United States Of America


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United States Of America, 8/10
American Metaphysical Circus, 7/10
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(Translated from my old Italian text by Nicholas Green and slightly expanded by me in 2024)

In the 1960s, American universities were teeming with Andy Warhol-esque artists who sought to break down existing barriers between the arts. Early performance artists, in close contact with underground musicians, fostered the development of avant-garde methods, particularly electronic techniques that were better suited as backdrops to their spectacles.

Joseph Byrd (originally from Kentucky) had just completed his music studies at Stanford when he moved to New York in 1960 where he fell under the spell of John Cage. He had also performed as an amateur country musician and as a jazz vibraphonist. In New York he followed, as an arranger and producer, the experiments of avant-garde composers such as Richard Maxwell; occasionally he also tried his hand at composition. He and LaMonte Young held their first concert at Yoko Ono's loft on Bank Street.

Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1963 (with Dorothy Moskowitz) as a teaching assistant at UCLA, he began to take an interest in Indian music and enrolled in a course on acoustics and psychology of music at UCLA. He also formed an avantgarde group with future jazz trumpeter Don Ellis, then a fellow student of Indian music, while Moskowitz learned the art of Indian singing from Gayathri Rajapur. In 1965 Byrd and Moskowitz were living in Santa Monica near where the Doors and Frank Zappa lived. In 1966 Byrd left UCLA to devote himself to performance and composition. With this considerable wealth of experience and ideas he picked out a group of students and formed The United States of America. With Gordon Marron on electric violin and ring modulator (custom built by Byrd's friend Tom Oberheim), Rand Forbes on electric bass, Craig Woodson on (electrified) drums and percussion, and Byrd himself on keyboards (piano, organ, harpsichord, Moog) and tapes, together they formed one of the most original ensembles of the time. The success of the Monterey Pop Festival indirectly helped the group find a recording contract (even before they played their first gig).

Their only recorded output from this period is an eponymous album from 1968. The music on this album is highly experimental and spotlights four remarkable personalities: singer Dorothy Moskowitz, who serves in a way as the Nico of the outfit (but with a vocal range closer to Grace Slick); percussionist Craig Woodson, seized by frequent fits of extravagance; jazz bassist Rand Forbes; and electric violinist Gordon Marron, vacillating between blues scales and dissonance. Joseph Byrd composes, arranges, edits, and plays electronic keyboards.
The United States Of America (CBS, 1968 - reissued by Sundazed, 2004) consists of ten songs that straddle the line between refined electronic burlesque and psychedelic experimentalism. They draw on all styles and set the music to lyrics that are caustic towards American mores, but with a touch of pictorial lyricism unknown to any other group.
This album's sound draws from the repertoire of urban folk music (fairground band, carillon, street organ, etc.) in stratospheric lullabies accompanied by detuned violins and organs (The American Metaphysical Circus) and in the strange harmonic mixtures of certain surreal scenes (the disoriented big-band jazz of I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar with electronic effects in place of horns). At other times it springs from acidic hybrids somewhere between the flights of Jefferson Airplane (the trippy anthem Garden Of Earthly Delights), the paroxysms of the Doors (Hard Coming Love, the most "drawn out" track, with a Manzarek-esque organ), the Electric Prunes' Mass in F Minor, and the "total music" of Zappa (the classical Stranded In Time, with clarinet and vaudeville organ; the Japanese dirge Cloud Song for sparsely scattered percussion and mantric soprano).
All sources merge and sublimate in the frenetic finale, The American Way Of Love, a mosaic of folk quotations and experimentation. This superb music-hall alternates between hard-rock psychedelia, musique concrète passages (from army band to church services, from ragtime to tap-dancing), electronic abstractions, and spatial echoes; it is a tumult of sonic events that condenses the musical culture of the American nation into seven minutes.

The American Metaphysical Circus (CBS, 1969) is also the title of Byrd's second album, released the following year and credited to Joe Byrd & The Field Hippies. Byrd can now count on a very large and well-prepared lineup, a group divided into four sections (strings, woodwinds, brass, and vocals) with four musicians each.
Moreover, the disc is itself divided into four sections, all of them striking a mood somewhere between the cerebral and the bacchanal. These four strongly contrasting suites start from rather slight themes before expounding on ingenious harmonic paths, between consumerist parodies, electronic sketches and perfect period reconstructions: The Sub-Sylvian Litanies, i.e. the Indian prayer Kalyani, which ends up being ripped apart by electronic disturbances, the Grace Slick-ian funk-psychedelia of You Can't Ever Come Down, and the soft impressionistic watercolor of Moonsong: Pelog, with echoes of 1950s kitsch; American Bedmusic, with the delicate cabaret melody Patriot's Lullabye, the relentless, farcical funk of Nightmare Train (urban symphonism, Zappaesque doggerel, lowlife jazz), the psychedelic organ blues of Invisible Man, and the crackling 78 rpm 1920s jazz of Mister 4th Of July; then the instrumental Gospel Music for Abraham Ruddell Byrd III (solemn organ with impromptu piano and Salvation Army tuba counterpoint); finally, The Southwestern Geriatrics Arts And Crafts Festival, opening and closing with variations on the jingle Sing-Along Song (for student band, for jazz trumpet, for Parisian accordion, for piano bar, for light music orchestra, for a cappella choir), alongside the acidic and bombastic "slickian" invective of The Elephant At The Door (lysergic improvised instrumental interludes and pompous horns).

Joseph Byrd's contributions to underground music are slim and unrecognized, but, with the charm of little things in good taste, they fit into the nobler spirit of that repudiation of genre which remains the most important message left by the experimental hotbed of the New York underground.

Joseph Byrd's "classical" compositions are collected on NYC 1960-1963 (New World, 2013): Animals (1961) for prepared piano and six strings or percussions; Loops & Sequences (1961) for cello and piano; Three Aphorisms (1960) for solo prepared piano; Densities I (1962) for viola and four treble instruments; Four Sound Poems (1962) for vocals; String Trio (1962) for violin, viola, and cello; Water Music (1963) for electronic sounds and percussion.

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