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Joseph Byrd: NYC 1960-1963 / Jensen, American Contemporary Music Ensemble

Release Date: 02/12/2013 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80738   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Joseph Byrd
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

In 1968 when I was eleven years old, I became obsessed with alternative pop music radio stations that featured non-commercial fare. That’s how I first got to know Joseph Byrd’s music. He had a band called The United States of America, whose use of electronic instruments, tape manipulation, and processed sounds seemed positively avant-garde at the time, although, paradoxically, some of the actual songs themselves smacked of Tin Pan Alley.

As it happens, Byrd’s long career always has straddled a wide range of styles, from commercial studio work to experimental music’s uncompromising fringes. The works on this disc represent Byrd’s New York years as a founding member of Fluxus, where one readily hears the influence of his
Read more teacher Morton Feldman and mentor John Cage in the sparse, delicate, and specifically pinpointed textures of Densities I, for viola, trumpet, cello, marimba, and vibraphone.

Animals for string quartet, prepared piano, marimba, and vibraphone is more harmonically static yet with notes in fairly constant, quiet motion. Loops and Sequences for cello and prepared piano also evoke the kind of repeated phrases typifying Feldman’s late pieces, but within a seven-and-a-half-minute time frame. The even sparser, quieter two-movement String Trio makes Webern sound relatively loquacious, while Water music for percussion solo and electronic tape is dense, active, yet never over-busy.

As part of a 1961 concert held in Yoko Ono’s loft, Byrd prefaced the performance of his chamber opera The Mystery Cheese-Ball with a prelude involving several people slowly releasing air from inflated balloons while pinching and stretching each balloon’s neck and producing an assortment of polyphonic squeaks and squeals. It’s recreated here, and the sonorities speak for themselves. The close-up miking and dry ambience is likely an aesthetic choice, although I wonder how these works might sound in a warmer, more resonant acoustic. Both the committed performances and the extensive, well-written annotations amount to a genuine labor of love on behalf of a fascinating, vibrant musical figure who deserves rediscovery.

-- Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Animals by Joseph Byrd

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