ACME Unearths Rare Early 60s Sonics
Composer Joseph Byrd is best known for his work in film, and for his role as leader of pioneering chamber pop/psychedelic band the United States of America in the late 60s. But the wildly eclectic guy responsible for the CBS Evening News theme got his start in the avant garde, palling around with Yoko Ono and her minions in New York in the early part of the decade. Byrd’s quirky, hypnotically minimalist early works have recently been resurrected on a playful album by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble a.k.a. ACME and released by Brooklyn’s New World Records. Wispy and skeletal as many of these pieces are, there’s also a subtle humor here. This was music made for and quite possibly by people who were smoking pot and laughing a lot: it was the 60s, after all.
The first tracks have a deadpan, winking mechanical feel, a clockwork arrythmia. Clarice Jensen’s hypnotic cello bassline blends with the distant piledriver of Timothy Andres‘ prepared piano, the coy accents of Caleb Burhans‘ and Caroline Shaw’s violins and Nadia Sirota’s viola, with an unexpectedly agitated pots-and-pans interlude from Chihiro Shibayama’s marimba and Chris Thompson’s vibraphone, both instruments muted for a strangely muffled effect.
Loops and Sequences mirrors what Luciano Berio was doing around the same time, a study in negative space. A tantalizing hint of melody bobs to the suface in a couple of piano miniatures, followed by a long-tone piece with the viola at its peaceful center, interrupted by the occasional wry blip, evocative of the later work of Eleanor Hovda (subject of an often rapturously still retrospective from Innova that came out a couple of years ago, the enhanced cd’s including both scores and exhaustive liner notes).
Byrd’s String Trio employs keening overtones and spaciously swooping, doppler-like motifs. The most captivating piece here, Water Music, sets percussionist Alan Zimmerman’s gamelanesque phrases and cymbal ambience over a low tape drone, gradually building to an unexpectedly uneasy nebulosity.
As often happens with oddities from the 60s, there’s some bizarro randomness here as well: a dadaist spoken-word collage and a party joke involving the slow deflation of rubber balloons which made its dubious debut at one of Yoko’s loft extravaganzas and was assuredly never meant to be repeated: one suspects that the original cast didn’t tone down the flatulence as the ensemble does here. Who is the audience for this? Beyond fans of vintage esoterica, anyone with a taste for quiet, calming sounds. This album has become a favorite at naptime here at Lucid Culture HQ – to put that in context, other albums that work well in that capacity are Brooklyn Rider’s set of Philip Glass quartets, a bootleg concert recording of Renaissance choir Stile Antico, and the recent BassX3 album for two basses and bass clarinet.