Douglas Boyce's The Bird is an Alphabet is a collection of his recent chamber works with voice, featuring performances by poet Marlanda Dekine, counter)induction, Byrne:Kozar:Duo, tenor Robert Baker, and pianist Molly Orlando. Setting texts by Dekine, Melissa Range, Wallace Stevens, Jorie Graham, and BJ Ward, Boyce approaches songs as a dramatic project, searching for the marriage between material and meaning that will animate the words.
A Book of Songs
|Robert Baker, tenor, Molly Orlando, piano
|i. A Feather For Voltaire
i. A Feather For Voltaire
|ii. The Apple Orchard in October
ii. The Apple Orchard in October
|iii. Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, Et Les Unze Mille Vierges
iii. Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, Et Les Unze Mille Vierges
|i. Tyrian Purple
i. Tyrian Purple
|counter)induction, Marlanda Dekine, speaker, Nurit Pacht, violin, Daniel Lippel, guitar, Caleb van der Swaagh, cello
|ii. Intermezzo 1
ii. Intermezzo 1
|iv. Intermezzo 2
iv. Intermezzo 2
|v. Out There
v. Out There
|vi. Intermezzo 3
vi. Intermezzo 3
|viii. Intermezzo 4
viii. Intermezzo 4
Douglas Boyce is a musical philosopher whose work draws on early music, literature, and aesthetic thought. These are not mere affinities for Boyce, they comprise different components of his core conviction that music can be a forum for enlightened discourse. Working with text gives him the opportunity to merge semantic and abstract expressive meaning; an expansion of possibilities. From the most conventional setting in the program, A Book of Songs, through the exploration of an unconventional instrumentation for the Byrne:Kozar:Duo, and finally with Ars Poetica for spoken word poet and ensemble, Boyce explores how text can shape the sound of the music and music can frame the meaning of the text.
The album opens with A Book of Songs, a three movement cycle that sets poems by Jorie Graham, BJ Ward, and Wallace Stevens, respectively. “A Feather For Voltaire” word paints a bird in flight, with flitting and fluttering arpeggiations in the piano accompaniment and swooping, melismatic figures in the tenor part. A contrasting section renders the bird land-bound, with halting music in the lower register of the keyboard. “The Apple Orchard in October” ruminates on mortality with carefully considered cells of musical material that congeal momentarily into a continuous texture. “Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, Et Les Unze Mille Vierges” is a fantasy that toggles between mystical and earthy impulses. Incandescent voicings, tolling harmonics, and scurrying passagework in the piano support the tenor’s narrative style as it alternates between quasi-recitative and dramatic intervallic jumps.Read More
Scriptorium was written in 2021 for the trumpet and soprano ensemble, the Byrne:Kozar:Duo, and sets texts by Melissa Range. Boyce uses medieval counterpoint as a reference point for how to write for two single-line voices. Imitation and motivic transposition extend musical ideas, and occasionally Kozar’s trumpet takes a brief, soloistic flight. Within the context of Scriptorium’s overall austerity, mutes on Kozar’s horn define contrasting sound profiles. The final movement, “Verdigris,” contains the piece’s most theatrical music, as Kozar assumes a more accompanimental role with a repeated lontano figure underneath an alternation in Byrne’s line between parlando delivery and wide intervallic leaps. It closes with a crystalline contrapuntal passage, reasserting the rigorous frame which defines the work.
Ars Poetica is a collaboration between Boyce and Gullah Geechee poet Marlanda Dekine, who is heard performing the spoken word part. Dekine’s texts are evocative of their experience grappling with identity, family, and the meaning of heritage in an ever changing society. The poem is in five parts, with four instrumental intermezzi interspersed between. Boyce deftly uses the trio in a varied relationship to Dekine’s measured style of text delivery, sometimes establishing a stable musical texture as accompaniment and other times allowing the music to dynamically evolve with the words, always positioning the music in line with Dekine’s easy, storytelling style. The result is a more dramatic presentation than the other two song settings on the album.
“Wilderness” traverses varied musical territory, through an upright introductory prelude, restless transitional passages, and loping grooves. “Returning” holds a tense character of anticipation throughout, momentarily breaking with Dekine’s folksy reminiscence, “And I love big as all that water… I speak to you plain.” The contrast is emblematic of Boyce’s framing of Dekine’s narrative poetry — the music alternates between capturing the intimate vernacular quality of the words before zooming out to contextualize the struggle of preserving heritage within a fractured contemporary civic fabric. “Out There” overflows with anger at the vacuity and inhumanity of modern American culture, as a furious quintuplet figure in the bowed strings is repeatedly destabilized by a polyrhythmic accented triplet in the guitar. “Reclamation” layers quirky accents and figurations over a rocking ostinato pattern in the cello.
The four intermezzi show Boyce’s playful side, turning motives around and mining them for developmental potential. Intermezzo 1 features Robert Fripp-esque unison passagework that eventually splinters into a game of cat and mouse between the instruments. Intermezzo 2 is listed in the score as a caccia, or a hunt song, channeling Bartók with sharp accents, jaunty leaps, and vigorous ensemble imitation. Intermezzo 3 is an ethereal duo between violin and cello, a simple meditation on a set of interval relationships, while Intermezzo 4 reprises some of the material introduced in the opening movement. Ars Poetica ends with nostalgic Americana, as we hear muted, Copland-esque chords creating a luminescent halo around Dekine’s words of reverent acceptance, “I pray, thank you, every time I remember.”
– Dan Lippel
A Book of Songs (2019)
Recorded and edited by Dan Shores
Sono Luminus, 11 June 2017
Recorded and edited by Ryan Streber
Oktaven Audio, 21 March 2021
Ars Poetica (2021)
counter)induction: Marlanda Dekine, poet; Nurit Pacht, violin; Daniel Lippel, guitar; Caleb van der Swaagh, cello
Recorded and edited by Ryan Streber
Oktaven Audio, 24 June 2023
Produced by Douglas Boyce, Ryan Streber and Daniel Lippel
Douglas Boyce writes chamber music that draws on Renaissance traditions and modernist aesthetics, building rich rhythmic structures that shift between order, fragmentation, elegance, and ferocity. Regarding A Book of Songs (2006, in process), the Washington Post wrote “[they] can only be described as drop-dead beautiful. Easily the most captivating works on the program, these songs of love and death are extraordinarily well written and insightful.” Regarding La Déploration, (2016) Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote that "...the violinist, cellist... and clarinetist... spread out throughout the crypt. Against vaporous harmonics and ghostly fragments of Renaissance music played by the strings, [a] warm, clear clarinet announced itself as very much alive as it sashayed in and out of blues territory and laughed in the face of their mournful keening.”https://www.douglasboyce.net
Robert Baker has been a pillar of the Washington D.C. classical music scene for over 30 years. He has performed in over 250 productions with the Washington National Opera, including high-profile premieres of works by Phillip Glass and Jake Heggie. Other career highlights include his Metropolitan Opera debut and a Grammy-winning recording with the National Symphony Orchestra. As an esteemed interpreter of Britten, Baker has sung the Serenade across the country. He has collaborated on over 20 premieres of new works and frequently performs contemporary music. Baker has been on the faculty of The George Washington University since 1992. His acclaimed career also includes singing with the US Air Force Singing Sergeants, and major symphonies across the country. After 30+ years on stage, Baker continues to captivate audiences with his versatile artistry.
Pianist Molly Orlando is a versatile soloist, collaborator, teacher, and adjudicator praised for her expressive and edgy performances of both traditional and contemporary repertoire. An advocate of new music, Orlando has premiered numerous works by contemporary composers and frequently collaborates with ensembles like UrbanArias and Third Millennium Ensemble. She often performs with renowned classical saxophonists and has given concerts internationally. Recent highlights include an album of story-inspired works and a performance of Andy Akiho’s music with the US Air Force Band. Based in the Washington D.C. area, Orlando is on faculty at George Washington University and co-owns a music studio. Her artistry and advocacy have made her a sought-after soloist and collaborator on the contemporary classical music scene.
Created by New York City and Boston based soprano Corrine Byrne and trumpeter Andy Kozar, the Byrne:Kozar:Duo presents historically informed performances of Baroque music for natural trumpet and soprano in addition to commissioning new works for modern trumpet and soprano. They have been said to create 'an arresting symbiosis in their melding of voice and trumpet timbres' (Textura) and that the 'trumpet and voice seem to take on one another's qualities' (Bandcamp Daily). As individuals, Corrine has been called a ‘celebrated singer’ (Broadway World) and 'a rising star' (Arts Westchester) while Andy has been called a 'star soloist' (TimeOutNY) and ‘polished and dynamic, with very impressive playing’ (Baltimore Sun). Combining their strengths as performers and interpreters of both early and modern music, the Byrne:Kozar:Duo has commissioned new works by composers including Reiko Futing, Paula Matthusen, David Smooke, Scott Worthington and Scott Wollschleger. As recording artists, they can be heard on a recent release of the music of Scott Wollshleger on New Focus Recordings which was named a Notable Recording of 2017 in The New Yorker. Recent appearances include performances at the Boston Early Music Festival, Lake George Music Festival, Divergent Studio at the Longy School of Music, NienteForte in New Orleans, and New Music Miami. They have also been heard on American Public Media's Performance Today as well as on National Public Radio.
In its twenty years of virtuosic performances and daring programming, the composer/performer collective counter)induction has established itself as a force of excellence in contemporary music. Hailed by The New York Times for its “fiery ensemble virtuosity” and for its “first-rate performances” by The Washington Post, c)i has given critically-acclaimed performances at Miller Theatre, Merkin Concert Hall, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Music at the Anthology, and the George Washington University. Since emerging in 1998 from a series of collaborations between composers at the University of Pennsylvania and performers at the Juilliard School, counter)induction has premiered numerous pieces by both established and emerging American composers; including Eric Moe, Suzanne Sorkin, Ursula Mamlok, and Lee Hyla. c)i has also widely promoted the music of international composers including Jukka Tiensuu, Gilbert Amy, Dai Fujikura, Diego Tedesco, and Elena Mendoza. Since its inception, c)i’s mission has been straightforward: world-class performances of contemporary chamber music, without hype and without agenda other than a complete commitment to the most compelling music of our day.http://counterinduction.com/
Violinist Nurit Pacht has led an illustrious international career as a soloist and chamber musician. A prize winner at prestigious competitions, she has performed as a soloist across the globe, including high-profile events for the UN and European Commission. Pacht toured the U.S. and Europe in the theatrical work “Relative Light” featuring Cage’s “Freeman Etudes” and collaborated with choreographer Bill T. Jones on Bach works. She premiered and recorded Noam Sherif’s violin concerto “Dibrot” written for her. As a baroque specialist, Pacht earned her master’s at Juilliard. An advocate of contemporary music, she has premiered several new works. Her extensive discography includes the Toccata Classics release of Ernst Krenek’s Violin Concerto. With critical acclaim for her “intense musicality” (The Strad), Pacht continues to captivate audiences worldwide through her vibrant artistry.
Guitarist Dan Lippel, called a "modern guitar polymath (Guitar Review)" and an "exciting soloist" (NY Times) is active as a soloist, chamber musician, and recording artist. He has been the guitarist for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) since 2005 and new music quartet Flexible Music since 2003. Recent performance highlights include recitals at Sinus Ton Festival (Germany), University of Texas at San Antonio, MOCA Cleveland, Center for New Music in San Francisco, and chamber performances at the Macau Music Festival (China), Sibelius Academy (Finland), Cologne's Acht Brücken Festival (Germany), and the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. He has appeared as a guest with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and New York New Music Ensemble, among others, and recorded for Kairos, Bridge, Albany, Starkland, Centaur, and Fat Cat.http://www.danlippel.com
A versatile chamber musician and soloist, cellist Caleb van der Swaagh is an alumnus of Ensemble ACJW (now known as Ensemble Connect) – a program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute in partnership with the New York City Department of Education. Caleb is a first prize winner in the SAVVY Chamber Competition and is the recipient of the Manhattan School of Music Pablo Casals Award and the Tanglewood Karl Zeise Memorial Cello Prize and was also a grant recipient from the Virtu Foundation. As a chamber musician, Caleb has performed with the Borromeo String Quartet, The Knights, A Far Cry, and the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players and has recently appeared at such festivals as the Chelsea Music Festival, Ottawa ChamberFest, Garth Newel Music Center, Music from Montauk, and Birdfoot Festival. Caleb’s most recent release is the Carter Clarinet Quintet with Phoenix Ensemble on Navona and he has also appeared on recordings on Albany Records, Bright Shiny Things, Supertrain Records, Linn Records, and Avie Records.
An advocate of contemporary music, Caleb is a member of counter)induction and Ensemble Échappé as well as performing with other leading new music ensembles. Among many others, Caleb has premiered works by such composers as Beat Furrer, Ted Hearne, Iancu Dumitrescu, Christian Wolff, Roscoe Mitchell, and Georg Friedrich Haas. He also regularly performs his own compositions and arrangements.
A native New Yorker, Caleb graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University as part of the Columbia – Juilliard Exchange program with a degree in Classics and Medieval & Renaissance Studies. Caleb received his master’s degree with academic honors from New England Conservatory and later studied at the Manhattan School of Music. His primary teachers are Bonnie Hampton, Bernard Greenhouse, Laurence Lesser, and David Geber. Caleb plays on a cello made by David Wiebe in 2012. For more information, visit www.calebvanderswaagh.comhttps://www.calebvanderswaagh.com/
Just another digital release of a living composer with strange squeaky music?
No, please don’t make that erroneous assumption while contemplating the lovely cover art of The Bird is an Alphabet, a new album of works by American composer Douglas Boyce. This is top artistry from every point of view.
Boyce’s compositions often feature intricate textures, unconventional harmonies, and a willingness to explore new sonic possibilities. His work reflects a deep engagement with contemporary musical techniques while pushing stylistic boundaries and challenging traditional norms, but he also finds inspiration in Medieval and Renaissance traditions.
His use of dissonance and unique rhythmic structures adds complexity to his pieces, creating a distinct and innovative musical language. Boyce is also recognized for his attention to timbral details, creating rich and nuanced sonic landscapes within his works. Overall, his style goes far over the usual avant-garde composers, even if, in some works, he has a certain affinity to Dallapiccola and Berio.
But let us see the compositions in detail.
First of all, this album is blessed by the presence of two top voices: Robert Baker, a well-known tenor with an impressive list of world premiere recordings, and soprano Corinne Byrne, rightly famous for the ease with which she tackles the greatest difficulties of intonation and extension.
In the 17 tracks, we can follow three works, the first called A Book of Songs. Set for a tenor and piano, it divides itself into three movements: “A Feather for Voltaire,” “The Apple Orchard in October,” and “Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule Et les Unze Mille Vierges.” This last complicated title in medieval French probably comes from a legend about the martyrdom of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand followers at the hands of the Huns. 
The music is spectacular, a real showcase for the pianist Molly Orlando, far beyond the usual in terms of technical difficulties. As said, the immensely expressive voice of Robert Baker adds much to the charm of this score. In the last movement, some extra-musical sources of piano sound are used, like chord rapping, glissandi on the soundboard, and similar effects. Here the danger of doing so only for the sake of a nice gadget is great, but fully avoided by the composer, who uses them in a very poetic way. This work is definitely the best of the album.
A four-part composition called Scriptorium follows. Here, we have the chance to listen to the equally charming voice of Corinne Byrne. Versatile, very attractive in the low register, but extraordinary in the highest notes, which she reaches without any apparent effort.
The four parts, “Tyrian Purple,” “Orpiment,” “Lampblack,” and “Verdigris,” are quite unique in style and perfectly accompanied by the trumpet playing of Andrew Kozar. Here again, the composer reaches the seemingly impossible task of creating a viable harmonic support out of a trumpet, an instrument of not so many expressive possibilities. The first part will leave you guessing what instrument it might be to produce such intriguing sounds.
The final work, on tracks 8 to 16, is Ars Poetica. Here, we can follow the poet Marlanda Dekine recite five of her short works: “Wilderness,” “Returning,” “Out there,” “Reclamation,” and “Risk.” All these quite short miniatures are interspersed by four purely instrumental intermezzi. The quite monotonous voice of Ms. Dekine may not be the best choice to bring this per se good poetry to life; maybe a good actress would be a better choice. Violinist Nurit Pacht, guitarist Daniel Lippel, and cellist Caleb van der Swaagh provide the accompaniment. They are doing their best but are a hint too disorganized to be really impressive.
So all in all, this is a fine way to discover the intimate and refined inner world of the composer Douglas Boyce, whose music probably never will be considered in the mainstream music industry but certainly deserves to be known to aficionados of 21st-century music.
— Mark Gresham, 12.09.2023
From Washington, D.C. composer Douglas Boyce, The Bird Is an Alphabet is an album of three sets of works for voice in various settings. For one of these sets Boyce has chosen the conventional voice-and-piano setting, while the other two feature more unusual orchestrations. The first three tracks are taken from Boyce’s A Book of Songs, scored for tenor voice and piano (on this recording, Robert Baker and Molly Orlando, respectively), which sets texts by various poets and philosophers. The three pieces included here are well within the tradition of Western art song and feature poems by Jorie Graham, Wallace Stevens, and B. J. Ward. On Ward’s contribution, “The Apple Orchard in October,” Boyce elicits an autumnal mood by framing the text in dark harmonies and drawing the words out in long, brooding lines. Scriptorium, a setting of four texts from poet Melissa Range’s 2016 book of that title, was written for the duo of soprano Corrine Byne and trumpeter Andy Kozar – a challengingly spare combination of voices. Boyce’s scoring, which alludes to the modality and contrapuntalism of early music, not only effectively exploits the possibilities available to two single-line instruments, but fittingly matches the medieval theme that informs Range’s poetry. Range’s own graceful handling of language’s consonances and fluid rhythms would seem to lend itself to melodic writing and plays no small part in the success of these pieces. The final set of pieces is Ars Poetica, written for the fine contemporary chamber ensemble counter)induction (Daniel Lippel, guitar; Nurit Pacht, violin; Caleb van der Swaagh, cello) and poet Marlanda Dekine. This nine-part work consists of five settings of Dekine’s poems, read here by the poet, alternating with four instrumental interludes. Boyce underscores the drama and rhetorical force of Dekine’s words by contrasting the poet’s evenly measured speech rhythms with the ensemble’s darting along in skittish counterpoint or breaking up into fragmentary motifs.
— Daniel Barbiero, 12.22.2023
Having three newly recorded pieces by Boyce is something to celebrate for sure, and his modernist Medievalism (or is that Medieval modernism?) sounds fantastic on this well-conceived grouping. A Book Of Songs (2019) opens the album in charming fashion, with tenor Robert Baker and pianist Molly Orlando sounding at ease, while Scriptorium (2021), written for the Byrne:Kozar Duo is a nice bonus for this fan of It Floats Away From You (see above). The final piece, Ars Poetica (2021), finds Boyce pushing in new directions, collaborating with Gullah-Geechee poet Marlanda Dekine, whose stolid recitations create a powerful counterpoint to the playing of Counter)Induction, the violin/guitar/cello trio of Nurit Pacht, Daniel Lippel, and Caleb van der Swaagh.
— Jeremy Shatan, 1.04.2024
For the American composer Douglas Boyce, writing music is an act of philosophising. Each of the recent vocalchamber works gathered on this album revolves around a distinctive stylistic orientation and scoring. The effect is not merely an array of varying sound environments but an interrogation of the nature of language – musical and verbal, and the potential interlockings between these conduits of meaning – along with its limits and liberations.
Boyce, born in 1970 and a humanist committed to probing the significance of creating music in the present vis-à-vis its historical burden, shows a particular kinship to the polyphonic inquisitiveness of the poet Jorie Graham. His setting of ‘A Feather for Voltaire’ (from Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Dream of the Unified Field) not only launches the album but is the source of its title (the poem begins: ‘The bird is an alphabet’). Graham’s splendid text itself transmogrifies ‘nature poetry’ into (at times unsettling) philosophic rumination about the nature of art.
Boyce positions ‘Feather’ as the first in his triptych A Book of Songs for piano and tenor, complemented by settings of fellow American poets BJ Ward (‘The Apple Orchard in October’) and Wallace Stevens (the remarkable ‘Cy est pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et les unze mille vierges’ from Stevens’s debut collection, Harmonium). Even here, in the most conventionally scored cycle on the album, Boyce recalibrates assumptions about the art song. Pianist Molly Orlando’s exchanges with the tenor – Robert Baker’s timbre uncannily evoking echoes of Peter Pears – drift unpredictably between neoExpressionist word-painting and alluring abstractions.
The four-part cycle Scriptorium from 2021 sets rigorous but gorgeously wrought texts by the Tennessee poet Melissa Range as duets for soprano and trumpet (Corrine Byrne and Andy Kozar). Boyce draws on his longstanding interest in medieval and early music, exploiting the alienness of rhythmic and contrapuntal practice and his peculiar coupling of timbres to striking, avant-garde effect.
A third, bracingly vernacular exploration of song and chamber music emerges in the collaborative Ars Poetica, the most recent work on the album, which Boyce characterises as ‘an intersection of worlds … thinking on what it is to live, to love, even to merely be in the Zerrissenheit of this world’. The poetry by Marlanda Dekine (a member of South Carolina’s Gullah Geechee community) addresses American culture and the struggle for identity from both intimate and epic perspectives. Dekine delivers a riveting spoken-word performance every bit as virtuosic as the commentary and instrumental interludes played by the trio of violin, cello and guitar – members of the artist collective counter)induction, which Boyce co-founded in 1998. Shades of Copland in his populist mode enter surprisingly but unironically, in the final section, bringing Boyce’s polyglot stylistic allusions to a conciliatory, gentle ending.
— Thomas May, 1.17.2024
The Bird is an Alphabet is the recent release from New Focus Recordings of three song cycles composed by Douglas Boyce on texts by Jorie Graham, BJ Ward, Wallace Stevens, Melissa Range and Marlanda Dekine. The works are performed by Robert Baker, Molly Orlando, the Byrne:Kozar:Duo and counter)induction with Marlanda Dekine. The hour-long album is available in digital format and includes an e-booklet with notes on the pieces and an introductory essay on the theme of the album, namely the bird as a symbol of both encoded meaning and experiential transcendence. Reinforcing this metaphor is the fact that the various sections of the liner notes are headed by short inscriptions in a cryptic alphabetic script. Upon applying my own decipherment efforts, however, these appear to simply be short excerpts of poetic lines and composition titles from the album project transcribed into an invented UK-English-based phonetic alphabet.
The album opens with A Book of Songs on texts by Graham, Ward and Stevens - in three movements - for tenor voice and piano, here interpreted by Baker and Orlando. The opening movement, 'A Feather For Voltaire', features a slow and steady tenor voice line underscored by a versatile piano texture that alternates among fast ostinati in the mid-high range of the instrument, abrupt declamatory gestures in the bass and silent pauses. Harmonically, the music moves between freely atonal and diatonic sonorities with an apparent focus on the dominant seventh chord. Altogether, the movement seems to symbolically suggest a prolonged state of tension between restrained readiness to take flight and flight itself.
Movement two, 'The Apple Orchard in October', unfolds at a slower pace than the first and is characterized by the piano's focus on the lower-mid register, juxtaposing legato bass notes and arpeggiated staccato triads in a harmonic framework that suggests bitonality, lending the text setting a kind of uneasy resonance. Meanwhile, the vocal line reinforces this same aesthetic with dramatic effect through the incorporation of repeated notes and glissandi. Movement three, 'Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, Et Les Unze Mille Vierges', introduces a new texture - repeated block chords in the piano - which propels the music forward with more momentum and allows the listener to hear more of a simultaneity of voice and piano than is heard in the other movements. In addition, the use of hand-muting, strumming and plucking on the piano strings lends an array of timbral surprises throughout the movement that enhance the text setting and help create a sense of sonic development for the song cycle as a whole.
This is followed by the next song cycle, Scriptorium, a setting of texts by Range in four movements for soprano and trumpet, here performed by the Byrne:Kozar:Duo. The first movement, 'Tyrian Purple', is moderately slow and quiet, showcasing the voice and trumpet in imitative polyphony through a fluid harmonic field characterized by emphasis on tritones and octaves. Here, occasional instances of the growl effect in the trumpet are used to add further harmonic color and, thus, suggest a homophonic dimension amid an otherwise polyphonic soundscape.
The second movement, 'Orpiment', continues the rhythmic momentum of the first movement in a slightly faster tempo, louder dynamic and more diatonic harmonic palette. In addition, the use of higher registers in the trumpet - with and without a mute - brightens the timbral experience of the music. In movement three, 'Lampblack', the sound world established in the first two movements is rhythmically expanded through the audible use of polymeter. This is further enhanced by the juxtaposition of high registers in the slow-moving voice with low registers in the fast-moving muted trumpet. In the fourth and final movement, 'Verdigris', the music returns to a midrange tempo for voice and trumpet alike, as both reach the highest registers of their respective ranges. Here, repeated motives emerge in both voice and trumpet reminiscent of bird calls, forming a kind of imitative polyphony that is distinct from - while still strangely reminiscent of - the imitations heard in the opening movement.
The album concludes with Ars Poetica, a song cycle on poems of Dekine in nine movements, as interpreted by the guitar-violin-cello trio counter)induction with spoken-word recitation by the poet. More specifically, the song cycle consists of five movements of sung texts interspersed with four instrumental intermezzi. In the first movement, 'Wilderness', all three instruments move continuously in a medium tempo with a fluid harmonic palette blending elements of free atonality with tritone-focused harmonic centrism. The spoken word unfolds at a pace that seems to overlap with the tempo of the instruments, though in a manner rather more organic and spacious than metronomic. This is followed by the brief 'Intermezzo 1', which preserves the metrical flow of the preceding movement with a series of slightly more frenzied gestures.
In movement three, 'Returning', the instrumental tempo slows considerably, as does the texture. Here, the sonic palette is mostly monophonic and rhythmically free, though instrumental gestures seem to occasionally punctuate the speaker's syllables, suggesting more of a strict rhythmic composition in the voice. The brief 'Intermezzo 2' follows, breaking up the texture with some densely woven atonal counterpoint at a semi-brisk tempo. In this movement, the instruments play in their higher registers, lending a sonic brightness which provides a timbral contrast to the other movements as well. Next is the brief and fierce fifth movement, 'Out There', which juxtaposes percussive dissonances with stark open-strings fifths. In addition, Boyce uses significant silent pauses in the accompaniment to help give the reader a great deal of space, which proves crucial in helping the listener absorb the poem's words portraying racial injustice and police brutality.
This is followed in stark contrast by the very slow and tranquil 'Intermezzo 3', which arguably feels like a brief wordless elegy in light of the preceding movement. For movement seven, 'Reclamation', the mid-tempo strings take on yet another timbral shift, here employing pizzicato for the first time in the song cycle. This pizzicato continues in 'Intermezzo 4', uniting with previously heard textures - such as slow legato strings and lyrical melodic passages - to suggest an impending summary of the cycle as a sonic experience. The ninth and final movement, 'Risk', sees the three instruments uniting in lush, sonorous homophonic textures in accompaniment to the spoken word, suggesting a kind of Baroque-style operatic lament to end the song cycle.
From the album's title and symbolic presentation to Boyce's composition of the music itself, The Bird is an Alphabet is a deceptively complex release that invites listeners to take an active role in discovering the layers of meaning hidden throughout its depths of sound and its presentation of language and symbolism. Unusually for a vocal album, the texts themselves are not present in the liner notes; the reader is instead redirected to find these on the label's website. Nonetheless, I hardly consider this a design flaw in light of everything else described here. On the contrary, it seems to me rather 'on theme', especially in light of the linguistic puzzle (the literal cryptic alphabet) that heads the sections of the liner notes. It all contributes to the experience of a final product wherein, phenomenologically, nearly every perceptible aspect of the album is a challenge of decoding laid out for the listener - one with rewards of insight awaiting those who fully commit to the journey. In conclusion, this is an album highly recommended for those with an interest in the forefront of experimental symbolism in contemporary song cycles, an unusual vision bravely conceived and sensitively executed by all involved.
— John Dante Prevedini, 1.24.2024