Don Byron: Moving Towards the Idiomatic
AAJ: Let's talk about your collaboration with Bang on a Can, as documented on your other 2006 CD, A Ballad For Many, which was released on the Cantaloupe label. This has the Bang on a Can All Stars performing a set of your compositionsyou play some clarinet on "Basquat, and on a couple of the sections of "Music From the Red-Tailed Angels, but in general you're just the composer here.
Now, I know you composed the piece "Eugene to accompany the classic silent episode of the Ernie Kovacs Show, and I know it was commissioned by Bang on a Can. But was that the beginning of your relationship with Bang on a Can or did it predate them? I know not all the material was written for them"Basquiat, for example, appears on your A Fine Line CD. Tell me the story behind this project.
DB: Well, I had played in a bunch of their marathons, and I've had a sort of running connection with the new-music communitypeople that I knew as a player and people that I've known since I became a quote-unquote composer. So when they commissioned me, I did "Eugene, because I wanted to do something with this Ernie Kovacs video, and as time has gone one, they've said things like, "Why don't we do some more things of yours? and "Why don't you show up to the gig and do another tune that you can play with us?
That's why I arranged "Basquiat for them, but I've actually recorded that piece several times in different contexts. And at the time we did the record, I added some more repertoire. One of the pieces, "Spin, was originally a violin piece which was commissioned by the Library of Congress several years ago, and so here I just kind of wrote it for cello but basically kept a lot of the same ideas in it. And some of the pieces were written just for the record.
AAJ: So with some of these pieces, it was more about arranging for them than composing.
DB: I think mostly they were pieces I wrote for them. There were just a couple of pieces that I adapted from other situations, but most of the stuff on the record is stuff that I wrote just for them.
AAJ: "Music From the Red-Tailed Angels is a piece composed of nine short sections. It's the soundtrack for Cara DeVito's documentary "The Red Tailed Angels, which is about the first African-American military airmen, the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. You're constructed a piece here out of very short materials.
DB: Well, they're film cues. They're just simply that. They are the length that they are because that's the thing that they're in, and that's how much music the director wanted. So they're film cues. If you listen to a Morricone record, it's these little features. And that's how long the scene was.
AAJ: I know "Basquiat from your A Fine Line albumthere it was performed by you and pianist Uri Caine. That version has a forlorn beauty that I've always found very moving and the song is a great favorite of mine. There's such a feeling of inevitability to its melodyin a good way. So this was a situation of arranging for Bang on a Can and yourself, and I really like how you did it, the way parts that were covered by Uri are assigned to cello, bowed bass and electric guitar.
DB: Well, with Bang on a Can you have to factor in using guitar. I think that that's the most difficult thing about writing for themwriting for a classical sound and that guitar. It's kind of tricky. They're a tricky group to write for. Other than those kinds of considerations, it wasn't a hard thing to do. It was really simple.
AAJ: I gather that "Eugene, your accompaniment to the silent Ernie Kovacs TV episode, was your idea. You must have been interested in his work.
DB: It's a piece of video from the late fifties, early sixties, that I'm using, completely silent. It's mostly silent; the original soundtrack just has a few sound effects. So I have all this stuff that's coordinated to go with the action so it all fits together with the video in a certain kind of way. And like a lot of choreographed things, really, it has its own life with no video. It's just a very choreographed piece of music.
It has a lot of references to the music of the period, so there's some of the kind of modernist stuff that he liked, like Stravinsky and Bartók, and some parts with sort of an [space-age lounge-jazz composer Juan Garcia] Esquivel feel, or [light orchestral composer] Leroy Andersonthings like that. There are a lot of those kinds of sounds in the piece, because that's what Ernie Kovacs was listening to. He knew a lot about music, about modern music. He was a very cultured person. So I wrote some music that tried to express what his culture was made up of.
AAJ: Tell me about the last piece on A Ballad For Many, "Show Him Some Lub.
DB: Earlier, I did some work with a dancer that was supposed to be about certain kinds of ethnic issues, and I came up with a way of relating to different ethnic experiences equally by asking people when they thought their group was free. At that point, there was a young woman who thought her group was free in 1900, and found out that it really wasn't like that. I think these kind of relative things about different ethnic groups are interestingwhen they were free or when they might be free, or maybe they think they'll never be free. Maybe there's a date, and it comes down to how close to it you are, or how close you think you are. All of those things have a lot to do with the chemistry of different ethnicitieshow they relate and how they see the plight of other people who are in struggle.
So I asked this group of people those questions and we recorded their answers to those questions along with the music. And I asked a bunch of questions that were very personal; many of them had to do with a person's ethnicity. Where their maternal grandmother was born, things like that. So the entire group gives answers to those different questions at different times and then those things are written into the music when they should happen. So the group almost had to give a Schoenberg-esque acting performance. Something like that, anyway.