Don Byrd’s Concerto and the Courage to Make Music

Would you travel 500 miles back-and-forth to experience 30-minutes of music by an obscure composer? You might if the musician had dreamed about the piece for 50-years and his name was Donald Byrd; and if he almost died in the middle of its creation. Five friends, my wife, and I were present along with many who traveled much farther; grateful for Don’s life force, his friendship, and his art.

Don was well-into writing his Violin Concerto – a piece for soloist and orchestral accompaniment – when, in January, 2015 …

I’d been having moderate pain in my left hip off and on for months, and nothing seemed to make any difference. Then it got worse, and I returned to my sports-medicine doctor. He thought I just needed a shot of cortisone, but had me get an MRI. Much to our surprise, the report came back stamped ‘CRITICAL UNEXPECTED POSITIVE FINDINGS’: cancer. A week later, I had a definite diagnosis: stage 2 multiple myeloma. The prognosis was pretty good from the beginning; the treatment plan was chemo, possibly followed by a stem-cell transplant. Well, I responded exceptionally well to the chemo — so well my oncologist wasn’t sure I needed the transplant, but I went ahead anyway … and wrote the middle-section of the last movement in the hospital; I think the cancer mostly helped me focus on completing the damn thing; I really didn’t like the thought of dying before finishing it! The illness also gave me time to concentrate on it, since I couldn’t work much on my normal stuff.

Notice the matter-of-factness in Don’s account? Few of us would have been as resilient or optimistic. Few would have reframed the crisis as a spur to reach a goal.

Rumors claimed, back at Chicago’s Mather High School in the 1960s, that Don Byrd was a genius. What none of us, his fellow classmates, then realized, was that he was more remarkable for his courage. And, as you will read, some other things, too.

Master Byrd is a man who remembers those who helped along the way. A 1990 conversation with a Princeton professor, J. K. Randall, moved him from dreaming to doing:

I told him I wanted to create a violin concerto, but didn’t know how (despite having composed other, less ambitious pieces). He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Well, you’d better write it before you find out!’

Still, another five years passed before Don put any notes down. “Thus, you could say the composition took me only 20-years!”

By profession, Don is an informatics expert at Indiana University (Bloomington) – an aspect of information engineering – and one of the founders of the field of music information retrieval. For those of us less steeped in technology, however, his other interests are fascinating, too:

I’m a certified teacher and lover of t’ai chi. I’m a member of the local Quaker Meeting (“meeting” is the Quaker equivalent of church), and I often accompany hymn singing for the Meeting on the piano. I’m an avid but lazy road bike rider. I like physically challenging and dangerous activities: way back when, flying a plane, riding a motorcycle, exploring caves, swimming across a lake alone at night (and I’m not a good swimmer); more recently, rock climbing, mountaineering, and sky diving (the latter only once, on my doctor’s advice). I’m concerned about American society these days and especially its polarization, and over the years I’ve published dozens of letters to the editor and two or three guest columns, the vast majority in the Bloomington paper.

Based on Don’s daring physical activities, you might think of him as an athletic he-man. He is a small fellow (5’3″) except in his heart. There he is a giant.

As mentioned earlier, people came to the September 24th concert from long distances. Among them was a high school friend named Paul Nadler, an international symphony and opera conductor, who directed the performance. Others included the estimable violin soloist, Madalyn Parnas. Friends and colleagues of Don’s traveled from as far away as the San Francisco Bay area, Philadelphia, Florida, Georgia, New York, Michigan, Alabama, and Chicago. Generosity, too, came from three of the orchestra members and his buddy, Paul, who gave their services gratis.

How to explain this devotion? I asked the question of Doug McKenna, who himself journeyed from Colorado: “Don Byrd is a very loyal person and he inspires loyalty in others.” Many of these folks met the composer in school or became colleagues in the early part of his professional career. Some had not seen him for decades.

One might add something else. Many are, like Don, no longer young, except perhaps in attitude. We all knew the event was not to be taken for granted. The good vibe in the concert venue was enough to float the audience of about 150 people out the door. Lots of smiles and a tear or two. Jealous composers or something else?

We never get to hear eulogies for ourselves, of course, and Don Byrd – thank goodness – didn’t either. Yet, early in his battle against cancer, one could have bet a eulogy was more probable than a performance. My guess is that in Don’s worst moments, his wife Susan Schneider and their children would have gratefully given up the completion of the Violin Concerto for a guarantee of more time. Probably even just the shortening of treatment. But, the maestro survived and his magnum opus was performed. Their grown kids, Alec and Torrey, witnessed it, too.

In this month of children’s holiday dreams, prayers, and guardian angels, we all try to get beyond the world’s dark side.

Don Byrd, his spirit, and his music make that a little bit easier for some of us.

Sometimes dreams do come true.

The concert program and program notes:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2p91S3Iky-VX3k1RENYRG5GU28

Also, before the performance, Don gave a short talk about the concerto, with musical examples played (with hardly any advance notice) by pianist Justin Bartlett. Unfortunately, only the second half or so was recorded, but that recording is here:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2p91S3Iky-VRGZVZktDSlhYOVE

Independent of the video, the concert was recorded by a professional audio engineer. An MP3 of his recording is here:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2p91S3Iky-VNDB0Uzd5Mlgycm8

PDFs of the scores of each of the three movements (slightly out-of-date) are at:

1st mvmt: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2p91S3Iky-VQVZxQWExRGlvVkU/view?usp=sharing
2nd mvmt: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2p91S3Iky-VQkUwN1RLeHFHaDQ/view?usp=sharing
3rd mvmt: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2p91S3Iky-VM0JFU2JXRUtuRXM/view?usp=sharing

Read more about Don here: http://homes.soic.indiana.edu/donbyrd/

14 thoughts on “Don Byrd’s Concerto and the Courage to Make Music

  1. Dr. Stein, thanks for sharing Don Byrd’s Violin Concerto. Classical music has the power to calm my agitated spirit. What I find amazing is his persistence in completing his creation after so many years. Perhaps, it served as a stimulus to keep him going.

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  2. I’m not sure that every moment of the Byrd Violin Concerto will calm you, but it is a most interesting piece. Yes, the persistence Don displayed was remarkable. Thanks, Rosaliene.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joseph Patrick Lori

    You may recall that I tried to relate a story in a previous post about a pipe organ builder in rural Illinois who built a pipe organ for a Catholic Church in another Illinois town, 30 years ago.
    He was very proud of that Pipe organ and, at that time, the Pastor was very supportive of his work.
    Later on, however, a new Pastor was assigned to the Parish and he ended up concoting a plan of his own to get rid of it.
    Despite the fact that the Church has a huge Sanctuary that is also very wide, the Pastor maintained that the only way to make the Sanctuary handicapped-accessible was to remove one half of the pipe organ on one side of the Sanctuary at the entrance, thus subtracting the upper keyboard on the console.
    After a number of years of living with this situation, the Pastor began complaining about malfunctions and high maintenance costs. The organ builder kept in touch with the party that had the maintenance contract for the organ, and their word was that reports of malfunctions were bogus.
    During the past summer, the Pastor found a dealer in a nearby town who was willing to give him a discount on a new electronic organ in exchange for permission to use it after the purchase was made final for the sake of sales promotions.
    The remainder of the pipe organ was promptly dismantled and the pipes and other parts were discarded. Afterwards, the new electronic organ was installed.
    Since the disposal of the pipe organ and the apparent mistruths about defects were a wound to the pipe organ builder’s pride in addition to a potential bad reflection on him personally, the organ builder sought to have a meeting with the Pastor to discuss the Pastor’s course of action.
    To this day, the Pastor has refused to meet with the organ builder.
    A lot of bad blood has been generated by this one incident, alone and the manner in which it was handled.
    As a CURRENT member of the Pipe Organ Builders Group on Facebook, I see a situation similar to the one that you have related in this most recent story, except that my story here pertains to the notion of a wounded spirit.

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    • Joseph: While the story you offer is most unfortunate, I see little relevance to the blog post and will therefore remove it shortly. I still welcome your comments and your readership, but I hope future comments are a bit more responsive to the essay and the discussion of the essay than this one. I hope you have happy holidays. Be well.

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      • Joseph Patrick Lori

        I understand your decision completely and will try to make my comments more relevant to your posts in the future.
        My Father also had cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
        It was a difficult time for everyone in the family and especially for my Mother.
        My Father’s case was a more difficult hurdle because he was past his 80th birthday when he was first diagnosed.
        My Father is 96 years old now and lives in a nursing home with my mother.
        I was just hoping that you might see the connection in my previous comment between dealing with a potentially terminal disease and trying to find some way to tend to a wounded spirit.

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      • I’ll keep both comments up for the sake of the second, Joseph. But I do want the relevance to be a major concern going forward. As the Star Trek “Vulcans” would say to you and your father, “Live long and prosper.”

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  4. Thank you for sharing the music and the story behind the music. Maybe there is a ‘Don’ in my life, but I just don’t know it yet. The music and the story are inspiring.

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  5. Thank you, Jakethedog.

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  6. Hi, Gerry. Thanks for sharing. I’ve wondered where some of these people are. I’m glad to hear. Good luck to Don. My wife and I were just talking about Paul last week.

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  7. I am pleased he is doing well with his treatment and was able to complete his Violin Concerto, AND his performance was attended by his family, friends and devotees! A very nice tribute, Dr. Stein…I admit, I was holding my breath expecting a sad outcome, but was thrilled with the ending!

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  8. Thanks so much, Gerry, for your flattering post about my life and work! I’d like to clarify why it took me _so_ long to write this concerto. When I was 21 or so and finishing my bachelor’s degree in composition, I started to get involved with computers, and almost immediately realized they could do music notation. Well, to actually have a performance of a piece for more than about two instruments, you have to create _parts_ telling each of the musicians what they alone are to play. That entailed many hours of donkeywork to get parts that were readable, much less nice- looking and easy to read. I hated that and vowed never to copy parts by hand again; instead I would develop a computer program to print them. And I did, but it took longer than I expected: about 25 years 🙂 . I finally had the software in about 1993: a few years after Prof. Randall urged me to write the concerto before I found out how.

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