Michael Byron

Book of Horizons


Michael Byron has been writing piano music for over forty years, but if one were to lay side by side his modest, earliest efforts for solo piano ("Song of the Lifting Up of the Head," 1972) with the piece included here, one might be perplexed by the differences in scope, scale, material, complexity, and sheer technical demands. But the pieces have in common sensitivity for the sound of the piano; a sensibility of extended playing/listening; and an interest in repetition and change through gradual and seemingly clandestine processes that transform and extend what we hear. Both pieces, early and recent, create situations demanding a great deal of relaxed yet relentless concentration on the part of the performer as well as the listener.

The title track on this recording, written for and dedicated to Kubera, Byron’s Book of Horizons honors a special working relationship—now some fourteen or so years old—between this obsessive composer and this exacting performer. Their first collaboration on a solo work written especially for Kubera resulted in the expansive, three-movement piano solo called Dreamers of Pearl (recorded by Kubera for New World Records in 2008). Book of Horizons—"a complex work in structure and emotion," in the words of the composer—is written in the same relentless style, which Byron has described as a "long string of abstract counterpoint operations" in which the counterpoint is made up of largely asymmetrical figurations. About Book of Horizons, Kubera says it is just as challenging as the third movement of Dreamers of Pearl, arguably a giant among the most difficult music composed in the last half century. Kubera premiered the piece at Roulette in New York City on March 17, 2011. Each of the five movements of Book of Horizons is characterized by an evocative title, a personal dedication (four friends and Byron’s daughter), and a vivid tempo designation. The five movements, which alternate between agitation and tranquility, are: 1. "Unknown Americas," for Peter Garland (madly); 2. "Porcelain Nights," for David Mahler (unhurried); 3. "Like the Eyes of the Bride," for Amy Beal (with abandon); 4. "A World Full of Hope," for Katherine Elizabeth Byron (luxurious . . . full, deeply resonant throughout); 5. "Appearances and Architraves," for Larry Polansky (uncompromising).

Much of the work’s texture could be stylistically characterized as Baroque, given the perpetual motion and the mostly dry two-voice polyphonic layering, some of it distortedly imitative. The progression of events in the third movement evokes the impression that the fluttering melodic figures, the emphatic chords, and the arpeggiated grace notes are all different expressions of the same "obsessive image" (in the composer’s words). Careful listeners will confront the mystery and constancy of Byron’s obsessive image through the work’s thematic characters, the gestural languages they speak, the rhythmic puzzles they solve, and the harmonic landscapes they negotiate—and which they eventually conquer, as the breathtaking finale seems to imply. Though these pieces sound entirely unpredictable, they are actually "airtight" and "unforgiving in structure," as Byron admits, yet also written with great clarity. Mostly modal pitch relationships and asymmetrical temporal ones alike are relentlessly rigorous. For the persevering analyst, a complex solar system is in operation here; but for the average listener, an emphatically passionate confession reveals itself from beginning to end.

--Amy C. Beal, 2011