Bridges of Pearl and Dust   CB0057

The music

Bridges of Pearl and Dust (2011) iscomplex, luminous, virtuosic music for four vibraphones. Polyrhythmic and contrapuntal, it rings out with both inevitability and surprise as it moves through a series of beautiful harmonies. Its ever-busy, continuous activity seems also to share space with a distinct sense of motionlessness. The composer writes, “With its tightly interwoven texture . . . Bridges of Pearl and Dust is a music about one thing: It points toward a musical experience in the present tense; the burden of anticipation is lifted, and drama, along with its potential for surprise, is abandoned.” For this recording, L.A. percussionist-composer Ben Phelps performs all four vibraphone parts.

This release is part of Cold Blue Music’s series of CD singles (begun in the early 1980s with a series of vinyl EPs)—one-course musical meals that are fully satisfying by themselves. The press has taken note of this series: “Cold Blue Music’s singles [are] a medium that the label does better than everyone else. . . . The idea is to offer a single work and to let it stand on its own, rather than making it share space with other music, and perhaps diminishing its impact on the listener. Less is more, Cold Blue Music seems to say. . . . It’s nice to know that not everything needs to be stretched or padded, and that a 20-minute work can be sufficient unto itself.” (Fanfare magazine) “Cold Blue . . . not only puts out albums with a unified profile but also makes use of the much-neglected, much-needed CD single format.” (Los Angeles Times) “Cold Blue’s series of CD singles is an extremely welcome and refreshingly daring experiment . . . and for this they deserve a great deal of credit.” (Sequenza21) “One of the most exciting innovations in the recording and marketing of modern composition . . . [is] Cold Blue Music’s series of ‘singles’—a new, minimalist or post-minimalist work . . . premiered on its own disc in the label’s usual beautiful packaging.” (Igloo Magazine)

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 materials: “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. In 1973, he cofounded, with David Rosenboom and Jackie Humbert, the Toronto-based multidisciplinary performance art group Maple Sugar. A few years later, he 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 projects for La Monte Young, Robert Ashley, and others. During the 1970s, Byron edited and published three volumes of Pieces, a journal of scores (including works by Budd, Ashley, Marion Brown, Philip Corner, Garland, Lou Harrison, Daniel Lentz, Alvin Lucier, and others), and edited Journal of Experimental Aesthetics. Byron’s music has been performed and recorded by such notable musicians as Sarah Cahill, Joseph Kubera, William Winant, FLUX Quartet, Kathleen Supové, Thomas Buckner, and other new-music champions. Recordings of Byron’s music have been released by Cold Blue Music (appearing on six previous Cold Blue CDs: CB0054, 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. (

“[Byron is] one of those contemporary composers who can justifiably be classed as crucial” (Julian Cowley, The Wire) “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 performer

Ben Phelps is a Los Angeles–based composer, percussionist, and new-music advocate whose work has been called “impressive” (Los Angeles Times) and “enchanting” (LA Weekly). He is a managing director of the new-music event and performance collective What’s Next? and founder of the B Band ensemble. As a percussionist—whom the Huffpost called “a magician of the marimba”—he has performed and collaborated with many composers and new-music performers, including Steve Reich, Thomas Adès, Michael Gordon, and John Adams. In addition to his work in new music, he has traveled the world as an assistant conductor for Lord of the Rings Live (score performed live with the film), and his orchestration of Nino Rota’s ballet La Strada is in repertoire at the Gärtnerplatztheater (Munich).


“The various rhythms working at the same time provide a fine sound color…. I would not have minded if this was twice as long…. This is lovely work!” —Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly

“Often enough you hear a shading of New Music with a hint of the trajectory of Avant Jazz in Byron’s works, and that is so here. It is a series of multi-articulated rigorously notated arpeggiated interlocking rootsy tonal-diatonic lines that have a modal-pentatonic base implication, but not strictly in some formulaic way. The music switches pitch centers now and again to keep ultra-fresh and in the end it all makes wonderfully perfect sense. The 15-minute span is just about right—so you go away revived and immersed. Good music. Listen.” —Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

“A piece for vibraphone, with minimalist elements, yet traveling and changing. Play!”WRUV Reviews

“There is nothing more satisfying than a well-planned and flawlessly executed return, a grand-scale resolution of events which shock, rebound and shock again as they fan outward and, ultimately, homeward. Michael Byron is a master of such long-form intricacies, and 2011’s Bridges of Pearl and Dust, composed for four vibraphones and here performed by Ben Phelps, is no exception.

“The fifteen-minute piece ends where it begins, and it is in no way unique in doing so. What happens during the journey is what sets it and Byron’s music apart from so many other works relying on the return trip as a point of resolution. To say that Byron has woven a polyrhythmic tapestry, or that he constructs contrapuntal latticework, would be true but inadvertently misleading, or at best an understatement. I have never heard the semi-static but constantly morphing harmonies of that untamed beast we’ll call “minimalism” for the sake of convenience and post-Webernian pointillism in quite the way he manages the combination. He doesn’t construct modes, or at least a mode isn’t apparent at all times, though modality—and what a fashionable concept at this time—is present. Unfortunately for the uninitiated and unprepared, this is a music where tonality, pulse and their opposites blur in delicate but complex contrast. If the music spreads and contracts, as did the first movement of Bartok’s famous 1936 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, it should go without saying that Byron’s language and grasp of structure are completely different. Melody, as conventionally understood, is subservient to layers formed in the interstices of slowly evolving melodic line and rhythm. Tension is maintained throughout, making each harmonic shift a miniature point of calm in a subtly evolving system of transformation.

“Phelps is the perfect guide. His attention to harmonic and timbral detail ensures that melodic consideration is not buried by the flurry of notes going by every second. His overdubbed performance is nothing short of breathtaking, and this is yet another wonderful addition to Cold Blue Music’s catalog.”—Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine [Five Stars]

“Cold Blue Music has released Bridges of Pearl and Dust, a new CD single by composer Michael Byron. The latest in a series of his scintillating musical constructions, this newest piece is summarized in the liner notes as: ‘Polyrhythmic and contrapuntal, it rings out with both inevitability and surprise as it moves through a series of beautiful harmonies.’ With a running time just under 16 minutes, Bridges of Pearl and Dustis nevertheless a full listening experience with dense textures, intricate rhythms, and rich harmony. Scored for four vibraphones, this recording features the brilliant playing of Los Angeles-based percussionist Ben Phelps in what can only be described as a virtuosic performance of all four overdubbed parts.

Bridges of Pearl and Dust opens in a series of repeating phrases in different registers with rhythms that patter and splash like so many syncopated rain drops. There is a liquid feel to this, the sound is always in motion, yet at the same time static in its repetition. As with other Michael Byron works, this is music that mesmerizes—like watching the surf roll onto a beach, seemingly the same in aggregate, but with each individual phrase slightly different. The chord changes that occur regularly propel the piece with a sense of the wondrously mystical. Intricate polyrhythmic phrases ebb and flow, sometimes sounding in a fine counterpoint and at other times cresting and surging almost organically in sumptuous harmony. The sound has the grandeur often heard in the ringing of cathedral bells, albeit faster and in a higher register.

“Other Byron works in this series have featured the piano, violins, and harp. The vibraphone in this piece brings a dreamy, magical feel that is equally transcendent and welcoming. The playing of Ben Phelps is extraordinary, especially in view of the fact that four parts—all in different registers and rhythms—were overdubbed for the recording. The precision of the finished product is impressive.

“Although now based in New York, Byron was born in Los Angeles and became part of a new music scene that included with such luminaries as James Tenney and Harold Budd. At this point in the twenty-first century, new music is fragmented: there are strands that reflect the anxious complexity of the times, the exploration of experimental techniques, and the freedom of alternate tuning systems. Byron’s compositions weave together the strands of high complexity and the experimental to create music that is idealistic, accepting, and optimistic. Although created from economical musical materials, Byron’s pieces invariably spark the imagination, engage the listener and challenge the performer. Bridges of Pearl and Dustis squarely within a body of work that deserves wider recognition.”—Paul Muller, Sequenza21

“[On] Michael Byron’s Bridges of Pearl and Dust . . . all four vibraphone parts are performed by Ben Phelps, meaning that the recording itself is a product of studio overdubbing techniques. Because the structure of Bridges of Pearl and Dust involves an elaborate fabric of polyrhythms, I suspect that one would be hard pressed to tell the difference between this studio product and a “live” performance by four vibraphone players. The music is all “about” the interplay of the pitches associated with rhythmic motifs and the counterpoint that emerges through that interplay.

“The intricacy of the resulting fabric calls for highly focused attentive listening. Byron seems to have found a “sweet spot” in an overall duration of roughly fifteen minutes. Had the performance been longer, even the most focused consciousness would probably begin to run the risk of “tuning out” due to the onset of fatigue. Where my own listening is concerned, Byron successfully dodged that bullet. . . . “ —Stephen Smoliar, The Rehearsal Studio 

“Already the creator/focus of other interesting Cold Blue Music releases, Michael Byron returns with an EP in which we are presented with a vibraphone composition totaling about sixteen minutes in duration. In the cover notes, Byron states that the purpose of this work is to provide the listener with an experience focused on the present, without any emotional baggage due to memories of the past or anticipations of the future. The composer succeeds perfectly in his intent, creating a fluid, expanding tapestry of sound, starting from polyrhythmic lines that stretch and contract without heading in a specific direction. The piece remains the same and yet changing, pervaded by a feeling of well-being that benefits from the round and ringing sounds of the vibraphone, excellently played by Ben Phelps.” —Kathodik (Italy)

“For a number of years, composer Michael Byron has been on Exposé’s radar, beginning with his 2003 full length release Awakening at the Inn of the Birds, and more recently 2019’s Fabric for String Noise and the 2015 single In the Village of Hope, always completely surprising music (all are completely stylistically different) but thoroughly excellent. His second release of 2019, Bridges of Pearl and Dust . . . is a complex, contrapuntal and polyrythmic workout for four vibraphones, all performed by Los Angeles-based percussionist Ben Phelps. The piece is at once busy and peaceful, a tightly interwoven fabric of sounds that may seem random on a casual listen, but surely is tightly and beautifully composed, shifting melodic colors sparkling from the heavens in a perfect performance, and there are many masterful points where key changes occur that underscore the brilliance of it all. If the listener allows themselves to be immersed in the wonder of it all, it may be reminiscent of a soft suite of Javanese gamelan, though there is little cadence here, it just flows throughout very naturally. The listener can choose to pick out the four vibraphone parts if they like, but it’s never completely clear which parts are leading and which are following, perhaps none of them are doing either, but from a listener’s standpoint it all works together like a finely tuned machine, offering a variety of different views to the core of the overall texture. Another comparison might be with La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano, though slowed down and truncated. Any way one experiences the sound, Bridges of Pearl and Dust has a lot to offer the listener that welcomes a challenge, though it must be restated that what’s on offer here is completely listenable, and quite beautiful.” —Peter Thelan, Exposé

“Composer Michael Byron has a long and storied history with Jim Fox’s Cold Blue label, a near twenty-year timespan that has seen the two release some truly marvelous sounds together. This fifteen-minute soliloquy of transcendent vibes marks one of three recent entries in Cold Blue’s series of CD EP editions. Performed by vibraphonist Ben Phelps, what on surface appears to be mere improvisational vamping soon reveals itself as a sturdy, and studied, work of crystalline gamelan, dewy and golden-eyed, the rush of timbres and cascading notes resembling a chorus of suspended chimes played by heavenly winds. Phelps renders such a rich palette of textures in seemingly effortless fashion, so nimble and light of touch one can visualize the striking of plush candy-colored mallets across his index of metals. Simply a marvelous piece of minimalist, prismatic, neo-chamber music.” —Darren Bergstein, Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter

“The complex … pattern of notes feels like a refreshing summer rain.” —Peter van Cooten, Ambientblog

“One of the best things about Cold Blue’s singles series is that in featuring a single piece the work’s impact isn’t diluted by the presence of others. That’s particularly true in the case of Byron’s Bridges of Pearl and Dust, a single-movement setting for four vibraphones performed by LA-based percussionist-composer Ben Phelps. In Byron’s own words (displayed on the package’s inner sleeve), Bridges of Pearl and Dust is music ‘about one thing: It points toward a musical experience in the present tense; the burden of anticipation is lifted, and drama, along with its potential for surprise, is abandoned.’ Even with the density that accrues from the multi-layering of the vibraphone, the work exudes a luminosity and even grandeur in its ever-glimmering flow. The harmonic splendor of the presentation accounts in part for the recording’s appeal, as do the intricate intertwining of the four vibraphones and the polyrhythmic feel of the music. Interlocking patterns generate a prismatic effect, much like flickers of light glistening within a darkened space, and insistent forward momentum is created by the uninterrupted stream of sound. Recordings of material by the LA-born and NYC-based Byron have appeared on six previous Cold Blue releases; this seventh is an excellent addition to a significant body of work that impresses as both a separate collection of recordings and as a microcosm of the label’s entire output.” —Ron Schepper, Textura 

“This CD single features Bridges of Pearl and Dust, a 16-minute four-vibraphone work by ‘second-generation West Coast minimalist’ American composer Michael Byron. It’s dense, contrapuntal and polyrhythmic music which generously rewards repeated listening.

“I first met the Los Angeles-raised Byron at Toronto’s York University around 1973. He came to study composition with American Richard Teitelbaum, as well as to teach music. Byron had already studied with maverick composer James Tenney in LA, and had formed close musical friendships with influential post-modernist, minimalist composers Harold Budd and Peter Garland. At York Byron worked closely with music professor, composer, musician and biofeedback-music pioneer David Rosenboom. Very quickly Byron became an integral member of the vibrant mid-1970s Toronto avant-garde performing arts community. Byron moved to New York City a few years later, and there too found an influential place in the downtown experimental music scene.

“Byron’s compositions are marked by those varied influences, yet even his earliest works project a unique musical voice. One reviewer called it “shimmering minimalism.” The four vibraphones in Bridges of Pearl and Dust(2011), all played with élan by LA percussionist Ben Phelps, combine to express a complex, harmonically shifting sound field. Challenged on the first listening, I replayed the album four times. Over time, the logic and aesthetics of Byron’s musical imagination were revealed.

“Filled with rhythmically percolating, interpenetrating melodic lines, the resulting tightly interwoven texture elicits, as the composer aptly put it, ‘a musical experience in the present tense.’ And as I found out, one which richly rewards deep listening.” —Andrew Timar, The WholeNote(Canada)