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Thursday, March 11, 2021

Douglas Boyce, The Hunt By Night, Chamber Music


Who is Douglas Boyce? A good way to start knowing about him is on a recent album of his chamber music, The Hunt By Night  (New Focus Recordings FCR 278). It is another great example of why New Focus Recordings is one of the best things to happen to New Music in a long time.

We get a chance to immerse ourselves in five works, all around 10 minutes or so long. They were composed between 2003 and 2020, so of course we are talking about very new things. Douglas Boyce puts a great deal of thought, imagination and detail into each of these pieces. They happily and refreshingly occupy a turf somewhere between Neo-Classical and High Modern chamber space--rhythmically vivid in a post-Stravinskian sense, tonally vast in a near atonal mode, adventuresomely scored.

The inner sleeve of the CD puts forward what Boyce is all about in such clear terms I think it right to quote it directly. That is, that "Douglas Boyce writes music exploring the historical entailments of musical-being and with the temporal poetics of performance." Well, uh, yes. He does do that. It actually makes sense once you listen carefully.

In the liner notes to this program Boyce agrees with Stravinsky in asserting that music is fundamentally anchored ontologically in time, as opposed to anchoring in sound. Music situates performers and audience in a special ritual temporality. History and the present coincide. They do so here in a specific bio-mechanical continuity we call "chamber music," in this case delicately specific in spite of the "severity" of the Modern. It encompasses for all that an historical meta-narrative as well. 

"Embodied performance" here joins with what we now experience as the digital--on the CD of course.

Of the five pieces on this recording, three feature the 6-7 member chamber gathering counter)induction. The title work "The Hunt By Night" reimagines in musical sound Paulo Uccello's 1470 painting by that name,  taking a middle path in some ways between symmetry and flatness with hunters, dogs and hunting horns set against the rigid envelopment of the forest. The music in turn reflects a poem based on the painting, the 1970 expression by one Derek Mahon. The eloquently matter-of-fact rhythmic vitality of the work vividly goes far in an elaborate substitution of temporal rituals of sound-in-motion. It is a music that is bracing, beautifully conversant in depicting the memory of image and word. It is a work of convincing, excellent fettle. The clarinet part marks the territory in a special pointedness that the rest of the instrumentation follows and expands.

Backing up to the opening "Quintet l'homme arme" we have more to immerse us, very gladly. It gives counter)induction another vivid explosion of sound that obliquely reflects the extraordinarily popular "l'homme arme" setting that composers adopted often enough during a pretty numerous number of decades after its emergence in the 15th century. Boyce's dramatic treatment of the melody puts it into dissonant territory and renders it wholly something other, which we Modernist sympathizers can only welcome as familial and pleasing to our specially formulated palettes. The contrast of movement and relative stasis in the two sections heightens the feeling of difference too and taking it all in, it is a happy listen, indeed!

The "Etude for Cello and Piano No. 1" (2017) comes into our hearing with a lively springboarding out from a quasi-bolero and then on to a heightened connectivity of rhythm contrasting with further elocutions we find most absorbing--or at least I do! Bravo to Ieva Jokubaviciute and Schuyler Slack for a fantastic performance of this one.

The "Piano Quartet No. 2" (2008) gives Trio Cavatina and violist Beth Guterman Chu a kind of thrillingly dissecting musical possibility in the tightly focused excitment of this considerably lucid outburst.

And finally we experience with pleasure the third counter)induction performance with the 2019 "Sails Knife-bright in a Seasonal Wind" which stands out for the nicely expressed initial sounding of classical guitar (Daniel Lippel) and its subsequent unwinding and unfailing development with both guitar and chamber group forging together as a whole.

It is music that should grab ahold of you decidedly after a few listens. Douglas Boyce is reassuringly and convincingly his own voice in these works. And the performances are fully up to the challenging demands he puts on all concerned. A Chamber Modern gem, it all comes to that. This one gets my highest recommendation. Give it a chance and see what happens. It is serious business. Bravo!

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