The Strange Music of Douglas Boyce

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SOME CONSEQUENCES OF FOUR INCAPACITIES / BOYCE: 102nd at Amsterdam / Aeolus Quartet / Piano Quartet No. 1 / counter )induction / Fortuitous Variations / Trio Cavatina / New Focus Recordings FCR205

Truly a strange album, this, with no liner notes to speak of and no information on the composer. I found this information on the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society website:

Mr. Boyce was born in New York City in 1970. After performing with various punk rock bands in the greater New York metropolitan area, he attended Williams College, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in Physics and Music, with honors, in 1992. He holds an MM from the University of Oregon, and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, where, in 1999, he was awarded the Weiss Prize in Composition forTrois Complaintes. He has attended the Master-Class in Composition at the Aspen Festival, the Czech-American Summer Music Institute in Prague, and the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium. During the summers of 2000 and 2002, he was a resident fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He has studied with George Crumb, James Primosch, Kathryn Alexander, Robert Kyr, Judith Weir, Ladislav Kubik and Robert Suderburg.

Douglas Boyce is a founding member of the contemporary music ensemble counter)induction. He currently serves as Associate Professor of Music and Department Chair at the George Washington University in Washington, DC.

So now you know as much about him as I do. The music, as I hear it, contains elements of Baroque and even some folk music in a modern idiom. At times he relies on the same kind of devices that so many modern composers do, such as sudden burst of atonal, energetic passages in the midst of calm and sliding chromatics, but he at least tries to be original. The opening piece, 102nd at Amsterdam, begins mysteriously, eventually leading to a slithering cello passage that leads the ear away from the higher strings’ skittering. It is not music that is immediately attractive, but rather seems to attempt a purposely abrasive quality that is couched in a fine sense of structure. A contrapuntal passage follows, after which the entire quartet employs slithering portamento against one another before the viola plays busy, quadruple-time passages around which the others make comment. It seemed to me to be music that revels in trying to sound formless when in fact it has a considerably tight structure.

By contrast, the opening of the Piano Quintet is loud, with sharp staccato chords, which lead to the piano playing a running bass line while the strings play above it. The music eventually moves into more graceful bowed figures, again played in counterpoint against one another, and again the music develops well, eventually moving back into contrapuntal figures as part of the development section. Boyce then alternates these motifs and moods through the rest of the movement.

This brings us to the Fortuitous Variations, the only multi-movement piece on this disc. Boyce again contrasts a staccato opening against a lyrical passage, then another passage in counterpoint between the various instruments, piano and the string playing pizzicato. By this time I had come to realize that these sort of cat-and-mouse games form the backbone of Boyce’s style. It’s quite interesting to a point, but the continual abstraction of his music tends to wear a bit on the advanced listener. I’m not sure that he consciously realizes this, but the continued effects he produces lead to predictability rather than surprise. In the second movement, he returns to the slithering style of 102nd at Amsterdam with aggressive plucked notes thrown in.

In the fourth and final variation, titled “the dawn and the gloaming most,” Boyce creates his tightest-constructed piece on the album, a brilliant canon that pits the strings against the piano and each other in an ever-expanding series of variants.

Overall, then, an album of well-constructed music that strives for effects, achieves them, but never quite reaches greatness.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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