Friday, August 29, 2008

Joseph Byrd: FISH (1961)


The duration may be fixed arbitrarily in minutes and seconds, etc., or it may be determined by allowing the number of cards (see below) chosen by the players to work out the length ad lib.

a. Cut along the lines dividing the page; this will produce a group of small cards, to be mixed up in any order.

b. Each performer chooses a number of cards* (previously determined); these are divided into

1. single sustained notes.
2. groups of 2 or 3 notes to be repeated several times.

They are read as follows:
1. notes are at concert pitch (treble clef).
2. tempo of groups may be (quarter) = 40-80
(average quarter = 60 = extremes of either tempo range are to be avoided).
3. dynamics may be p-f (extremes: pp-ff or special effects such as sudden crescendo, fp, etc., are to be avoided.

c. After cards are chosen the performer begins reading them in this manner:

1. sustained notes are held the length of one breath or about 20-30 seconds.
2. repetitive groups are to be played, alternately, 6,11,14, or 20 times (that is, the performer may begin with any sequence but should use up all 4 possibilities before he returns to the first).

NB After each card is played, the performer must change his physical position, that is, move to another part of the performance area. These movements should be as expeditious and quiet as possible, and the only time during the performance when the performer is to be silent (except, of course, rests which are part of the groups). Movement among, behind, to the side of, or over the audience, if any is acceptable. "Theatrical" actions not necessary to the performance of the piece are to be avoided.

*The number of cards may be increased to any number necessary for performance; this may be done in any number of ways, obtaining additional copies, duplicating this copy, or copying the groups by hand.

June 1961
New York City

Copyright (c) 1961 by Joseph Byrd, reproduced here by kind permission of the composer.


Joseph Byrd is one of the key figures in the radical music, and was active on both coasts, as a student of Barney Childs in Arizona, at Stanford in the Bay Area, later in New York, where his activities included membership in the Fluxus movement, and then in Southern California, where he began a deep study of American traditional music and eventually became well known for the albums The United States of America and The American Metaphysical Circus. He was also active in film scoring and arranged and produced Ry Cooder's album Jazz. Today, Mr. Byrd lives in Northern California where he teaches music at the College of the Redwoods.

FISH: A Ballet for Woodwinds contains a number of features shared with other contemporary and near-contemporary works in the radical repertoire. Among these are the repetition of small groups of tones and a resulting static harmony (on the basis of these two features, FISH could be thought of as an In D, albeit in a D that is ambiguously posed at once in major and minor as it is composed only of the tones d', f', f#', a', c'', & c#'' (i.e. overlaying major, minor, dominant seventh, minor seventh and major seventh chords; the distribution of pitches among the individual groups is done with a rigor that approaches serial styles of the day but does not insist upon complete aggregates, a broken serialism, if you will), an overall slow pace allowing listeners to "get inside" sounds (Young's formulation), a relatively open instrumentation, and a form that is mobile with regard to the sequence of local patterns yet globally ergodic. As well, it includes a theatrical and spatial element — it is literally a ballet for woodwinds — that resonates with work both in the Bay Area and in the nascent Fluxus activities.


Paul H. Muller said...

Thanks so much for posting thia. Of course I immediately ran to my CD shelf and grabbed "In C" by Terry Riley and confirmed that it was written in 1964.

Here I had thought Riley was the originator of the idea of cells and different instruments playing them for varying periods.

Do you know if Riley and Joseph Byrd ever met? Byrd apparently spent some time in the Bay area...

Is there an MP3 sample available?

Daniel Wolf said...


The radical West Coast music was richer in scope and possibilities than that set of ideas which were carried over into East Coast minimal music. Moreover, this pool of ideas was shared by a loose community of younger musicians with very little regard for priority.

Byrd and Riley were well aware of one anothers' work; they were both students in the Bay area at roughly the same time (Riley at SFState and UCB, Byrd at Stanford) and both went to NYC, and were connected to Young and, for a time, Fluxus. The score to FISH was published in the Young/MacLow An Anthology which also included several items by Riley. FISH was not the only score by Byrd to use such cells; Loops and Sequences was composed for Charlotte Moorman and was in her repertoire for many years.

This is not at all to diminish Riley's achievement with In C, which has quite a distinctive character. In C is, arguably, a more substantial work, has a more open instrumentation, makes a more immediate reconciliation with tonality, and has a driving rhythmic character quite unlike FISH but decisive for further developments by Riley and many other composers. I hope that by putting this score out, I can help to underline the liveliness of the radical music scene and the fact that a great piece like In C did not come out of a vacuum. Dennis Johnson's November for piano solo, for example, uses a cell structure, and in Douglas Leedy's Two Pieces for piano four hands, repeated simple tonal fragments emerge from a patchwork of vaguely atonal music.

Paul H. Muller said...

Thanks for the background.

A friend of mine passes his New Yorker magazines along to me. The August 25 edition has a nice biographical piece by John Adams about how he got his start on the West Coast in 1972.

An audio interview can be heard here:

The events Adams describes occur a bit later (mid-70s to 80's) than Riley and Byrd, but it is clearly a part of the same experimental Bay area context.

Laura said...

Can you tell me anything about Loops and Sequences?