Rambler releases of 2020

In no particular order, some of my favourite releases of 2020.

Liza Lim: Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus (KAIROS)

An essential release of what will surely be one of the most important, powerful and original compositions of the decade. A transformative work in Lim’s career, you can hear in real time the disintegration of her previous compositional voice and its metamorphic re-emergence from the rubble. Shoring fragments (Janáček, Chinese astrology, the songs of extinct birds) against her ruin, this is a musical Wasteland for the age of the climate crisis.

Moor Mother: Circuit City (Don Giovanni)

Bleak, angry, restorative, hopeful. Camae Ayewa was a howl of productivity against 2020’s numerous oppressions. Circuit City, an album I listened to and excavated day after day in December, just pipped Offering, with Nicole Mitchell, released earlier in the lockdown.

Clara Iannotta: Earthing (WERGO)

One of a number of composers who have broken through into something much deeper and darker in the last few years (see also Tim McCormack and Iannotta’s teacher Chaya Czernowin): there’s a doom-core/drone metal vibe to Iannotta’s second CD that one can hear permeating the music of several other composers at the moment. Few do it with Iannotta’s lightness of touch, though.

Beatriz Ferryra: Echos+ (Room40)

I knew nothing of Beatriz Ferryra before this year, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The trio of new works released as Huellas Entreveradas (Persistence of Sound) in May revealed an important and singular voice in contemporary electronic composition. But this collection of earlier pieces, released a couple of months before, was the real knockout, epitomised by the previously unreleased title piece from 1978, a ghostly collage created from the voice of her late niece.

Anna Höstman: Harbour (Redshift)

Released in early January, Anna Höstman’s album of piano solos, played by Cheryl Duvall, is a capsule from an entirely other era. We shouldn’t forget that other life, though, and Harbour is a reminder of a more careless, casually meandering, simply beautiful time. Brief review here.

Linda Catlin Smith: Meadow (Louth CMS)

Any new recording of Linda Catlin Smith’s music is to be welcomed, but this issue of Meadow, released by Louth Contemporary Music Society near the very end of the year (launch event on 11 December here) feels very special. A 30-minute string trio, Meadow scrapes a little deeper into the influences of early music that frequently run beneath the surface of Smith’s music: like a Dufay motet it conveys an atmosphere of melody and polyphony without constraint, but also of contemplation and extraordinary warmth. If Höstman caught the end of the pre-pandemic world, maybe her Canadian contemporary points to a future after it.

Sarah Hennies: The Reinvention of Romance (Astral Spirits)

2020 feels like it was the breakthrough year for composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies. Last September’s Reservoir 1 made many end-of-2019 lists, but this year that position has been built upon and, remarkably, expanded with two releases: Spectral Malsconcities and The Reinvention of Romance. Both records are examples of a stark yet organic minimalism, characterised by patience, sensitivity and unsettling tension. The latter just pips it though for its capturing of love in the time of Covid – a negotiation of shared spaces, intimacies and solitudes.

Daniel Lentz and Ian William Craig: In a Word (RVNG Intl.)

When I was invited to contribute marketing notes to this album I knew nothing of Ian William Craig’s haunted combination of classically trained voice and crippled technologies, but I was quickly sold on his music’s haunted nostalgia. In combination with Daniel Lentz’s expansive piano minimalism, In a Word (the sixteenth in RVNG’s FRKWYS series of intergenerational collaborations) conjures something between the disintegrating texture of William Basinski and the yearning ghost of Schubert song. Wonderful.

Milana Zarić and Richard Barrett: Mirage (Strange Strings)

Typically for him, Richard Barrett has taken the circumstances of the pandemic and lockdown as a prompt to reexamine the fundamentals of his practice. In 2003, following the invasion of Iraq, he began a reassessment of his work in view of what responsible artists should do in the face of war and parliamentary deceit – a process that began with the orchestral work NO and culminated (although did not end) with 2012’s CONSTRUCTION. In 2020 he has sought ways in which to turn enforced isolation to his advantage – no small challenge for a composer whose work is so enmeshed with performance and collaboration. One outcome has been a turn to electronic composition, documented on strange lines and distances; another is the development of the duo with his partner, harpist Milana Zarić, begun with Barrett’s 2013 work for harp and electronics tendril, but taking on a new significance with the curtailment of all other shared performance opportunities in 2020. nocturnes was one of my compositional highlights of last year, and the new pieces mirage, restless horizon and sphinx highlight still further Barrett’s refusal to constrain his imagination.

Angharad Davies/Tim Parkinson: The Quarantine Concerts (Experimental Sound Studio/YouTube)

The March lockdown represented a fundamental challenge to every musician on the planet. Many are still finding it hard to produce work under pandemic conditions. One composer who came fast out of the gates, even found the constrictions a spur to creativity, was Tim Parkinson. Parkinson’s 2020 album Here Comes a Monster (Takuroko) was released in May 2020, and somehow already incorporated compositional responses to quarantine. But this even earlier performance, from the first month of Experimental Sound Studio’s (still-running) Quarantine Concerts series stuck with me (at a time when I, for one, still found it hard to engage with new music) for its whimsical reinvention of Parkinson’s opera Time with People, played by him and Angharad Davies using Playmobil toy figures. For more like that, see also the split-screen performance with James Saunders, 24 Preludes.

Bastard Assignments: Lockdown Jams (Bastard Assignments/YouTube)

Trust BA to make 2020 even weirder and more unsettling. The Lockdown Jams emerged from short studies in making experimental music theater over Zoom and Google Hangouts, but quickly grew into a series of commissioned works by (among others) Marcela Lucatelli, Neil Luck, Alexander Schubert, Elaine Mitchener and Tommaso Petrolo, and Jennifer Walshe. As the series has gone on, the Lockdown Jams have taken an increasingly classical approach to Zoom/isolation aesthetics (see Walshe’s zusammen iii, and Thick and Tight’s wonderful Woking), but the early instantiations capture like nothing else the unravelling, baffling, inexpertly improvisational mess that was spring 2020. Read my review here.

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Five fave concerts from 08

With other events dominating this year I didn’t see quite as much live music as last year. A smaller pool may statistically account for why I didn’t see quite as much that really blew me away either, or maybe I was more cynical than in 2007. Anyway, here are five I rated in 08, in chronological order:

Messiaen: Vingt régards sur l’enfant-Jésus. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, QEH, 13 January

The first of several ‘event’ concerts this year. I don’t appear to have any notes from this night, but it was fantastic. I don’t usually care much about performers, more about what they’re playing, but P-LA is an exception. Missing his Vingts régards in London a few years ago was a long-held regret of mine, finally put to rest here.

Nono: Promoteo, RFH, 9 and 10 May

Another major ‘event’. The hype may have threatened to obscure the music, but Nono’s Tragedy of Listening didn’t disappoint. Listening a second time around, in a supposedly less acoustically perfect part of the hall, was a revelation.

What I said then:

Prometeo, which begins strongly with intensely detailed waves of material but raises its game with each movement until the seventh, ‘Three Voices (a)’. This three-layered slab of solo voices, thunderous brass rumbles and a high violin drone that was slowly passed around the auditorium is a shattering experience: and on first encounter a jaw-dropping shock.

Having pushed through the spiritually cleansing rigours of the earlier movements, at this stage I was hearing Nono’s music with an acuity I have rarely experienced. It was as though layers of my received listening habits had been progressively peeled away to expose the raw, subjective core of my listening being. Nono’s musical reward for his listeners who have reached this far is this overwhelming and exhilarating 12-minute blast of sound.

EXAUDI, Shoreditch Church, Spitalfields Festival, 13 June

The smothered intricacy of Evan Johnson’s Colophons still haunts me, as does its startling central gesture. No one else sings Ferneyhough’s Missa brevis (or any Ferneyhough) like EXAUDI; and the juxtaposition of Tudor works by Sheppard and Taverner was absolutely convincing without pandering to lazy new-ageism. Looking back this was both the best programme and most revealing performance I heard all year.

What I said then:

This concert, combining Tudor motets with Anglo-American modernism, was profoundly satisfying not only because of smart and sincere programming, but also because of EXAUDI’s sensitivity to the musical lessons to be learnt from both eras. Their core repertoire of late modernism makes pretty uncompromising demands upon its performers, but the group’s great strength is in not letting standards drop for the apparently easier Renaissance repertory. Mater Christi, the first of two Marian Antiphons by John Taverner that opened the concert, was a beautiful illustration. The control, precision and balance of the 12 voices was remarkable in itself, but most breathtaking were the final bars. Many performances of Renaissance polyphony reveal a series of climaxes rolling into one another, a sort of permanent ecstatic state that cancels out any specific musical structure and leaves the listener in an anonymous state of bliss; EXAUDI, however, kept a tight lid on their dynamics until the very end when a sudden crescendo into the closing cadence made the heart leap into the throat. A thrilling and revelatory moment made possible by technique and interpretative skills honed on avant-garde repertoire.

Tony Conrad, Tate Modern, 14 June

Hugely enjoyable, profoundly troubling, got to do it once. My ears still ring just thinking about it.

What I said then:

Moving around the hall was physically oppressive, especially as you walked in and out of range of the various speakers. The first section, with TC’s shadow (with his hat) looming like a maniac with a drill, was terrifying.Rainforests, glaciers and Xenakis are awesome; Conrad is frightening, like climate change. On my way home I was physically discomfited – not just ringing ears, but ringing skin. I had to wash the sound off me before I could sleep.

Plus Minus, The Warehouse, BMIC Cutting Edge, 23 October

Videos from this concert (which mercifully don’t show the balding pate of yours truly) may be found here.

The last Cutting Edge series run by the BMIC before they are absorbed into the new Sound and Music organisation was high quality stuff (honourable mentions to both Libra Duo and Asamisimasa Duo), but + – just pip it for a) the most consistently interesting programme (including fine pieces by Laurence Crane, Matthew Shlomowitz and Markus Trunk) and b) introducing London to the very strange music of Peter Ablinger.

Last year’s list.

Five fave concerts from 07

1. Carl Rosman and Mark Knoop (1), fORCHT (2), Spitalfields Festival, 16 June

(1) Richard Barrett: flechtwerk; (2) Barrett: fOKT IV

My notes made at the time suggest a more reserved response than I remember actually having. 2007 is the year I started to pay attention to improv in any serious way; although it’s composed in a broad sense, fOKT IV contributed a lot to my increased interest, a seriously impressive 30-minute group piece played by an octet of seriously good performers. At the time I didn’t get much from the Strohviola or piano contributions, but these are much more apparent in the BBC recording broadcast in October.

2. Chris Brannick, Surtaal, Spitalfields Festival, 20 June

Paul Burnell: Pascal’s Carriage; Karlheinz Stockhausen: Zyklus; Frederic Rzewski: To the Earth; traditional Bengali music

I didn’t care much for the Burnell, and although the Rzewski was beautiful and the Bengali music deliriously enjoyable this concert gets the nod in particular for Brannick’s Zyklus, an outstanding showpiece of Stockhausen’s brilliance.

3. Tim Parkinson, Music We’d Like to Hear, 19 July

Jürg Frey: Klavierstück; Chris Newman: Piano Sonata 8b; Makiko Nishikaze: Shades I and II; Michael Maierhof: Splitting 16 für Klavier

Four experimental works for piano, all of which left me with more questions than answers, which is often a good way to be. Chris Newman’s piece exceedingly strange piece still bothers me six months later.

4. Alvin Curran, Maritime Rites, Thames, 14 September

Hundreds of people gathered on and between the banks of the Thames to listen to a 90 minute experimental smorgasbord. Everyone travelled home at the end of a working week happy. Imagine: you could do this once a month for a hundred years for the price of an Olympic village.

5. Maurizio Pollini, Barbara Hannigan, Alain Damiens, Cologne Percussion Quartet, Freiburg Sound Studio (1); Irvine Arditti, André Richard (2), Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice, 31 October

(1) Schoenberg: Three Pieces for Piano; Schoenberg: Six Little Pieces for Piano; Berg: Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano; Nono: …sofferte onde serene…; Nono: Djamila Boupacha; Nono: A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida (2) Nono: La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura

Actually two concerts, so bit of a cheat really. La lontananza has soundtracked a lot of my year and this (with the dream team line-up of Arditti and Richard) was the most remarkable of three versions I came across, a restrained, detailed performance that maintained its intensity throughout. The first concert was something of a ragbag compilation in its own right, and even Pollini seemed a little off the mark (as was the sound projection in …sofferte…), but it wins inclusion for A floresta, an astonishing work that, through its own aesthetic integrity transcends its 1960s agitprop surfaces and becomes a powerful statement of political resistance for all times. Even Nono’s greatest admirers were stunned.