Joseph Byrd

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For other people named Joseph Byrd, see Joseph Byrd (disambiguation).
Joseph Byrd
Joseph Byrd c 1968.jpg
Joseph Byrd, circa 1968
Background information
Birth name Joseph Hunter Byrd
Also known as Joe Byrd
Born (1937-12-19) December 19, 1937 (age 77)
Louisville, Kentucky, United States
Genres Rock, psychedelic rock, experimental rock
Occupation(s) Composer, arranger, producer, vocalist, educator
Instruments Vocals, organ, piano, calliope, harp, synthesizer, keyboard
Years active Late 1950s–present
Associated acts The United States of America, Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies

Joseph Byrd (born December 19, 1937, Louisville, Kentucky, United States) and raised in Tucson, Arizona, was the leader of The United States of America, a notable rock band from the 1960s, as well as the psychedelic group Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies, of cult fame through their release The American Metaphysical Circus.

Early musical career[edit]

As a teenager, Byrd played in a series of pop and country bands—later vibraphone in jazz ensembles—while a student at the University of Arizona, where he studied composition with Barney Childs (B.M., 1959). He began his graduate studies in composition on a Sollnit Fellowship at Stanford University, where he first met La Monte Young (then a graduate student at the nearby University of California, Berkeley). After receiving his M.A. from Stanford in 1960, he relocated to New York City, becoming a part of the proto-Fluxus experiments that were emerging at that time in conjunction with Young, Charlotte Moorman, Yoko Ono, Jackson Mac Low (he participated in An Anthology of Chance Operations) and others.[1] There he continued composing, and earned some international interest for his use of vocal and instrumental sound in early minimal music compositions.[2] Byrd also studied with legendary avant garde composer John Cage (and was, according to Byrd, his last student), while Ono offered her loft to Byrd for the first public performance of his compositions. Byrd's 1962 Carnegie Hall recital was reviewed in prominent publications including The New York Times. He also worked as arranger and record producer, and as an assistant to composer and music critic Virgil Thomson. It was in New York in 1963 that he began a relationship with Dorothy Moskowitz, a recent graduate of Barnard College.[3]

Byrd returned with Moskowitz to the West Coast, where he enrolled in the musicology doctoral program at UCLA and studied music history, acoustics, psychology of music, and Indian music. At UCLA he formed the New Music Workshop[4] with jazz trumpeter Don Ellis and others, where the first West Coast experiments in what would come to be called "performance art" and "concept art" would develop. These interests led to more composition and his leaving the university in the summer of 1966 to create music full-time and produce "happenings." The collaborations also introduced Ellis and Byrd to Tom Oberheim, who built ring modulators and other devices for them.[5]

The United States of America[edit]

It was at that point that Byrd broke with tradition, and determined to combine performance art, electronic sound and radical politics into a single whole, together with rock music. To perform his new songs, Byrd recruited Moskowitz from New York (where she had moved following their separation) to sing and write for his new band, as he had brought on bassist Rand Forbes, electric violinist Gordon Marron and drummer Craig Woodson (another member of the New Music Workshop) to form The United States of America.[4] Their self-titled LP, produced by David Rubinson (who had been known to Byrd and Moskowitz prior), was recorded for Columbia Records in late 1967. It was released to critical acclaim in early 1968, but failed to find much commercial success in its original release.[3][6] The band was influenced by groups like Blue Cheer, Country Joe McDonald and The Red Krayola. The group was also strongly influenced by the music of maverick American classical composer and millionaire insurance magnate Charles Ives, particularly the melody Ives often referenced "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean".[7]

The band did a single tour of the U.S. East Coast, followed by a number of performances in the Southwest U.S., with a record of mixed success, including shows with The Troggs, The Velvet Underground and at Bill Graham's Fillmore East, but rapidly came apart after a short period of time over creative and other differences.[3] Eventually, the group split into two pieces, with Byrd leaving to pursue an evolution of the music with a new ensemble of largely studio musicians in 1968, and Moskowitz eventually joining Country Joe McDonald. The United States of America record was more widely regarded in Europe, has been cited in recent years as a groundbreaking recording, and has seen at least three re-releases since 1992.

The American Metaphysical Circus[edit]

Byrd went on to release, as Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies, The American Metaphysical Circus, in 1969. A very complex record for its time, featuring some of the earliest recorded extensive use of synthesizers in rock music, it was released on the classical-oriented Columbia Masterworks label (the Masterworks catalog of that period also included the soundtrack for the film The Owl and the Pussycat featuring music by the jazz-rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears). The record rapidly achieved a cult following among listeners of psychedelic rock, sometimes compared to records by groups such as Pink Floyd. Byrd estimated in 2002 in conjunction with a filing in the infamous Napster music copyright case that likely over 100,000 copies of The American Metaphysical Circus had been sold, yet he had never received a penny of royalties from Columbia/CBS/Sony.[6] Its sales were in fact sufficient to keep it in the Masterworks catalog for approximately twenty years, followed by CD (1996) and LP (1999) reissues. Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies never performed live.

Additional information[edit]

A Christmas Yet To Come (1975)

In 1975, Byrd released a record of synthesized Christmas Carols, A Christmas Yet to Come (Takoma C-1046) and in 1976, Yankee Transcendoodle (Takoma C-1051) an LP of synthesized patriotic music in conjunction with the United States Bicentennial. The irony of the latter release, in particular, in comparison to Byrd's musical broadside against President Lyndon Johnson on The American Metaphysical Circus less than a decade earlier, is a topic for consideration, however, Byrd has a long-standing interest in American patriotic and popular music.

In the early 1970s Byrd taught at California State University, Fullerton, where he introduced one of the first courses in American music (offered as part of the American Studies curriculum). He also did extensive research into the history of American popular music, culminating in a third Takoma LP Sentimental Songs of the Mid-19th Century, by the American Music Consort (Joseph Byrd, Director - Takoma A-1048 - 1976).[7] and the 6-sided LP set Popular Music In Jacksonian America (Musical Heritage Society MHS834651 - 1982).

He also has scored a number of films, including Agnès Varda's 1969 Lions Love, Bruce Clark's 1971 The Ski Bum" with Charlotte Rampling and Zalman King, The Ghost Dance (1980) and Robert Altman's ill-fated H.E.A.L.T.H., which was originally shot in 1979, but had its U.S. release delayed until 1982 because of a shakeup in the management of 20th Century Fox.

Joseph Byrd arranged and produced Ry Cooder's critically acclaimed 1978 Jazz album, and provided an arrangement and electronic music for "Crucifixion" from the 1967 Phil Ochs record Pleasures of the Harbor. Byrd also wrote commercially for advertising and television, including a theme for the CBS Evening News, developed sounds used in Mattel toys, and created the electronic/modified voice sound effects for the drones in Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running (which may have been the inspiration for the "voice" of R2D2 in the first Star Wars movie).

In 2006 Byrd collaborated with the Norwegian improvisation group Spunk and UK sound art unit Dreams of Tall Buildings. For White Elephant, a collaboration between these three parties, he created a graphic score to be performed by Spunk alongside electroacoustic sounds by Dreams of Tall Buildings. White Elephant was premiered at Sonic Arts Network's Expo festival in Manchester, UK on 24 June 2006.

In February 2013, a recording of his early works, Joseph Byrd NYC 1960–1963, was released by ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) via New World Records, including new recordings of "Animals", "Loops And Sequences" (written for Charlotte Moorman), "Water Music" (written for Max Neuhaus), "Four Sound*Poems" (each of which is dedicated to a woman from the experimental art scene at the time), plus several other works from the Fluxus era.[8]

In the present day, Byrd's fan base in the U.S. is likely exceeded by his following in Europe, particularly the UK, where he has been cited as a spiritual mentor to such important contemporary British bands as Radiohead, Broadcast, and Portishead.[citation needed]

He presently lives in northern California, where he teaches music history and theory at College of the Redwoods. He was for five years a food columnist for the North Coast Journal in Humboldt County, California.[9]


  1. ^ Maciunas, George. "Letter to La Monte Young, 1963". Archived from the original on February 16, 2007. Retrieved Aug 10, 2011. 
  2. ^ Brill, Dorothée (2010). Shock and the Senseless in Dada and Fluxus. Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press. p. 145. ISBN 978-1-58465-902-0. 
  3. ^ a b c Spozio, Iker. "The United States of America - The Garden of Earthly Delights" (PDF). Ptolemaic Terrascope. Retrieved Aug 11, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b Unterberger, Richie. "The United States of America". Retrieved Aug 11, 2011. 
  5. ^ Oberheim, Tom. "Session Transcript: Tom Oberheim". Red Bull Music Academy. Retrieved Aug 10, 2011. 
  6. ^ a b Cave, Damien. "Musician to Napster judge: Let my music go". Retrieved Aug 11, 2011. 
  7. ^ a b .Colli, Beppe. "An Interview with Joseph Byrd". Clouds and Clocks. Retrieved Aug 11, 2011. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ Joseph Byrd columns in North Coast Journal.

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