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.