Michael Byron

The Celebration


Driven by relentless curiosity, Michael Byron has long been committed to writing virtuosic instrumental music of contrapuntal complexity and perpetual variation, but with the Celebration, a song cycle for baritone and piano quintet, he ventured into unfamiliar territory: he had not previously composed for voice, the primary vehicle for articulating the wonder of the human condition. First suggested by poet Anne Tardos and commissioned by singer Thomas Buckner, the Celebration posed challenges concerning the relationship between text and music that Byron had not yet confronted, but Tardos’s artistry stimulated his imagination. “Anne’s poetry is one of deep feeling, expressed through irregular cadence, spontaneity, and sudden animation,” Byron explains. “Her work recognizes the tonal value of words, in permanent transition. The poems oscillate seamlessly between abstraction and narration. They lend themselves perfectly to my direction in music.”

Consisting of four songs and two instrumental interludes, the Celebration explores the ambiguity, the disorientation, and ultimately the joyful paradox of formulating an identity in a world of constant change. Like most of Byron’s work, the composition is built on a carefully designed structure that ensures the constant and measured transformation of musical elements. Adopting what he describes as an “airtight” aesthetic, Byron strives for the highest degree of formal efficiency, where every event of the piece—from the overall shape to the surface details—serves a precise and unique function. Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of Byron’s score, and the one that tends to command the attention of both the performers and listeners, is the fierce complexity of the non-repeating rhythmic figures, many of which are comprised of irregular subdivisions of the beat, effectively obscuring any regular sense of pulse and meter. In order to keep the intricacies of the instrumental counterpoint from upstaging the vocal line, Byron limited the pitch resources in the Celebration to pentatonic and diatonic collections, which yield sensuous fields of harmonic stasis. These fields not only provide suitable space for the declamation of the text, but they also temper the rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity of the instruments, and emphasize the harmonic modulations as major structural junctures when they do occur.

Although Byron remained keenly aware of the relationship between the text and music, the Celebration is not a situation where the music deliberately depicts or reinforces the poetic images. “I wanted to create a work where the text and music could live together without conflict,” says Byron. “In other words, each has its own life, but intimately share a life together.” Before notating a single pitch, he constructed elaborate systems to determine the correspondence between the instruments and the voice as independent entities, but he reserved the right to make slight modifications to accommodate specific passages in the text. “When I saw an extraordinary line,” Byron admits, “there were multiple times where I couldn’t resist changing the point of modulation.” A couple striking moments are the harmonic shifts that coincide with such evocative phrases as “by entering this other existence” (in “Philomel’s Song”), “Existence is assured” (in “One”), and “The ride of a lifetime” (in “Beginningless”), but Byron’s sensitivity to the text also determined more subtle aspects of the vocal phrasing as well as whether a particular passage would be sung or recited.

Just as Byron creates a new context for Tardos’s poetry, so does the presence of the poetic voice transform Byron’s music. The instrumental lines, for example, assume an intensely lyrical guise as they anticipate, echo, mirror, and contrast the vocal line. Also, the contrapuntal and rhythmic complexity—a hallmark of Byron’s style—seems here to have emerged from a fragmented chorale of simple melodies that have been enriched by increasingly rhapsodic ornamentation, all of which has been meticulously notated. The unexpected divergence and convergence of the vocal and instrumental lines produce what Byron calls “inevitable synchronicities,” that mysterious circumstance of individual voices immersed in eternal dialogue. With the Celebration, Byron and Tardos provide a rich opportunity for us to acknowledge and celebrate the divine counterpoint between voice and instruments, poetry and music, individual and humanity.

--Eric Smigel
August 2014