Fields: Devonté Hynes’ Debut Classical Album with Third Coast Percussion

On October 11, 2019, pop music star Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) released his debut classical album Fields in partnership with Grammy-Award winning ensemble Third Coast Percussion on Cedille Records. The album features world premieres of Hynes’ music performed by Third Coast Percussion, with Hynes himself on synthesizers. Hynes’ synthetic sounds blend pop aesthetics with classical and ambient soundscape composition, creating a foundation over which Third Coast Percussion works its magic as virtuoso performers.

Hynes’ cycle For all its Fury for Third Coast Percussion in collaboration with Modern dance company Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is a collage of meditative minimalism mixed with electronic noise filtering set in a multi-movement form. Simple, clean lines executed by TCP with the utmost delicacy permeate the movements, creating microcosms of Hynes’ ambient sound world. The piece oscillates between electroacoustic and electronic cells that reemerge in a post-minimalist blend of noise music and Glass-ian motives as clouds of amorphous electronic sound wash over and through the polyrhythmic textures that metrically modulate.

The cycle’s opening movement, “Reach,” introduces ideas that recur throughout the piece and envelop the listener in a sound collage of crotale clusters, vibraphones, and marimbas mixed with a wooly blend of synthetic swells that loop and occasionally stutter. One of the highlights of the cycle is the sixth movement, “Hush.” “Hush” casts a spell over the listener as icy chimes resonate through the still space of the piece, devoid of time and pulse, cleansing the ear of the noise and pulsating elements of previous movements and providing an oasis of clarity in the middle of the piece. Other highlights include the final movement, which gives the album its namesake. An amalgamation of motifs from earlier, “Fields” features washes of ambient sound from which xylophones interject fragments of fleeting, ephemeral melodies. Third Coast Percussion’s treatment of such delicate material creates a collage of metric perfection that emerges as quickly as it dissipates.

For All its Fury neither thrills nor makes any great blunders. The sound world of the cycle becomes somewhat monotonous and treble heavy, lacking any bass-range instruments to balance the orchestration. The electronic sounds at times blend nicely with the xylophones, vibraphones, and other pitched percussion instruments, though at other times, interject themselves in unnecessary moments and seem forced for the sake of adding electronics. Third Coast Percussion’s performance elevates the piece through their flowing execution, yet each vignette-like movement is just shy of putting forth a minimalist idea that fleshes itself out fully and leaves the listener wishing to spend more time in each moment Hynes creates.

Separate from For All its Fury are two standalone pieces that are well worth the wait, displaying Hynes’ prowess and ease as a classical composer. Perfectly Voiceless, a moto perpetuo piece for pitched percussion, delivers the strong profile that was missing from the previous set. Each cascading cell builds on the last and nestles its way into a relentless groove, performed effortlessly by Third Coast Percussion. TCP unapologetically tears through hemiola after hemiola without the slightest pause or reservation, flawlessly shredding the intricate, kaleidoscopic patterns with virtuosic fluidity.

Hubbard Street Dancers Kevin Shannon (left seated), Adrienne Lipson (center), and Hubbard Street Apprentice Gaby Diaz (right seated) in There Was Nothing by Movement Art Is (Jon Boogz and Lil Buck) accompanied by Third Coast Percussion--Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Hubbard Street Dancers Kevin Shannon (left seated), Adrienne Lipson (center), and Hubbard Street Apprentice Gaby Diaz (right seated) in There Was Nothing by Movement Art Is (Jon Boogz and Lil Buck) accompanied by Third Coast Percussion–Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Hynes’ There Was Nothing again showcases Third Coast Percussion’s delectable ability to create floating, trance-like stillness in their playing. Hynes allows for the chords to echo and reverberate with the utmost clarity, the chimes piercing silences like lightning through rain. The piece falters somewhat with the addition of the electronic synth pads, however, as they interrupt the sound world at awkward moments and do not seem to coexist with the already established ideas of the piece.

Fields is well-performed, and both Perfectly Voiceless and There Was Nothing make the album worth a listen. While many of the movements of For All of its Fury tend to fade into the background cliché, Hynes certainly has the potential to reach new audiences through his blend of pop and classical roots.