Sounds Heard: Andrew Byrne—White Bone Country


Andrew Byrne – White Bone Country (excerpt)


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Andrew Byrne:
White Bone Country
New World Records 80696-2

Stephen Gosling: piano
David Shivley: percussion

Andrew Byrne’s new CD, White Bone Country, offers a collection of pieces for piano and percussion played by Steve Gosling (piano) and David Shively (percussion). Shimmering and bright, the Australian-born composer’s music is constantly in motion, and the consummate performers heard here convey the energy and mysteries of the music.

The title track, White Bone Country, occupies almost half the disc. The nine desert landscapes Andrew Byrne has created are divided into three sections: “Desert Terrain”, “Life”, and “Weather”. By capitalizing on the contrasts in register and timbre available with his chosen instruments (piano “inside and out” and crotales, bells, gongs and glockenspiel), Byrne does indeed cover a lot of territory.

The first track opens with a Morse code-like insistence, and this rhythmic propulsion continues for the entire track. The interaction between the percussion and piano (which is slightly processed) is engrossing: polyrhythms emerge along with nascent melodies, charming bits of a song that jump through the holes of the rhythmic patterns. In this movement (as others), Byrne displays a wonderful ambiguity: it is difficult to tell which sounds are played by the pianist and which are played by the percussionist. In the second movement, Byrne builds waves of sound from low, undulating piano chords, four intervals that are the underpinning of the entire track. The harmonic rhythm is slow, allowing the piano to ring; the motion is constant. Following the movement for solo piano with a solo crotale piece highlights a contrast and a similarity: the crotales are reverberant, too, but refreshingly high. Again, the moving is constant, but the repetition of pitches and their ringing creates a captivating cloud of beating overtones. The effect is marvelous.

The second part, “Desert Life”, brings the features of the desert into focus. It starts with contemporaneous contrast: a layer of soft microtonal gongs is paired with aggressive low music on the piano. The second part of this section utilizes repeating cells, at different speeds, at first up, then down. High tinkling on the piano and in the metals is followed by a movement unlike the others: knocking on the piano while playing the keyboard, providing a darker image of the desert.

A return to reverberant piano chords that swell and regress marks the beginning of the third part, “Desert Weather”. The second part of this section begins with a true bassline, taking advantage of the more sinister sounds of the piano, including those found inside of the piano. At the end of the piece, Byrne again uses registral contrast: a bright and sprightly duo for crotales and piano in the upper register.

A minimalist approach is evident throughout the piece but the patterns seem to be about the way the sound and interaction of the instruments evoke the landscape rather than about mathematics or meditation.

Also on the CD are Tracks, a Ligeti-like work for solo piano and Fata Morgana: Mirages on the Horizon, a piece written in 2007 for prepared piano. Both of these display a post-minimalist approach similar to White Bone Country, creating attractive cellular patterns with rhythmic interplay and exploring timbral and registral contrasts.

Even though much of the music on this CD is metered, the sound world is expansive. It’s as though the music progresses like water in a river: sometimes rushing forward at a steady pace, sometimes swirling in eddies, circling around itself, but always moving and always changing. It could seem ironic that water is the image that came to mind in a desert landscape, but perhaps the oasis metaphor is apt: this is an attractive CD that listeners who enjoy rhythmic interplay, bright sounds, and pattern music played well will find refreshing.