Sunday, January 08, 2023

Best Of 2022: Electronic

My interest in this genre leans closer to soundscapes that create an imaginary environment or persona rather than the more popular beat-driven expressions. But there are still a few jams to be had here, where songs emerge out of the synth-based constructions. At the top are previously covered releases followed by pocket reviews of other things that caught my ear and demanded repeat listening. Get the flavor of each album in this playlist or below. 

Ben Seretan - Sandhills Music As he proved on 2021's wonderfully immersive Cicada Waves, singer/songwriter/guitarist Seretan also has a gift for putting a structure around the sounds of nature by combining them with electronics. Ambient music, then, and worthy of the legacy of Brian Eno's Ambient 4: On Land. Whether viewed as landscapes in sound or travels in the mind, these pieces, recorded both in Sanford, NC and Troy, NY, have a way of redefining the space around you.

Nick Storring - Music from W​é​i 成为 Made up of layers of piano sounds (both from an old upright and a computer-controlled Yamaha Disklavier), Storring's latest album is marvelously evocative. Nearly symphonic in scope, each emotionally-driven track leads to the next with a steady inevitability. The level of invention in Storring's approach is quietly astonishing, with plucking, preparations, E-bow, and other techniques deployed with remarkable assurance - never more so than in movement VI, when things really take off! The Chinese characters in the title relate to the verb "to become" so maybe that's a clue to the story being told, but any interpretation that meshes with your life is valid and may change over time. Either way, it's an album that has continued to reveal itself over many listens - compelling stuff, indeed. 

Amanda Berlind - Mousemilk As on her delightful debut, 2021's Green Cone, this EP often combines hazy atmospherics with off-kilter rhythms, for an experience not unlike standing between rooms playing different radios - but it works. The longest track, Wand, is 13 languorous minutes of piano, guitar, wordless vocals, and reverb, perfect for staring at the rain or the inside of your eyelids. While this is only available on streaming services (including YouTube) it seems it may be forthcoming as a cassette, which would be the perfect medium for these rich but low-fi audio collages. Berlind is also a witty and wonderful visual artist so be sure to keep up with her on Instagram.

Sophie Birch - Holotropica There is a lush, almost humid, enveloping quality to Birch's work here, created with electronics and occasional sax, flute, and harp, that connects it to those "rainforest" cassettes you used to find in crunchy stores in the 70s. But that reference does little to reveal how musically astute Birch is as a composer and sonic sculptor. Birch, who hails from Denmark, also collaborated with Polish vocalist Antonina Nowacka on Languouria, which has a bit more forward motion than Holotropica on some tracks and features the voice as another instrument, sometimes soothing, sometimes startling, always wordless and expressive.

Various Artists - A New Age For New Age, Vol. 5 Launched in 2019, this series has become a durable fixture on the electronic scene, with each volume having something to offer. Expanding their brief, they collaborated with the University of Michigan's Modern Percussion Lab to have students create the eight tracks featured here. From Paul Puleo's Non-Frontation, which opens the album with Harry Partch-like resonating percussion, to the space-station corridors of Chris Sies' Radiant Streams, the collection is compelling and fresh throughout - yet another new age for new age!

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Emile Mosseri - I Could Be Your Dog/I Could Be Your Moon I seem to have lost track of Smith since I noted the "rich and rewarding" experience of her album, The Kid, in 2017. But this collaboration with Emile Mosseri, a composer known for soundtracks for such excellent movies as Kajillionaire and Minari, caught my attention quickly. A two-part collection that feels like a story, the first few songs seem to transit us gently through the clouds, as if on a butterfly’s back, and when we finally touch down during the sun-kissed groove of Shim Sham, it’s a marvelous sensation. Smith's latest solo album, Let's Turn It Into Sound, also has a sense of narrative, if in a more oblique way. A venture into near hyper-pop, it's full bright textures and sunny moods. Dazzling and entertaining in equal measure.

Yeule - Glitch Princess Opening with a haunting and halting spoken word piece that seems to come over a fraying ethernet cable, this remarkably assured debut introduces us to Nat Ćmiel, a creature of the internet who is looking for love, acceptance, and community. Or is Yuele the creation? In their bio,  Ćmiel calls Yeule "a portal or riff" created to "communicate their art to the outside world..." The mind-bending conceptual underpinning only adds a kick to the album. The songs are indeed glitchy, and very artfully so, conveying nuanced emotions and fractured melodies. And when they go full pop on Bites On My Neck, it's wonderfully celebratory and conjures a vision of Bowie's Earthling-era self dancing in the wings. It's an immersive album, like a trip to the metaverse without a headset, and the digital and streaming versions end with a nearly five-hour bath of dreamy ambiance, the perfect way to process everything that's come before. 

Claire Rousay - Everything Perfect Is Already Here Rousay is prolific enough that it almost seems as if the steady flow of albums and EPs may be acting as some sort of diary for her. There certainly is a lived-in quality to the two 15-minute pieces that make up this album, which not so much creates an environment but comes from one, and a Cageian dwelling at that. It feels like entering a sprawling apartment filled with musicians, but as pure consciousness, allowing you to hear all sound as music and all music as sound, without making any noises of your own. Joined by Alex Cunningham (violin), Mari Maurice (electronics, violin), Marilu Donovan (harp), and Theodore Cale Schafer (piano), Rousay maps out a place of memories you never had or haven't had yet. Captivating, witty, and utterly unique.

Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn - Pigments As much as I wanted to love 2021's Second Line, Richard's sixth album since making her name as a member of Danity Kane, the intrigue created by her trajectory from pop star to indie artist was not enough to counter the frequent nods to convention on the record. But there was the kernel of something that made me keep trying, an effort that was finally rewarded by this spacious, drifting collaboration with Zahn. While Zahn's bass, vibes, and keyboards underpin everything, the mix also includes guitar, strings, sax and flute, with the clarinets and bass clarinets of Stuart Bogie and Doug Wieselman are nearly as prominent as Richard's strong yet diaphanous vocals, creating a blend of jazz, chamber, and electronic musics. Zahn has also been busy on his own and I'm looking forward to delving into his solo work, including Pale Horizon, a delicate series of pieces for bass and piano with some of Vince Guaraldi's wistfulness, which came out in May 2022.

Snowdrops - Missing Island Featuring Christine Ott on Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument, harmonium, and piano, Mathieu Gabry on piano and electronics, and Anne-Irène Kempf on viola, this album continues the marvelous thread from 2020's Volutes more so than the darker and occasionally explosive Inner Fires from last year. Over 41 minutes, the players build up velvety layers of sound, creating a space for reflection just structured enough to avoid collapsing under its own weight. I note that this was recorded in 2020 - what more wonders does their seemingly bottomless archive hold? I can't wait to find out!

Finneas O'Connell - The Fallout OST From his work with his sister, Billie Eilish, you could guess that O'Connell understands how to create drama and emotion out of minimal gestures, which he does throughout this elegantly melancholy score for the 2021 film about the aftermath of a school shooting. With treated piano leading the way, you can hear echoes of the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson, which is not bad company to be in on your first outing as a soundtrack composer. There are also a few sweetly hymn-like songs sung by Maisy Stella with and without her sister Lennon. While his own pop music is hamstrung by his all-too-obvious lyrics and all-too-anthemic choruses, this would seem to be a worthy direction for him when he's not producing the next blockbuster for Eilish. 

Transport yourself further into these realms in this archive playlist and keep up with 2023's excursions here.

Monday, January 02, 2023

Best Of 2022: Classical

Even with the constant onrush of mostly negligible repertory recordings from the major labels, the new music scene continues to be one of the most fertile in music today, filled with endless innovations in structure and sound. Here's a scratch of the surface - or, more appropriately, a sip of the cream, starting with things I've already written about.

Hear a track from each of these in this playlist or below, excepting those noted that are on Bandcamp only - I urge you to follow up and give those a listen, too.

Record Roundup: 22 For 22 (Part 1)
Pathos Trio - When Dark Sounds Collide
Eric Nathan - Missing Words

The Best Of 2022 (So Far)
Sarah Plum - Personal Noise
String Orchestra Of Brooklyn - Enfolding

Record Roundup: Envelope Pushers
Ted Reichman - Dread Sea
Greg Davis - New Primes
Josh Modney - Near To Each
Steven Ricks - Assemblage Chamber
Maya Bennardo - Four Strings

Record Roundup: Evocative Voices
The Crossing - Born
Carlos Simon - Requiem For The Enslaved
Kate Soper Feat. Sam Pluta - The Understanding Of All Things
Loadbang - Quiver

Record Roundup: Songcraft
Michael Hersch - The Script Of Storms Also note reissues of The Wreckage Of Flowers and The Vanishing Pavilions, music for violin (Miranda Cuckson) and piano (Hersch), respectively.

Record Roundup: Autumn Flood, Pt. 1
John Luther Adams - Sila: The Breath Of The World 
Anthony Cheung - Music For Film, Sculpture, And Captions
Julian Brink - Utility Music
Andrew McIntosh - Little Jimmy
Greg Stuart - Subtractions

Record Roundup: Autumn Flood, Pt. 2
Olivia De Prato - I, A.M. - Artist Mother Project: New Works For Violin And Electronics

Steven Beck - George Walker: Five Piano Sonatas If you’re looking for an advocate for some underperformed and under-recorded piano music, there couldn’t be a better choice than Beck. Having seen him apply his monster technique and deep engagement a number of times with the Talea Ensemble, including a memorable tribute to Fred Lerdahl, I knew I would be hearing these works at their best. Walker, who died at 96 in 2018, has been called the “great American composer you never heard of” - although some of that obscurity was lifted when he became the first Black composer to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. Even so, these five sonatas were new to me, and they show an impressive range and growth over the years. From the First Sonata (1953), which puts him solidly in the American tradition with its variations on the Kentucky folk tune “O Bury Me Beneath the Willow," while still hewing to a fairly traditional sonata form, to the five-minute, one-movement Fifth Sonata (2003), which explores a fascinatingly attenuated harmonic realm that seems purely his own, Walker's grasp of the form is equal to anyone's. If you want more Walker - and I think you will - look no further than the Cleveland Orchestra's spectacular collection of his orchestral works. 

Jennifer Grim - Through Broken Time Grim not only has a great technique, whether in music of exquisite lyricism, like Tania León's Alma (2009), which opens this superb album, or of an advanced architecture, such as Julia Wolfe's Oxygen, for 12 Flutes (2021), but her curatorial acumen is equally sharp. Putting crucial recent works by Valerie Coleman and Alison Loggins-Hull alongside an Alvin Singleton piece from 1970 lends context to her selections, which the liner notes describe as being at the intersection of post-minimalism and Afro-modernism. Through Broken Time was recorded and released in 2022, which is not as common as you would think in the new music world - but it is just that urgent a collection, and one that will be looked back upon as a landmark in the future. Grim did not hesitate to get this music to us, do not hesitate to listen ASAP.

Johannes Moser - Alone Together I admit it - I'm terrible. So terrible, in fact, that I made a playlist with only the six newly-commissioned works on this album. I just don't need my experience of brilliant new pieces by Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, Timo Andres, Annie Gosfield, Ted Hearne, and Nina Young diluted by Grieg, Barber, and others, even if they're in "octophonic arrangements." Also, that playlist is 42-minutes long, just the right length for an album. The new pieces range from the dramatic (Reid's Somewhere There Is Something Else) to the songful (Andres' Ogee), with Hearne's Lobby Music unsurprisingly taking the cake as far as innovation goes. Blending Moser's hypnotic cello with electronic beats, voices from recent events, and electronics, Hearne somehow avoids being gimmicky through sheer force of will. Any fans of his masterpiece, Place, will know what I'm talking about. Cerrone's more quietly futuristic Exhalation makes the most of Moser's multi-tracking skills, with an electronic shimmer behind searching melodic lines and pizzicato sections. Moser has the skills and taste to be an important force for new cello music, perhaps he'll do so without apology next time around.

Christopher Cerrone - The Air Suspended While Moser's album in original form was too long, this tantalizing EP of recent pieces by Cerrone is all too brief at 22 minutes. The title piece (2019) is a commanding three-movement piano concerto, whose power belies its minimal forces, with only the Argus String Quartet and bassist Pat Swoboda backing up Shai Wosner, for whom the piece was written. Conceived for the close, sculptured acoustic of a recording, I can imagine it being thrilling in a concert hall as well. Also included is Why Was I Born Between Mirrors?, performed here by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, who premiered it in 2019. The recording is a true product of the pandemic-era, however, with sessions taking place in six cities across two continents. But no matter, the final result is a deeply absorbing piece, with a narrative thrust that hints at the inspiration Cerrone took from Ben Lerner's Leaving The Atocha Station. The tale of how Cerrone improvised his way into the piece, locking flower-pot percussion jams onto a digital grid and then building from there, is nearly as gripping as the music. The Air Suspended may be short, but it packs an outsized punch.

Bergamot Quartet - In The Brink This excellent debut puts the Bergamot right into the mix of our most exciting string quartets with four debut recordings. While Paul Wiancko's bustling Ode On A Broken Loom (2019) and Suzanne Ferrin's wobbly Undecim (2006) are both captivating, it's the works by Tania León and Ledah Finck (also the group's violinist) that kick their repertoire into the next level. León's Esencia (2009) is jam-packed with expertly deployed rhythms from Caribbean and Latin American traditions, both a warm embrace of her roots and a dazzling display of compositional acuity. Finck's title track (2019) takes things to a continent of her own imaginings, adding a drum set (Terry Sweeney) and shouted vocals by the quartet for a wild, spiky ride. My radar is firmly set for more, both from the Bergamot and Finck. 

Cenk Ergun - Inseln Even with 12 layers of countertenor Rupert Enticknap's voice, this sublime work always feels like one person and profoundly individualistic. The end result is an emotionally driven equation that somehow multiplies Medieval monophony by Ligeti's Lux Aeterna to arrive somewhere new. Originally a sound installation at Berlin's Zionskirche, the digital release also includes a recording made there, which is full of atmospheric externalities in addition to the space's unique resonances. 

John Luther Adams - Houses Of The Wind Consisting of five tracks that manipulate the same recording of an aeolian (wind-driven) harp, this album aligns more explicitly with ambient music than most of Adams' work - which is only to say that it is even more deeply peaceful and meditative. 

Aaron Myers-Brooks - Oblique The Eleventh and 6th Caves, a track that naturally extends Eddie Van Halen's virtuosic rock into microtonal realms, opens this album for guitar and electronics like a fanfare welcoming you into Myers-Brooks' unique world. Using a guitar tuned to 17 equal divisions of the octave (17 EDO) frees him to explore unusual harmonies, which he expresses through a phenomenal technique that is equally at home with delicate harmonics and lethal shredding. Triads and Arpeggios, which is for electronics only, reveals further characteristics of his compositional interests away from the guitar - colorful, dense, teeming with ideas, like a little island filled with evolutionary anomalies. Set sail.

AGS - Lab Rat Ever since getting hooked on Scott L. Miller's work due to the Tak Ensemble's excellent recording of his Ghost Layers, I have eagerly awaited transmissions from his universe. Just as with last year's collaboration with Rarescale, that anticipation has been repaid with interest by this latest release. AGS is the trio of Alexander Kranabetter (trumpet, electronics), Gloria Damijian (toy piano, percussion), and Miller (Kyma, electronics), a group formed initially for an improvised set at December 2020's Alte Schmiede Vienna festival. The experience was compelling enough that they put in some time in a studio and also recorded telematically to arrive here. Good thing, too, as the album delivers both kicky fun and otherworldly atmospherics for an absorbing listen. High risk/reward ratio for both players and listeners! 

andPlay & Victoria Cheah - A Butterfly On Your Shoulder Into Years And Years To Come This collaboration between the violin/viola duo of Maya Bennardo and Hannah Levinson and composer/synthesist Cheah could almost be a sequel to her piece on Concrete And Void, last year's stunning debut by Wavefield Ensemble. Cheah's strength of musical vision integrates the strings and electronics into a single, tensely purposeful unit, occasionally shading into spectralism with long, gradually ascending lines. Bummed that the cassette sold out but so glad I eventually caught up with these intriguing soundscapes. 

Eren Gümrükçüoglu - Pareidolia The title refers to the phenomenon of seeing shapes in randomness, like picking an elephant out of a cloudscape. But "peripatetic" could have worked just as well, so well-traveled through various realms is this Turkish-born, Florida-based composer and performer. And it's not just geographical, as his jazz guitar roots, engineering skills, and experiences creating soundtracks for television all inform his compositional approach. This debut portrait album features five recent compositions performed by the likes of Conrad Tao, the JACK Quartet, the Mivos Quartet, Ensemble Suono Giallo, and the Deviant Septet, bookended by two electronic pieces, for a 360-degree view of his stylish, entertaining, open-hearted music. Seen strictly as a calling card, Pareidolia should have students flooding his composition classes at FSU.

Departure Duo - Immensity Of The duo of soprano and double bass shouldn't really work. But apparently György Kurtág thought enough of the idea to compose Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs, based on the scrapbooks of an obscure 18th century physicist, for such an ensemble. Taking that witty 1999 piece as a jumping off point, Nina Guo and Edward Kass went all in and commissioned three other works, leading to this delightful collection. The Kurtág consists of 22 very short vignettes that foreground Lichtenbergs' quirky pronouncements (example: "The one who is in love with himself has at least the advantage that he won't encounter many rivals."), almost like character studies of whomever would deign to write such things down. The duo alternates reading English translations of each one, which interrupts the flow a little, but their voices are so nice I don't really mind. The album opens with Katherine Balch's four-movement Phrases (2017), which pull and push poems by Arthur Rimbaud like textual silly putty, giving Guo a lot to play with as Kass' bass pulses in the background. The three movements of John Aylward's Tiergarten (2018) feel more like a duet between the players and also inject some tone-painting into three Rilke poems about animals freighted with mythical resonances, the swan, the panther, and the unicorn. The final work, Emily Praetorius' Immensity Of (2019), plays with one line of text from Daphne Oram, abstracting it with whistles and single notes as the bass searches for resolution and connection. While everything about this rara avis album could seem quite, well, serious, Guo and Kass have a lightness of approach (see the photos in the booklet for further proof of this), not too mention complete command over their instruments, making listening a pure pleasure. More commissions are in the offing and I say bring. them. on.

Paul Bowles - A Picnic Cantata Those who associate Bowles only with his forbidding novel, The Sheltering Sky, must have missed the EOS Ensemble's wonderful recording of his music back in 1997. While there is a sense of promise unfulfilled by those colorful works, he definitely had something to say as a composer, with his globe-trotting ways having an influence, whether through French impressionism or the markets of Morocco. And now the New York Festival of Song has given us a sparkling gift in the first stereo recording of this brief theater piece, a collaboration with poet James Schuyler, which was performed at New York's Town Hall in 1953 and released by Columbia in 1954 on an LP with Francis Poulenc's Sonata For Two Pianos. I can guarantee you that if I had ever seen this in a thrift store, I would have known about this piece years ago. No matter - I'm just grateful to NYFOS for finally putting this out!

The Crossing - Carols After A Plague It can be hard to keep up with this pathbreaking choir, but the effort will always be rewarded, a sentiment that was never truer than with this epic collection of 12 new works by composers such as Tyshawn Sorey, Shara Nova, and Viet Cuong. As the title hints, everything is organized around themes from the recent pandemic era, whether the terrors wrought by the new virus, or the rage and sorrow brought on by police killings and a divided country. Everything is done in a spirit of compassion, empathy, and sincerity, however, so it never feels like pandering. The composers and choir are all in the same boat with us, consoling rather than preaching. Interludes composed by Crossing director and conductor Donald Nally lend the nearly 90-minute album a cinematic sweep. It's hard to think of a better album with which to draw a line between 2022 and 2023. May the coming months bring different things to sing about.

Find more classical and composed goodness in this archive playlist and make sure to follow this one to see what 2023 brings. For a different view of this arena, check out my playlist of Classical Grammy Nominations 2023.

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Best Of 2021: Classical