Relentless Present

Here are three measures of a new piano piece for your perusal:


Now, imagine something like that going on, pretty much the same texture and same intensity, for 53 solid minutes. That’s Michael Byron’s new Dreamers of Pearl (2005), just released on a New World CD by possibly the only pianist who could currently achieve such a feat, human player-piano Joe Kubera. There’s a key signature, admittedly, but so many accidentals that it seems more hindrance than help, and the first movement has five flats in the right hand and none in the left. The second movement, titled “A Bird Revealing the Unknown to the Sky,” is more sweetly impressionist in its harmonies, but no less intense. You can see that the melodic streams are dotted by some repetition of figures, and some mirroring between the hands, which break the effect of nervous randomness. But it’s a relentless, fanatical piece, and I do appreciate musical fanaticism for its own sake, which is why Milton Babbitt was always my favorite American 12-tone composer.

(Incidentally, there are readers who assume that I must froth with venom when I spit the name “Milton Babbitt” out of my mouth. It is true that I have sometimes given Babbitt shit for his articles, which express a subtle contempt for the human race. I’m kind of an optimist, who thinks the human race should be cut some slack, and in particular I think if you find yourself expressing contempt for the entire human race you should take a hard, objective look at your motivations and try to figure out whom you’re really angry with, and who hurt you. Babbitt’s Perspective articles I’ve always thought of as a sublimated, mathematically elegant revenge for having grown up Jewish in Mississippi, which I’m sure was no picnic. But if you look at what I’ve written about Babbitt’s music over the last 26 years, on balance it’s pretty positive. I especially love his vocal works, and have always said so: Philomel, Vision and Prayer, Du, The Widow’s Lament in the Springtime, An Elizabethan Sextette – because Babbitt’s Apollonian, exquisitely classical technique, which precludes even the slightest trace of the usual, predictable, “emotive” shaping of phrases, sets off the pathos of his texts with a kind of thrilling understatement, like the best early Baroque opera. I’ve often wondered, given his impassive rhetoric, whether he even realizes what makes those pieces so special. His All Set is also a brilliant joke, and I’ve always been attracted to Canonical Forms and the Piano Concerto. I wrote the liner notes to Sextets and The Joy of More Sextets, back when they were on vinyl, you could look it up. I don’t think string quartet is a great medium for him, and sometimes, as in Post-Partitions, I think his experimental schemata lead the music outside the realm of perceptual possibility and relevance. But I wrote a long, enthusiastic review of his book Words about Music. When I entered college, as I’ve said many times, Babbitt and Cage were my favorite composers. So to assume, oh, Kyle Gann’s a big Glenn Branca and Phil Glass fan, he must hate Milton Babbit, just haaaaaate him, is a road map leading to gross error. Remember, when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me. But I digress.) 


Anyway, Byron is an old cohort of Peter Garland’s from the early days, and one thing I admire about both of them is their ability to keep going for long stretches with only a tiny set of materials and no perceptible method. (I wish I had that level of discipline; I generally need some kind of large-scale transformational strategy to make the long haul.) I’ve nominally known Byron myself for 26 years – I conducted a piece of his at New Music America ’82 – but he fell out of the new-music world for over a decade, and has been making an impressive comeback only in the last few years. Easily the most magnificent thing I’ve heard him do, Dreamers of Pearl is a perfect example of the Absolute Present I wrote about recently. There are no landmarks, no before and after, just a continual present with barely enough mixture of repetition and randomness to keep you thinking you’re about to figure it out. Absolutely beautiful, and the subtle differences in character among the three movements are intriguing. Having paid the piece the supreme compliment of listening to it in the car throughout a long road trip, I now upload it to PostClassic Radio. It takes its place among a growing list of massive postclassical piano works: Barlow’s Cogluotobusisletmesi, Polansky’s Lonesome Road, de Bondt’s Grand Hotel, Curran’s Inner Cities, Walter Zimmermann’s Beginner’s Mind, George Flynn’s Trinity, and an amazing number of others.


  1. says

    Do you have any guess why there are so many massive postclassical piano works? It definitely seems like a distinct genre.
    KG replies: Hey, Adam. A lot of phenomenal, good-hearted pianists around, I guess. Maybe it says more about people who play all the other instruments.

  2. Bob Gilmore says

    yes, agree – I heard the amazing Joe Kubera play it in Dublin lately. Byron is an underrated composer, and an interesting mind. Could do with more of him.

  3. says

    I actually don’t find it so surprising that you like Milton Babbitt’s music. To me, Babbitt fits nicely with what you describe as the “absolute present” aesthetic. Despite (and because of) his rigorous formal procedures, as a listener, I find Babbitt’s music usually resists my attempts to understand it as any kind of narrative. But I’m happy just to relax and enjoy the musical surface as it goes pleasantly by, without worrying about where it’s going or why, until, for whatever reason, it stops. It may not be postminimal music, but it works with postminimal listening.

  4. David D. McIntire says

    Kyle, couldn’t agree more about your assessment of Babbitt. The guy’s music is funny, really funny. ‘All Set’ is a great example, but there are many others. The only vocal work where I think he truly flops is his setting of ‘The Head of the Bed,’ which doesn’t breathe enough in my opinion. But ‘Philomel’ is sublime beyond description. I did think the Third Quartet was pretty excellent, though I haven’t heard it in years.

  5. says

    who would have figured, all this enthusiasm for babbitt…
    all I can say is you obviously never had to play his marimba parts
    I have, and I despise babbitt.
    Nothing personal, you understand.
    but having played the stuff, i’m not sure I can just listen to it, like some of you seem to have done.
    The only good Babbitt experience I had …
    The EARS were playing at Princeton. Babbitt was in the audience, and Dorothy played the solo he wrote for her – None but the Lonely Flute. I was in the Green Room, and didn’t want to be bothered. But the piece started singing, and I had not ever heard Doe play quite so well. I had to go into the hall, and listen.
    There was some real shit happening.
    How often does shit really happen? I have had to revisit, and reconsider, Babbitt.
    And now, yet again.

  6. says

    I’ve been writing relatively long pieces for solo piano (and other which are long in a not-so-relative manner) and this sometimes makes me think whether I could have fewer opportunities because of that – just a thought, because so many opportunities are made and not had.
    Anyway, this takes me back to a text you’ve recently written about ass-kicking. So many calls for scores, festivals and competitions give you seven or eight minutes to kick asses. That’s a limit (for which there are reasons, I understand) composers are frequently given if they want a work performed. And they’d better kick asses with so very few minutes.
    KG replies: Well put.

  7. says

    Shameless Self-Promotion:
    That’s my photo on the cover. I’ve had the distinct honor and pleasure working with Jim Fox, who designed the album for New World.
    And altho I’ve never been able to get any of my own music on a commercial CD, and probably never will, I now have my photos on three. Not only that, the image is of my own leg and shoe. The camera accidentally went off on its own .. unintended consequences often make good art.
    Regardless, the music is intensely impressive, and I’m humbled by the association.