song cycle Dichterliebe, to the wild emotional swings of Heine's poems.

The vocal lines of the Byron are every bit as spare and expressive as the Schumann (the starling harmonic change that accompanies Tardos's "choppiness of communication" or the rippling chords that expand and contract when "concentric ripples" travel "simultaneously out from and in toward each center." The vocal part's lack of show and ornament is a tremendously courageous statement in itself: it takes truthful artists to perform a line of limited tessitura and many spoken words. After all, if the inner voice of The Pure of Heart is to be made audible, palpable it can only be done with total fidelity to the inner life of both the text and musical materials of this remarkable piece.

-- Eric Richards, 2011