Fabric for String Noise   CB0051

The music

Fabric for String Noise, Parts 1 and 2 (2018), composed for New York’s notable violin duo String Noise, is wildly virtuosic music that is unlike just about anything else ever written for two violins. This two-movement work, a tremendous (and relentless) river of complex lines, may be said to resemble a sort of universal folk music of madly driven ecstasy, a sonic canvas wherein intense continuous activity shares space with an overarching sense of motionlessness.

The composer characterizes Fabric for String Noise as a “sound object” that is “tangible, compact, and marked by extreme polyrhythmic complexity and intricate contrapuntal textures,” noting that it utilizes “only the higher registers of the violin, sharpening the music’s edge and crystalizing the perceptual object.”

Dragon Rite (1973) is a haunting, slowly unfolding low-frequency texture for four double basses, occasionally utilizing quarter-tones and quiet harmonics that ever-so-slightly poke out of its rich mass. It was recorded for this album via overdubs by Los Angeles bassist James Bergman. Dedicated to poet Philip Lamantia, Dragon Rite seems to continuously change the listener’s perspective while at the same time remaining unchanged.

Taken as a whole, this album offers an interesting overview of a 45-year span of Byron’s work. Throughout that time, he has shown a fascination with drawing together and/or placing side by side seemingly at-odds minimalist and maximalist techniques, as well as sound worlds of immersive beauty and wild virtuosic abandon.

The composer

Michael Byron‘s music tends to be harmonically rich, rhythmically detailed, and extremely virtuosic. It is often praised for its ability to create uniquely dense constructions out of relatively limited means: “Byron creates maximalist effect out of minimalist means.” (ClassicalNet) “One is reminded…of the mobiles of Alexander Calder, which are both fixed and moving. And, like Calder’s work, Byron’s music is immediately comprehensible and beautiful, while it remains experimental.” (San Francisco Bay Guardian) “Byron’s music, like Ligeti’s, is instantly recognizable, perceptually challenging, beautifully proportioned and deeply satisfying.” (Paris Transatlantic)

Los Angeles–born Byron’s life as a composer began to take shape in 1971, when his path crossed those of composers James Tenney, Richard Teitelbaum, Peter Garland, and Harold Budd, all of whom would become his lifelong musical friends. Moving to Toronto in 1973, he cofounded, with David Rosenboom and Jackie Humbert, the multidisciplinary performance art group Maple Sugar. A few years later, Byron moved to New York City, where he worked on the periphery of the art rock/punk/noise music scene, performing in new music clubs with Rhys Chatham and others. At the same time, he was frequently engaged as a copyist and editor on various projects for La Monte Young, Robert Ashley, Lukas Foss, and others. During the 1970s, Byron edited and published three volumes of Pieces, a journal of scores (including works by Robert Ashley, Marion Brown, Harold Budd, Philip Corner, Peter Garland, Malcolm Goldstein, Lou Harrison, Daniel Lentz, Alvin Lucier, and others), and edited Journal of Experimental Aesthetics. Byron’s own scores are published by Frog Peak Music. Recordings of his music have been released by Cold Blue Music (appearing on five previous Cold Blue CDs: CB0043, CB0012, CB0008, CB0005, and CB0003), New World Records, Poon Village Records, Art into Life, Neutral Records, Tellus, Meridian Records, and Koch Records. He lives with his wife, poet Anne Tardos, in New York City. 

Music critic Julian Cowley, writing recently for The Wire, called Michael Byron “one of those contemporary composers who can justifiably be classed as crucial.” 

“Byron’s music dances with tremulous iridescence.” (Julian Cowley, The Wire)

“Byron’s music . . . can sway in the direction of shimmering minimalism, or turn to a more rigorous and near-frantic method of composition. Hot and cold, high and low.” (Incursion Music Review)

The performers

String Noise is the classical, “avant-punk” duo of violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris. New music champions since its inception in 2011, at the Ostrava Center for New Music’s Ostrava Days, String Noise has expanded the two-violin repertoire by more than 50 new works, including collaborations with multimedia art, electronics, video projections, opera, and dance. Premieres by String Noise include works by Christian Wolff, John King, Phill Niblock, Caleb Burhans, David Lang, Petr Kotik, Du Yun, Annie Gosfield, Bernhard Lang, Spencer Topel, Derek Hurst, Elizabeth Hoffman, John Zorn, Greg Saunier, Alex Mincek, Yoon-Ji Lee, Catherine Lamb, Petr Bakla, Richard Carrick, Alvin Lucier, and many others. Co-concertmasters of Wordless Music Orchestra, Ensemble LPR, and the S.E.M. Ensemble, String Noise has collaborated in special projects with such artists as Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), John Cale (Velvet Underground), Tyondai Braxton, Billy Martin (Medeski Martin & Wood), Mica Levi (Micachu and the Shapes), Jon Brion, Laurie Anderson, Jason Moran, Roscoe Mitchell, Max Richter, and Rostam (Vampire Weekend). The duo’s first feature album, The Book of Strange Positions (Eric Lyon’s arrangements of music by Bad Brains, Violent Femmes, Deerhoof, Radiohead, and Black Flag), was released by Northern Spy Records in November 2015.

Press comments about String Noise: “a trailblazing duo” (TimeOut New York); “a formidable display of virtuosity” (NewMusicBox); “lightning fast reflexes and warmly matched sounds” (The New York Times); “greeted with a thundering ovation more common for American Idols than classical musicians” (Huffington Post); “New York’s most daring violin duo” (TimeOut New York).

James Bergman is an active Los Angeles bassist who graduated from the Juilliard School, where he studied with bassist David Walter. Bergman recorded and toured with Tirez Tirez and the Mikel Rouse Broken Consort, performing at such venues as the Kitchen and the Bang on a Can Festival. He has also performed at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco and with the Princeton Composers Ensemble. As an orchestra player, he regularly performs with the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and has been a member of the San Jose Symphony, Santa Barbara Symphony, and other orchestras. He has recorded for the Cold Blue (including Christopher Roberts’s virtuosic double bass works, Trios for Deep Voices, as well as music by Gavin Bryars and Jim Fox), Dreamworks, Rough Trade, Sire, Cuneiform, Crammed/Made to Measure, Les Disques du Crépescule, Pentatone, and Reprise record labels.



“Morton Feldman was fascinated by the patterns in rugs; Michael Byron obviously shares Feldman’s deep attachment to pattern and interweaving but via the metaphor of fabric. Fabric for String Noise and Dragon Rite present vastly different but equally powerful views of pattern in flux, of the stages of patterns developing in delicately raw tandem and adding up to more than their component parts.

“To cite Byron’s melding of asymmetrical  pattern repetition as less overtly deliberate than Feldman’s is certainly to imply no pejorative. Both composers place listeners in the middle of events that have been unfolding in some hypothetical heretofore, but Fabric slams into existence. Like Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, the dynamic level and resulting tensions are relatively high and maintain their altitude. Repetitions transform irregularly but at lightning speed, exuding a sweet toxicity, as though steam were rising from a strong draught String Noise violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris are more than capable of brewing. Their synchronous approach renders tone, mode and the way both morph readily apparent while never overshadowed by any one gesture. I hate to give away the plot, but the final ascent and linked dyads, bringing the second part to its stunning conclusion, are so beautifully realized that I simply had to mention them. 

“The earlier Dragon Rite is similar only in that linked repetitions govern its motion and development, but the effect, or affect, resides in another sphere. While String Noise is recorded in stark stereophonic contrast, bassist Jim Bergman’s multitracked rendering of Dragon Rite is subtle but visceral, as if each tone arose from a point closer or farther away from the listener, quite the engineering marvel on headphones. Mostly in the instrument’s lower register, occasional and ethereal ghost tones radiate from higher and more distant planes, the whole acquiring a sense of the tactile, each frequency of each bowed timbre ebbing and flowing in and out of focus.

“That Cold Blue can keep releasing music of such originality and intrigue that also works on an emotional level, with neither compromise nor condescension, is to label owner Jim Fox’s credit. The fact that each release is performed and recorded with such obvious commitment and expertise makes reviewing them a highly anticipated pleasure.” —Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine

“Two compositions by Michael Byron separated by an interval of 45 years. The title of the album is Fabric for String Noise, which is also the title of a two-movement composition that Byron completed last year. The earlier composition is Dragon Rite, completed in 1973.

“As titles go, Fabric for String Noise serves as an excellent model for ‘truth in advertising.’ The piece was written for the violin duo String Noise, whose members are Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris. The music itself provides about as thick a polyphonic experience as one is likely to encounter from only two four-stringed instruments. Furthermore, the rhythms are equally complex, almost to the point that any sense of pattern arises more of the repetition of pitch sequences than from the durations of any of the individual notes. By all rights, the ‘weaving of this fabric’ must have demanded meticulous attention to the finest of details; yet the overall experience is one of an almost ecstatic approach to jamming, not unlike the wildly free improvisations that John Coltrane could unfold when he started pursuing religious topics for his compositions towards the end of his life. (Think, for example, of The Father And The Son and The Holy Ghost from his Meditations album.)

“While Fabric for String Noise requires both violinists to play extremely high-register pitches, Dragon Rite was composed for four basses. The piece was dedicated to the poet Philip Lamantia; and, while the textures woven by the four parts are again thick, there is much less of a sense of tension. This is due, to a great extent, to a more homophonic approach to the contrapuntal techniques that are deployed…. In contrast to Fabric for String Noise, the homophony of Dragon Rite does not establish a sense of voices in polyphony playing off against each other.

“It would be fair to advise those interested in experiencing this album, however, that the entire duration is about half an hour…. Nevertheless, quality always counts for more than quantity. There is so much on this album that is likely to expand just about anyone’s scope of listening experience that it would be churlish to quibble about overall duration!” —Stephen Smoliar, The Rehearsal Studio

“Here we have two pieces for two violins and one for double bass. The two violins are played by a duo who call themselves String Noise…. [P]erhaps it is the word ‘noise’ used here that got me thinking differently about the music. Cold Blue Music isn’t known for their releases that some people might call noise music. Actually far from it…. The fierce act on the higher registers of the violin has a slightly unnerving character. It plays around with another notion that Cold Blue Music is known for, and that is minimalism; even in this hectic and chaotic playing, phrases keep returning and popping up, with slightly different changes. It is acoustic and yet it is also quite noisy, especially within the higher frequency range. As a contrast, we get Dragon Rite as the third piece, a slow and low double bass piece, played by James Bergman…. [O]minous slow textured and atmospheric music…. As a contrasting piece of music it works very well. This is an excellent CD.”—Vital Weekly [Netherlands]

Fabric for String Noise is the title of a new CD by Michael Byron, just released on the Cold Blue Music label. Much like Byron’s 2018 album, the ultraviolet of many parallel paths, this new CD combines rhythmic complexity, a brilliantly faceted texture and a high level of performance virtuosity…. New York-based String Noise duo bravely undertakes this two-movement piece with startling results. A second work, Dragon Rite, completes the CD and is performed by James Bergman on double bass.

Fabric for String Noise, Part 1 opens with short, rapid phrases in both parts that are independent, yet vividly intertwined in an intricately angular texture. The high register gives the many notes a keen edge, and the sound flows and swirls around the listener like a river of tiny glass shards. For all of that, there is an uplifting feel to the underlying harmonies that is reminiscent of Asian music and this effectively defuses any tension. There is no overall structure apparent, this piece is completely in the moment and has the uncanny ability to be both dynamic and static at the same time—the sonic equivalent of a splashing waterfall. The violin playing here by Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris is nothing short of heroic, with a deeply intuitive sense of ensemble.

Fabric for String Noise, Part 2 follows the same rhythmic format. The register is now a bit lower and a generous number of double-stopped notes serve to increase the complexity and add to the harmony.  In contrast to the optimism of the opening movement, this greater density evokes a sense of gravitas and produces a somewhat darker tone. The calm, settled feel is now gradually replaced by a frenetic tension. About halfway through, the color darkens still further, with a noticeable tightness in the fast passages and pitches that rise to a razor sharpness, cutting at the ear. “Part II” is now completely changed in color and sensibility becoming a scream of outright anguish. The texture thins just a bit at the finish before the sounds finally cease. Both movements of Fabric for String Noise represent incredible virtuosity in both the compositional structure and the dynamic performances. Where does Michael Byron find such inspiration—and such talented musicians?

Dragon Rite completes the CD and immediately conjures a raw, primal image with a series of deep growls that emanate from the lowermost registers of Bergman’s double bass. Four layers are heard, each adding to the rough texture along with, according to the liner notes, “quarter tones and quiet harmonics that ever-so-slightly poke out of its rich mass.” Dragons come easily to mind from this music. Although this piece dates from 1973 it bears a clear resemblance to Fabric for String Noise in that both are in constant motion rhythmically yet static in structure. Dragon Rite operates in the lower reaches of the string instrument family, but betrays the essential characteristics of Byron’s latest work for violins.” —Paul Muller, Sequenza21

“String Noise is the name of the ‘Classical, avant-punk violin duo’ (as per their website) Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris, and Fabric is one of the newest of over 50 works written for them. They throw off its tightly woven micro-polyphony and polyrhythmic intricacies with jaw-dropping virtuosity, all the more remarkably since the music sticks to the very highest register of the instruments. Running for 21 minutes, this is taxing for both players and listeners, yet compels attention. Even better is Dragon Rite, operating at the other extreme of the string family’s range and adding quarter-tones to the mix.” —Gramophone

“Cold Blue Records is a central place to explore the world beyond Minimalism. Radical Tonality is the niche where much of the music on this adventuresome label resides. Yet even then, if you do not know Michael Byron’s music you may not be prepared for what you will hear on his new release for the label, Fabric for String Noise (Cold Blue CB0054).  Two Byron works comprise the EP at hand, Fabric for String Noise in two parts and Dragon Rite.

“What might surprise you if you do not know his compositional way is heard very readily in the title piece, Fabric for String Noise. The entity String Noise is the twin violins of Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris. Byron calls for them to build up a musical menagerie of twittering conferences of aviatory violins via pentatonic-diatonic double stops and rapid figurations around several shifting tone motifs. The result is a soulful trip into a heaven-sent cacophony of multiple voices that have the immediacy of some of the Free Improv flights that achieved levitation, such as Coltrane’s classic Ascension or some of Alan Silva’s wonderful large group works. It is a journey into the Radical Tonality world in the way it stays with a serial set of motives as the springboard for the sound sculpting. It is a most delightful trip!

Dragon Rite takes an opposite tack in that it is built out of the low-register bowed sustains of James Bergman’s double bass. Where Fabric is high-registered, Dionysian, mercurial and ever moving, Dragon is a block of low pitched, Apollonian stasis, slowly deep.

“It is music that takes you into a special world and has its vision, then is gone. Michael Byron has a special way about him musically. Try this one and see where it takes you. It is a happy listen if you open to it like I did.” —Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review 

“The two compositions of Michael Byron contained in this new CD from the Cold Blue Music label could not be more different from each other. Fabric for String Noise, for two violins, is, in fact, a hyperactive piece, built on the polyrhythmic interweaving of themes punctuated by violins in the highest registers, repeated obsessively, without interruption. A test of fire for the two musicians, but also for the listeners, who are invited to an unusual perceptive experience, whose effect ranges between the alienating and the ecstatic. We are not far from some early experiments by Steve Reich, although here we are undoubtedly hearing the theoretical made physical. A completely different work is Dragon Rite, for four double basses, which changes not only the timbre but also the register (now very low). Here we are, in fact, dealing with music that evolves slowly, its magma-like layers of sound creating an enveloping and mysterious spatial effect. The two pieces are somewhat complementary, and they both illustrate the post-minimalist poetics of this interesting composer.” —Kathodik (Italy)

Fabric for String Noise…is a demanding two-movement composition, with lines that twist around each other in a rigorously sustained upper register, pricking the ears like sharp thorns on a vine. It’s bracing and hypnotic all at once.” —Steve Dollar, National Sawdust Log 

The LA-born and NYC-based Byron composed Fabric for String Noise for String Noise violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris, and the two respond in kind by giving the twenty-one-minute piece a virtuosic reading others would be hard to match. Though only two instruments are involved, the unrelenting swirl of keening, folk-tinged lines the duo generates suggests a multitude of voices, especially when the composition’s marked by polyrhythmic complexity and intricate counterpoint. Paradoxically, the material churns with no small amount of animation yet ultimately feels like it’s less advancing than spinning wildly in place, the image of a hive buzzing with activity or sword fighters engaged in a vicious duel are two of many possible visual correlates. Byron’s own observation that staying within the violin’s higher registers has the effect of ‘sharpening the music’s edge and crystallizing the perceptual object’ is apt; there’s certainly no lack of tension. The transition from the opening piece to the second feels like a plummet from on high, so extreme are the contrasts in pitches and velocity. Occasionally employing quarter-tones, Dragon Rite [the release’s other setting…the first recording of a 1973 Byron piece whose four parts were realized by LA-based double bassist James Bergman] moves like a whale, its bulk so great it tends to make its slow movement seem even slower. Bergman’s bowed double basses groan and lurch for eight, deep-throated minutes with the slightly higher-pitched layer of the four hinting at a melodic dimension.” —Ron Schepper,Textura

“Michael Byron’s Fabric for String Noise is … a two-part duet for violins that sounds chaotic at first until you register the complexity of its contrapuntal structure, at which point it becomes completely fascinating. While it’s energetic and harmonically astringent, the work is not at all aggressive or shrill; instead, it flickers and twinkles with restless energy. The second work on this album is for four double basses (multitracked by a single player for this recording), and is much quieter, darker, and more foreboding—though no less beautiful.” —CD Hotlist