Two years ago, Noah Creshevsky, a committed advocate of fixed-media composition, and one of the musical voices lost to us in 2020, asserted that “today’s best seats are in our own homes or wherever we may be, listening to music through speakers or headphones, in chairs of our choosing, with or without extramusical diversions.” It’s a sentiment reflective of both the mobility available through digital devices and the Internet, and the advancements in recording engineering over the past generation. Most music just sounds better in state-of-the-art recordings than in concert halls, and such modern accoutrements as Web searches and streaming media offer a degree of choice and immediacy unattainable through traditional means.

Creshevsky could not have anticipated how drastically his proposition would be tested from March 2020 onward, as COVID lockdowns suddenly quashed most in-person concertizing. It turned out that people badly missed the social aspects of traditional concerts, whatever their logistical costs or acoustic inferiorities. And though ensembles and opera companies valiantly tried to substitute livestreamed performances for the real thing, this seemed a poor substitute to most listeners, dissatisfied with the technical limitations of real-time content delivery using home computers as a terminus. Urbanites, the medically responsible ones anyway, have leaned on things like social media to help replace in-person socializing, while favoring existing, non-real time channels (CDs, broadcasts, downloads, and platforms like Spotify, Bandcamp and YouTube) for their music consumption, which remains centered on conventionally published albums and songs.

Production cycles being what they are, the lockdowns haven’t produced an overwhelming decline in actual releases, as record labels continue to issue previously recorded content alongside new smaller-scale (and sanitary) recording projects. Intriguing material continues to flow into the Radio Eclectus inbox, and if a drought does hit, the biggest impact will likely come a year or two down the line. One of the few positive trends of 2020 was the retrieval of compelling older work, both the resuscitation of dormant projects and the rescue from producers’ vaults of valuable cultural documents that had long been unavailable. High-end opera companies were especially prominent in this effort (e.g., Metropolitan Opera’s nightly video streams of past Live in HD productions), leading to the ironic result that in a year that saw the shuttering of opera houses, it’s newly-mediated operatic projects that have risen to the top of my opinionated list of the past year’s most noteworthy new releases in the domain of contemporary Western art music.

New music theater

Not surprisingly, most of the video entries on the list are European. The economic and human impacts of the COVID pandemic in the US, exacerbated by the incompetence of the Trump administration, have amplified the longstanding trans-Atlantic disparities in arts support, leaving European institutions practically alone in mustering the resources for high-end contemporary music-focused intermedia production, even if many of the releases enumerated below had an earlier provenance.

Fin de Partie
  • György Kurtág: Fin de Partie (Medici.tv)
    The November 2018 premiere at La Scala of this setting of Beckett’s Endgame was easily the decade’s most anticipated operatic unveiling. Composed over eight years, the nonagenarian Hungarian’s first opera didn’t disappoint. As documented in this newly published video, the libretto and Pierre Audi’s staging both track closely to Beckett’s text, and the composer’s epigrammatic style (from the 1950s through his Kafka Fragments of 1985–87, he basically wrote nothing but bagatelles) is perfectly suited to the existential futility of Beckett’s scenario. Despite the occasional bit of sloppy ensemble (e.g., at 1:46:30, perhaps the result of tiring musicians), the effect is visually and musically compelling, a presentation that resonates with our age of coronavirus, ecological crisis and creeping authoritarianism
  • Salvatore Sciarrino: Luci mie traditrici (Staatsoper Stuttgart)
    Luci mie traditrici by Matthias BausMy Lying Eyes, composed in 1996­–98, is Sciarrino’s counterpart to Fin de Partie. Ostensibly a setting of the Baroque play Il tradimento per l’onore, its original subject was Carlo Gesualdo’s murder of his wife and her lover (Sciarrino removed all explicit references to Gesualdo when he learned about Schnittke’s opera on the same topic). The music is what you would expect from Sciarrino. Vocal phrases begin with a long tone then end with a short syllabic flurry, usually descending. The orchestra contributes soft, scattered, scratchy noises (predominately from flute and violins) with Feldmanesque gestures and hints of older music thrown in (including a song by Gesualdo’s contemporary Claude Le Jeune).

    This 1½-hour chamber opera, with a small orchestra, four soloists and no choir, is well suited for the COVID era, and the Staatsoper’s stream is of an actual production mounted in Fall 2020. Even under the healthiest of circumstances, it poses challenges for a stage director. And Barbara Frey‘s design—as sparse as the music, with minimal movements, socially distanced singers (driving a highly abstracted rendering of the climatic double-murder scene), and an onstage fern and displaced staircase the only salient pieces of scenery—will not satisfy everyone. Perhaps this is for the true believers, those with a commitment comparable to Wagnerians who can look forward to Tristan‘s second act. (A more conventional 2011 staging of Luci mie traditrici is viewable on YouTube via EuroArts)
  • Michael Tippett: The Ice Break (OperaVision)
    The absolute maximalist antithesis of Kurtág and Sciarrino, seen in its best possible light through Graham Vick’s 2015 staging for Birmingham Opera Company. Made available on video for the first time (and alas, a limited time) in 2020, it’s now gone back to the vault, but you may still be able to track down a copy. In the meantime, read my review

     
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mittwoch aus LICHT (Birmingham Opera Company)
    Likewise recalled from Birmingham Opera’s vault was Vick and Kathinka Pasveer’s breakthrough production of Mittwoch aus LICHT, the first complete staging of the last LICHT opera to be performed in its entirety, replete with the notorious Helicopter String Quartet (which Vick calls “the first Zoom quartet”), the slightly-less aerial musicians of World Parliament and the planet-shitting camel of Michaelion. The event was streamed live in 2012, then restreamed with updated commentary from Vick (complete with live audience Q&A via Internet chat) in July 2020. Sadly, this video too has returned to retirement, but it’s definitely worth viewing if you can track down a copy
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen: Samstag aus LICHT (medici.tv, also available, albeit in mono, at Philharmonie de Paris)
    This video comes from the 2019 Maxime Pascal/Damien Bigourdan production of the most Lucifer-centric opera in the LICHT cycle, featuring the musicians of Le Balcon and a staging that emphasizes the sexual tension in the proceedings, as between Luzifer, portrayed by bass Damien Pass, and the “dream pianist” of Scene 1 (Klavierstück XIII).

    It certainly has been a banner two years for Stockhausen on video, with the Vick and Le Balcon productions bracketing Pierre Audi’s recent traversal of roughly half the entire LICHT cycle for Dutch National Opera (whose video sampler was one of my picks for 2019). It seems a ripe opportunity to indulge in a bit of revisionism regarding Stockhausen’s post-Trans career. I would place the Vick Mittwoch within a lineage dating back to Musikfabrik’s 2009 Michaels Reise um die Erde, probably the first of the great posthumous LICHT productions, with Marco Blaauw hoisted on a crane before stunning video projections (which take liberties with Stockhausen’s own staging instructions). Vick innovates in many respects (e.g., using an old factory rather than a conventional theater) while attempting to honor the details of Stockhausen’s fastidious stage directions (including hand gestures, entries and exits of performers, etc.). The Audi and Pascal/Bigourdan productions continue this evolution with their distinct visual styles that go beyond Stockhausen’s own theatrical conception (whose limitations are brutally displayed in vintage footage of his own staging of works like Sirius or the Kinderfänger scene from Montag).

    Stockhausen rehearses Michaels Heimkehr (photo: Wikimedia Commons)For these works to thrive as theater, it’s essential for them to be re-conceived and re-interpreted by artists specializing in modern stage, cinematic and visual crafts. And though the engagement of future generations is always necessary to establish an artist’s legacy, I’ll suggest that Stockhausen’s work, especially from the mid-1970s onward, will only be fairly assessed once it is disassociated from the man himself, something that will probably not happen until the music passes into the guardianship of artists with no generational link to him or his widows. Perhaps it’s analogous to the way that Stravinsky’s late masterpieces, resulting from his embrace of serialism, could only come about after Schoenberg, his cordially despised rival and California neighbor, had passed away. One must purge Stockhausen’s legacy of the baggage attached to his personality—and the memories of his exaggerated stardom in the 60s followed by his premature dismissal has a has-been in the 80s—in order to reckon with its core essence: a fascination with sound, and a compulsion to break music down into its smallest constituent molecules, to be reassembled anew again and again without preconceptions
  • Britten: Curlew River (YouTube)
    Another recent production of an iconic work of modern music theater was brought out of retirement for the year-of-COVID. It’s Britten’s most unusual stage work, filmed in 2013 with the Britten Sinfonia and Ian Bostridge in Peter Pears’ role as the Madwoman. Netia Jones directed the work for Barbican Centre (and several American co-producers), and the performance was shot in St. Giles’ Cripplegate, the Barbicon’s small, Medieval parish church. The shō-like sustained clusters in the organ, the spaced drum strokes, and of course the all-male singing cast all reflect the profound influence of Noh drama. The scenario is itself adapted from a Noh play, relocated to the English Fenlands and recast as a Christian parable. Jones presents the work in a bona fide liturgical style in accordance with Britten’s vision, but using modern dress augmented by video projections (contemporary stagecraft’s great enabler).


    This sparse, sluggish work, the most extreme manifestation of “austere Britten”—indeed the closest he ever came to the Feldman-like sensibilities of Fin de Partie and Luci mie traditrici—can test a viewer’s patience. Even when the Ferryman implores his debarking passengers to “make haste there, all of you, get ashore”, the musical result is a slow, lugubrious dirge in septuple time. One can also lament how St. Giles’ echoey acoustics smear the audio details in the recording. But the emotional impact of the work comes through clearly, even if it can only be fully grasped by those touched by the loss of a child
  • Viktor Ullman: Der Kaiser von Atlantis (OperaVision, available through April 2021)
    A new production from Deutsche Oper am Rhein of Ullman’s subversive one-act chamber opera, famously composed in Theresienstadt, where it was eventually suppressed by the Nazis (who sent both Ullman and librettist Peter Pien to die in Auschwitz). A parable of power and (maybe) redemption, it’s a stylistic relative of the zeitoper and related experimental genres of Weimar Germany. Ilaria Lanzino’s staging emphasizes the constrained roles of every archetype within the titular Empire, with rigged ropes used to symbolize the Emperor’s power. A compact work well suited for COVID-era stagings

Now on to audio-only recordings.

  • Anthony Gatto: Wise Blood (New Focus) and The Making of Americans (New Focus)
    Narrative music needn’t be conventionally staged to be effective. The earliest radio dramas, including such musically extended ones as Hindemith’s Sabinchen, predate musique concrète by a good two decades, initiating a lineage embraced spectacularly by Anthony Gatto in these two works, which were conceived as a kind of installation (in the case of Wise Blood, premiered as such in 2015 at the Walker Art Center) and as a stage work later converted into a radio opera (in the case of The Making of Americans).

    Wise Blood is adapted from Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. Its action begins on a train with a number of flash-forwards, then settles into a small, post-WW2 Tennessee town whose demons are many and easily roused. Gatto uses a mix of spoken and sung text delivery to portray the web of dysfunctional relationships—kind of a hyper-personalized, non-linear concept of music theater that owes more to Einstein on the Beach than to conventional opera. The Making of Americans, presented here in its later form as a fixed-media piece, is based on Gertrude Stein’s modernist novel, and features contributions from Zeitgeist, the JACK String Quartet, several vocal soloists, and the recorded voice of Stein herself
  • Charles Wuorinen: Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Spotify)
    Salman Rushdie by Moskowitz
    Salman Rushdie
    The ultimate Uptown composer meets the ultimate cancel culture survivor in this 2004 operatic setting of Salman Rushdie’s 1990 novel, recorded here for the first time by Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Gil Rose. Haroun was the first book written by Rushdie under the fatwa and death threats associated with The Satanic Verses. It’s a fantastical—and allegorical—children’s story, which despite its serious undertones relating to censorship and other social issues, contains much humor and whimsy…words that were seldom associated with the late Charles Wuorinen. And yet this piece is uniquely jocular in the composer’s oeuvre, indeed one of his most unusual and ambitious works, probably closer in temperament (and setting) to Henze’s contemporaneous L’Upupa than to Wuorinen’s usual models in Schoenberg, Varèse, Carter, late Stravinsky, and his fellow Ivy League serialists

Scelsi’s heritage and Sorabji’s wrath

Two of the 20th century’s most eccentric and obsessive composers factored into some important posthumous releases in 2020.

  • Klangforum Wien: Scelsi Revisited (Spotify)
    Giacinto Scelsi via Wikimedia Commons
    Giacinto Scelsi
    In contrast to his countryman Berio (1925–2003), whose shadow was long during his life but whose legacy is now largely baked in, the influence of the once-obscure Giacinto Scelsi (1905–1988) continues to rise, thanks to the sway of spectralism, the expanding interest in microtonality, and a desire in Europe to promote native models for 21st century drone music as an alternative to the doubly-foreign axis of Indian music and La Monte Young. Scelsi’s unorthodox work habits are well documented. He recorded his compositions as improvisations on an ondiola (a crude kind of early synthesizer), engaging assistants to transcribe and orchestrate them. These tapes were preserved, and a few years ago Klangforum Wien commissioned several composers in Scelsi’s stylistic lineage to create their own inspired reactions to them, the results eventually squeezed onto this double-CD album from Kairos. Contributors include Tristan Murail and Georg Friedrich Haas (quite possibly the most admired living composers from France and Austria respectively), as well as Michael Pelzel, Ragnhild Berstad, Uli Fussenegger (Klangforum’s bassist) and a few others. It’s definitely one of the standout albums of 2020
  • Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae (Piano Classics)
  • Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Toccata Seconda per Pianoforte (Piano Classics)
  • Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: 100 Transcendental Studies, Vol. 6 (Spotify)
    Sorabji in 1945
    Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji
    If 2020 was a challenging year for most people, it was at least a fulfilling one for Sorabji fans, with no fewer than three premiere recordings of the cantankerous Anglo-Parsi’s massive piano works. The most noteworthy, and longest, of the three is the eight-hour Cyclical Variations on Dies Irae, a work that has been championed by Jonathan Powell, the pianist of record here. If you’re new to Sorabji, know that this is not eight hours of minimalist or sparse Webernian music. It’s a dense, unceasing, highly chromatic and often rapid barrage of notes, culminating in a four-voice fugue with three separate subjects—like Bach on steroids with 20th century harmonies. What makes this piece unusual among Sorabji’s most epic compositions is the presence of a familiar and easily recognized tune as a recurring anchor, an attractive entry point if you’re ready to tackle your first full-length Sorabji target. Still, if eight hours of continuous listening is hard to make time for, you can listen to 1½ hours of carefully selected excerpts on Radio Eclectus #30. The Second Keyboard Toccata (2½ hours long, performed by Abel Sánchez-Aguilera) and the last 17 of Sorabji’s Transcendental Studies (2 hours total, performed by Fredrik Ullén, thus completing his survey of the complete set) are likewise presented in condensed versions in shows 38 and 75.

    Hearing this music—which lay unrecorded and for the most part unperformed for 70 years—creates several impressions, of which the most salient may be the sheer awe toward a composer with the audacity and focus to fill page after page, hour after hour, with thousands of notes in a prodigious display of immersive counterpoint

More from the old masters

  • Krzysztof Penderecki with Fire! Orchestra, Mats Gustafsson: Actions for free jazz orchestra (YouTube)
    Don Cherry via Wikimedia
    Don Cherry
    In 1971 Don Cherry and his New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra were engaged to perform at the Donaueschingen Music Festival, for which occasion Penderecki composed this structured improvisation piece. The premiere, which featured such now-famous Eurojazz figures as Peter Brötzmann, Fred van Hove and Han Bennink, was recorded by Philips and released on Cherry’s Humus, The Life Exploring Force album. Cherry went on to co-found what came to be called World Music, while Penderecki soon turned away from avant-garde experimentation to a more deterministic style of neoromanticism. And Actions went into the desk drawer, never to be performed again…until now. Mats Gustafsson has not only recorded the work for first time in half a century, he’s also restored it to its full length: 40 minutes compared to Cherry’s 16. It’s a worthy revival of this curiosity in jazz history, and a worthy memorial to the late Polish composer
  • Cecil Taylor, Tony Oxley: Birdland, Neuburg 2011 (Bandcamp)
    Cecil Taylor on Bösendorfer piano and Tony Oxley on drums, recorded at a jazz club outside Munich in November 2011. Little more needs to be said. From the Polish label Fundacja Słuchaj
  • Coriún Aharonián: una carta (2019) (Spotify)
    A revelatory portrait of the late Uruguayan composer Coriún Aharonián (1940–2017), son of Armenian refugees and pupil of Nono, Globokar, Ligeti, Mumma, Wolff and Xenakis. His Una canción (1998) makes a good introduction, a short piece for Pierrot ensemble that applies minimalist aesthetics to a Latin American-inflected sound world rooted in romantic chamber music. Villa-Lobos with Glass’s sensibilities, if you like. From Wergo records, featuring Ensemble Aventure
  • Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970–1973) (Bandcamp)
    Gentle Fire via Paradigm Discs
    Gentle Fire
    Another revelation is this cherishingly produced 3-CD retrospective of the little known British experimental music ensemble Gentle Fire. Active in the early 1970s, and modelled after groups like Musica Elettronica Viva and the live-electronic bands led at that time by Cage and Stockhausen, these six musicians (Richard Bernas, Hugh Davies, Graham Hearn, Stuart Jones, Richard Orton and Michael Robinson) presented mixed acoustic-electronic performances of works by themselves and other composers. Included here are classic open-form works by Stockhausen, Cage, Ichiyanagi, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown (including one of the earliest non-Stockhausen led recordings of his Treffpunkt). Most astonishing of all is 2 Pianos Piece, recorded at Radio Bremen in 1973. A 16-minute beat-driven, phase-shifting atonal minimalist piece, its closest relative among canonical works is Ligeti’s Three Pieces for Two Pianos, written three years later (though it could have been influenced by John White’s Son of Gothic Chord, purportedly composed in 1970 but not available on record until 1978). The composer is Michael Robinson, practically unknown in the new music world (he stopped composing to become a journalist for the BBC). All of the tracks on this album appear here for the first time
  • Salvatore Martirano: Live Electronics (Bandcamp)
    Salvatore Martirano with Sal-Mar Construction via University of Illinois
    Salvatore Martirano with his Construction
    Another precious artifact from the early 1970s live electronic zeitgeist, this freshly unearthed recording captures a live improvisation by Martirano (1927–1995) on his Sal-Mar Construction, an early hybrid instrument with analog oscillators and crude digital sequencers, built by Martirano and a team of engineers at the University of Illinois. Martirano actually toured with this clunky contraption, earning himself a place in electronic music textbooks. This particular performance took place in Chicago, a rare document of the Construction in action. It’s been remastered and released by Nihilist records, and the full box set includes the accompanying live video performance by Dan Sandin, a pioneer of analog image processing
  • John J. Becker: Soundpieces 1–7 (Spotify)
    Moving back two generations brings us to a name commonly found in music textbooks whose actual compositions are rarely heard. It’s John J. Becker (1886–1961), a kindred spirit to better known American atonalists like Ives, Ruggles, Crawford and early Copland. Becker lived in the Midwest, served as music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and suffered the neglect of many Stateside composers who worked far from the coastal media hubs. But his percussion piece The Abongo (1934) was an important influence on John Cage, and Becker also pioneered what we’d now call multimedia music theater, so it’s nice to see this double CD set from New World Records that documents his Soundpieces, a series of hard-hitting works for piano or chamber ensemble, many of which are recorded here for the first time. Features Joseph Kubera and the FLUX Quartet
  • Harold Shapero: Orchestral Works (Spotify)
    Yet another textbook dweller whose music has been revived by a new recording. In this case it’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project doing the excavating, a service they’ve performed for many neglected American composers. Harold Shapero (1920–2013) belonged to the American neoclassical generation of Bernstein, Schuman, Fine and early Foss. His heyday extended from the late 40s through roughly 1960, the date of his Partita in C for piano and small orchestra (presented here with Vivian Choi as soloist), which reflects the deep influence of Agon-era Stravinsky. Debuting in the same year as Cartridge Music, Kontatke, Interstellar Low Ways and Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, it understandably struck its hipper contemporaries as a relic of simpler times. And yet it carries hints of the phrasing and short-term repetitions that we nowadays associate with the likes of John Adams and Michael Nyman, suggesting that now might be an auspicious time to reassess his output through good modern recordings like this one

Masters still at it

  • Alvin Lucier: Works for the Ever Present Orchestra (Bandcamp)
    This year marks the 50th anniversary of I Am Sitting in a Room, one of the most rigorously minimalist pieces of music ever conceived. At 89, the old master of acoustic investigation is still at it, as evinced by this admiring portrait album from Oren Ambarchi’s Black Truffle label. It features a half-dozen ascetic compositions exploiting microscopic tuning differences among similar instruments—a different kind of beat-driven music, as with EPO-5 for saxophone, violin, glockenspiel and two electric guitars with EBows slowly moving up a chromatic scale. Headphones are best for this reductionistic, thought-provoking music
  • Roscoe Mitchell: Splatter (Bandcamp)
    Roscoe Mitchell by Michael Hoefner
    Roscoe Mitchell
    One of 2020’s new octogenerians, Mitchell here pursues two recent areas of emphasis. One involves transcription and re-presentation of improvised material, as with the title track, which was originally improvised by Mitchell, Craig Taborn and Kikanju Baku, subsequently transcribed and orchestrated by Christopher Mega Luna, then performed here as a composed work. Another track, Distant Radio Transmission, was likewise created from a transcribed trio improvisation, but with Mitchell and baritone Thomas Buckner improvising new solos over the performed composition. The other facet of Mitchell’s musicmaking on display here is his longstanding free improvisational practice, this time in the unusual company of a pipe organ, played by Francesco Filidei, an interesting young Italian composer whose opera The Flood was one of my picks for 2019. All of these tracks were recorded at the Angelica festival in Bologna in 2017
  • Frederic Rzewski: Songs of Insurrection (Coviello Classics)
    Yet another formidable octogenarian and veteran of the American avant-garde chimes in with a new and substantive work, perhaps his most compelling solo piano composition since De Profundis. Rzewski’s Songs of Insurrection sets seven revolutionary and protest songs from around the world, among them Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around and the anti-Nazi Die Moorsoldaten. The delivery is exclusively instrumental—soloist Thomas Kotcheff doesn’t sing or speak the song lyrics—and without texts, there’s little basis for an uninformed listener to associate a political message with any of the tunes (something that’s also true of Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!). It demonstrates how the most enduring politically-motivated art music tends to be that which is most abstract. Rzewski’s setting of Grândola, Vila Morena (associated with the Carnation revolution in Portugal) is typical of the set. It begins and ends with Crumb-like knocking on the body of the piano, with an Ivesian fantasy on the song’s melody in the middle
  • Musikfabrik: Erbe, New works for Harry Partch instruments (Wergo)
    Helen Bledsoe with Cloud Chamber Bowls by Astrid Ackermann
    Helen Bledsoe playing Cloud Chamber Bowls
    This new CD from Wergo features Ensemble Musikfabrik performing on their complete replica set of Harry Partch instruments. Built in 2013 for Heiner Goebbels’ staging of Delusion of the Fury, the set is kept in regular use, the object of an ongoing initiative to commission new works for these famous instruments by European composers. Erbe includes contributions by Carola Bauckholt, Sampo Haapamäki and Martin Smolka, the latter recalling how his life behind the Iron Curtain was changed when someone gave him a cassette tape of Partch’s music that had been smuggled into Prague.

    I’ve long felt that Americans are generally best at performing Partch’s music, since we understand the cultural references, and since the build-your-own tradition that he helped launch is so deeply internalized in our experimental music ethos. But Europeans may be better at writing new compositions for his instruments without sounding too derivative of Partch’s style (e.g., Garth Knox’s Crystal Path, reviewed here). Regardless, any endeavor that helps to sustain Partch’s legacy is a good thing in my book, and this attractively-packaged offering deserves praise. It’s a CD-only release as of December 2020, but all three compositions can be streamed from the Radio Eclectus archive (shows 33, 34 and 37)

Undead masters

  • Giovanni Antonini and Patricia Kopatchinskaja by Leonardo Aloi via Alpha Classics
    Giovanni Antonini and Patricia Kopatchinskaja
    Patricia Kopatchinskaja et al: What’s Next Vivaldi? (Spotify)
  • Der Finger: Le cinque stagioni (Bandcamp)
    PatKop takes on Vivaldi in the company of Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico, in the process intercutting several of the Venetian’s string concertos with five new works for violin (either solo or with Baroque instruments) by living Italian composers. The results hold their own in the impressive discography of this quirky Moldovan-Swiss soloist. And then there’s Der Finger, a Russian band with a German name and an album whose title means “The five seasons” in Italian. Their instrumentation features sax/bass clarinet plus drums and electric bass, and the result can be described as noise music meets free jazz with bits of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons thrown in
  • Gabriel Prokofiev et al: Beethoven Reimagined (Spotify)
    The obligatory Beethoven entry for his 250th birthday comes from Gabriel Prokofiev, whose spiking of the Ninth Symphony is the most interesting of the semiquincentennial offerings, following in the tradition of Louis Andriessen’s 1970 bicentennial parody, and benefiting from the British musician-producer’s experience grappling with the legacy of famous composer names

Microtones and minimalism

Microtonality is one of the few growth industries in today’s musical avant-garde. Minimalism, on the other hand, is a blue-chip stock that can be counted on to return a steady if predictable dividend. The following entries are representative of the state of both practices, sometimes simultaneously.

  • Hans Eugen Frischknecht: Music for Special Organs (YouTube)
    This intriguing album from a Swiss organist and composer features pipe organs in meantone and quarter tone intonations. It’s a microtonal adaptation of the lineage of sonorist organ compositions that includes Ligeti’s three masterpieces for the instrument as well as the lesser-known but still important compositions of Bengt Hambraeus. And this music does seem to embody the spirit of exploration and sonic expansion that motivated those pioneers
  • Charlemagne Palestine: Ffroggssichorddd (Bandcamp)
    Charlemagne Palestine by Sandra Fauconnier
    Charlemagne Palestine
    Minimalism and microtonality are combined in this newest album from veteran keyboardist and visual artist Charlemagne Palestine, most famous for Strumming Music, an epic essay on tremolos and overtones that he performed exclusively on Bösendorfer pianos. The titular ffroggssichorddd featured here is a customized harpsichord employing Pythagorean tuning
  • Max de Wardener: Music for Detuned Pianos (Bandcamp)
    A similar concept underlies this album, featuring pianist Kit Downes performing music by this British composer. The brief piece Foxtrot is a suitable introduction, akin to microtonal Philip Glass, or the prophetic Michael Robinson piece heard in the aforementioned Gentle Fire album. Another short composition, Doppelgänger, includes microtonal flurries that suggest the successful completion of a level in an arcade-style game
  • Donnacha Dennehy et al: A Way a Lone a Last (Bandcamp)
    The standout piece on this solo album by the Australian flutist Lina Andonovska is Bridget by Donnacha Dennehy, Irish composer and representative of the Bang on a Can school of postminimalism. Multitracked (but not microtonal), and clearly modelled on Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint, Dennehy’s piece was inspired by the great op art painter Bridget Riley (who is still with us, age 89)
  • Gerald Barry: Viola Concerto. From Beethoven: Symphonies 4–6, Barry: The Conquest of Ireland, Viola Concerto (Spotify)
    Mauricio Kagel once said of his student “Gerald Barry is always sober, but might as well always be drunk”. And Barry’s new Viola Concerto is a single 20-minute movement that manages to be austere (mostly monophonic in fact) and humorous at the same time. Barry says he was thinking of exercises, the kind that musicians practice over and over every day. And there’s definitely a jocular drudgery to the proceedings that manages not to degenerate into actual boredom. It’s a standout in this curious series of albums from Signum Classics that pair Beethoven symphonies with Barry orchestral pieces. Thomas Adès conducts the Britten Sinfonia with soloist Laurence Power
  • Norbert Möslang: Patterns (Bandcamp)
    A more solemn approach to repeating patterns comes from this Swiss composer, appropriately recorded with heavy reverberation that enriches his mix of long tones with well-spaced sequences of shorter notes, a contrast that provides welcome propulsion in these four compositions for wind sextet

Concertos redux

Barry’s is one of many prominent concertos to debut on record in 2020, a year that, for whatever reason, turned out piles of solo concertos and solo electronic music. Generations of composers have regarded the traditional concerto format—with its arbitrary isolation of a single instrument before an ensemble that evolved as the apogee of monumental sound projection—as an aesthetic contrivance. But the prospect of showcasing a star performer seems to mitigate the risks of programming a unfamiliar contemporary piece in the eyes of orchestra managers, so commissions for this medium seem to flow more readily than other kinds of orchestral works.

As evinced by the following selections, Europeans seem best equipped to find relevant contemporary expression through the modern orchestral medium. The orchestra is a European invention after all, whereas Americans, at least after Ives, have tended to be more inventive when we’re tweaking the established order rather than trying to adapt it to new zeitgeists.

  • Rebecca Saunders: Still. From Musica Viva #35: Still, Aether, Alba (Spotify)
  • Agata Zubel: Violin Concerto. From Cleopatra’s Songs (Spotify)
    Rebecca Saunders by Astrid Ackermann 1 (color)
    Rebecca Saunders
    Saunders is a violinist herself, but her colorful single-movement concerto Still was written for Caroline Widmann, who performs it here with conductor Ilan Volkov (whose At Home podcasts, featuring obscure contemporary music albums harvested from his extensive home music library, have been a beacon for the new music community during the lockdowns). Zubel’s Violin Concerto, recorded here on her new portrait album from Kairos, is confidently centered in the tradition of the modern Polish avant-garde that brought us composers like Penderecki and Lutosławski
  • Pesson, Abrahamsen, Strasnoy: Piano concertos (Spotify)
    Alexandre Tharaud is the featured soloist here. Hans Abrahamsen’s one-handed concerto Left, alone carries personal meaning (Abrahamsen himself is disabled, having only partial use of his right hand), and establishes a theme of confronted adversity that continues in the ghostly stylings of Gérard Pesson’s Future is a Faded Song, whose closing thumps come from the solo instrument with its lid closed and its player kicking and banging on it like a poltergeist
  • Ammann, Ravel, Bartók: Piano Concertos (Spotify)
  • Ramón Lazkano: Two Prefaces. From Piano Works (Spotify)
    Swiss composer Dieter Amnann’s The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata) is a new and eclectic statement of postmodern compositional praxis, while the Spanish Basque composer Ramón Lazkano’s Two Prefaces for piano and orchestra sound like they might have been informed by the lineage that Wuorinen championed
  • Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: For Violin and Orchestra, Allan Gravgaard Madsen: Night Music (Dacapo)
    Two more standout concertos from Denmark. The polystylistic For Violin and Orchestra by the late Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (1932–2016) incorporates microtonal writing and hints of vernacular music traditions as though the soloist is journeying through a sonically diverse landscape (an accompanying promo video from Dacapo Records shows the composer paddling through a wetland while describing the birdsongs, bleating sheep and other sounds that surround him). Night Music, a violin/piano concerto by the much younger Allan Gravgaard Madsen (1984–), follows a more static path as often characterizes his generation of composers
  • John Harbison: Concertos for String Instruments (Spotify)
  • Christopher Rouse: Concerto for Orchestra, Symphony No. 5 (YouTube)
    John Harbison by Julian Bullitt
    John Harbison
    Crossing the Atlantic brings us to this pair of new American releases, including another offering from Boston Modern Orchestra Project, this time devoted to the venerable John Harbison, probably best known for his opera The Great Gatsby. The Double Concerto from 2009 adapts the format of Brahms’ last concerto and moves from some rather Britten-like lines in alternating major and minor thirds in the first movement to decidedly un-Brittenesque Bluegrass flashes in the third. Harbison’s stylistic soulmate, the late Christopher Rouse (1949–2019), carried the banner of the American postromantic symphonic lineage associated with Barber and Schuman (and contemporaries like Corigliano, Lieberson and Zwilich). His 2008 Concerto for Orchestra, cast in a single half-hour movement, may be his most compelling large-scale work, more variegated and less brash than most of his orchestral music. It’s recorded here for the first time on Naxos by Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony

Rouse’s title offers a segue into other orchestral genres. Such as…

  • Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen: Der Wind bläset wo er will (Dacapo)
    I was not familiar with this particular Danish composer, which was my loss, since the title piece (The wind blows wherever it wants, quoting Jesus in the Gospel of John) is a quintessential postmodern orchestral work, whose musical ideas do indeed seem to arise from unexpected quarters, including elements of pastiche and even a twangy South Asian musical bow called a gopichand. Among Olesen’s other works is a 2013 opera based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Daníel Bjarnason et al: Occurrence (Spotify)
    Veronique Vaka via the artist
    Veronique Vaka
    Iceland continues its remarkable streak of orchestral relevance with this latest (“and at least for now the last”) volume from Daníel Bjarnason and Sono Luminus. It’s a survey of five works by Iceland composers (including Canadian transplant Veronique Vaka) that demonstrates the slowly-changing washes of color that we associate with this country’s contemporary music
  • Steven Mackey: Time Release (Spotify)
    Mackey is a rock guitarist by trade, who gradually got interested in instrumental composition, influenced by the both the international avant-garde and the Downtown New York scene. I think of him as an American counterpart to someone like Heiner Goebbels or the late Steve Martland, and the eclecticism and unpredictability of his music is on display in this second album devoted to his works by Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Composed chamber and solo music

  • Younghi Pagh-Paan: Silken Thread (Spotify)
    Kai Strobel: Fair Wind (Spotify)
    Younghi Pagh-Paan via Ricordi
    Younghi Pagh-Paan
    Germany seems to be a popular career destination for Korean composers. Pagh-Paan followed this trajectory in between her better-known compatriots Isang Yun and Unsuk Chin. My introduction to her music was the intriguing 2007 choral piece Vide Domine, vide afflictionem nostram, whose uncompromising atonal idiom (modelled after Schoenberg’s Opp. 27 and 28) mirrors the dogged dedication of its intriguing subject, the itinerant 19th century Korean Catholic priest Choe Yang-Eop. Silken Thread, a new album released by Wergo for her 75th birthday, focuses on her chamber music, including the percussion duo Ta-Ryong, named for a rhythmic scheme found in traditional Korean music, and inspired by the peasant music that she heard as a girl in winter, performed by travelling musicians offering blessings and prayers to the Earth Spirit. On YouTube you can watch a snippet of two Taiwanese percussionists performing the piece in ritual masks. Pagh-Paan also appears on Kai Strobel’s new album with her 2019 solo percussion piece Klangsäulen
  • Oxana Omelchuk: Sieben Intraden (YouTube)
    Oxana Omelchuk via the artist
    Oxana Omelchuk
    Another portrait album from Wergo devoted to a German immigrant: Oxana Omelchuk, born in Belarus in 1975, now based in Cologne. Her music carries forward several postmodern European practices: drones, quotations, polystylism (e.g., cabaret music mixed with prepared piano and pointillist percussion), and even the occasional trace (as in the title track) of the sparse, brass-heavy, Shostakovich-informed music of many late Soviet composers (e.g., Alexander Vustin). Wow and flutter, is another Omelchuk gallimaufry, beginning in post-Scelsi fashion with two detuned trombones, but quickly adding a drum beat, then post-minimalist phase-shifting woodwind beats, before breaking out into a 1920s-style shimmy. Omelchuk’s music, like her birth country, is a cultural borderland
  • John Pickard: The Gardener of Aleppo and other chamber works (BIS)
    The title track is a beautiful—if old school—trio for flute, viola and harp, commemorating a man who ran the last garden center in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo. People could buy plants there and take them back to their neighborhoods to create “a small piece of vibrancy and color amid the devastation” as Pickard puts it. The man was killed by a bomb in 2016. Pickard studied with Louis Andriessen, and writes symphonies and string quartets in the lineage of composers like Peter Maxwell Davies. This portrait album comes from BIS and features the Nash Ensemble
  • Gerald Eckert: Absence (Spotify)
    Slow, nocturnal, color-centric music comes from this German composer, cellist and painter—but often with a twist, as in his piece Absence – Traces éloignées, for a shrill ensemble of four piccolo players and two percussionists
  • Patrick Higgins: TOCSIN (Bandcamp)
    Higgins is a New York native and guitarist for the band Zs. He identifies his ethos as “punk/noise”, but the chamber music in this release is in a more contemporary, expressionist vein. His third string quartet, which he calls simply SQ(3), has shades of Ligeti, Nancarrow and (once again) Scelsi, with long opening drones that gradually split out in either direction
  • Mahan Esfahani: Musique? (Hyperion)
    Anahita Abbasi and Mahan Esfahani
    With the loss of Elisabeth Chojnacka, Esfahani seems to have assumed the mantle of “world’s most intriguing harpsichordist”. This survey of postmodern harpsichord works is full of gems. Takemitsu’s lyrical Rain dreaming, and Cowell’s Set of four are familiar enough. But Luc Ferrari’s epic Programme commun « Musique socialiste ? »  is a curiously discursive—and notey—work for harpsichord and tape, while Intertwined Distances, by Esfanani’s fellow Iranian expat Anahita Abbasi, stretches Ligeti’s Continuum to the breaking point with help from modern digital reinforcement. Esfahani insists in the liner notes that “no harpsichords were harmed in the making of this recording”

Get your ambient fix

The late Harold Budd (1936–2020), when told by Ryley Walker “I love falling asleep to your records” replied “You look like you haven’t slept in weeks”. Budd’s own “soft pedal” sensibilities are best conveyed through his live recordings, including a pair of delicate improvisations with bassist Keith Lowe captured in concert in 2009 and broadcast for the first time on Radio Eclectus #76. A few albums of more experimental bent (if similar sensibility) came along in 2020. The following all make good bedtime choices for open-eared listeners.

  • Jordan Nobles: Chiaroscuro (Bandcamp)
    First up is a work straddling the border between composed ensemble music and traditional ambient music. It’s from the Vancouver-based composer Jordan Nobles, whose Chiaroscoro explores contrasting textures of light and dark. Scored for chamber ensemble and a small women’s chorus, it’s reminiscent of Neptune from The Planets, but stretched out to half an hour
  • Jürg Frey: Orchester II from Frey & Babbitt Orchestral Works (Bandcamp)
  • Michael Pisaro: Tai Pi (Bandcamp)
    Michael Pisaro photo Kathy Pisaro design Matthew Revert
    Michael Pisaro
    Violinist Erik Carlson leads two dozen musicians in the first recording of Frey’s Orchester II, an important 1987 work by the most prominent of the Wandelweiser Collective composers. This 44-minute succession of single and double tones in constantly changing combinations of instruments aptly portends the Wandelweiser philosophy that pushes the sparseness of Feldman to a Lucier-like extreme. The younger Michael Pisaro is probably the best-known American member of the Collective. His Tai Pi is a new fixed media piece of similar length to the Frey, built from three basic sound sources: a recording of nocturnal frogs, six-note sine wave chords derived from the 11th and 12th hexagrams of the I Ching (their names combine to form the work’s title), and a passage from Schubert’s late A major piano sonata. It’s the Schubert that gets the last word, the piano filtered and reverberated like a vague memory of a distant time and place, an effect that works much better here than in Max Richter’s highly touted Opus 2020, which ends with the coda to Beethoven’s 30th piano sonata
  • Sarah Davachi: Figures in Open Air (Bandcamp)
    Sarah Davachi by Alex Waber
    Sarah Davachi
    A nice option if you’re seeking a more continuous kind of drone music, this double-CD set is culled from a series of live performances in Europe and North America just before the COVID lockdowns started. Davachi plays pipe organ or synthesizer, sometimes supplemented by other instruments, with chorus effects (on digital keyboards) or the natural acoustic complexity and beating of pipe organs (coupled with the reverberant spaces they’re typically found in) helping to propel this slow-changing time-lapse music forward
  • Daniel Menche: Vestige (Bandcamp), Atrophied Divinity (Bandcamp), Nothing Means Nothing (Bandcamp) and Smoke (Bandcamp)
    Any (or all) of these albums makes a good introduction to Menche’s music, which comes from the Phill Niblock school of immersive microtonal drone pieces. This Oregon-based musician works with multitracked strings, oscillators, noise generators and field recordings, which he plays and collects himself
  • Three Point Circle: Layered Contingencies (YouTube)
    With this we move toward the purely electronic, often darker, realms of contemporary drone music. Three Point Circle is comprised of longtime Seattle musicians Marc Barreca, Steve Peters and K. Leimer, who first performed together in Olympia in 1980, then reconvened 40 years later for this album

Darker ambient

  • Fossil Aerosol Mining Project: scaath catfish (Bandcamp)
    Helen Scarsdale Agency is a label with its pulse on some of the most interesting regions of the dark ambient world, often showcasing musicians who use spoken word or other explicit textual references within an somber, slowly-changing soundscape. An example is the track Catfish Splinter, which incorporates snippets of conversations about a shadowy anthropological encounter, from the new scaath catfish album by the likewise shadowy Illinois-based collective Fossil Aerosol Mining Project, self-described purveyors of “songs of enhanced decay and faked resurrection”
  • Bastard Kings of Samadhi: Songs of the Five or Six Eyes (Bandcamp) and Bombastic Tales (Bandcamp)
    W David Oliphant via the artist
    W. David Oliphant
    Consider this a lifetime achievement notice for the solo dark ambient project of W. David Oliphant, an Arizona-based sonic aggressor and longtime associate of the Bishop brothers
  • Matt Evans: New Topographics (Bandcamp)
    Dave Segal, who writes about music for The Stranger, called Evans’ track Cold Moon one of his favorite drones ever (and he’s heard thousands). Evans is based in Brooklyn, and plays drums and percussion for Bearthoven, among other groups
  • Telescoping (Bandcamp)
    Dark downtempo ambient in an improvisational setting is showcased in this eponymous debut album from the Seattle-based quartet of trumpeter Greg Kelley, drummer Dave Abramson and guitarists Al Jones and Robert Millis (of Climax Golden Twins)

Electronic

  • Steve Roden, Small Cruel Party: Stratégies Obliques Ø (Bandcamp)
    Representing more gestural styles of fixed media music is this split LP from Ferns Recordings. Side A features Steve Roden, coiner of the term lowercase music to describe works made up of soft sounds greatly amplified. Here he’s coaxing sounds from instruments and objects in his studio, recorded and subsequently edited by Steve Peters (who touchingly recounts the process here). Filling the B side is Small Cruel Party, stage name of William Key Ransone, who contributes crackling electronic tracks. Both his and Roden’s pieces were created and named using Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards
  • Alex Mincek: Glossolalia, Sam Pluta: Lines on Black (Bandcamp)
    Sam Pluta by Angela Guyton via Rodrigo Constanzo (Vimeo Creative Commons)
    Sam Pluta
    Wet Ink Ensemble is one of the US’s most impressive composer-led ensembles, especially of the mixed acoustic/electronic variety. In this album, two of its members engage the rest of the group in a pair of intense longform pieces. A particularly interesting section is the On Off movement from Lines on Black, which sounds like a concerto for shoot-’em-video game and Pierrot ensemble
  • Steve Layton and Sound-In: All Together Now (Bandcamp)
  • Komposisi Kompos (Bandcamp)
    The great quarantine of 2020 led musicians around the world to explore techniques for real-time remote collaboration. Sound-In’s been doing this for years, hosting transcontinental online jams subsequently edited and assembled by Steve Layton. All Together Now is a good representative of their praxis. Komposisi Kompos, from the Jakarta-based DIVISI62 label, stems from a similar mindset, informed by a recycler’s ethos (the title means compost in Indonesian). Several dozen artists sent in audio recordings following an elaborate set of instructions, and these were combined and cut up by the folks at the home office, the result perhaps not making “normal sense” as John Cage would put it, but nevertheless conveying an essence of non-linear narrative comprised of sounds that hold meaning to the people that collected them

Ear-stretching anthologies

The assembly of musical anthologies was another activity embraced by producers eager to compensate for the COVID-era’s dearth of new recording projects. Several of these albums highlight underexposed gems from places far from the scrutiny of mainstream music journalism.

  • I hope this finds you well in these strange times (Vol. 1) (Vol. 2)
    A two-volume set from Gabriel Prokofiev’s Nonclassical label, featuring “synth improvisations, field recording and homespun lockdown productions”. Featured artists include Ben Vince, Langham Research Centre, Xenia Pestova Bennett and the Ligeti Quartet
  • Juneteenth: A Catalytic Sound compilation in support of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (Bandcamp)
    A North America-centered retrospective from Catalytic-Sound featuring creative improvised music by Joe McPhee, Hamid Drake, Tim Daisy, Ikue Mori, Ig Henneman, Ken Vandermark, Sylvie Courvoisier and many others
  • Unexplained Sounds Group: 6th Annual Report (Bandcamp)
  • Anthology of Contemporary Music from Indonesia (Bandcamp)
  • Anthology of Experimental Music from Mexico (Bandcamp)
  • Anthology of Persian Experimental Music (Volume 1) (Volume 2)
    Alireza Amirhajebi by AmirAli Piroozbakhsh
    Alireza Amirhajebi
    Raffaele Pezzella’s Unexplained Sounds label is unsurpassed in its zeal for amplifying profound experimental music from every corner of the world, mostly by lesser-known musicians who often go by stage names, demonstrating the global reach and unique subculture of today’s underground live-electronic music scene. Interspecifics, Xerxes the Dark, Patrick Hartono and Alireza Amirhajebi are just a few of the artists contributing short pieces. Not all of the offerings are from the noise/dark ambient/electroacoustic axis though. Ali Ostovar’s Reflections is a quartet for Iranian instruments that drifts in and out of recognizably Persian musical space, while Wukir Suryadi plays on his homemade bambuwukir and Genta Nirvana’s jams feature a Central Java scavenger’s gamelan. These volumes are a treasure trove for anyone with a zeal for rummaging through the global bazaar in search of unexpected perspectives and profundities
  • Retrieving Beirut part 2/4 (Bandcamp)
  • Alternate African Reality: Electronic, electroacoustic and experimental music from Africa and the diaspora (Bandcamp)
    Syrphe is another label specializing in remarkable music created far from the usual media hubs. The name means hoverfly in French, and it’s run by the Congolese-Belgian musician Cedrik Fermont, who focuses on “electronica, noise and experimental music from Asia, Africa and other continents”. The Retrieving Beirut anthology was hastily issued as a fundraising project following the August 4th explosion in Beirut Harbor (the second of its four parts features the most radical works, contributed by musicians and sound artists from multiple countries), while the offerings on Alternate African Reality range from Egyptian loop music through Kenyan synthesizer tracks to Victor Gama’s homemade instruments

Traditional singing meets free improvisation, and other intercultural explorations

  • London Experimental Ensemble: Child Ballads (Bandcamp) and Child Ballads Exclusive Bonus Tracks (Bandcamp)
    Carole Finer by Stefan Szczelkun
    Carole Finer
    Another of the year’s most astonishing releases. London Experimental Ensemble burst onto the scene in 2018 with the first ever complete recording of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise. These two newer volumes feature vocalist Ed Pettersen’s “straight” rendition of several traditional Celtic ballads, accompanied by the Ensemble’s deliciously noisy but downtempo improvisations. It continues a tradition of colliding musical genres that includes Salvatore Martirano’s own Ballad, wherein a 60s pop singer (“You are too beautiful, my dear, to be true…”) is accompanied by chamber pointillism—like hearing Johnny Mathis with Webern’s Op. 22 as the backup band. My favorites from this collection are Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship (about a kinder, gentler, Scottish Turandot), the more apocalyptic sounding Among the Blue Flowers, and the foreboding plague-era setting of Bessie Bell and Mary Grey which makes a sadly apt memorial for COVID victim Carole Finer—folk musician, avant-gardist and Scratch Orchestra veteran—whose suitably scratchy violin sounds can be heard throughout these tracks
  • Adam Rudolph: Focus and Field (Bandcamp)
    Rudolph earned a spot on my 2019 list for his remarkable Ragmala album, featuring Western and South Asian musicians. This new release, recorded live at Roulette just before the March 2020 lockdowns, is dominated by the long track Tsuzumi, which features Sumie Kaneko singing a 12th century Japanese text alongside a mix of East Asian and Western instruments drawn from the Go: Organic Orchestra lineup. It’s a multicultural counterpart to Child Ballads, sounding like a cross between Takemitsu and the Art Ensemble of Chicago
  • Eunhye Jeong et al: The Colliding Beings, Chi​-​Da (Bandcamp)
    JI Park (cello), Soo Jin Suh (drums), Eunhye Jeong (piano), Il-dong Bae (pansori)
    Eunhye Jeong (center) with trio and Il-dong Bae
    Of a similar nature is this album from Eunhye Jeong’s trio, versed in international free improv, performing alongside Il-dong Bae, one of the masters of Pansori singing. Recorded in Seoul in 2019
  • Eyvind Kang: Ajaeng Ajaeng (Ideologic Organ)
    Another flavor of cross-pollination comes from this versatile musician, born in Corvallis, OR and resident, at various times, in Canada, Europe and Asia. In Tanpura Study, a pair of those ubiquitous Indian drone-makers are played, uncharacteristically, as solo instruments, using a variety of traditional and non-traditional plucking techniques. Time Medicine is a more proper sort of drone piece, featuring two tubas, two bass drums, violin, cello, miscellaneous percussion, and a pair of ajaengs, Korean string instruments with movable bridges akin to a koto, but which are bowed rather than plucked. Kang, a violist by trade, has always been fond of finding new uses for old things
  • Dewa Alit: From when i OPEN MY DOOR (Bandcamp)
    Alit is a Balinese composer and gamelan master. This portrait album includes one contemporary gamelan piece, combined with three compositions for Western instruments, including Open My Door, created in 2015 in collaboration with Ensemble Modern which Alit regards as “opening my door to the [avant-garde, non-Balinese] world”

More improv and avant-rock

  • Doctor Nerve: LOUD (Bandcamp)
  • Mozo Mozo: s/t (Bandcamp)
  • Le Grand Sbam: Vaisseau Monde (Bandcamp) and Furvent (Bandcamp)
    Le Grand Sbam by Paul Bourdrel via Facebook
    Le Grand Sbam
    The roots of experimental rock go back to the late 1960s. The Velvet Underground borrowed from minimalism, Zappa borrowed from avant-garde composers like Varèse and Webern. And most important of all, Miles Davis, from 1969 through his hiatus in 1975, merged the techniques of jazz improvisation with the rhythms and instrumentation of rock and soul music.

    The next generation of avant-rockers, led by Henry Cow and Doctor Nerve, extended the genre’s harmonic vocabulary towards atonality. Doctor Nerve, led by its formidable guitarist Nick Didkovsky, is still at it, as evinced by their latest album, an EP from Punos Records entitled LOUD. As for the younger generation, the ever-expanding range of fusion concepts is represented by a pair of newly-formed European bands. Mozo Mozo typifies the obscurantism popular in some of the more subversive corners of the culture—its musicians go by stage names like Friedmeister (bass), Moritz Morast (guitar), Sir Saxalot (saxophone) and Yungtoyboy28 (drums), and they seem to be from Austria. But one needn’t worry about this in light of their original, downtempo sound world that emphasizes guitar loops and astringent harmonies. Le Grand Sbam is a “bastard music ensemble” from France that performs in strange masks (reminiscent of Star Trek’s Ferengi) and whose characteristic sound features two female vocalists. Their latest album, Furvent, includes an expanded octet configuration with electric cymbalom in lieu of guitar, and sci-fi inspired lyrics comprised mostly of made-up syllables
  • Black Spirituals: Black Treatment (Bandcamp)
  • Brandon Seabrook Trio: Exultations (Bandcamp)
    Black Spirituals, the duo of Zachary James Watkins (electronics) and Marshall Trammell (skins), extends the tradition with a nod toward noise music and the power trio style (and protest orientation) of Harriet Tubman. Their half-length album documents a live performance in Oakland in 2015. Brandon Seabrook’s trio with Gerald Cleaver on drums and Cooper-Moore on diddley bow (in lieu of electric bass) also follows in the Harriet Tubman tradition, with inputs from The Flying Luttenbachers, for which Seabrook plays guitar
  • Fred Frith, Sudhu Tewari, Cenk Ergün: Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down (Bandcamp)
  • Cenk Ergün: Sonare & Celare (Bandcamp)
    Cenk Ergün via the artist
    Cenk Ergün
    Cenk Ergün appears twice on this list. Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down is based on some 2010 recordings with Henry Cow alum Fred Frith and junkmeister Sudhu Tewari (who was once Artist in Residence at the San Francisco Dump), reworked in 2020 by Ergün as he languished under lockdown in Berlin. The result features some of the most engaging music I’ve heard from Frith in years. The other album, an EP from New Focus Recordings, features two works Ergün composed for the JACK String Quartet. Sonore emphasizes tremolos while Celare uses long tones, both exhibiting Ergün’s interest in microtonality and subtly-varied repetition
  • Ken Vandermark and KONSTRUKT: Kozmik Bazaar (Bandcamp)
  • Jennifer Curtis and Tyshawn Sorey: Invisible Ritual (Bandcamp)
  • Simon Toldam and Ways: Fortunes (Bandcamp)
    These three releases come from a more jazz-informed space. Kozmik Bazaar extends the Ornette Coleman tradition with syncopated, atonal tunes that are played at the beginning and end of the track in the standard bebop fashion. Invisible Ritual features Tyshawn Sorey alongside International Contemporary Ensemble violinist Jennifer Curtis. A variety of moods are explored in this eight-track album, including the Feldmanesque third part that features Sorey on piano rather than drums. Fortunes showcases the Toronto-based Ways duo (saxophonist Brodie West and drummer Evan Cartwright) travelling to Copenhagen to record with Danish pianist Simon Toldam. My favorite track is Love, with repeating pulses coming from a drum, a prepared piano, and mouthpiece smacks on an alto saxophone. Kind of a Ligeti-style metronome piece adapted for a free improv trio
  • Ingrid Laubrock: Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Bandcamp)
    Ingrid Laubrock via the artist
    Ingrid Laubrock
    Saxophonist, composer and Braxton alum Laubrock connects with a line initiated by Michael Mantler’s Jazz Composers Orchestra Association records from the 1960s and continued by her own 2018 Contemporary Chaos Practices: Two Works for Orchestra with Soloists album. In this double CD, five Laubrock compositions are performed two times, once by a sextet comprised of Laubrock, Cory Smythe, Sam Pluta, Adam Matlock, Josn Modney and Zeena Parkins, and once by a big band that features several of the aforementioned musicians as soloists. Laubrock is of the most forward-looking musicians working in the large-ensemble-with-improvisors genre
  • Craig Taborn and Junk Magic: Compass Confusion (Bandcamp)
    We now survey some albums featuring improvised music with unusual instrumental combinations. Keyboardist Taborn is often heard alongside such figures as Roscoe Mitchell and Eivind Opsvik, and he’s well represented here as a bandleader, playing piano and synthesizer with a lineup that includes viola in addition to the usual saxophone, bass and drums. The opening track, Laser Beaming Hearts, features an unexpected coupling of dark ambient electronic drones, Sun Ra-style electric organ rhetoric and a classic rhythmic backing with chromatic riffs
  • Matías Riquelme, Fernando Ulzión: La Trahison des Mots (Bandcamp)
    Riquelme (cello) and Ulzión (saxophones) are Basque musicians adept at levering the generous reverberation in the church in Apodaka, Spain where this album (“the treachery of words”) was recorded
  • Okuden Quartet: Every Dog Has Its Day but It Doesn’t Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter (Bandcamp)
    Okuden is a term used in Zen Buddhism, a passion of this quartet’s bandleader Mat Walerian. A reed player by trade, he’s heard here on saxophone, clarinet and flute, the latter often played in a style reminiscent of a Japanese shakuhachi—whereas bassist William Parker sometimes picks up a real shakuhachi. Pianist Matthew Shipp and drummer Hamid Drake round out the foursome

Other media

  • Langham Research Centre: Quanta / Signal / Noise (Bandcamp)
    Quanta / Signal / NoiseAn unusual project from the UK’s most intriguing live-electronic repertory band is available both as an EP and as an interactive app for iOS devices. Four realizations of this piece are available on the album, and you can make your own versions with the largish (245 MB) iOS app (pictured at right)
  • Z’EV and Ellen Zweig: Heart Beat Ear Drum (Vimeo)
    With all the media spotlights aimed at Alex Winter’s new Zappa documentary (with an accompanying soundtrack album that includes some previously unissued performances with Ensemble Modern among others), I’ll aim a modest flashlight on Ellen Zweig’s new documentary about a far less famous, but still worthy, musician: Stefan Weisser (1951–2017), better known as Z’EV—much admired among his peers for his solo percussion performances that featured homemade instruments made of reclaimed and surplus pipes, ducts, appliances and other miscellaneous wood and metal objects from which he could coax interesting sounds. Despite his reputation as a “junk musician”, Z’EV preferred scrapyards and surplus stores over garbage dumps for his raw materials (“I like the object to have a history already—it has to do with the whole found object thing”). The 75-minute film includes interviews with Weisser and several of his collaborators and associates (including Carl Stone), with plenty of performance footage dating back to the 1970s

Older and non-Western music

Alla Francesca by Alain Genuys
Alla Francesca
We close with a few notable recordings of non-Western music and (very) old Western art music, a glimpse of the incredible musical wealths that lurk beneath the radar of classical music stations and Deezer playlists. Many of the recordings of Medieval and Renaissance music cited below were sampled in Radio Eclectus #52.
  • Variations amoureuses: French love Songs from the 13th century (Spotify)
  • Francesco Landini: L’Occhio del Cor (Spotify)
    Variations amoureuses, from Brigitte Lesne and Alla Francesca, surveys the tremendous explosion of polyphonic music in 13th century France, the time period between the masters of Notre Dame polyphony (Léonin and Pérotin) and the most famous Medieval composer of them all, Guillaume de Machaut. L’Occhio del Cor (“the eye of the heart”) from Christophe Deslignes and La Reverdie (an Italian ensemble with a French name), continues the exploration into 14th century Italy, focusing on the most famous Trecento composer, Landini, and his three-part songs, delivered here in a variety of textures from full a cappella to instruments-only.
    La Reverdie and Christophe Deslignes by Fabio Fuser
    La Reverdie, Christophe Deslignes
    Both recordings convey the excitement of these early musicians as they grappled with the potentialities of such new ideas as polyphony and music notation, discovering how lines could fit together, or how consonance and dissonance (and tonal harmony) worked. The parallels with our own post-WW2 avant-garde—with its explorations with tape recorders, improvisation, new instrumental techniques, atonality and timbre—are unmistakable, as are, for some observers at least, the parallels between the age of the Black Death and the more contemporary specters of viral pandemics, and nuclear and environmental destruction
  • Matteo da Perugia: Aurora Consurgens (Spotify)
    Ensemble Rosaces by Romain Fageot
    Ensemble Rosaces
    This unusual album from Ensemble Rosaces uses late Medieval music as a platform for improvisation. Recorders combine with anachronistic guitars, and Alice Khayati’s voice ranges from straightforward delivery of the texts (which are overwhelmingly obsessed with unrequited love) to such modernities as scat singing. It’s an effective approach to old-meets-new that’s close to my own heart, yet still rarely pursued
  • Diego Ortiz: Trattado de Glosas (Spotify)
    This new album from Alpha Classics surveys the ground basses and other harmonic improvisation formulae gathered in Ortiz’s famous 1553 treatise—the earliest surviving musical examples that clearly conceive of chords as basic perceptual units, and not simply the result of voice leading. As unpretentious as these little pieces sound to us today, they represent a staggeringly important development that led not only to the variation-based chaconnes and passacaglias of Bach and Purcell, but indeed to practically all Western art music composed from the Baroque through the Romantic period, and from there to the now-ubiquitous language of global pop and folk music based on the model of a singer accompanied by guitar chords. This is the first music in the written record that sounds fundamentally modern to contemporary ears, a harmonic revolution that’s easy to take for granted nowadays, but in reality one that materialized only after 700 years of evolution and experimentation with notation and polyphony
  • Intermedi della Pellegrina Firenze 1589 (video) (Spotify)
    Available on Blu-ray or as a CD set, this release from Dynamic documents the 2019 Teatro del Maggio production of another momentous development in Western music history: the earliest surviving examples of operatic music, created by a team of Florentine composers as small entr’actes to be inserted into a sprawling (and long forgotten) stage play commissioned for a lavish Medici family wedding. Though the results may seem pedestrian compared to later masterpieces like Monteverdi’s Orfeo, it was the technique of recitativo—a fresher, more natural kind of vocal delivery than the jaded polyphony of Palestrina motets—coupled with the newfangled concept of chord progressions, that set the stage for opera as we now know it. It helped that smart composers like Monteverdi encouraged audiences to accept the conceit of a singing stage character by setting famous stories about a mythological figure that was himself a bard
  • Luigi Rossi: Il Palazzo incantato (Opéra de Dijon, limited period streaming)
  • Antonio Draghi: El Prometeo (YouTube) (Spotify)
    Everyone is trying to do Zoom-style opera production right now. It’s better than nothing, but most of the results have been meagre substitutes for the visual (and social) experience of live stage productions. Interestingly some of the most successful adaptations of traditional music theater to the realities of COVID-era media creation have come from European early music specialists, who for two generations now have been among the leaders in the broader music world when it comes to reviving and reimaging old works in new ways.

    Il Palazzo incantato at Opéra de Dijon
    A pair of compelling opera videos that hit the Web recently feature the Baroque ensemble Cappella Mediterranea, conductor Leonardo García-Alarcón, and Opéra de Dijon in revivals of two obscure 17th century Italian operas. Luigi Rossi’s The Enchanted Palace dates from 1642 (heretofore its only production). It’s an escape story with magical illusions, love interests and warrior challenges, and over a dozen principal roles, all gathered together in a libretto penned by the future Pope Clement IX. Fabrice Murgia’s staging, filmed in a closed hall with masked string players and the chorus remanded to the front seats, emphasizes the illusory nature of the magician Atlante’s palace through a complex two-level rotating set, and visible stagehands and onstage camera operators whose feed is projected on the upper level of the set. The result combines the experience of conventionally-staged operas photographed for television with that of a cinematic opera shot on location. Often the tableau is multi-perspectival, even cubist, owing to the simultaneously viewable stage and camera angle, the impact even furthering underscoring the pervasiveness of Atlante’s deceptions. In the scene pictured above, the palace interior is cleverly recast as a prison visiting room with a glass pane separating the two sopranos, allowing them to be safely close to each other while singing. The music is roughly half recitative, but one of the highlights is the beautiful nymph chorus frottola Di Cupido entro alla reggia, heard a few minutes before intermission, and staged with vigorous freestyle dancing and sensuous revelry.

    Antonio Draghi’s Prometheus dates from 1669, an odd case of a Vienna-based Italian composer writing a Spanish language opera in honor of the birthday of the Queen of Spain. It’s resuscitated here in a (pre-COVID) 2018 production—its second ever—that required García-Alarcón to complete the missing third act. Much of the music sounds like typical post-Monteverdi Italian opera with lyrics translated into Spanish, but some passages—including the astringent overture in minor and several sung numbers—feature Spanish inflections, including a curious frottola-bolero hybrid. The work benefits from Laurent Delvert’s stunning modern production, with nods to Shelley’s Frankenstein, captured on video with imaginative direction that must have required a multi-camera live shoot with individual captures and considerable post-production editing. It’s just gotten a proper audio release on CD (also from Alpha Classics), hence its inclusion here.

    Murgia likens the process of rediscovering these remarkable works to that of making a palimpsest, tracing over an old manuscript to keep it from permanently fading. Period instruments, good diction, modern stagings—what more could you want from Baroque opera?
  • Music from All Corners of the World (Spotify)
  • Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World’s Music (Bandcamp)
    Excavated Shellac via Dust to DigitalPerhaps the most thought-provoking (and ear-rebooting) items on the list are these last two compilations that focus on folk and traditional musics, mostly from non-Western peoples. Music from All Corners of the World comes from Caprice Records, a homage to the label’s Music from… series, with two CDs of recordings gathered between 1965 and 2001 by Bengali ethnomusicologist Deben Bhattacharya and his younger Swedish colleague Sten Sandahl. The sources for Excavated Shellac‘s 100 tracks are much older: 78 rpm records from all over the world—mostly made in the 1920s and 30s—lovingly gathered and expertly restored from the collection of global music enthusiast Jonathan Ward. It’s a great opportunity for blindfold listening (see if you can guess each track’s origin). The selection criteria are a bit scattered: some of the music is non-Western, some is European but traditional, and some is acculturated. And the curation is not as rigorous as with the Caprice albums (basically Ward and his associates are interested in music that’s not easily identifiable as blues, jazz, country, rock or classical). But whatever its provenance, the music sounds fresh and often unexpected, as with one of the earliest recordings of Narayana Iyengar playing a South Indian chitravina (which sounds like a cross between a vina and a Hawaiian pedal steel), or the remarkable hemiolas and “endless melody” of a vintage gisaeng performance from Korea, or the odd 1928 guitar-backed tune sung in Fanti by the Ghanan musician Nicholas De Heer that sounds like it could have been written by Elizabeth Cotton. The accompanying 185-page booklet includes photos and trenchant notes on every track. Released by Dust-to-Digital in December 2020, it’s truly a connoisseur’s delight, too late to recommend as a Holiday gift, but surely you know music lovers whose birthdays are coming up…

On to 2021

Whether Creshevsky was right in his assertion about concerts versus recorded music—and whether the environment for art music in the 2020s will end up resembling the chaos of the early 17th century as the Thirty Years War sent German and French fortunes careening in opposite directions—one can at least admire the pluck, resilience and initiative of the artform to which these remarkable recordings all attest, proof of the breadth and adaptability of a tradition that deserves to endure and thrive.


Photos:

  1. Collage: Agata Zubel by Sabine Hauswirth, Roscoe Mitchell by Michael Hoefner, Gabriel Prokofiev by Nathan Gallagher, Sarah Davachi by Alex Waber, Dewa Alit via the artist, Joe McPhee by Žiga Koritnik, Giovanni Antonini & Patricia Kopatchinskaja by Leonardo Aloi via Alpha Classics, Krzysztof Penderecki by Adam Kumiszcza, Z’EV via the artist, Charles Wuorinen By Javier Del Real, Ig Henneman 2010 by Francesca Patella, Alireza Amirhajebi by AmirAli Piroozbakhsh, Ingrid Laubrock via the artist, Rebecca Saunders by Astrid Ackermann, Tristan Murail via Wikimedia, Younghi Pagh-Paan via Ricordi.
  2. Fin de Partie at La Scala
  3. Luci mie traditrici at Staatsoper Stuttgart by Matthias Baus
  4. Michaelion at Birmingham Opera
  5. Samstag aus LICHT at Philharmonie de Paris
  6. Karlheinz Stockhausen rehearsing Michaels Heimkehr via Wikimedia
  7. Curlew River at Barbican Centre with Ian Bostridge (L) as the Madwoman
  8. Der Kaiser von Atlantis at Deutsche Oper am Rhein
  9. Salman Rushdie by Moskowitz
  10. Giacinto Scelsi via Wikimedia
  11. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji by Joan Muspratt
  12. Don Cherry via Wikimedia
  13. Salvatore Martirano with Sal-Mar Construction via University of Illinois
  14. Roscoe Mitchell by Michael Hoefner
  15. Helen Bledsoe with Cloud Chamber Bowls by Astrid Ackermann
  16. Giovanni Antonini and Patricia Kopatchinskaja by Leonardo Aloi via Alpha Classics
  17. Charlemagne Palestine by Sandra Fauconnier
  18. Rebecca Saunders by Astrid Ackermann
  19. John Harbison by Julian Bullitt
  20. Veronique Vaka via the artist
  21. Younghi Pagh-Paan via Ricordi
  22. Oxana Omelchuk via the artist
  23. Anahita Abbasi and Mahan Esfahani by Tony Minaskanian via Hyperion Records
  24. Michael Pisaro by Kathy Pisaro and Matthew Revert
  25. Sarah Davachi by Alex Waber
  26. W. David Oliphant via the artist
  27. Sam Pluta by Angela Guyton via Rodrigo Constanzo
  28. Alireza Amirhajebi by AmirAli Piroozbakhsh
  29. Carole Finer by Stefan Szczelkun
  30. L-R: Ji Park, Soo Jin Suh, Eunhye Jeong, Il-dong Bae via Eunhye Jeong
  31. Le Grand Sbam by Paul Bourdrel
  32. Cenk Ergün via the artist
  33. Ingrid Laubrock via the artist
  34. Alla Francesca by Alain Genuys
  35. La Reverdie and Christophe Deslignes by Fabio Fuser
  36. Ensemble Rosaces by Romain Fageot
  37. Il Palazzo incantato at Opéra de Dijon
  38. El Prometeo at Opéra de Dijon

By Michael Schell

Michael Schell has been passionate about modern music ever since being spooked by a recording of The Rite of Spring as a toddler. He has two degrees in music, and has had various avocations as a composer, intermedia artist, systems engineer and cribbage player. He's lived in Texas, California, Iowa, Nepal and New York, and now enjoys life in Seattle, where he hosts Flotation Device on KBCS-FM and Radio Eclectus on KHUH-FM and Mixcloud.