AMN Reviews: Douglas Boyce – The Hunt By Night [New Focus Recordings fcr290]

The Hunt by Night is the second monograph recording of chamber music from composer Douglas Boyce. Boyce, who is on the faculty of Washington DC’s George Washington University, often takes his inspiration from early music as well as from contemporary modes of composition. This comes out most explicitly in his Quintet l’homme armé, a piece for clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano performed here by members of the counter)induction ensemble, a group which Boyce co-founded. Boyce takes the late medieval melody L’homme armé and subjects it to a thorough refiguration in which it is transubstantiated into something with a completely contemporary sound.

The title track, The Hunt by Night, Quire 9 No. 3 is from Boyce’s Book of Etudes. The piece appared previously on the counter)induction album Against Method; in my review of that album I described it in these pages as “a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano that uncoils with a spry, loping energy that recalls the spirit of Les Six.” Stretto Perpetuo, Quire 4 No. 1 for cello and piano, is another one of Boyce’s twenty-one etudes. The object of this vigorous piece’s study is rhythmic, hence its foundation in a rhythmically varied, urgently repeated single note that cellist Schyler Slack and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute pass around between themselves.

Sails Knife-bright in a Seasonal Wind is a trio for violinist Miranda Cucskon, guitarist Daniel Lippel and percussionist Jeffrey Irving. This is a sparely written piece that allows each individual voice to stand out with clarity against a background of open space; in particular, Lippel’s finely etched, plucked tones contrast tellingly with Cuckson’s bow work.

The Hunt by Night also contains the Piano Quartet No. 2, an essay in microtonality for strings.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Christopher Bailey – Rain Infinity [New Focus Recordings fcr283]

Woven throughout Rain Infinity, the new monograph of work by composer Christopher Bailey, are the six movements of Duo for violin and cello. The duets, which are interspersed among works of varying instrumentation and sound, provide a continuity that serves as a connective tissue tying the album together as a totality.

The piece that follows the first duet is Retreat (2016), a composition for electronics realized by the composer. Bailey opens the piece with a chaos of recorded human voices and then moves to microtonal passages for sampled acoustic instruments; the structural focus of the work is on shifting densities, as the texture thickens and thins in a flux of constant change. In contrast to Retreat, the brusquely fragmentary Timelash (1999) is an acoustic quartet for piano, cello, clarinet, and violin largely carried along on the sounds of an aggressively raw cello and strident piano. Another work for small acoustic chamber ensemble, the Passacaglia after Hall and Oates 2 for piano, flute, and violin, alternates timbral variations on a single note with pulsating, minor-second dissonances that eventually culminate in an unlikely, lyrical denouement. Rounding out the album are the title track, a microtonal work composed for Jacob Barton and his homemade wind instrument the udderbot, and Arc of Infinity, a work for classical guitar and electronics, whose performance here by Daniel Lippel appeared earlier on Lippel’s superb solo collection Mirrored Spaces. And as for the duets, they are the highlight of the album. Violinist Miranda Cuckson and cellist Mariel Roberts move effortlessly between robust gesture and delicate nuance while playing their parts with an almost telepathic coordination.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Louis Karchin – Dark Mountains/Distant Lights [New Focus Records FCR225]; Stuart Saunders Smith – Palm Sunday [New World Records 80813-2]

In the liner note to Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, an album of seven new and recent compositions of his, Louis Karchin describes one of the pieces as having been inspired by lyric poetry’s capacity to convey the moods and emotional states of an individual sensibility. In fact many of the other works in the collection are lyrical not only in the sense Karchin describes, but also in the original sense of something meant to be sung. This should come as no surprise, given the substantial amount of vocal music, including the opera Jane Eyre, that Karchin has written.

The point of departure for Karchin’s musical vocabulary is the pitch-oriented serial and post-serial composition of the last century. His lines tend toward the complex and highly chromatic, and are characterized by sudden turns and staggering leaps and falls. This is the case for Rhapsody (2005/2011), a work for violin and piano that features a tonally convoluted, register-spanning violin line. Nevertheless, the line has a continuity and phrasing that recall the human voice, and it isn’t hard to imagine it as an aria for soprano. It’s a virtuoso piece breathtakingly played by violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Steven Beck.

In addition to her affecting performance on the austerely beautiful Prayer (2004) for solo violin, Cuckson has two duets with oboist Jacqueline Leclair: 2016’s Dreamscape, and 2017’s Reflections. Both are challenging works that integrate extended techniques—multiphonics for oboe, unorthodox bowings for violin—with more conventionally played, though still demanding, passages. Karchin’s decision to pair oboe and violin, whose timbres contrast in the lower registers but tend to converge in the upper registers, is inspired.

Lyrics II (2014)—the piece Karchin was referring to in the liner note—is a two-part composition for solo piano that does indeed evoke the dynamic arc of emotional cycles.

Like the music on Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, the music on Palm Sunday, a collection of works for solo piano by composer Stuart Saunders Smith, is primarily organized in terms of pitch relationships. Smith’s background includes the formative influences of teachers and mentors such as Sal Martirano, who affirmed the value of improvisation, and Ben Johnston, who encouraged Smith’s reliance on his ear and intuition in composing. Smith’s tenure as leader of the REDS ensemble, which performed graphic and other non-traditionally notated open works, is also significant and finds resonance in most of the work on Palm Sunday.

Four of the five pieces on the album—all except for the early work Pinetop, a boogie-woogie inspired piece–are semi-open scores that notate pitch conventionally but leave the specific values for parameters such as phrasing, dynamics and articulation up to the performer to choose. Smith composes melodies that can be knotty and harmonies that are complex, and in Palm Sunday (2012) calls for the pianist to hum, sing, and recite a text along with the music. Pianist Kyle Adam Blair, who realizes the works on this recording, has a long history with Smith’s music and consequently brings a deep understanding of Smith’s methods and expressive purposes to his interpretations. That depth of understanding certainly shows in Blair’s performances, which exert confidence and a strong sense of narrative development.

http://louiskarchin.com/discography/dark-mountains-distant-lights-1/

http://www.newworldrecords.org