I like to think not only of recordings of the year, but sounds of the year. My musical (sometimes simply auditory) experiences are all organised similarly in my mind, around moments in time and their subsequent reverberations; and that goes equally for things on record as it does for things heard live. So here goes. A list of ten, mostly in no particular order.
James Weeks/EXAUDI – Mala punica (Winter & Winter)
That said, I’ve placed this first because I think it was the first album I heard this year that I knew would have to be on a list like this. Enthusiasm for this disc – certainly Weeks’ most approachable, and perhaps also his most beautiful to date – spread infectiously among critics on both sides of the Atlantic (including Alex Ross and Steve Smith in the US). And deservedly so. Here’s what I wrote back in May: “a stunningly subtle, disarmingly simple achievement; a crystallisation of basic ideas down to the point that they transform into something else entirely. Combining the metaphor of the hortus conclusus with a setting of Song of Songs, Weeks’s piece models an exquisite tension between chaste procedure and order, and over-tumbling sensuality.”
Julius Eastman/Heloisa Amaral, Elisa Medinilla, Frederik Croene – Evil Nigger (Only Connect, Oslo, May)
A furious, roof-rending performance this, given in what was once a bank. I reviewed the festival for Tempo (Oct 2017 issue): “The three pianists, their instruments pointing into the centre of the hall (Calvary? Macbeth’s witches?), tore into Eastman’s hammered, fortissimo tremolos before, miraculously, staggeringly, refusing to let up for 30 minutes, generating a spinning storm of sound. Hearts stopped, eyes moistened. The marble walls of this former bank almost cracked.”
Aaron Cassidy, Liza Lim/ELISION – How Forests Think/The wreck of former boundaries (HCR)
Included here in particular for The wreck of former boundaries. Regular readers will know I’ve been following Aaron’s career for several years now, and I consider him (and several others involved with this recording) a good friend and a remarkable musical colleague. So I can’t pretend objectivity: but nevertheless, it’s fantastic to hear the long collaboration (and its own set of friendships) between Aaron and ELISION come to such thrilling fruition.
Chaya Czernowin/Vlaamse Opera – Infinite Now (Vlaamse Opera, Ghent, April)
Czernowin’s music has grown richer in recent years as its means have become sparer – a paradoxical image I think the composer would appreciate. A world away from the precise detailing of Pnima … ins innere, the opera that launched Czernowin onto the international stage at the end of the 1990s, Infinite Now is an opera of vast tableaux, intense, almost overwhelming energies, and supreme confidence. Compared to her work of even the 2000s there is a stripping back of surface activity – revealing vaster spaces beneath – and this six-act meditation on time and entrapment compressed in the mind into something that fitted and filled your skull.
György Kurtág/Reinbert de Leeuw, Asko|Schönberg, Netherlands Radio Choir – Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM)
A triple album of works spanning Kurtág’s career and containing authoritative performances of some his very best pieces, among them Grabstein für Stephan, Messages of the Late Miss R. Troussova (soprano: Natalia Zagorinskaya) and … quasi una fantasia … (piano: Tamara Stefanovich). Absent from many others’ best-of lists that I’ve seen, but this an essential (and very well presented) addition to your collection.
Laurence Crane/asamisimasa – Sound of Horse (Hubro)
Here’s what I wrote in Tempo (again, Oct 2017): “I confess I listened to the asamisimasa disc for the first time in a state of complete joy. The Norwegian group have long championed Crane’s music … and they have mastered his combination of human warmth and ironic glint.”
Isaiah Ceccarelli/Isaiah Ceccarelli, Katelyn Clark, Mira Benjamin, Galya Bisengalieva, Robert Ames, Gregor Riddell – Bow (another timbre)
Really, all of the extraordinary Canadian Composers series Simon Reynell has curated for his Sheffield-based label another timbre deserves to be here (others issued so far feature music by Linda Catlin Smith, Martin Arnold, Chiyoko Szlavnics and Marc Sabat), but forcing myself to pick a single disc I come down to this one. Ceccarelli is the composer I knew least about in advance of listening these discs (and writing about them for The Wire at the start of the year), but his was the one that really knocked my sideways when I put it on, for its startling transparency. And although I couldn’t attend that night, I understand his portative organ and percussion duo with Katelyn Clark at Café Oto as part of the series’ launch weekend was another highlight. One to watch.
Heiner Goebbels/Insomnio – Industry and Idleness, Herakles 2, Suite for sampler and ensemble, La Jalousie (Gaudeamus Muziekweek, Utrecht, September)
Why isn’t Goebbels’ music heard much more widely, especially in the UK? Perhaps my initial reaction to this concert reflects my own ignorance, but it also speaks to how much I enjoyed it. I hear a lot of music (some of it quite bad) dragging samplers, beats and so on into a new music context; I’ve not heard much that does it as well as Goebbels’ Suite. Then there’s his effortless eclecticism and theatricality. I brought Ensemble Klang’s recording of Goebbels’ Walden home with me from Gaudeamus, and my newly discovered affection for his music has continued to grow.
Ragnar Kjartansson/various – An die musik (LCMF, London, December)
While there were undoubted highlights along the way (performances and works by Joan La Barbara, Chris Newman, Jürg Frey and James Tenney among those that I saw, featuring lots of involvement from Apartment House), my LCMF experience felt a little more ragged than usual by the end of the week. Perhaps I hadn’t gone to the right nights. The opening Sunday afternoon, with Ragnar Kjartansson’s seven-hour installation An die musik, was something else, however. Massed pianos again (see Eastman above): these seem to have been an emotional trigger for 2017, and again I found myself on the edge of tears at the enveloping humanity of the thing. Here’s a fuller review.
Bára Gísladóttir/Riot Ensemble – Suzuki Baleno (Nordic Music Days, London, December)
A small one to finish with. It has been a wonderful and humbling experience to work with the Riot Ensemble throughout 2017 as a member of their artistic board and in-house writer. Twice they provided highlights for me within larger events (the second being their premiere of Laurence Osborne’s stele for failed masculinity, Ctrl, at Huddersfield). Gísladóttir’s piece is a real gem, though: an evocation of the day, when she was aged eight, when her father returned home with a car (the eponymous Suzuki) that she knew he couldn’t afford. The way it used contemporary techniques (noise, fragmentation, silence) to capture the incomprehension, anxiety and wonder of that childhood moment was deeply, deeply touching.
Jennifer Walshe/Jennifer Walshe, Arditti Quartet – EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT (Only Connect, Oslo, May). Walshe’s masterpiece (so far). So glad I finally got to see it.
Aisha Orazbayeva, Tim Etchells – Seeping Through (Only Connect, Oslo, May). From my Tempo review: “Trump inevitably barged in. ‘Things to look out for in the first ten seconds of the Trump presidency’, intoned Etchells’ increasingly troubled voice, building step by step until: ‘Things to look out for in the first ten centuries of the Trump presidency’. Haha we laughed. Haha. Orazbayeva was a perfect foil, scratching and grinding loops of her own, playing her instrument like a cat worrying at a loose thread on the couch.”
Pascal Dusapin/Arditti Quartet, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Pascal Rophé – Quartet VI “Hinterland”, Quartet VII “Open Time” (aeon)
I still don’t know what to make of the prolific and widely acclaimed Pascal Dusapin. Much of his music leaves me cold. But then along comes this disc, including his peculiar Sixth Quartet, a so-called “hapax” that also features a full orchestra. The piece made little impression on me when it was performed at the Proms a few years ago, but this recording brings it to life. If I have a way into Dusapin’s music, this would be it.
John Cage, Christian Wolff/Philip Thomas, Apartment House – Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Resistance (HCR)
I’m still coming to terms with this one. Cage’s Concert is legendary, but more seen than heard – its flamboyantly open notation appearing in many 20th-century music textbooks. Thomas’s dedication to realising this work, on recording and in a concert from the University of Leeds (whose video stream I watched from my hospital bed in July) is to be applauded, and this double CD backed with a new work by Christian Wolff is a fine thing to have.
Peter Ablinger/Gisela Mashayekhi-Beer, Marcus Weiss, Hildegard Kleeb – Verkündigung (HCR)
Huddersfield Contemporary Records are fast becoming guilty of releasing more excellent discs than one can possibly keep up with. Here’s another interesting one – a fascinating excavation of one of the earliest pieces (composed in 1990) by one of the most important composers working today. Three versions are presented, two recorded in 2001 and one in 1998. A valuable document of recent musical history.