Monday, December 31, 2018

Best Of 2018: Classical

The fecundity of the contemporary classical scene continues to fill me with amazement - and gratitude. Hundreds of hours during my 2018 have been enhanced by the pioneering spirit of the composers, performers and labels who continue to inject streams of inventive sounds into an already rich river of music. My Top 25 included six of the best new music recordings, but barely scratched the surface of all the great albums that came out in the last 12 months. I will highlight some others that thrilled me this year, including a few new releases featuring old music that rose above the clamor, starting with those I already covered in previous posts.

Record Roundup: One Day In 2018

Johnny Gandelsman - J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Violin
Matteo Liberatore - Solos
Maya Baiser - The Day

Words + Music, Part 1: Laurie Anderson And Kronos Quartet

Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet - Landfall

Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations

Clarice Jensen - For This From That Will Be Filled
Tania Chen - John Cage: Electronic Music For Piano

Best Of 2018 (So Far)

Wang Lu - Urban Inventory

Record Roundup: Avant Chamber and Orchestral

Duo Noire - Night Triptych
Joshua Modney - Engage
Seattle Symphony - Berio-Boulez-Ravel

Three Portraits: Cheung-Trapani-Du Yun

Anthony Cheung - Cycles And Arrows

Focus On Contemporary Classical

Nordic Affect - He(a)r
Lorelei Ensemble - Impermanence
Notus - Of Radiance And Refraction
The Crossing - Zealot Canticles
John Lane - Peter Garland: The Landscape Scrolls
Ken Thomson - Sextet
FLUX Quartet - Michael Hersch: Images From A Closed Ward

Piano Promenade
Whether solo and all-natural or treated and limned with electronics, the piano was at the center of dozens of notable recordings. These caught my attention.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Messiaen: Catalogue d'Oiseaux The 20th Century master's magnum opus of birdsong for 88 keys receives a gorgeous - a likely definitive - treatment from Aimard. If this is a Messiaen mountain you've been waiting to climb, let Aimard be your guide.

Igor Levit - Life It's wonderful to see this supremely talented pianist broadening his palate well beyond often recorded works by Bach and Beethoven. Here he blends Busoni and Liszt transcriptions of Bach and Wagner with Schumann's last work and pieces by Frederic Rzewski and Bill Evans for his most personal collection to date.

Lubomyr Melnyk - The Dreamers Ever Leave You and Fallen Trees Combining Melnyk's ecstatic and romantic approach to minimalism with ballet was a brilliant stroke and even without seeing the movement, Melnyk's inspiration feels very immediate. Fallen Trees is more of a group effort, with several of Melnyk's label-mates from Erased Tapes taking part - but his immersive vision is at the forefront.

Dmitri Evgrafov - Return Following on from his stunning and immersive Comprehension Of Light, Evgrafov narrows his focus on this EP, putting his melancholy piano in the foreground and proving that a limited palate hardly tones down his epic tendencies.

Tigran Hamasyan - For Gyumri This Armenian pianist is usually sorted with jazz, but his meditative pieces, especially on this EP, rub shoulders more naturally with the keyboard vanguard in this category. Put another way, when I want to listen to jazz piano I don't reach for Hamasyan, but if I've already listened to Melnyk or Evgrafov and want to keep the mood going I will.

Hauschka - Adrift and Patrick Melrose A contemporary savant of the prepared piano, Hauschka embarrassed us with many riches in the realm of soundtracks. These two are just the ones that stood out for me, with the first capturing the external loneliness of the open sea and the second exposing the contours of a different kind of loneliness, that of the acerbic character created by Edward St. Aubyn and played to a T by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Kelly Moran - Ultraviolet Moran also uses prepared piano to execute her sonic paintings, but I see her as more of a synthesist than Hauschka, which is why it makes perfect sense to see her working with Daniel Lopatin (who releases powerful electronic soundscapes as Oneohtrix Point Never) on this lush and sparkling collection.

Vicky Chow - Michael Gordon: Sonatra The great pianist from Bang On A Can demonstrates that nothing but a piano - and the wicked imagination of Michael Gordon - is required to create a musical brain teaser. M.C. Escher would be jealous of the way the repeating arpeggios seem to fold into themselves in an endless series.

Chamber Constellations
Perhaps due to economic factors, some of the most exciting and innovative new music is being written for solo instruments and small ensembles. Proof yet again that size doesn't matter!

JACK Quartet - John Luther Adams: Everything That Rises I admit to somewhat blanking out when terms like "just intonation" and "harmonic clouds" are thrown around, but one listen to this landmark, hour-long string quartet (the composer's fourth) will shut down anything cerebral for a glassy and fascinating journey into the heart of these instruments. The JACK's concentration is astonishing.

Aizuri Quartet - Blueprinting Since 2012, the Aizuri has been receiving constant acclaim for its performances but only just this fall put out its first album - and it's a doozy! Including five world-premiere recordings of works by Gabrielle Smith, Caroline Shaw, Yevgeniy Sharlat, Lembit Beecher and Paul Wiancko, Blueprinting evinces a complete unity of purpose amongst the four players in both their playing and artistic vision. While they push the envelope sonically, with percussive effects and Beecher's "sound sculptures," this is an easy album to love from the first listen.

Francis Macdonald - Hamilton Mausoleum Suite That the combination of string quartet and harp recorded in an especially resonant space (the titular mausoleum, which is in Lanarkshire, Scotland and once housed the remains of Alexander, the tenth duke of Hamilton) made for a lovely and transporting listen should come as a surprise to no one. That composer Macdonald is also the drummer in Teenage Fanclub, a band whose own fan club always seemed to overstate their importance, was certainly a surprise to me. Who knows what other amazing talents occupy the backline of other Scottish indie rock bands?

Wet Ink Ensemble - Wet Ink: 20 Even two decades in, this all-star group still plays cutting edge music as if the ink is still drying on the score. This collection, with works by Artistic Directors Alex Mincek, Sam Pluta, Kate Soper and Eric Wubbels among others, celebrates that legacy with style.

Trey Pollard - Antiphone The in-house arranger for Spacebomb, whose work has graced some of my favorite albums in recent years, is given his head as a composer and reveals a gift for pared down chamber pieces with a bit of drama and no lack of sparkle.

Jennifer Koh - Saariaho X Koh I knew this album was inevitable after hearing Koh's commanding performance of a solo violin piece by Kaija Saariaho at the Hotel Elefant fifth anniversary benefit two years ago - but the results far exceeded my expectations. Not only does Koh have an affinity for Saariaho's sound world, but the Finnish composer's work for strings is deeply affecting and involving. The world premiere recording of the cinematic Light And Shadow for violin, cello and piano is worth the price of admission but all the pieces are riveting.

The Hands Free This debut album by an ensemble comprised of James Moore (guitar/banjo), Caroline Shaw (violin), Nathan Koci (accordion) and Eleonore Oppenheim (bass) shows that supergroups can work as all are well known for their work in groups like Roomful of Teeth, Victoire and Dither. It also makes sense musically as the unusual combination of instruments seems to mesh perfectly with their musical vision. Lovely Jenny, which wears its folk roots on its sleeve, is an especially effective song but the whole album intrigues and satisfies in equal measure. Let's hope they find time in their busy schedule to make another one of these!

Marianne Gythfeldt - Only Human A clarinetist with the Talea Ensemble and other collectives, Gythfeldt steps out on her own with this stunning (and stunningly recorded - every pop, click and breath is perfectly captured) collection of commissioned electro-acoustic works. The composers - John Link, Mikel Kuehn, David Taddie, Elizabeth Hoffman, Eric Lyon and Robert Morris - are all unknown to me, which puts the album in the class of public service for raising their profiles. Gythfeldt is setting a new standard for her instrument here.

Transient Canvas - Wired The unusual duo of Amy Advocat's bass clarinet and Matt Sharrock's marimba comes into clearer focus on their second album. Works by Kirsten Volness and Dan Van Hassel bookend the record, effectively containing the variety within, which traverses the melodic and meditative to something approaching musique concrète.

Tigue - Strange Paradise Composers and percussionists Matt Evans, Amy Garapic and Carson Moody have assembled their most lapidary offering yet as Tigue, with three long tracks making epic - and even occasionally groovy - paintings for your ears. Post-rock aficionados looking to further broaden their horizons should get with Tigue stat.

The human voice, that most elemental of instruments, was well represented this year, especially in choral albums like those mentioned above and below.

Skylark Vocal Ensemble - Seven Words from the Cross One of my favorite things about this group, who were responsible for the remarkable Crossing Over, is their desire to use words and music to communicate. Sounds obvious, I know, but it's not always the case with choral music. Here the run the gamut, from William Billings and American traditional songs like Amazing Grace to Hildegard von Bingen and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, to take us on a dignified and moving journey through Christ's final statements from Golgotha. Through this kaleidoscopic selection, they manage to create a newly relevant impression of those canonical words. Like Christ's teachings themselves, these beautiful melodies need not remain in a house of worship. Play them in your house and find wonder wherever you are.

The Crossing - If There Were Water If this technically adept choir, led by Donald Nally had only released Zealot Chronicles (see above) this year, it would have been a distinguished year for them. But they also put out this dark and challenging album, which pairs two works about diaspora and displacement, stretching across centuries and continents. Greek composer Stratis Minakakais contributes Crossings Cycle, which addresses the tragedy of Syrian refugees, while Gregory W. Brown's un/body/ing addresses the removal of native Americans from western Massachusetts - and then a later eviction of European settlers, pushed out to build a reservoir. Between this and Zealot Chronicles, The Crossing is rapidly becoming a CNN for choral America.

Barbara Hannigan - Vienna: Fin de Siècle One of the finest singers of art songs takes on the birth of modernism as it arose out of late romanticism in Vienna. So we have cycles by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler and Hugo Wolf, beautifully sung and sensitively accompanied by Reinbert de Leeuw on piano. What more could you ask for?

Christian Gerhaher - Schumann: Frage Somehow the incredible series of albums by baritone Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber passed me by - maybe because many of them weren't released in the U.S. This, the first in a new series taking on all of Schumann's lieder, proves Gerhaher is a singer for the ages and that Huber is the perfect accompanist. This album is an instant classic and would not sound out of place among the great Deutsche Grammophon recordings of the 50's and 60's. Is there a subscription service so I don't miss anything else from these two?

Dmitri Tymoczko - Fools And Angels Given that prog rock is respectable now it was only natural for composers to start reverse engineering it for the concert hall. While Tymoczko seems to lean more toward Gentle Giant than my beloved King Crimson in his listening habits, this collection is a wild ride of outré harmonies and adventurous textures. He also makes a convincing stab at a Scott Johnson-like approach to field recordings in Let The Bodies Hit The Floor, which uses audio from This American Life.

Living Large
Even given what I said above, there are still many new works - and old works discovered - for larger forces. Here are three of the best. 

Michael Hersch - End Stages and Violin Concerto With Images From A Closed Ward immediately establishing Hersch as a striking architect of darkness for string quartet, this album shows that he can think big as well. The Concerto is a gnarly and gripping piece, with a performance by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the International Contemporary Ensemble that will be hard to better. End Stages is featured in a live performance by the legendary Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and finds them delivering the eight short movements with authority, letting the emotionally probing writing shine. I have a feeling there will be more impressive work to come from Hersch.

Florence Price: Violin Concertos Inclusion is paramount on all sides of the concert stage and part of the road to parity is righting wrongs of the past - which is why the rediscovery of these major works by Price, an African-American woman who died in 1953, is so welcome. Albany Records, which has been championing American music for decades, is the perfect label to release Price's music, allowing her to enter the catalog alongside her peers. And this recording, with the violin of Er-Gene Kahng and the Janacek Philharmonic conducted by Ryan Cockerham, makes a more than persuasive case for these sweeping, tuneful pieces. They should be performed often, perhaps paired with a work by Dvorak, who reliably packs concert halls and famously remarked, "The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States."

Daniel Bjarnason - Collider As demonstrated on last year's Recurrence, also performed by the excellent Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Bjarnason is a master of mood expressed in orchestral form. Could these pieces work as electronic soundscapes? Certainly - but the combination of his synthetic sensibility with the organic, analog sounds of the symphony is sublime. His soundtrack to Under The Tree, a 2017 Icelandic film nominated for an Oscar, was also released this year and is more than worthy of investigation.

Find selections from most of these albums (save Aizuri Quartet and The Hands Free) in this playlist or below. You may also find something to love in the Of Note In 2018 (Classical) playlist, which is a wider selection of what came out this year. Finally, I've collected many of the Grammy nominees in the Classical category here.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Best Of 2018: The Top 25

Another year is coming to a close. In the light of the daily outrages on the geo-political stage, I am likely not the only one more fervently seeking solace and acknowledgement in music. Thankfully, some of our finest artists met that need with incredible records in 2018. What follows are the 25 that not only rose to every standard of excellence but engaged me on a deeper level, bonding to my very soul. Is that too high-falutin’ a sentiment for you? What else do you expect from AnEarful?

1. Holly Miranda - Mutual Horse Not only is Miranda’s third album a beautiful work of art, it’s also an act of giving - to her listeners, to her family, and to herself. 

2. Jonathan Wilson - Rare Birds On his third album proper, Wilson took more chances musically, lyrically and production-wise. What hasn’t changed is his wide-eyed sincerity and optimism. Some parts of the hippie ideal were worth preserving, after all, especially if the music sounds this incredible.  

3. Pusha T - Daytona It was a mad year for Kanye West fans but at least we got this one classic out of it, along with parts of Kids See Ghosts and Teyana Taylor’s album. Pusha T’s "luxury street rap" never sounded more incised in stone and some of the lyrics even allow for hints of self-reflection. As the man says, If You Know You Know

4. Olivia De Prato - Streya Stop with the Bach. This is how you make a 21st Century violin record. 

5. Natalie Prass - The Future and the Past Matthew E. White and the Spacebomb house band stretch themselves to realize Prass’s booty-shaking R&B visions. The results are sharp as a tack, with pinpoint rhythms and hooks galore. Prass delivers the songwriting goods as well, managing to always stay tuneful and positive while also letting you know that she’s very aware of all the social and political situations that are keeping us off kilter - and the vicissitudes of romance that can have the same effect. 

6. Andy Jenkins - Sweet Bunch Speaking of Spacebomb, this masterclass in songwriting by Jenkins receives the absolutely perfect sound from White, with swampy guitars, a small choir singing backup on some songs and the typically excellent rhythm work by Spacebomb house-band members Cameron Ralston (bass) and Pinson Chanselle (drums). Jenkins’s slightly rueful yet wise persona finds apt expression in his Nilsson-esque voice and all the elements add up to an addictive delight. 

7. Hollie Cook - Vessel Of Love Switching to Youth as producer and including Jah Wobble (PiL) and Keith Levene (The Clash, PiL) among the players leads to what I call post-punk’s reggae revenge - and revenge never sounded so sweet

8. Jonny Greenwood - Phantom Thread and You Were Never Really Here Another annus mirabilis for fans of the Radiohead guitarist’s film music as he showed off two of his sides: darkly romantic in the score to the Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece (four words I’ve never put together before) and just dark in the soundscapes for the disappointing Joaquin Phoenix (also not a common phrase!) feature. I have high hopes that Greenwood scores an Oscar this time around. See the movies or don’t - but listen no matter what. 

9. Christopher Trapani - Waterlines I called the title piece, written in the Katrina aftermath and based on old blues and country classics, an instant classic when I heard it performed by Lucy Dhegrae and the Talea Ensemble, the same forces who grace this recording. The other pieces are also excellent, risky and fascinating. 

10. Palm - Rock Island On their second album - and a major leap from their 2015 debut - Palm’s tricky time signatures, glossy textures and bright melodies keep me in a suspended state of sparkle while I listen. Live, their jams are weightier, which wasn’t a bad thing at all. 

11. Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Aequa This new portrait album of the Icelandic composer’s work, performed with authority by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), is yet another showcase of her wondrous work. Thorvaldsdottir is significant because her compositional scaffolding is among the strongest of anyone writing today, but her interest in recorded sound elevates her work into an almost tactile experience. From the first notes of Scape, a solo work for prepared piano (played by Cory Smyth), you can't help but be drawn into her vivid musical imagination. Long may she reign!

12. Shame - Songs Of Praise My love of angular post-punk rock is strong enough that I can overlook some of the familiarity I feel when listening to this young band. Also, the unity of their attack and sense of conviction about what they’re doing make for a killer album. Sky’s the limit, boys!

13. Du Yun - Dinosaur Scar The only recent Pulitzer Prize winner who’s even more of a badass than Kendrick Lamar, Du Yun manages to harness her big ideas into concise nuggets of passionate information. As she said at a recent concert“Through music I always want to tell stories about human relationships,” so the results are far from abstraction. It’ll be a while before we all catch with her, but this album, persuasively performed by ICE (do they ever sleep??) closes that distance by some measure. 

14. Mutual Benefit - Thunder Follows The Light Listening to Jordan Lee, the one constant member of Mutual Benefit, follow his muse and develop his songwriting into its current hymn-like state has been a central pleasure of our young century. Horns and strings, and almost no drums, push this gorgeous album further toward pastoral chamber pop and I will follow Lee as far as he wants to go down that road. 

15. Anna St. Louis - If Only There Was A River This enigmatic singer somehow manages to sound both completely contemporary and as if she’s been with us forever. Exquisitely sensitive production and stunning songwriting make this one for the ages. 

16. Scott Johnson - Mind Out Of Matter Only Johnson, the master of orchestrated speech, could turn a lecture about religion and evolution into a piece compelling enough for repeated listening. And only Alarm Will Sound (still missing Matt Marks...) could play this complex score with such tossed-off assurance

17. Bodega - Endless Scroll I caught these wise and witty art-punk pranksters on one of New Sounds’ Facebook Live performances and was immediately captivated by their energy. Sometimes I laugh out loud at a lyric on the subway. Instead of giving me side-eye, just get the album!

18. Arp - Zebra Lush, cinematic, jazz-and-electronics-infused atmospheres for dreaming. By pulling in more influences but caring less about treating them with kid gloves, Alexis Georgopoulos, has made his most distinctive record yet.

19. Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino Alex Turner’s mind map of the titular structure provided him a means of escape from the cul de sac AM found themselves in after their last album. What was next - louder and heavier? Why? This was a brave direction to take - and one they executed to perfection. Book a room and see if you agree it’s even better than “four stars out of five.”

20. Elsa Hewitt - Quilt Jams As I said in the latest issue of Off Your Radar when I included one of Hewitt’s electronic fantasias on my mixtape: “With or without vocals, each track feels like a psychic transmission filled with crucial information about how we live now.” Dial it in

21. Scott Hirsch - Lost Time Behind The Moon What a delightful surprise this album is! I’ve long known Scott Hirsch’s name from the deep dive I took into Hiss Golden Messenger’s history a few years ago, but on this sophomore release he seems to cut loose from all forebears and find a truly individual expression. There’s plenty of variety within as well, from rootsy fingerpicked delicacies to funky Rhythm Ace-driven workouts. I've added seeing Hirsch headline to my 2019 goals. 

22. Dan Lippel, et al - ...Through Which the Past Shines... Exquisite, modern chamber music for guitar by Nils Vigeland and Reiko Füting played with warmth and authority by Lippel (also heard to great effect on the Du Yun album above), joined occasionally by John Popham on cello and Vigeland on piano. I'm also enjoying the opportunity to further explore Füting's sound world on the recently released distant song.

23. Jeff Tweedy - Warm Even though this is Tweedy's first "official" solo album, it also feels like the return of an old friend. The quiet songs seem to contain banked fires, instead of just being quiet, and the lyrics are even more acute than ever, perhaps a reflection on his recent work writing his memoir. 

24. Raoul Vignal - Oak Leaf This French singer-songwriter's second album is like a warm blanket. Each time I listen to his whisper-singing, fingerpicked guitar and gentle accompaniments, I feel ensconced in its hushed universe.

25. Domenico Lancellotti - The Good Is A Big God A lot of people view Brazilian music in their rearview, appreciating and delighting in its extraordinary legacy. Lancellotti proves that this legacy has a future with this album's kaleidoscopic view of Brazil's many musical streams, from bossa nova and samba to tropicalia and beyond. 

Excerpts to all of these, except Scott Johnson and Raoul Vignal, are found in this playlist or below. Listen and let me know what moves you.

Still to come: genre-specific lists highlighting the best of classical, electronic, hip hop, R&B, reggae, rock, folk, reissues and everything else!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: The Top 25
Best Of 2017: Classical
Best Of 2017: Out Of The Past
Best Of 2017: Electronic
Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, R&B and Reggae
Best Of 2017: Rock, Folk, Etc.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Record Roundup: Cornucopia Of Folk And Americana

I hate to feel that I’m keeping music from people, so before I start my Best Of 2018 series, here are quick takes on some excellent albums in the realms of folk and Americana. I think you’ll find some of them perfect for wintry nesting as the sun sets early and snow brushes the window panes. Others may be good for the family gatherings that can define this time of year.

Raoul Vignal - Oak Leaf It’s rare that you hear an album as assured and accomplished from a well-known artist. But when someone flying under the radar presents such an exquisite piece of work as Oak Leaf, it feels even more astonishing. On this second album by the French singer-songwriter, finger-picked guitars weave a spell alongside occasional shimmering vibes or a gentle sax. Drums tick away minimally in the background. Over it all is Vignal’s hushed voice delivering (in English) introspective confessions and musings. I see a danger of Vignal becoming a “musician’s musician” or a “best-kept secret.” It's up to you not to let that happen.

Olivia Chaney - Shelter Both the production (by Thomas Bartlett) and Chaney’s voice are so polished that I was at first turned off by this, her second album. But then it dawned on me that there was a flood of emotion being held back by a levee of glassy perfection. The key to this is her stunning version of O Solitude, a 300 year-old song by Henry Purcell. The feeling in it is baked into the lyrics and Purcell’s haunting melody, which is the standard she’s set for her own songs. Her lofty ambition is more than repaid, making for a special listening experience. I also wouldn’t complain if her next album was entirely Purcell, John Dowland and other centuries-old British luminaries. 

Ocean Music - Jorge Marco Turino, Beach Captain, Etc. I’ve written before about the wondrous music of Richard Aufrichtig, which he usually puts out as Ocean Music. While he has been fairly prolific in 2018, I have it on good authority that the best is yet to come. The first of these is a five song EP of originals, played solo with either piano or acoustic guitar. It’s a beautiful recording and his expansive songs are easy to get lost in. Beach Captain is mostly covers, some old, like Bird On A Wire, and some newer like Joanna Newsom’s Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie. He always goes deep, making them his own, no more so than in a mournful take on Someday by The Strokes. We’ve also been graced with shimmering, powerful version of Aufrichtig’s Ghost Song with a full band, the closest any recording has yet come to the Ocean Music live experience. Finally, we have two songs from a recent concert at Baby’s All Right - I was there so you can trust me when I say this is just a hint of how great it was. But it’s par for the course for Aufrichtig to drop hints; here’s hoping we get the full story in 2019. 

Phil Cook - People Are My Drug Spending time with Cook’s music is like feeling the sun on your face after a week of rain. This is especially true in concert, as a recent show at Bowery Ballroom (with Andy Jenkins opening!) proved yet again. He draws you in with his smile and seals the deal with his killer guitar and sweet voice. Those last two elements are present on this follow-up to 2015’s  Southland Mission, as well as an increased interest in gospel fervor. That means the album is plenty inspiring, even if the songwriting is a little less sharp. My only other quibble has to do with the inclusion of Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso on several songs - but that’s just because I don’t really like her voice or her band. I guess the divine Alexandra Sauser-Monnig wasn't available! If you feel differently, you will likely be thrilled with her contributions here. Either way, it’s a fine album and if you get a chance to see Cook on stage, don’t hesitate!

The Dead Tongues - Unsung Passage I first caught wind of Ryan Gustafson, who performs under this name, when he opened for and played with Phil Cook at Rough Trade. He quickly lodged in my mind as a master of all things stringed, as well as a fine singer and songwriter deep in the American vein. Now we have his most assured record yet, weaving a spell through a variety of country and folk-tinged textures and settings. To my ears he’s most effective when he pushes it furthest, as on the haunting Ebb And Flow or My Other, which, with its flutes and strings, is the first song that’s reminded me of Nico’s magisterial Chelsea Girl since I first heard that record. It’s fantastic, easily one of the most gorgeous songs of the year. But this whole record deserves your attention. If your give it that, you will likely become a fan of The Dead Tongues. 

John Calvin Abney - Coyote Go take a look at issue #116 of Off Your Radar for a kaleidoscopic look at Abney’s last album, Far Cries And Close Calls. Done? Good. Now, believe me when I say this one is even better. The production alone is worthy of note, burnished and warm, like an old oak table - and the songs are just as solid. Abney’s voice has a touch of Wings-era McCartney and he’s learned a few songwriting lessons from the former Fab as well. These aren't annoying earworms, though, but rather songs that employ sophisticated and unexpected chord changes in a relaxed and naturalistic fashion. This makes for songs that are memorable but also nourishing, repaying repeat and close listening. If Coyote doesn’t significantly expand Abney’s audience, I don’t know what will. 

Anna St. Louis - If Only There Was A River Every once in a while something in my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist will floor me, causing me to stop what I’m doing and make sure to find out all the W’s: who, what, when. Last week it was a song from St. Louis’s previous album, First Songs, something with hypnotic fingerpicking, beautiful singing and a shapely melody. That came out in 2017 and just as I was cursing Spotify and the world for keeping it from me, I noticed she had a new album out. This is a more fully produced affair, but thankfully Kyle Thomas and Kevin Morby have nurtured St. Louis’s talents rather than blanketing them in their own ideas. The songs are exquisite enough on their own - the task is not to ruin them and at that Morby and Thomas more than succeed. Numerophiles who own Catherine Howe's What A Beautiful Place may find a point of reference. This is an album people will be talking about - don’t wait around for an algorithm to deliver it to you.

Billy Joseph & The Army Of Love - You Know Which Way To Go This is my first cousin, OK, but that's not the only reason I've had his latest record on repeat. This is just an excellent collection of soulful rock & folk - and sometimes just plain soul in the Al Green and Robert Cray stylings of Second Time Around. The production is expansive and well-tailored to every song, including a very original take on Suspicious Minds. Stinging guitar leads (either by Nick Kirgo or Billy himself) are lavished on the album with an almost gustatory pleasure and the horns on Holiday Song are sublime. The lyrics can cut to the quick, as on that last song, as honest a depiction of holiday loneliness as has ever been written. "Bing Crosby's on the TV set, I can see him through the window of a furniture store," Billy sings in a line worthy of a scene from a Douglas Sirk classic - just one of the gems to be found on this impressive record. If you live in L.A., he's probably playing somewhere tonight so go out and see him do his thing.

Jeff Tweedy - Warm For the last few years (maybe since the excellent Sukierae) it’s been a bit of a toss up whether or not a Tweedy product is going to truly touch me or just be another expression of consummate competence to be admired and put away. While it’s early days yet with Warm, which is his first true solo album in a 25-year career, I’m pleased to report that I believe this is one of the former. As always, the songs are well-written, but the sense of intimacy, the feeling of someone hoping their hard-won truths will help get you through, is welcome. The musical settings are spare, sensitive - listen to the drumming on From Far Away - and lived-in, harkening back to John Wesley Harding or Plastic Ono Band. Tweedy’s mastery of the pithy lyric is also on full display, using a few words to carry heavy freight, like the chorus of the title track: “I don't believe in Heaven/I keep some heat inside/Like a red brick in the summer/Warm when the sun has died.” There’s enough wisdom on Warm to fill a book - and Tweedy has one of those, too! Listen, read, and and celebrate one of our master artists hitting a new peak. 

Don’t these albums sound like they would be fodder for a great playlist? Gotcha covered (except for Oak Leaf)! See below or click here. What else would you add?

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Focus On: Contemporary Classical

I often get the question, “How do you keep up with new music?” My answer is usually a detailed description of the various playlists I maintain, the different newsletters, websites, Facebook pages and magazines I monitor, the emails I get from publicists and labels, the Friend Feed on Spotify, etc. But the real answer should be brief: Barely. So, with the year-end looming, here’s a quick rundown of some recent albums and an extraordinary concert in the realm of contemporary classical. I've also included information on three concerts I strongly recommend finding time to attend.

Dan Lippel - "...through which the past shines...": Works by Nils Vigeland and Reiko Füting A truism in the nonprofit world is that "people give to people," meaning that donors are more likely to support an organization when they are asked personally, usually by someone to whom they have a connection. But people also listen to people and I think one of the reasons it's taken me so long to write about this excellent album is that it has a bit of an identity crisis. WHO will we be hearing from and WHAT will they be playing? The title is a mouthful, for one thing. If I were marketing the album, I might have titled it Recent Guitar Masterpieces (admittedly cheesy!) so curious listeners might have at least some idea of the wonders that lie within. I also would have reserved the largest font on the cover for the name Dan Lippel, for it is his virtuosic and deeply musical guitar playing that defines the experience of listening to the album. Fortunately, you have me to explain it all to you.

What we have here are seven pieces, five of them world-premiere recordings, of exquisite solo and chamber music focusing on the acoustic guitar. If you are a fan of the instrument, you need read no more than that before laying cold hard cash down for this record. Four of the pieces are by Nils Vigeland, an American composer, performer and teacher who seems to have a true sensitivity for the guitar. His La Folia Variants from 1996 was recorded over a decade ago by Lippel and included on his album Resonances. Its three lovely, Renaissance-inspired movements should be standard practice at guitar recitals worldwide. Vigeland's Two Variations, from 1990, bookends the album, instilling a sense of absolute peace as you begin and end your journey. The title track, from 2017 and the most recent work here, is also the longest. On it, Lippel is joined by Vigeland on piano and John Popham, of Either/Or and Longleash, on cello, and its sparkling interactions make a stunning case for these forces working together. The final work by Vigeland on the album is Quodlibet from 2011, three movements for guitar and cello based on The Beatles' Hey Jude and Good Day Sunshine, which avoids feeling like a pastiche thanks to the composer's structural skills and depth of invention.

Reiko Füting is a German-born composer and educator who studied around the world, including with Vigeland. His wand-uhr: infinite shadows (2013/16) takes inspiration from a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff but my ears picked out sonorities and techniques that reminded me of Davy Graham's jazz-inspired folk guitar solos. It's even easy to imagine Jimmy Page interpolating some of this into his Black Mountain Side, were he to grace a stage with his presence ever again. Füting's Red Wall (2006), uses dissonance and a broad dynamic range in tribute to the natural beauty of The Alps. Füting's arrangement of the traditional Jewish song Hine ma Tov is also included, using an almost Cubist approach to deconstruct the familiar melody. A digital-only bonus track contains three further variations by Vigeland, a young Icelandic composer named Halidór Smárason, and Lippel himself, a fine dessert after the sonic feast of the album proper. Along with Duo Noire's Night Triptych, this is the best classical guitar album of 2018. Maybe that should have been the title!

Nordic Affect - He(a)r My love for this Icelandic chamber ensemble is well documented (here and here, for starters!) so it pains me slightly to have even a minor quibble about their new album. But the fact is that, no matter how many times I tried, I could not accommodate the title piece by Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir. Made up of spoken word soundscapes, its seven parts interspersed throughout the album, I found it only interrupted the mood rather than added to it. So I made a playlist with the other six works, an easy fix that revealed yet another classic album from the quartet.

Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir bookends my version of the album with Spirals and Loom, the latter of which I saw performed live last year with a beautiful abstract video component by Dodda Maggy. Even without the visuals, it is a meditative piece, its long, interweaving notes inviting your breathing to...slow...down. Spirals is a wonderfully sleek and brooding affair that grows lusher as it continues, with electronic elements seemingly designed to unsettle. The way Mirjam Tally's Warm life at the foot of the iceberg opens with a hammered chord on Gudrún Ôskarsdóttir's harpsichord will certainly give you a start and leads to what feels like a competition for sonic resources among the three strings and the keyboard - thrilling.

All the excitement is the perfect introduction for two pieces by the great Anna Thorvaldsdottir, one of the most significant composers of our time. Reflections (2016) conjures up some of the loneliness of the buzzsaw whine of a small aircraft flying over a forest and gradually accumulates drama, pulling you surely along its narrative thread. Impressions was written for Ôskarsdóttir and works both as an haunting exploration of light and shade and showcase for how her technique pushes the harpsichord into new areas. Finally we have Point of Departure by Hildur Guônadóttir, Nordic Affect's cellist, another piece they played in concert. This grave and hymnal work has the musicians singing long notes to accompany their instruments, a reminder of both music's origins in the human body and the symbiotic relationship between artists and their tools of expression.

By all means listen first to He(a)r as Nordic Affect intended; it's possible that you will find the dialogues an enhancement. There's no doubt that some of the thoughts, including quotes from the composer, Roni Horn, Pauline Oliveros and others, are fascinating: "Each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the lines of his footprints." But if you feel the way I do, don't turn away from the rest of the album, which is truly exquisite.

Du Yun's Stories

Any concert that begins with flute superstar Claire Chase barely visible and summoning the spirits with a bass flute and her voice is already a success. And what followed at Du Yun’s Composer Portrait (with the International Contemporary Ensemble) at the Miller Theater more than lived up to that auspicious start. Chase was playing the finale from An Empty Garlic (2014), an incantatory piece exploring bereavement with compassion and depth (see the complete premiere here), but she was not alone on stage. In a stunning reinvention of the retrospective concert, all 12 players for the first five pieces were placed just so on the darkened stage, ready to perform their piece at their own individual spots, what Du Yun called LEGOs. 

The richly immersive lighting by Nicholas Houfek only increased the sense of seamlessness as the pieces went by with no applause in between. The second LEGO was occupied by Rebekah Heller (bassoon) and Ryan Muncy (saxophones) playing a mashup of Ixtab, 10 PM (2013) and Dinosaur Scar (1999), the pieces combining to seem even more like a free jazz freakout than they do when played on their own. Heller, whose technique is jaw-dropping, had some electronics going as well and vocalized a little along with her instrument. Her and Muncy's grasp of extended techniques made all the clicking and breathy sounds an organic part of their instruments.  

Just as my mind was about to lose the thread, David Bowlin picked it up, playing the ancient-to-modern Under a tree, an udātta (2016) on his violin. It seemed as if the bending, keening notes were coming directly from his soul. Du Yun, whose soul created it, was slowly revealed to be sitting on her own LEGO, in a posture of careful listening. When Bowlin finished, the audience remained in stunned silence as Du Yun stood, her fantastic costume now fully visible, and began Zinc Oxide (2010), a duo with cellist Katinka Kleijn. This had the two of them reciting a brief surreal narrative that sounded like a memoir or a nightmare while ramping up the intensity with Kleijn's cello and Du Yun's "tree trunk," what looked like a small log with strings and a guitar pickup that she played with a bow. 

Between the poses she struck and the delectable distortions of the sounds she made it occurred to me that Du Yun is a post-punk rebel masquerading as Pulitzer-Prize-winning classical composer. That impression wasn't dissipated in the least by the following performance of Air Glow (2006/2018), the newest piece on Du Yun's instant classic Dinosaur Scar, with the five brass players stepping up to their LEGOs from their seats, and Dan Lippel (yes, him again!) sitting alongside them to play the moody guitar and bass parts. It was no less impressive than it is on the record. When the first half was over all I could think was: this show should go on the road!

After a brief intermission, we were treated to a warm and wise discussion between Du Yun and Heller, almost like eavesdropping on old friends, and two pieces for larger ensembles presented in a more conventional, if completely excellent, fashion. Vicissitudes No. 1 (2002) almost felt like  a series of simultaneous solos, with Joshua Rubin seeming to levitate as he unfurled his clarinet part and percussionist Nathan Davis throwing down like John Bonham with head-nodding authority. Then Lippel entered stage right and burned the place down with the steel string guitar solo featured on Dinosaur Scar. He really can do it all! Impeccable Quake (2014) closed the show with the entire ensemble giving it everything they had. I would have put Lippel's guitar higher in the mix so that it cut through the way it does on Dinosaur Scar, but it was still a great performance. Like the entire evening it served to solidify Du Yun's strengths and forced the imagination to consider all the places she can go from here.

Choral Cascade: I can't remember a year when we've had such an embarrassment of vocal riches as we've had in 2018. Impermanence, from Boston's all-female Lorelei Ensemble, spans 800 years of music, including the Codex Calixtinus from the 12th Century and Peter Gilbert's Tsukimi from 2013. In between we have some 15th Century music by DuFay and from the anonymous Turin Codex - three of those pieces are recorded here for the first time - and excerpts from Toru Takemitsu's Windhorse from the 60's. The end result is sublime, as is the recording from Sono Luminus. Notus, a 40-year-old student ensemble from Bloomington, IL, has finally released its first album, Of Radiance And Refraction. Well worth the wait, it is a fascinating assemblage of five world premiere choral works by composers with whom I was completely unfamiliar, including Dominic Diorio, whose Stravinsky Refracted (2015) riffs on Amy Lowell's poem about Stravinsky's Trois pièces pour quatuor á cordes in phantasmagoric fashion. The Zora String Quartet is here to play the original string quartet piece so you know to what Lowell was responding - a wise choice. Diorio also leads Notus and should be commended for bringing polish and passion to the student performances. All the works are of more than passing interest, with John Gibson's In Flight (2015) for chorus and electronics especially substantial. Finally, we have Zealot Canticles by The Crossing, which includes only the title piece by Lansing McLoskey - another name new to me - which is subtitled "An oratorio for tolerance." Written for clarinet, string quartet, and 24-voice choir, the libretto is drawn from 12 Canticles for Zealots, which uses poetry to investigate the minds of fanatics, and other writings by Nobel-Prize-winning Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. It's dark stuff, but McLoskey's melodic expansiveness and the always extraordinary work of The Crossing, led by Donald Nally, make for a highly absorbing listen.

Chamber Catch-Up: I hesitate to call Peter Garland's The Landscape Scrolls "chamber music," but in this context it will have to do. It could also be filed under "ambient" or "new age" but it doesn't quite fit there either. The album-length work, played to a fare-thee-well by percussionist John Lane, who also commissioned the work, takes us through the cycle of a day by exploring the possibilities of instrumental groupings that are "timbrally monochromatic." My favorite is Part 3: After Dark, which is played on three triangles and creates extraordinary resonances. Sample the piece in this artful trailer for the album. Ken Thomson, the composer and reed player for Bang On A Can and other groups, gave us a modern classic in Restless for cello and piano in 2016. This year, we have something entirely different in Sextet, written for a small ensemble that looks a hell of a lot like a jazz band. The music within is fully composed, however, and harks back to some of the west coast sounds of Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, etc. The album begins with a Ligeti piece which harmonically informs the rest of the album the way Thelonious Monk took off from the spiritual Abide With Me on his classic album Monk's Music. This is bright, busy and brainy stuff, played with intensity and swing, and you can't help but be carried along by the sound of one of our most brilliant musical minds following his muse. If you find yourself smiling too broadly after Thomson's cacophony has died down, I give you Michael Hersch's Images From A Closed Ward, played with phenomenal concentration by the FLUX Quartet. Bleak, slow, inexorable and breathtaking, this hour-long piece is a major new contribution to the string quartet repertoire and should put Hersch firmly on your radar.

Upcoming Concerts
Tuesday, November 20th, 6:00 PM - Isabel Lepanto Gleicher: Pop Up Concert, in which the flutist will perform a world premiere by Barry Sharp, music by 12th Century mystic Hildegard von Bingen, and everything in between (Miller Theater, 2960 Broadway at 116th St., NYC) Free

Friday, November 30th, 8:00 PM - Talea Ensemble: Soper + Adamcyk, featuring Kate Soper's Voices from the Killing Jar (2012), sung by Lucy Dhegrae, and a world premiere from David Adamcyk (America's Society, 680 Park Ave. at 68th St., NYC) Free with RSVP

Saturday, December 1st, 8:00 PM - Hotel Elefant: Letters That You Will Not Get, featuring a world premiere by Kirsten Volness and special guests Opera Cowgirls (Church of the Intercession, 550 W 155th St., NYC) $20 at the door

Full disclosure: I'm on the board of both Talea Ensemble and Hotel Elefant, but I would be ride-or-die for both groups either way!

Tracks from the albums mentioned above and so many more from this amazing year can be found in this playlist. As always, tell me what's grabbing YOU. Also, if you like the anthology format of this post, let me know.

You may also enjoy:
Three Portraits: Cheung-Trapani-Du Yun
Record Roundup: Avant Chamber And Orchestral
Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations
Best Of 2017: Classical
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge
A Nordic Night At National Sawdust
Collapsing Into Nordic Affect's Raindamage
Best Of 2016: Classical
Record Roundup: Composed, Commemorated And Beyond
Record Roundup: Classical Composure

Friday, October 26, 2018

Record Roundup: Forms Of Escape

Here are five recent albums from a variety of geographic and generic origins that all have the uncanny ability to transform a hostile or indifferent reality into an oasis for my mind. In these times of daily outrage, I’ve been especially grateful to their creators for the opportunity to escape these musical gifts have provided. 

Domenico Lancellotti - The Good Is A Big God At least since the emergence of bossa nova in the early 60s, Brazil has had a well-earned reputation for delivering musical escapism. One feature many forms of Brazilian music have in common is “saudade,” a Portuguese word with no English equivalent that has been described as “the presence of absence,” a deep melancholy for lost happiness, but one which finds pleasure in the memories nonetheless. Lancellotti, whose last album, the excellent Cine Privé, was released solely under his first name in 2012, is an expert in saudade, bringing a wistful sweetness to all of his songs. 

Cine Privé was notable for combining that Brazilian sensibility with an indie-rock feel, assisted by American musicians like Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. On The Good Is A Big God Lancellotti puts his deep engagement with 60 years of Brazilian music on display, assaying styles from samba to bossa to tropicalia, the late-60’s movement that added a witty psychedelia into the mix. But there’s nothing self-consciously retro going on here as everything from the charming flutes on A Alma Do Vento (The Soul Of The wind) to the squealing synths of Aracne feels as natural as breathing. Lancellotti and his producer Sean O'Hagen also know how effective simplicity can be, as on Logo, which for most of its length is just him and 12-string acoustic guitar, gently adding a drum machine and a burbling keyboard as it goes on. 

The last song, Terra, is an instrumental showcasing some gorgeous harp playing, the perfect way to reflect on what’s come before. You may find yourself sighing deeply, reveling in the saudade, the bittersweet absence of all the beautiful sounds on this glorious record. The best part? If you find the darkness returning too quickly, you can just play it again. 

Dubstar - One This band, now a duo of Sarah Blackwood (vocals) and Chris Wilkie (guitar), specializes in a very British, very refined version of saudade, where regrets, missed connections and the experience of lost love fuel their best songs. On One, their first album in 18 years, they manage to almost hit the heights of their first two, Disgraceful (1995) and Goodbye (1997), with instantly memorable pop tunes led by Blackwood’s diamond-cut soprano. Produced by Youth, who’s having a banner year between this, his work on Hollie Cook’s Vessel Of Love, and Killing Joke’s 40th Anniversary tour, the sound is crisp and clean, keeping the focus on the songs. The occasional grit of Wilkie’s guitar adds some welcome imperfections to the glossy surface. 

Besides the occasional clunky lyric, Dubstar only really stumbles when they aim for unalloyed happiness, as on I Hold Your Heart, which sounds cheap and tinny, like the theme for a failed sitcom. But on songs like Love Comes Late, Love Gathers, You Were Never In Love, et al, they manage to breathe life into the hoariest of forms, the melancholy love song. John Dowland, who basically invented the form during the English Renaissance, would surely give a nod of approval, as will fans of The Clientele, Saint Etienne and Belle & Sebastian. Even those who settle for the committee-constructed fripperies of today’s Top 40 will find a more nourishing, yet no less lighthearted, brand of escapism here. It would be disgraceful if you didn’t give Dubstar a try. 

Mutual Benefit - Thunder Follows The Light It suddenly occurred to me while listening to this, Jordan Lee’s richest, most musically accomplished album yet, that his vision of Americana - and perhaps America - is so pure and warmly emotive that it enters the realm of immersive fantasy. You almost expect to hear the prairie sound effects of the Westward Expansion underlying the sparkling naturalism of the instrumentation. That doesn’t mean there is anything insincere about what he’s doing - the exact opposite, in fact. Lee is a believer, like Aaron Copland was a believer. 

Song titles like New History, No Dominion, and Waves, Breaking even seem to hint at the making of this great country, conveying a sense of optimism that is remarkable considering our current predicament. The images of nature that thread through the lyrics (From Shedding Skin:“Diamond scales upon a rotted log/Cicadas singing from a mountaintop//Blossoms growing on a dogwood tree/Leave behind what you used to be”) might lull you into thinking this is not a political album - and you don’t have to experience it as such - but Lee is definitely concerned about the extremities climate change may force us to undergo. 

By providing such a powerful vision of what we had, what we have, and what we can lose, Lee’s statement is far more powerful than any harangue. Most importantly, the musical experience of listening to Thunder Follows The Light is both lovely and substantive enough to be one you will want to repeat often and share with others. Could there be any better way of spreading your message?

P.S. Seeing Mutual Benefit live is a singular experience - catch them at the Park Church Co-Op on December 8th. I already have my tickets.

Arp - Zebra Music is really the only drug I have used consistently over my whole life, and for adolescent anxiety after the social tumult of a day in high school there was no better prescription than In A Silent Way by Miles Davis. Eno albums like Fourth World Vol. 1 with Jon Hassell or Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror with Harold Budd worked as well. Zebra, Arp’s fifth full-length is one of the few records since then to hit those same calming, meditative zones, where everything seems to fall in place around you. 

The vocabulary Alexis Georgopoulos, who records and performs as Arp, employs on Zebra seems customized for my own bliss: lazy vibraphones, fat analog synths, laconic drums, warm double bass, sparkling Fender Rhodes...sheer heaven. Try Nzuku, in which synths talk in delightful fragments over a vibe pattern, soon joined by an hypnotic bass line and drums that almost subliminally nudge things along. A squirrelly synth takes a brief solo, hinting at dominance before falling back into the opiated surroundings. This is music with umami and you will want to savor every sonic morsel, turning them over in your auditory cortex for maximum flavor. I’ve had my eye on Arp for a while and he’s always been at least interesting. But it’s on Zebra - insert hoofbeats joke  here - where he delivers on his promise. 

Gecko Turner - Soniquete: The Sensational Sound Of Gecko Turner If you’re a regular reader of AnEarful I would hope that the name Gecko Turner is at least familiar if not a regular part of your musical diet. His combination of seemingly every rhythm from funk, reggae, and all forms of Latin music added to sweet and sad songs has made him one of the most reliable purveyors of pleasure in the 21st Century. In case you’re new here, however, this is the perfect time to catch up with Turner thanks to this career retrospective featuring one new song and a selection from his four prior albums. 

The new cut, Cortando Bajito (Cutting Short), is a Clavinet-driven workout that may have you thinking of Superstition but it’s really just a distant cousin. Most importantly, it’s a jam and a half, furiously danceable, and Turner’s understated vocal is like the breeze you need to stay cool enough to keep moving. As for the rest of the collection, you could literally pick 13 songs at random from his catalog and come up with a similarly enjoyable selection since he’s never released a bad song. 

That said, I was certainly happy to see some of my personal favorites making the cut, like Monosabio Blues, its insinuating stutter-step rhythm still driving me wild after hundreds of listens. So simple, so perfect, and played with the kind of insouciance most musicians only achieve in their dreams. Turner’s versatility is also on full display, from the catchy pop of Here Comes Friday to the groovy social commentary of 45.000$ - Guapapasea, which transforms the calls of male hustlers in his native Spain into an hypnotic call and response. Had it been my job to assemble Soniquete, the only thing I might have made room for is one of the fabulous remixes of Turner’s songs that have come out over the years, like Boozoo Bajou’s spacious take on Dizzie. But once you are in with Gecko Turner I think you will be all in and will dig up and discover those for yourself. 

What transporting sounds have been helping you get away from it all lately?

You might also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: Electronic
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 1
Gecko's Pleasure Principle
Best Of Ten