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Michael Byron: Dreamers of Pearl

By Dan Warburton
Paris Transatlantic

Dreamers of Pearl is a 53-minute work for solo piano in three movements, individually entitled "Enchanting the Stars", "A Bird Revealing the Unknown to the Sky" and "It is the Night and Dawn of Constellations Irradiated". If those titles tempt you to load up the convertible with plastic pyramids and gaudy crystals and drive out to Pahrump Nevada to await the arrival of the Martians (don't take any doves along), think again. Michael Byron might be associated with the second wave of California minimalism – moving away from strict process-based music towards what I once described elsewhere as "solid state" – and much of his earlier work was luminously tonal, but Dreamers of Pearl is about as close to New Age ear candy as those "funny looking little critters" in Mars Attacks were to being ambassadors of interplanetary peace and love. The work's roots in minimalism are evident enough though, especially in the second movement, which moves through its clearly defined harmonic fields as patiently as Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, but the actual surface of the music is constantly changing, rhythmically irregular, and often tough and angular. Byron's music is fully notated, and the handsome 20-page booklet contains numerous extracts from the score which reveal its considerable metrical and harmonic intricacies (particularly in the first movement, in which the pianist has to negotiate a different key signature for each hand!), but sounds fresh enough to have been created in real time – one wonders at times whether he's hit upon a way of getting his music software to transcribe and print out a recording of an improvisation, so naturally do the notes lie under the fingers. As such, Scelsi's solo piano music comes to mind, as does La Monte Young's Well Tuned Piano, a transcribed score of which wouldn't look all that different from Dreamers of Pearl in places. One wonders also whether Joseph Kubera, whose performance of the work is absolutely stunning, has learnt the piece by heart – which would be quite a feat – as it seems well nigh impossible to commit any of its myriad local details to long-term memory. But you could probably say that of the Ligeti Etudes too, come to think of it – and Byron's music, like Ligeti's, is instantly recognisable, perceptually challenging, beautifully proportioned and deeply satisfying. Check it out.