Discovering the early avant-garde sounds of eclectic composer Joseph Byrd | Bleader

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Discovering the early avant-garde sounds of eclectic composer Joseph Byrd

Posted By on 05.02.13 at 03:11 PM

Joseph Byrd
  • Larry Schulte
  • Joseph Byrd
Indie rock fans with a sense of historical curiosity, particularly ones who enjoyed the music of Britain's terrific Broadcast, probably know about the short-lived American group United States of America. The band released a single eponymous album for Columbia Records in 1968, at the height of the Flower Power era, which unceremoniously sank with little trace. Although one could detect a bit of Jefferson Airplane singers Signe Anderson and Grace Slick in the beautiful, vibrato-free voice of Dorothy Moskowitz, there was little about the group that related to much else going in rock music at the time. A lack of support from the label and internal tensions about how the record was mixed and mastered soon led to the band's dissolution.

Of course, like so many once-obscure bands, United States of America became much more popular many years after they'd ceased to exist. In 2004 Sundazed Records reissued their sole masterpiece with a slew of previously unreleased material. I never get tired of hearing the record, especially the song "Coming Down," which strikes me as the virtual blueprint for Broadcast's music. You can check it out below.

The brains behind the band was a precocious American composer named Joseph Byrd, a Louisville native raised in Tucson who'd spent much of the decade prior to the band's formation deeply immersed in American's classical avant-garde. In 1959 he moved to Palo Alto, California, where he befriended minimalist pioneers La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. A year later he relocated to New York, magnetized by the heady circle of artists revolving around John Cage—he was absorbed by the work of New School composers (Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and Morton Feldman, with whom he took some lessons)—and got involved in Fluxus activities. To earn money he landed a job as a secretarial assistant to critic and composer Virgil Thompson, a relationship that led a gig as an arranger for a Time-Life Records project on the music of Charles Ives. From there he scored a job as a staff arranger at Capitol Records, opening up his musical world much further.

In 1963 Byrd moved to LA to teach at UCLA, where he cofounded the New Music Workshop with jazz trumpeter Don Ellis. Over the next couple of years he realized that rock music had increasingly become a vehicle to reaching a wider audiences, and also developed a radical position against the Vietnam War. He left UCLA and taught at some other area schools, and by 1967 he decided to form an experimental rock band, drawing upon many of his old New York avant-garde friends to join. After releasing a rock album under the name Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies, he did the arrangements for the 1978 Ry Cooder album Jazz, wrote theme music for CBS Evening News, and created sounds for various Mattel toys. These days he teaches at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California. As he says in the liner notes for the United States of America reissue, "I had always been eclectic as a composer; indeed it was a detriment to my finding a single distinctive voice in the avant-garde, as I changed styles with almost every piece."

JosephByrd_NewWorldRecords.jpg
In March New World Records released a stunning album that lets us hear what Byrd was up to before he jumped into the rock scene. NYC 1960-1963 features the excellent New York new music group American Contemporary Music Ensemble (which includes pianist Timothy Andres, violinist Caleb Burhans, violist Nadia Sirota, and recent Pulitzer Prize winner and violinist Caroline Shaw) playing 11 of his early works, most of which were written in the shadows cast by Cage, but which still stand easily on their own. "Animals" (1961) features jagged single notes played by a group of instruments (vibraphone, violins, viola, marimba) in unsynchronized, steadily changing patterns around the dissonant, roiling prepared piano figures. "Loops and Sequences" (1961) was composed for notorious Fluxus cellist Charlotte Moorman and features two sets of looped materials of pitches and pitch sequences on separate staff lines, allowing cellist and pianist to play them in any sequence or organization they choose; the reading here, by Andres and cellist Clarice Jensen, is translucently beautiful, with long tones and short outbursts occurring in constant flux. "Densities I" (1962) is a mixture of shimmering long tones and pointillistic bursts, while "Water Music" (1963), composed while Byrd was working at Capitol and had access to sophisticated multitrack recording gear, was commissioned by percussionist Max Neuhaus and features a hypnotic blend of electronic tape music and resonant, hovering metal percussion.

Elsewhere there is the brief prepared piano work "Three Aphorisms" (1960), a choppy collage of phonemes from sound poetry written by the composer in "Four Sound*Poems" (1962), and light-hearted work for "antiphonal rubber balloons" called "Prelude to 'The Mystery Cheese-Ball,'" which was originally performed at Yoko Ono's loft in 1961 by a distinguished group including Young, Ono, David Tudor, and Jackson Mac Low. Below you can hear the first movement from "String Trio" (1962), where the Feldman influence is pretty clear. It represents a distant chapter in Byrd's career, but it's one I'm grateful that we can all experience now.


Today's playlist:

Thee Satisfaction, Awe Naturale (Sub Pop)
The Awakening, Mirage (Black Jazz)
Okkyung Lee, Noisy Love Songs (Tzadik)
Martino Da Vila, 4.5 Atual (Sony Music, Brazil)
The Cats and the Fiddle, We Cats Will Swing for You 1941-1948, Volume 3 (Fabulous)

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