Saturday, December 26, 2020

Best Of 2020: Classical

Since much of the "classical" music I listen to is by living composers and performed by non-profit ensembles made up of young musicians, the shutdown of live music has hit them particularly hard. So, if you hear something you like below, consider purchasing it from Bandcamp or another service. If you prefer not to acquire music, even as a download, make a donation where it will help. 

First up are links to my posts covering 50+ albums(!) in this sphere, followed by short takes on many other fantastic releases that astonished with their creativity, commitment, and impact.

Listen to excerpts from most of these in this playlist or below.

Of Note In 2020: Classical
Ekmeles - A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer
Y Music - Ecstatic Science
Quarterly - Pomegranate 
Barbora Kolářová - Imp In Impulse
Richard Valitutto - Nocturnes & Lullabies
Cenk Urgün - Sonare & Celare
The String Orchestra Of Brooklyn - Afterimage
Clarice Jensen - The Experience Of Repetition As Death
Luis Ianes - Instrucciones De Uso

Record Roundup: Unclassifiable
Wet Ink Ensemble - Glossolalia
Jobina Tinnemans - Five Thoughts On Everything
Amanda Gookin - Forward Music 1.0
Ning Yu - Of Being
Andy Kozar - A Few Kites 
Dai Fujikura - Turtle Totem
Collage Project - Off Brand
Matteo Liberatore - Gran Sasso
Sreym Hctim - Turn Tail

Record Roundup: Vox Humana
Roomful Of Teeth - Michael Harrison: Just Constellations
Roomful Of Teeth - Wally Gunn: The Ascendant
Lorelei Ensemble - David Lang: Love Fail (Version for Women's Chorus) 
Quince Ensemble - David Lang: Love Fail
Michael Hersch - I hope we get a chance to visit soon
Sarah Kirkland Snider - Mass For The Endangered
Miyamoto Is Black Enough - Burn / Build
Missy Mazzoli - Proving Up
Du Yun - A Cockroach's Tarantella

Record Roundup: Songs And Singers
Christopher Trapani - Waterlines

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 1
Michi Wiancko - Planetary Candidate
Clara Iannotta: Earthing  - JACK Quartet
Gyða Valtýsdóttir - Epicycle II
Tomás Gueglio - Duermevela
Kaufman Music Center - Transformation

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 2
Grossman Ensemble - Fountain Of Time
Páll Ragnar Pálsson - Atonement
Sarah Frisof and Daniel Pesca - Beauty Crying Forth: Flute Music By Women Across Time
Bára Gísladóttir - Hīber
Hildegard Competition Winners Vol. 1

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 3
Christopher Cerrone - Liminal Highway
Christopher Cerrone - Goldbeater's Skin
Stara: The Music of Halldór Smárason
Third Sound - Heard In Havana
Jacob Cooper - Terrain

Record Roundup: New Music Cavalcade
Ash Fure - Something To Hunt
Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Rhízōma 
Jacqueline Leclair - Music For English Horn Alone
Dominique Lemaître - De l’espace trouver la fin et le milieu
Brooklyn Rider - Healing Modes
Nicolas Cords - Touch Harmonious
Johnny Gandelsman - J.S. Bach: Complete Cello Suites
Chris P. Thompson - True Stories & Rational Numbers

Record Roundup: Catching Up (Sort Of)
Wang Lu - An Atlas Of Time
Sarah Hennies - Spectral Malsconcities
Tristan Perich - Drift Multiply

John Luther Adams - Become River and Lines Made By Walking Become River, the first of The Become Trilogy to be composed, now receives the same gorgeous treatment from Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony as Become Ocean and Become Desert. While quite a bit shorter than either of those, it is no less satisfying an opportunity to contemplate the wonders of our natural world and Adams' gifts as a composer. Lines Made By Walking is also Adams' String Quartet No. 5, and is just as lush, elegiac, and architecturally sure as it seemed when I saw the New York premiere performed by the JACK Quartet, who play it here. The album also includes Untouched, another three-movement piece for string quartet, but one in which there are no stopped notes, only the sound of natural strings and harmonics, and a wonderful immersion in the drone and sparkle of these instruments. 

Kirsten Volness - River Rising On these six pieces for electronics and mostly solo instruments, Volness displays both a piquant melodic sense and an adventurous command of texture. Whether inventively dissecting ragtime in the nearly club-ready dance rhythms of Nocturne or spiraling into the ether on the yearning title track, brilliantly played by violinist Lilit Hartunian, there's plenty of variety and no shortage of personality on this wonderful album. It will stay with you - as will the trippy visuals for the "Psaltriparus minimus mix" of Nocturne, one of the best videos of the year!

Patrick Higgins - Tocsin I was not previously familiar with Higgins, who also works in the realms of math rock and electronic music, so I probably got to this through Mivos Quartet or Wet Ink Ensemble, both of whom perform on this assured and explosive collection of chamber music. SQ3, performed with frightening ease by Mivos, makes the most of the instrumental possibilities while also carrying you through a four-movement narrative. In Wet Ink's hands, EMPTYSET [0,0] is a fascinating little engine of interconnected sounds.  We also get the title piece, an alternately busy and spectral trio for piano and two cellos, played with swagger by Vicky Chow, Mariel Roberts, and Brian Snow. There's also a sweet arrangement of Bach's unfinished Contrapunctus XIV, mere icing on a dense cake baked with intensity by an emerging master.

Pierluigi Billone - Mani. Giacometti and 2 Alberi Here we have two epic pieces by Billone, the first for violin, viola, and cello and the second for alto sax and percussion. Each is played with pure commitment by Distractfold and scapegoat respectively, two ensembles new to me, and with such expertise that the performance melts away into a pure experience of sound. That same sense of "ritual moment" I felt in 2015 at a Talea Ensemble concert of Billone's works is present on this album as well. Turn your first listen into an event - I guarantee it will be memorable.

Christopher Luna-Mega - Aural Shores Here's another name new to me, but with the involvement of JACK Quartet, Splinter Reeds, Arditti Quartet, and New Thread Quartet, I suspected it would be worth a listen. I was not wrong. Luna-Mega uses field recordings and a deep engagement with natural sounds as leaping-off points into musical innovation and delight. Perhaps most astonishing of all is Geysir, with pianist Seung-Hye Kim in a bizarrely consonant conversation with the titular water feature. In short, burbles and bubbles combining with knotty piano gestures for a truly startling masterpiece. But I love the whole album, which was nearly a decade in the making. Hopefully we don't have to wait that long for more.

Dana Jessen - Winter Chapel The evocative title will not lead you astray as Splinter Reeds co-founder and bassoonist Jessen takes you on a winding pathway of resonant noises in these six improvisations. From bird-calls to sinuous melodic lines, all of which she explores with mastery, nothing about her instrument is alien to Jessen. After a few plays, you will feel the same way.

Jen Curtis and Tyshawn Sorey - Invisible Ritual Shortly into this series of duos between Curtis (violinist with the International Contemporary Ensemble) and Sorey (composer, multi-instrumentalist, here playing drums or piano), I completely forgot they were improvised, so structurally satisfying is each piece. That sense of being in good hands as a listener is there in both the high-wire moments and the contemplative sections, with the latter being some of my favorite moments on this dazzling collection. Everything from Neue Wiener Schule knottiness to jazz fusion thrills to post-rock quietude and more are reference points and connecting the dots is pure delight.

Julia Den Boer - Lineage Of the four Canadian composers represented on this sparkling and contemplative collection of piano music, only Reiko Yamada was known to me. But I quickly fell for the world Den Boer creates from the first notes of 371 Chorales (2016), a short piece by Chris Paul Harman. Tombeau (1996) by Brian Cherney did not break the spell, weaving a tale across its seven movements, and neither did the searching interior monologue of Matthew Ricketts' Melodia (2017). Yamada's Cloud Sketches (2010) closes the album, a very 21st century update on impressionism with a little touch of Schumann. Gorgeous stuff and Lineage has been go-to "morning album" since I first heard it.

Thomas Kotcheff - Frederic Rzewski: Songs Of Insurrection Could there have been a better year to release the world-premiere recording of this 2016 piece? Well, maybe any of the last four, but I'm happy to have it now. Rzewski's applies his pointed and inventive variations to a global lineup of resistance songs, ranging from Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, that anthem of the Civil Rights movement, to Oh Bird, Oh Bird, Oh Roller, from a 19th-century Korean peasant uprising. Along with Rzewski's tart compositional approach, Kotcheff's stylish playing, including some fearless improv, ties all of these varied works together and reveals a piano work for the ages. And even if you wouldn't sing along to any of these at a protest, as Ted Hearne suggests in the wise essay included in the smartly assembled booklet, we can always "think of the concert hall as the setting, and perhaps the subject, of the protest itself." 

The Crossing - Michael Gordon: Anonymous Man, James Primrosch: Carthage, and Rising w/ The Crossing The variety of works pursued by this choir, whether in the moods they set, or the concerns they address, is as dazzling as their technical skills. Under the direction of Donald Nally, they never cease to amaze in their total immersion within the sound world of any composer with whom they choose to work. The Gordon piece, for 24 unaccompanied voices, gives a biography of the NYC block where he lives, from meeting his wife to finding commonality with the homeless, all served up in melodies and harmonies both plangent and haunting. Carthage, which was nominated for a Grammy, finds Primrosch engaging with texts that explore the nature of our purpose on earth, whether by Meister Eckhart, 13th-century monk, or contemporary novelist Marilynne Robinson. As you might imagine, this inspires an melodic architecture and harmonic counterpoint not too distant from ancient chants, yet there's still a freshness and originality here. The last release of the three contains all of The Crossing's virtues in one extremely enjoyable package - uplifting, even, as the marketing promises. David Lang's Protect Yourself From Infection, composed for the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu epidemic, is obviously on point, and we also get Ted Hearne's What It Might Say, a soulful piece based on Winnicott's theories of communication between infant and mother. The whole thing, including two stunning Buxtehude cantata movements, is sequenced for maximum enjoyment. If you're looking for choral music, just set up a Google alert for The Crossing and take whatever they give you!

Silkroad Ensemble - Osvaldo Golijov: Falling Out Of Time Almost anything I could write in this format about this extraordinary piece would feel inadequate. A shattering 80-minute "tone poem with voices" based on David Grossman's book of the same name about child loss, there are moments of beauty, moments of pain, and a baffling variety of sonic texture and detail, from the high-pitched pipa to modular synthesizer. I admit to being a Silkroad skeptic, such is the facility with which they please PBS fundraising audiences, but I take it all back. This recording falls into the realm of a public service and the deep collaboration with Golijov, a major composer who has been MIA for too long, has resulted in a rendering of a new masterwork that is hard to imagine being equalled. As someone whose child died, I am filled with gratitude to all involved. Whatever grief or bereavement you have experienced, this work will touch you in ways art rarely does. Do not hesitate.

Counter)induction - Against Method With players like Miranda Cuckson (violin), Benjamin Fingland (clarinet), Dan Lippel (guitar), Jessica Meyer (viola), Caleb van der Swaagh (cello), and Ning Yu (piano), there is no hype in calling this ensemble a supergroup. In celebrating their 20th anniversary, they've assembled a collection that plays to all of their strengths - from an interest in instrumental interaction, as in The Hunt By Night (2020), the charming Douglas Boyce trio that opens the album, to cutting-edge practices, as in Meyer's own Forgiveness (2016) for bass clarinet and loop pedal, a deceptively quiet exploration into uncomfortable emotions. The performances are all excellent, the sound is warm yet crisp, and the whole album satisfies far beyond its commemorative purpose. Here's to another 20 years!

Scott Lee - Through The Mangrove Tunnels Somehow conjuring everything from noirish swagger to chamber jazz with a string quartet, piano, and percussion, Lee has crafted an album-length piece that is a cinematic blast from start to finish. Having it played by the ever-amazing JACK Quartet with Steven Beck (of my beloved Talea Ensemble) and Russel Harty (a drummer equally comfortable in classical and jazz) doesn't hurt in the least. Based on the history of Florida's Weedon Island (an axe murder! a failed movie studio!), I only hope that when the inevitable Netflix docu-series is made, they're smart enough to use this delightful and highly original music.

Happy Place - Tarnish Somewhere at the intersection of jazz, art rock, and contemporary chamber music, drummer/composer Will Mason has cooked up a thrill ride, aided and abetted by such luminaries as Kate Gentile (drums), Elaine Lachica and Charlotte Mundy (vocals), Andrew Smiley and Dan Lippel (guitars). You will be deliciously off-kilter throughout this brittle and brilliant album.

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Sola This spare, haunting piece for viola and electronics is the first salvo in a new commissioning project from Lanzilotti, whose In Manus Tuas was a highlight of 2019. It's a accompanied by a long interview with the composer, which is full of insights but not something you'll want to hear each time you listen to the piece - which is likely to be often as it is very beautiful and gorgeously played.

Want more? Dive deeper into this realm in my Of Note In 2020: Classical (Archive) playlist and make sure to follow this year's to keep track of what is to come!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: Classical
Best Of 2018: Classical
Best Of 17: Classical
Best Of 16: Classical
Best Of 15: Classical & Composed
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Classical & Composed

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Best Of 2020: The Top 25


While I believe all of these albums to be objectively excellent, filled with sincerity and innovation, even more crucial than whether they are "the best" is that they became the most necessary for me, the ones that demanded repeated listens, the ones I turned to most often. Some you may have heard of or seen on other lists, others may be completely unfamiliar. I think you will find each of them worthy of your time and attention - let me know if you agree. I'm not going write a think-piece on how much we all needed music in a year like the one almost past - there are enough of those around - but I will express my heartfelt gratitude to our finest musicians with astonishment at their continued creativity, bravery, and sheer industriousness. Looking forward to thanking as many of them as possible in person across the footlights!

Click "Play" on this playlist or below to listen to a track from each album. Since I've covered each of them elsewhere, follow the links to read my thoughts. What topped your listening in 2020?

Coming soon: More opportunities to elevate 2020's musical excellence in genre-specific lists for classical, electronic, hip hop, R&B, reggae, jazz, Latin, global, rock, folk, reissues, and everything in between!

Celebrate over a decade of "Best Of" lists:

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Record Roundup: Catching Up (Sort Of)

Although "catching up" is an unattainable goal, what follows is a quick multi-genre run-through of things I'm burning to present to your beleaguered attention before the end of the year ruminations and revelations begin.

Wang Lu - An Atlas Of Time After 2018's stunning Urban Inventory, I knew to expect even greater things from this composer and this album exceeds those imaginings in every way. The title piece is a five-movement spectacular, incorporating orchestrations that Bartok would envy alongside electronics and prerecorded material for collage-like effects that will have your head spinning in the best way. It's astonishing in its concision and power and the performance by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with Gil Rose conducting is unlikely to be equalled - but that doesn't mean I don't think others should try, and often, in concert halls across the globe. The album also includes Ryan And Dan, a duet for saxophone (Ryan Muncy) and guitar (Dan Lippel) that manages to combine post-punk, free jazz, art rock, and modernism in a mesmerizing seven minutes, Double Trance for string quartet, played by Momenta Quartet and showing mastery of the medium, Unbreathable Colors, a sparkling and off-kilter piece for solo violin (Miranda Cuckson), and Siren Song, which puts more of her orchestral artistry on display. Fearless, fun, fascinating - and emotionally compelling - the world of Wang Lu is one of my favorite destinations. Plot a course ASAP.

Sarah Hennies - Spectral Malsconcities How you relate to these two half-hour+ pieces may depend on the musical references you find within. For me, the opening section of the title track, played with a casual perfection by Bearthoven, sounds like a fragment from a Tim Buckley session, circa Happy Sad or Star Sailor, with a starring role for Pat Swoboda's woody bass. Then it moves into a something that triggers the PiL/Flowers Of Romance synapse in my brain before entering a period of extreme repetition. To that last point: not everyone will be able to take this level of minimalism, but I love it, finding a kind of tart wit to each iteration. Played by the piano-percussion lineup of Bent Duo, Unsettle shades into an acoustic form of ambient music, with plucked piano strings hanging the air, populating their own resonance. I'm getting Eno/On Land vibes, but as I note above, your results my vary. Curious? There's only one way to find out...

Tristan Perich - Drift Multiply In 2018, I attended the world premiere of this majestic piece for 50 violins and one-bit electronics at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine. It was glorious and I ended my review with these thoughts: "While there is certainly an element of performance or installation art, the whole thing was deeply musical and I hope that logistics don’t get in the way of future performances. There was a video crew and likely audio recording being done as well so I would keep an eye on the Red Bull website to see if they make it available for you to experience at home. Drift Multiply is a triumph of imagination and execution that may just give your living room, or wherever you listen, a touch of the divine." And now we have this recording, made in Amsterdam last year, to bear out my statement. Listen and let it bathe you in sound.

Tracks from these albums and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Classical) playlist.

S.G. Goodman - Old Time Feeling I'm not sure if this debut album was long in the making, but Goodman's voice rips out of the speakers with a captivating impatience, even on the ballads. The production by Jim James foregrounds her remarkable clarion call, which feels drenched in her Kentucky roots, surrounding it with tube-fired guitar, drums, and the simplest of bass lines. The songs are crafted from a deep well of Americana, with country, blues, and folk blended in such a way that the seams are invisible. As the title indicates, Goodman must be an old soul - one listen and she's also an old friend.

Jeffrey Silverstein - You Become The Mountain Pedal-steel infused minimalist mysticism here, with Silverstein your gentle guru. A song title like Cosmic Scene may not sound promising, but such is Silverstein's sincerity that he gets away with it and leaves you wanting more. I put this on and I'm instantly walking in the woods, after rain, smelling leaves and hearing water's gentle movements. It's a trip, alright.

Melody Fields - Broken Horse In 2018, I called this band "Swedish psychonauts who seem to travel through space and time with equal ease," when reviewing their debut album. These four new songs find them in an almost singleminded pursuit of draggy sparkle and shimmer, hitting the mark every time.

Boogarins - Levitation Sessions With the longest track clocking in at under seven minutes, you know this is going to be a different experience than their 2017 epic of the stage, Desvio Onirico, but these are different times. It's no less excellent, however, and finds them blazing through a career-spanning set of songs from their first four albums and Manchaca Vol. 1, their marvelous odd'n'sods collection that also came out this year. Platinum-sellers in their native Brazil, Boogarins will always be on my hit parade!

Tracks from these and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) playlist.

Vibration Black Finger - Can't You See What I'm Trying To Say Percussionist and keyboard player Lascelle Gordon has come a long way since 1985, when he was a founding member of the Brand New Heavies, a group which always struck me as superficial. But everything here is 100% REAL, whether in abstract explorations like the title track or the furious groove Acting for Liberation, Pt. 1, which seems to incise itself on your mind and body more deeply with each passing moment of its expansive 10-minute length. Surely one of the most authentic progeny of the spiritual jazz movement, VBF are not fooling around.

A track from this album and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Jazz, Latin & Global) playlist.

Quakers - II - The Next Wave When I included the debut from this hip hop collective in my list of the 100 greatest albums of the 2010's earlier this year, I was fully convinced it was a one-off. I was even growing a little nostalgic, remembering how it introduced me to both Jonwayne and Guilty Simpson, both of whom I went on to interview, but still feeling a bit stung by its lack of seismic impact. Eight years later they are back and it's as if no time as passed. Eclectic beats, varied rappers, including Jonwayne and Guilty Simpson, and just as much fun. Also a blast is Supa-K: Heavy Tremors, their "beat tape" - 50 tracks in 49 minutes - which had my wife asking, "Is this J Dilla?" Not quite, but it certainly hits that spot very sweetly. Welcome back, Quakers, long may you rock my world.

Tracks from these albums and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Hip Hop, R&B, & Reggae) Playlist.

Elsa Hewitt - Ghostcats This EP is an extra fuzzy excursion from Hewitt, and all the more charming in its graceful electronic distortions. Hewitt's world enters the physical realm with her handmade cassettes and this one was very special - I celebrated it in this unboxing video - but a talisman is not required for the magic to happen. All you need do is push play.

A track from this album and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Electronic) playlist.

You may also enjoy:
Of Note In 2020: Classical
Of Note In 2020: Electronic
Of Note In 2020: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Of Note In 2020: Jazz, Latin, and Global
Of Note In 2020: Rock, Folk, Etc.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Record Roundup: New Music Cavalcade

The turns of history that have transpired since I started this post are even more head-spinning than the kaleidoscopic variety of music I discuss below. But the fact remains that whatever happens in the world of politics, we will always have artists to inspire us and reflect the world back to us in ways that lend perspective, strength, and solace. With the monumental election now behind us, the end of the year also seems to approach ever more rapidly. However, I will attempt to get one or two more "regular" posts up before we start delineating the best of 2020. Because, yes, there is yet more mind-blowing music to cover!

Tracks from the albums below, and many others, can be found here or below. Click follow to make sure you don't miss a thing.

Ash Fure - Something To Hunt The first time I heard Echoes by Pink Floyd (which was shamefully late in the game), I thought, "This should be played in concert halls around the world." So when I put on this album, the first portrait collection of Fure's music (also shamefully late!), I felt my vision coming to a certain kind of reality. Especially on Shiver Lung (2016), which opens the album, there's a sense of distant observation, narrative sweep, and mounting terror that brings some of the legendary band's sounds and structures into the realm of contemporary composition most effectively. I'm not surprised to read that it's an excerpt from a longer work, The Force Of Things: An Opera for Objects, as Pink Floyd themselves fruitlessly pursued an album made solely for household objects. As heard here, Shiver Lung is a landmark work of nearly pure sound that makes astonishingly original use of the forces of the International Contemporary Ensemble, who perform most of the pieces on the record. I've probably rung this bell too often already, but if you have some bigger speakers in your house, let it rip on them for full immersion. Something To Hunt (2014) is more recognizable as ultra-modern chamber music, although of a highly distinctive nature, with strings plucked and stroked, and a dynamic architecture that edges towards chaos before pulling back. 

Soma (2012), a reflection on Fure's grandmother's Parkinson's disease, is a restless assemblage of piano notes, rustling strings, and white noises, and would fascinate even without knowing the inspiration behind it. The most stripped-down piece here is A Library on Lightning (2018), which makes the most of a trio of trumpet, bassoon, and double bass, ranging from skeletal stretches to furious conglomerations for a discomfiting 14 minutes. Bound To The Bow (2016) is presented in a spellbinding live recording by the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra and brings us full circle to the sound world of Shiver Lung, with shimmering electronics blending with the acoustic instruments. It's edge-of-your-seat stuff and the perfect conclusion to Something To Hunt, which finally begins to slake the thirst I've had to dive into Fure's music, which, like that of Anna Thorvaldsdottir is highly complex but holds broad appeal. Don't miss it.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Rhízōma Speaking of this Icelandic wonder, her first portrait album, which introduced me to her music nearly a decade ago, has been reissued in a stunning remaster by Sono Luminus, and includes a new recording of Dreaming performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. You have no excuse to miss it the second time around.

Jacqueline Leclair - Music For English Horn Alone Funny how the world converges sometimes. Just today I started catching up with the awesome podcast from TAK Ensemble, listening to Hannah Kendall interview Elaine Mitchener and thinking I need to follow up on both of them. Then I plucked this album off my teetering stack and spotted Kendall's name among the seven composers Leclaire included here. At just over three minutes, Kendall's piece is short but characterful. Called Joe (2006),  and based on the photo of the same name by Richard Boll, it asks more questions than it answers while conveying empathy for its subject. Leclair's technique in this world premiere recording is flawless, as it is throughout this concise collection. There's plenty of variety here, too. In The City At Night (2008) by Jenni Brandon has some of Gershwin's jazzy insouciance, full of dance rhythms and narrative thrust, while Kara Obermüller's different forms of phosphorous (2020) tends towards abstraction, exploring extended techniques. Perhaps most radical is Música invisible (2004) by Cecilia Arditto, which has Leclair removing the reed and bocal to make some very human noises. 

The Obermüller and Arditto pieces are also recorded for the first time, as is Layered Lament (1984) by Faye-Ellen Silverman, which in its use of electronics is at least 20 years ahead of its time. Besides just being a good listen, such advocacy and archiving make Music For English Horn Alone, which also includes fascinating works by Meera Gudipati and Lisa Bielawa, a truly important release and one that will define this repertoire, for years to come.

Dominique Lemaître - De l’espace trouver la fin et le milieu This gorgeously recorded collection of Lemaître's cello music, played with mastery and a deep connection by Dan Barrett, was my introduction to the French composer. Based on these jewel-toned pieces, which often tingle the spine and always engage the mind, I'm ready to deepen the friendship. The album opens with Orange and yellow II (2013), in a transcription from the original two-viola version, making full use of the eight strings as Barrett duets with Stanislav Orlovsky. Inspired by Mark Rothko and written in tribute to Morton Feldman, the two cellos pursue a dialogue that is as riveting as listening in on a conversation by dazzling intellects. Like many of the pieces, the highly resonant acoustic is almost another instrument, with notes hanging in the air and echoing in the distance. 

Mnaïdra (1992) and Plus haut (2018) are the two solo works here and a good measure of how Lemaître's work has developed over the years. The former is lyrical and almost folk-like, with gentle strums and tidy melodies, while the latter is an epic of abstract yearning, ending with a series of piercing repeated notes ("higher" - as implied by the title) that will stay with you for some time. Pianist Jed Distler is on hand for Stances, hommage à Henri Dutilleux (2015), which has single notes from the keyboard decorating long, ruminative lines from the cello, like sunlight sparkling on water, and you would likely not need the title to recognize Lemaître's debt to his fellow French master. The album also includes Thot (1994), which has Barrett playing with clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki in a wonderfully hushed exploration of woody textures. Read the notes and you will find that Lemaître is, in some ways, what you might expect from a cultured French composer: elegant, well-read, well-traveled, and with phenomenally assured technical skills. But that doesn't mean that this music isn't quietly surprising and the fact that it is surpassingly excellent is likely a result of all those qualities. There's something to be said for new music made old school!

Brooklyn Rider - Healing Modes This high-concept album interleaves the five movements of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 with five new pieces commissioned by Brooklyn Rider from some of today's most notable composers. While Beethoven's 250th anniversary was obviously an impetus for putting the album together, along with the world's desperate need for healing, there's no way the group could have predicted just how much healing when they commissioned these works a few years ago. I'm also fairly certain the group was not expecting Beethoven to become a flashpoint in the ongoing quest for social justice in classical music. While celebrating his "genius and humanity," as violist Johnny Gandelsman puts it, is a valid point in every year, whether the concept ultimately works for you will depend on your patience for listening to Beethoven. For me, I'm just not in the mood - and not for ideological reasons but for musical ones. I have shelves of the stuff, after all, and it just felt too familiar, even in their lapidary performance. So after a couple of listens, I teased out my own playlist of just the new works and...WOW. This is some of the best string quartet music of recent years. 

Matana Roberts' borderlands... opens the album in cinematic fashion, with indistinct voices, "Psycho" jabs, intricate and angry pizzicato, and the occasional moment of calm. By the time the players started spitting out "We hold these truths! To be..Self Evident!" I was almost on my feet. Reena Esmail's Zeher (Poison) seamlessly combines the sinuous melodies of Indian classical music with brusque chording for a bracing and beautiful eight minutes. I was reminded of her lovely piece on Nicholas Phillips' Shift and once again have a whetted appetite for more. The third new piece on Healing Modes is Gabriela Lena Frank's Kanto Kechua #2 and, based on this commanding and incantatory work, she is someone about whom I need to know more - and here's the perfect place to do just that. 

Then we get i am my own achilles heel, a mesmerizing 12-minute piece from Du Yun, which maps out a wide dynamic range, from airy whispers and pensive melodies to gnarly tangles of sound. She can do no wrong. The final new piece is by Caroline Shaw, the tuneful, Americana-infused Schisma, ending the album on a perfect note of hopefulness, although in no ways uncomplicated. By all means, follow the program and listen to Healing Modes as programmed by Brooklyn Rider. But if that's not hitting the spot, find your way to these wondrous new works through other means. 

Another hint of the depth of talent in Brooklyn Rider is violist Nicolas Cords' new album, Touch Harmonious, which mixes new works by Anna Clyne, Dmitri Yanov Yanovski, and Dana Lyn with older pieces by Britten, Handel, Bach, and other, all played with the same burnished tone and emotional engagement he displayed on Recursion, his solo debut from 2013. Gandelsman also has a new album, following up his complete recording of Bach's Solo Partitas, this time assaying the master's Complete Cello Suites transcribed for violin, including the first-ever recording of the 6th suite on a 5-string violin. It's a fleet-fingered take, emphasizing the Baroque dance rhythms embedded in each movement. Gandelsman's technique is flawless yet imbued with personality, making you hear these oft-played works anew. Now, if I could just get cellist Michael Nicolas to give me a sequel to Transitions, my life would be complete...for a little while, anyway!

Chris P. Thompson - True Stories & Rational Numbers Though inspired by the fearsomely complex player-piano works of Conlon Nancarrow and some deep thoughts about just intonation and Hermann von Helmholtz’s book On the Sensations of Tone, these nine piano pieced gleam with off-kilter charm, like a futuristic blend of Aphex Twin, Roger Eno and Erik Satie. Put it on and the sparkle will fill your room, like mirrored mobiles spinning around themselves, as you hear the piano in a whole new way.

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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Record Roundup: In Their Prime

Here are four albums from artists who are at least at mid-career - and seemingly at the peak of their powers. Crucially, each album is good enough to serve as an introduction to their work, should you be unfamiliar - as in one case I was.

Fleet Foxes - Shore What are the elements that make fans like me so devoted to this band? First there's the embrace of many acoustic instruments in concert and counterpoint, creating an atmosphere of comfort much like that old cliché, the favorite sweater. Then, there's the heavenly voice of Robin Pecknold, often joined in three- or four-part harmony. Finally, there are the lyrics, which invite you on a quest for resolution and understanding of each other, the world, and ourselves. 

This surprise album, made before and during pandemic lockdown, also positions Fleet Foxes as Pecknold's project, as it includes none of the band members credited on previous albums. He has also said that he had a bigger hand in those albums than we earlier thought. Many of the stunning harmonies, for example, were him and him alone, painstakingly layering his own voice. That's not to say there aren't collaborators on the three earlier albums or here, where members of Grizzly Bear, the horn section known as The Westerlies, and even two of Hamilton Leithauser's children appear, among others. 

Whether a result of the extended process, new partners, or simply a honing of Pecknold's craft, this is the most direct and uplifting Fleet Foxes album yet, often cruising at a celebratory gallop, or (as on Can I Believe You) offering bold dynamic shifts, those gleaming horns seeming to sparkle in ocean sunlight. Few of the introspective convolutions of 2017's Crack-Up - wonderful as they were - are present on Shore. The sense of compassion and empathy is so strong, as on Featherweight when he sings, "May the last long year be forgiven/All that war left within it/I couldn’t, though I’m beginning to/And we only made it together," that it's hard to imagine even Fleet Foxes skeptics not finding Shore a welcome presence in their lives. 

And when you've listened to the album a bit, you could expand the experience by making a playlist of all the artists Pecknold lists in Sunblind, his gorgeous tribute to his heroes. Compiling Richard Swift, John Prine, Bill Withers, Judee Sill, Elliot Smith, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Jimi Hendrix, Chris Bell, Arthur Russell, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others, will make for a heck of a listen, and may further illuminate the sheer artistry and passion of Shore, an album I would prescribe as medicine during these times of multiple stressors on the heart, body, and mind. Take a dose. 

Angel Olsen - Whole New Mess Anyone fascinated by the creative process - and I am - can't help but be intrigued by the idea that this record, primarily made up of earlier recordings of songs that appeared on last year's triumphant All Mirrors, has been in the can since 2018. Artists are often insecure, but it's hard to imaging listening to these sumptuously emotional performances and thinking they are in some way unsatisfactory. I say "earlier recordings" instead of demos, because these stripped down versions, mostly Olsen's guitar and voice with occasional organ from her co-producer Michael Harris, feel complete in and of themselves. The recording, made in a converted church with a resonant natural echo, is tactile and may best be experienced on a "real stereo" so you can feel the weight of her pick against the strings and have her voice move some of the air in your own space. 

On All Mirrors, the songs were presented in maximalist clothing, strings and synths stacked to the rafters. Hearing them in skeletal form only confirms their strength as exquisitely constructed combinations of form and content. Even the 101 strings of the Melachrino Orchestra could not have dimmed the indelible incandescence of these melodies, and Whole New Mess simply confirms Olsen's place as one of the preeminent songwriters of our time. On the title track, one of two new songs here, Olsen declares, "It won't be long before it's really showing/It's every season where it is I'm going," and it's hard to know if she was looking ahead to All Mirrors or even further into the future - either way, I plan to be there.

Michael Zapruder - Latecomers Zapruder is a protean composer of sparkling chamber music, innovative operas, and folk-rock songs with a literary attention to detail. Latecomers is his first collection of the latter in 11 years - and my introduction to his talents. While the album was recorded over many years and includes textures ranging from the acoustic propulsion of the luminous title track to the almost glossy pop of New Quarantine, it still feels like a coherent collection, like having a wide-ranging conversation with a friend. That second song is a dystopian imagining of quarantine as a gated community that was written years before our current news cycle - not the first time an artist has shown an almost uncanny prescience. 

But the strongest songs here - and they're all good - seem more focused on personal matters. Seafaring, a song for which Michael Chapman and Sam Beam would kill to claim authorship, goes for the gut when Zapruder sings: "And then that house in Maryland got cancer in its walls/and we made all those long and sad phone calls." TOO relatable - I think we owe each other a hug. Zapruder's wry, somewhat dry voice, is perfect for delivering the wisdom and wit that abound on Latecomers, maybe no more so that in I Don't Think You Understand, the last track, which has him explaining with saintly patience: "There’s salt in the water of the sea/there’s sugar in the fruit of the land/but if you think there’s an answer in me/I don’t think you understand." So no answers, maybe, but plenty of the right questions, all couched in finely wrought melodies and clever musical settings. Consider me more than pleased to make Zapruder's acquaintance!

Frankie And The Witch Fingers - Monsters Eating People Eating Monsters... On 2019's Zam, their fifth album, this LA-based prog-psych band arrived at a new level of supremacy in their chosen field. On songs like Pleasure, the rhythm section of founding bassist Alex Bulli and new drummer Shaughnessy Starr achieved an almost frightening level of power and precision, and the sound throughout was of a band truly coming into their own, especially singer and songwriter Dylan Sizemore, who owned his vocals more than on previous records. From that new peak, FATWF have only continued to ascend on this latest collection. Even with Bulli having departed, the rhythms achieve a tight looseness (or is it a loose tightness) that is the height of head-nodding immersion. 

The guitar dynamics of Sizemore and Josh Menashe are also something to behold, whether interlocking in dizzying fashion or assembling to deliver hammer blows, like the power chords on Reaper, which give my speakers a welcome opportunity to show off. But there's far more than brute force here, with new textures introduced from cello, synths, and plenty of group percussion jams. The lyrics seem to offer a scabrous view of humanity, with music and other modes of altering consciousness a saving grace of life on planet earth. Whether it's the wah-wah workout on Sweet Freak, the delirious twin-leads of Where's Your Reality, or the near-funk of Simulator, FATWF provide their own best argument that rock and roll can get you past whatever it is you're going through - and in spectacular style, too. 

Find tracks from all these albums - and many more - here or below.


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Sunday, October 04, 2020

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 3

Continuing from last time, five further albums representing the neverending, ever-expanding universe being created
 right now by living composers. Sample tracks from all of these and those in Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 here or below.


Christopher Cerrone - Liminal Highway I don't want to hang too much verbiage on this piece, which for 16 mesmerizing minutes gives us a whole world of sound created by flute - brilliantly played by Tim Munro - and live electronics. I will simply say that since its inception as a slender bamboo reed in the Zhou Dynasty nearly 3,000 years ago, to the addition of keys in 18th century London, to Varese's groundbreaking solo Density 21.5, the flute has been reinvented many times. And so it is again. For the full experience of Liminal Highway, which was premiered in 2015, be sure you watch the video, filmed on the ruins of the SS United States in Philadelphia Harbor, and read John K. Samson's poem of the same name.

Christopher Cerrone - Goldbeater's Skin Originally commissioned and premiered by Third Coast Percussion in 2017, this gorgeous song cycle for percussion and soprano finally gets a recording by Sandbox Percussion and Elspeth Davis. They do a wonderful job of it as well, creating an atmosphere either diaphanous or almost mechanical, as directed by Cerrone's imaginative orchestration, which has them playing horizontal guitars at times, amidst the bells, vibraphones, marimbas, etc. Davis appears to be completely absorbed in the melodies, which set the words of poet G.C. Waldrep in a way that feels wholly natural. Goldbeater's Skin also comes with a beautifully filmed performance video, which may be the ideal way to first experience the piece. Between this, Liminal Highway, and High Windows, which appeared on the String Orchestra of Brooklyn's Afterimage earlier this year, Cerrone is having a heckuva year!

Stara: The Music of Halldór Smárason Featuring world premiere recordings of three string quartets, two chamber works, and a piece for solo guitar and electronics, this is a deeply involving introduction to the sound world of a young Icelandic composer. The performances, by the Siggi String Quartet, an ad hoc ensemble (Emilía Rós Sigfúsdóttir (flute), Geirþrúður Ása Guðjónsdóttir (violin), Helga Björg Arnardóttir (Clarinet), and Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir (piano)), and guitarist Gulli Björnsson, are stylish and expert, and the Sono Luminus recording captures each knock, breath, twang, swoop, and glide, with warmth and clarity. Smárason excels at tension and release, but with the naturalism of a great storyteller rather than a showy romanticism, drawing you in with fragmentary glimpses of melodies in dramatic fashion. I'm continually finding new textures and moments to love here, turning them over in my mind like dark gemstones. Embrace the glitter and gleam.

Third Sound - Heard In Havana In the now-halcyon days of 2015, this kickass NYC chamber group traveled down to Cuba on a grant from the American Composers Forum to present the first concert of contemporary American music since Castro's revolution. There was exchange of ideas, meetings between Cuban and American composers, and a sense of the world moving past some of its long-held disagreements. Of course, much of that is but a memory in 2020, but at least we have this gloriously varied collection of music by ten composers ranging in age from 63 to 31, all of whom make use of the forces in their own unique ways. My taste has me most attracted to the edgier works, like Spencer Topel's four-movement Details On The Strasbourg Rosace, which finds him applying much the same ideas of his electronic work to the acoustic setting, or Christopher Wendell Jones' A Crowd Of Twisted Things, which constantly seems in danger of sliding right off the sheet music in a tumble of delicate notes, or the spooked theatrics of Mieko by Kai-Young Chan. I'm also glad to have Ingrid Arauco's Fantasy-Quartet, which I called "sparkling, astringent, and colorful," when I heard it at the Miller last year, available for on-demand listening. If I had one minor complaint, it's that Patrick Castillo, the founder of Third Sound (and my colleague in Hotel Elefant), didn't include one of his own works. I've heard too many sweet chamber pieces by him just once and they deserve to be preserved in a recording as wonderful as what we have here. Note: while this music was all "heard in Havana," these recordings were made in New York the year following Third Sound's trip. Here's to a future where such cultural transport is commonplace.

Jacob Cooper - Terrain Like Ted Hearne, Cooper's music is so comfortable with seemingly the whole world of sound, ancient to the future, that it can be hard to locate at times. For some that might be discomfiting, but I'm all about it, sensing a representation of a musical mind not unlike my own, where disco lives alongside spectralism and serialism alongside psych-rock. Unlike Hearne's blazing maximalism, however, Cooper's polyglot is sleek and streamlined, here full of stainless electronic textures combining with long lines from Ashley Bathgate's cello. She's just one of Cooper's collaborators on this lushly emotional album, which features three long pieces that still operate as songs. Theo Bleckman, whose extraordinary singing was a highlight of The Pieces That Fall To Earth, last year's collection of Cerrone compositions by Wild Up, brings a comforting humanity to the glitched sonics of Ripple The Sky. And speaking of Wild Up, their member Jodie Landau also contributes vocals on Terrain, warmly intoning Dora Malech's text on Expiation and blending marvelously with Bleckman in space-age counterpoint on the title track. 

For all the futuristic qualities of Terrain, the overall sensation is one fraught with memory, yearning, and a kind of hopefulness. It's not hard to imagine Thomas Jerome Newton, the character David Bowie played in The Man Who Fell To Earth, losing himself in these suites as he thought about his family marooned on a dying planet. Bowie himself would also likely be on Cooper's wavelength, enjoying Terrain's seamless blend of electronics, vocals, and cello, like a proposed side three of Low. Perhaps I go too far with that one, but if it nudges you to listen, I'll consider it a leap worth taking. Your turn.

There's more where all of this came from in my Of Note In 2020 (Classical) playlist - click "follow" to see what the future holds.

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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 2

Continuing on from last time, here are six more albums from the vast universe of contemporary classical music in 2020. As promised, the playlist has grown...and will keep growing!

Grossman Ensemble - Fountain Of Time This powerhouse chamber ensemble, founded by composer and educator Augusta Read Thomas, has been growing in Chicago for the last few years, already amassing a portfolio of 36 commissioned works. Featuring five works from their first season, each one the result of a uniquely collaborative process directed by composers Anthony Cheung and Sam Pluta, it's hard to imagine a better introduction to their virtuosic interplay than this debut album. I'm sure it helps that all the players, including Tim Munro (flute), Ben Melsky (harp), Daniel Pesca (Piano), and the Spektral Quartet (strings) are brilliant on their own, but their sense of unity is a rare thing indeed. This is also no doubt aided by the spectacular recording, warm and nearly three dimensional, and the conducting of Ben Bolter, Michael Lewanski, Jerry Hou, and David Dzubay. 

The music ranges from Shulamit Ran's picturesque Grand Rounds, with its splashy percussion (played by Greg Beyer and John Corkill), and Cheung's supremely colorful Double Allegories, to the occasionally spectral PHO by Dzubay and the skeletal soundscape of Tonia Ko's Simple Fuel, which has some of the tension and release of a Lalo Schifrin score. The album ends with David Clay Mettens' Stain, Bloom, Moon, Rain, as spare and dramatic as the Japanese poems which inspired him. Kudos to Thomas for kicking this thing off and to the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition and the University of Chicago for giving it a home. Thanks to this spectacular album, the Grossman Ensemble is no longer solely the property of the windy city.

Páll Ragnar Pálsson - Atonement Quake, Pálsson's piece for cello and orchestra, was a highlight of not one but two albums in 2019, Vernacular by Saeunn Thorsteindottir and Concurrence by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, so I welcomed this opportunity to go deeper into his music on his first collection since 2017's Nostalgia. These are all chamber works, performed by Iceland's Caput Ensemble, and most feature voice, either the soprano Tui Hirv or poet Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. These forces combine in sympathetic performances that manage to give equal weight to the darkness Pálsson evokes through his harmonic invention and the sparkle he creates through his orchestration, which often takes on a form of serial interaction, with piano sparking flute, which in turn triggers violin, and so on. Hirv's rich voice is the perfect foil for the instruments on Atonement, Stalker's Monologue, which takes its text from the Tarkovsky film, and Wheel Crosses Under Moss, while Gunnarsdóttir recites her own poem for Midsummer's Night. The theatricality of the music in that last piece, combined with Gunnarsdóttir's understated delivery, makes for an enthralling experience - a feeling that will grow more familiar with repeat listens to Atonement.

Sarah Frisof and Daniel Pesca - Beauty Crying Forth: Flute Music By Women Across Time Literally a breath of fresh air, this album expertly compiles music composed by women for flute and piano (mostly), stretching from Clara Schumann's Three Romances (1853) to Shulamit Ran's Birds of Paradise (2014). Tania León's Alma (2007), brightly sets the tone of the album, which is rarely less than sunny. The one exception is Kaija Saariaho's Cendres (1998), which adds cello (Hannah Collins) to Frisof's flute and Pesca's piano. With wild flutterings from the flute and hard-driven cello, often slicing into harmonics, Cendre is a mysterious knockout, like a smoky cocktail that forces you to lay down and contemplate the inside of your eyelids. Pour me another!

Bára Gísladóttir - Hīber If you fell in love with the sharp sound of Saariaho's cello on Cendre's, you will be enraptured by Gísladóttir's blazingly brilliant song cycle for double bass and electronics. Taking her instrument to the limit, with whispering harmonic highs and grinding lows, she creates a universe that pulls you in from the start. Titles like No Afterlife Thanks and Fists Clenched give an idea of some of the emotional realms she's drawing on, but just listening will give you all the clues you need to get there. And get there you must - even if it means signing up for your first streaming account, as this is only available on those platforms. You'll want to be prepared for her upcoming release on Sono Luminus...

Patchwork This debut album for the saxophone and drum duo of Noa Even and Stephen Klunk goes a long way toward establishing a repertoire for a combo that is surprisingly versatile. Featuring five commissioned pieces by Osnat Netzer, Hong-Da Chin, Eric Wubbels, Erin Rogers, and Dan Tramte, and recorded in an appealingly dry acoustic, which allows every pop, tick, and scrape their own moments in the spotlight, it's an entertaining ride, too. Rogers' Fast Love is a perfect example of what Even and Klunk can do. If you've ever seen Rogers play, you know how brave it was for Even to assay a piece by her! But, in Even's hands, Fast Love sounds remarkably tossed off and spontaneous, especially during the wild fourth section, full of gutbucket honks and Desi Arnaz grunts. Klunk distinguishes himself throughout, up for any challenge thrown his way - check him out in Tramte's G®iND, inspired by a YouTube clip about wind-up toys. It's a nifty, inventive piece and as good a proof of concept as anything on this inspiring collection.

Hildegard Competition Winners Vol. 1 Since 2018, National Sawdust has been running this mentorship program for "outstanding trans, female, and nonbinary composers in the early stages of their careers," which provides a cash prize, guidance from established composers like Du Yun and Angélica Negrón, and a live performance led by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. Having managed to miss every one of those performances, I'm thrilled to have works by the first six winners available for on-demand listening. Eclectic in both conception and sound, works like the tremulous and lyrical Openwork/Knotted Object/Trellis In Bloom/Lightning Ache by inti figgis-vizueta or Casual Champagne + Cocaine by X Lee, with its iPhone noises and scrabbling violins, make a clear case that what may now be on the margins needs to move closer to the center. In addition to the two composers mentioned above, remember the names Kayla Cashetta, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Emma O’Halloran, Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, not to mention those of the 2020 winners (Flannery Cunningham, Jimena Maldonado, and Sonja Mutić), who have yet to be recorded. What National Sawdust is doing here is certainly noble, but there is nothing academic or appeasing about the music they're ushering into the world. Let it open your mind and your ears.

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