Byron Westbrook’s Eclipsed View

Photo by Simone Montemurno

It’s been a banner year for Byron Westbrook. Hands in the Dark released his evocative album, Distortion Hue, to start the year and it set the standard. His most recent album, Mirror View, comes via Ash International and is a surprise departure that pays off. Utilizing field recordings, sound installation works, and other sonic elements, Westbrook offers an engaging look into subtle environments with beautiful phrasing and surprises.

Westbrook and I talked about his work this year, his memories, and much, much more through late August and early September. Mirror View is out now

What are some of your earliest, most formative memories when it comes to music and sound?

I have very early memories of music in general, which are some of my first memories. I remember hearing that Eagles tune “Heartache Tonight” (yikes) in a store when it was new and I would have been around 2 then… but just listening and being able to re-play music back in my head was something that happened really early on and was always a bit of a memory exercise for me. I also remember being a toddler and getting pretty excited about setting up a row of metal trash can lids and banging on them with metal rods. Bring on the overtones! In those days my dad worked at a radio station and would get promos of vinyl, tape them for himself, and then give me the vinyl to listen to or destroy on my Fisher-Price turntable. I have to wonder how much my fixation on complex midrange frequencies may have originated from early listening on that junky turntable… 

It’s been a busy year, release-wise, for you. Before getting into the newest record, I want to go back to Distortion Hue for a minute. It has such an emotional weight to it. I was really surprised at how much it got to me on that level. Were there any specific experiences or anything that you were processing in that music or working to express?

Glad to hear that Distortion Hue resonated with you, it was a significant one for me and means a lot to hear about people connecting with it. Almost all of that record was actually sourced from improv recordings that I made between 2014-2016. I feel like Summer 2014 was when everything kind of cracked in the world and started spiraling exponentially, some for better, most for worse, but it seemed like that was when things more noticeably changed to ultimately give us 2016 and what’s happening now. I think those recordings – the bulk of which I started while at a residency in August 2014 – reflected a lot of that anticipation anxiety. They felt really heavy-handed for me at the time, where I wasn’t sure if it made sense as “me” or whatnot, so I had mostly put them aside and moved on to other things.  

Then when Covid hit, I was also in the midst of a really difficult stretch of time personally, where my life was very obviously going to get much worse for a while before it could get better. So in May 2020, with dark times looming in so many ways, I happened to listen to those materials from 2014 again while going through a drive. I realized immediately that the anxious and bleak set of music I had sidelined back then felt intensely connected to my state at that moment, where it was clearly the most honest and real thing I could offer. So I decided to accept that and complete it as a major work. 

I’m really digging the new album on Ash International, Mirror Views, and especially the longform nature of it and all the field recordings. Can you first tell me a bit about the Threshold Variations installation and what that was?

Threshold Variations was developed as part of a year-long residency with ISSUE Project Room for 2017 where the plan was for me to produce three installations over the course of that year. The first and third in the series were more based around social interactivity, using big sound gestures in public spaces to shape the audience’s interactions with each other. For the second installation, I wanted to make something that was centered more specifically around collective deep listening, and I decided to use elements that were mostly subtle and less heavy-handed. I also made a choice to prioritize the sound and think in terms of music composition, and to focus on creating an ideal listening environment for that.  

The installation was 6-channel audio in a dark room that was lined with mirrors, with a variation of colored lights and theatrical lighting fixtures. I programmed a sequence of gradual lighting changes in the room where it was never quite bright enough to really get a sense for the entire space or audience in the room. The sound played very low and you could hear a lot of sounds from the street outside merging and intermingling with the installation sound. I think there was a general sense of feeling disoriented in a space where time was moving very slowly, in a space where it was not clear what was actual and what was fabricated.

I love the recordings of the waves so much, and the fact they were recorded around the eclipse in August 2017 – kind of adds an interesting layer to it in my mind. Anyway, the sound of water is one of my favorite sounds in the world and brings back a lot of really visceral memories. When you hear those recordings, are there any specific ideas or memories that come to mind?’

One of those water recordings is near the apex of the eclipse. I went out to this huge nature preserve out in Long Island, which is where the cover photo was taken. When I got there I encountered a flock of geese staring at the partial eclipse and hissing, which was pretty wild. I walked to the waterfront as the eclipse went total, and when I arrived at the water it was dark-ish and the birds were all just sitting silently. I remember watching one seagull just hanging out on a piece of driftwood for a while, not doing anything. I think that may be what’s going on in the recording you are referring to. 

That’s awesome about the eclipse recordings. It sounds like such a memorable experience. What are some other particularly memorable situations you’ve had when it comes to collecting field recordings?

Back in 2010, during my first summer as a student in the Bard MFA program, there was a memorial for Maryanne Amacher. She had taught in that program for many years and passed away not long after the previous summer session. Her presence was still resonating strongly. Following the memorial, the Music/Sound department all went as a group to make field recordings of the sounds of trains passing. This was something that Maryanne was very fond of. Trains are difficult to record because of the volume and broad dynamics, going from very quiet to insanely loud. It’s hard to anticipate the starting point and there is a lot of waiting in between the trains. It was memorable both sonically as a focused listening experience as well as from a communal perspective. The energy was both celebratory and reverent. 

What was the thought process like to take that project/installation and distill it into an album?

After we presented the work, I mixed down a 90-minute version of it with a binaural panning plug-in, then decided that that approach was not working and sidelined it for the time being. I wasn’t sure what to do with it because the long-running time, low volume and phase issues weren’t something that would work on an LP and it was too high fidelity for cassette. So when Mike Harding asked me to do a CD for Ash, it dawned on me that this material would work best on a CD and that I could cut about 20 minutes out in a way that accounts for it not being an installation, so that’s what I ended up doing. I’ve made a number of installations that can’t translate as audio releases, but there was so much put into this one from a musical composition perspective, I felt that some iteration of the material should get translated into an album eventually. 

Do you have any favorite environmental sounds?

My favorite sounds tend to involve man-made sources being distorted by natural phenomena, things along the lines of Doppler shift, odd resonance, echo, reverberation, natural filtering effects ie hearing sounds through a wall, etc. As terrible as they are in so many ways, I actually like the sound of helicopters a lot, especially when they are flying near tall buildings or around hills and canyons. There can be a lot of weird detail and wild harmonics if you pay close attention. Also, another memorable experience that involves natural phenomena was seeing Mika Vainio perform in a dance club in 2016. There was a huge crowd talking through much of the set and his low-frequency bass tones were so incredibly loud that they were audibly distorting the audience’s voices through the air vibration, with the result sounding like a ring modulator effect. 

You’ve also got a piece on this fantastic Important Records compilation, Harmonic Series II, that Duane Pitre curated. How did you get involved in the project?

Well, for my past few releases, I had been using the harmonic series as the basis for most melodic elements in my work. (see “Spectral Ascension” from Precipice and “What We Mean When We Say Body Language” from Body Consonance) Then around 2017, I started making a conscious effort to push that aspect further. Duane and I had been admirers of each others’ music for many years and he was gracious enough to offer guidance as I started implementing ratio-based tuning systems. I played him new music that was developing and he ended up inviting me to be in the compilation. Coincidentally, Catherine Lamb was also in my MFA graduating class – she participated in the aforementioned train recording, and while we were at Bard, both Cat and Marcus Schmickler had suggested that my work would benefit from implementing tuning systems. I took that to heart and though it’s been a slow process, I’m glad I followed that thread. The fourth track on Mirror Views is also in 5-limit Just Intonation, with added bending “interference” tones. 

Photo by Braulio Lam

It’s really interesting to me how different the processes for these last two records were, but there’s really this sort of common thread that runs through them that I can’t quite pinpoint, but this line from the Harmonic Series II description keeps standing out to me: “blurs the lines between synthetic and organic readings of sound.” I think that’s an undercurrent to much of your work and part of what resonates with me, but it makes me wonder if you try to have some kind of overarching concept or approach for your practice more generally?

That’s interesting to hear that you see that connection – it’s definitely something that I pay attention to. I’m generally approaching sound in terms of architectural and sculptural. This has been fairly consistent through the years and is more embedded in the bones of what I make than the aesthetic appearance. I’m thinking about texture as a building block that defines space, boundaries, motion. I’m particularly interested in situations where the source of sound isn’t entirely clear – this is sort of my angle on the Pierre Schaeffer acousmatics concept, except where he wanted his audience to avoid visualizing a sound source, I’m coming from a place where I accept the imagination and implication of a source as part of the listening experience. I try to keep things ambiguous enough to leave room for the audience to imagine what might be generating the sounds. In some cases, instruments are clearly part of the process, but in others, it is more about spaces, environments, and time/place. 

I also work very intuitively, which is a common process through all of this. I’m constantly improvising and gathering material – both with field recordings and electronics – until I have a collection of recordings that feels like it has its own identity, environment, narrative, or concept. I’m less concerned with branding my work with consistent aesthetic signifiers that pin it to me, but obviously, it’s always me and sometimes there’s a bridge to cross to accept that. As I touched on earlier, Distortion Hue didn’t feel like my voice initially, but once I noticed that I had made a group of works that were cohesive and strong as a collection, it seemed very clear that it was something I needed to accept and release. There are elements of psychoanalysis to my process, where letting the subconscious take the lead foils my tendency towards being reserved. In the end, I feel like I’m making a different movie with each record, where each has its own language to some degree. What’s most important to me is that each one be as fully realized as possible. 

What’s next?

I’m sitting on a lot of recorded music that I need to start digging through and rough mixing. It’s about three or four albums worth, at 80-90% completion. There are lots of pieces that are realized individually but as is always the case, I haven’t yet had an aha-moment for what will collate into an album. This will come together organically with time and I’m excited about the material – it’s all more rigorous takes on these threads we’ve discussed. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about live performance but some nice live events are scheduled for the end of this year and early next. There are also some collaborations in progress that may result in unconventional release ideas and/or more performances. I’m definitely curious to see what unfolds. 

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