It’s the time of the year for “Best of…” lists, and while this is indeed a round-up of albums from 2018 in list form, I’d like to start by invoking a recent tweet by Steve Smith of National Sawdust Log.
An obvious point that still bears repeating: There is NO SUCH THING as an objective assessment of the year’s best anything—even in some conglomerated poll selected by committee and scienced to the nth degree.
— Steve Smith (@nightafternight) December 12, 2018
All of the albums below reflect my editorial priorities for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN: equitable programming, stylistic diversity, and promotion of historically underrepresented artists. So without attempting to definitively rank or label the albums below, I would like to share with you the new music projects that made a lasting impression on me throughout 2018.
AEQUA: International Contemporary Ensemble Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir
AEQUA (Sono Luminus) is the International Contemporary Ensemble‘s second portrait album dedicated to the music of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. AEQUA features large ensemble works Aequilibria (2014) and Illumine (2016) led by Steven Schick; small chamber works Spectra (2017), Sequences (2016), Reflections (2016), and Fields (2016); and Scape (2011) for solo piano performed by Cory Smythe.
Anna’s compositional voice is glacial and textural–simultaneously dark and luminous. The patient, careful, and deliberate performances by the International Contemporary Ensemble allow her music to gradually unfold into massive soundscapes.
Blueprinting: Aizuri Quartet
Blueprinting (New Amsterdam Records) is the debut album from Aizuri Quartet–Ariana Kim and Miho Saegusa (violins); Ayane Kozasa (viola); and Karen Ouzounian (cello)–featuring five newly commissioned works by Gabriella Smith, Caroline Shaw, Yevgeniy Sharlat, Lembit Beecher, and Paul Wiancko. Blueprinting is a GRAMMY nominee for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.
From Gabriella Smith’s infectious amalgam of extended techniques and folk idioms in Carrot Revolution to Caroline Shaw’s lush and effervescent Blueprint to the delicate, gossamer textures of Lembit Beecher’s suite from Sophia’s Wide Awake Dreams, Aizuri Quartet excels in every way, demonstrating brilliant musicianship throughout.
Dinosaur Scar: Du Yun
Dinosaur Scar (Tundra) is the International Contemporary Ensemble’s first portrait album dedicated to the works of composer Du Yun. Dinosaur Scar features ensemble works Impeccable Quake, dreams-bend, Air Glow, by, of … Lethean, and an excerpt from Angel’s Bone; solos Dinosaur Scar, Vicissitudes Alone, and Run in a Graveyard; and improvisations with the composer joining the ensemble as a performer.
Du Yun’s writing is explosive and complex, combining a disparate palette of timbres in compelling and innovative ways–and what a palette she has available to her in the musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. ICE’s relationship with Du Yun stretches back to the days of the ensemble’s inception, and the performances on Dinosaur Scar demonstrate a level of intrinsic mutual understanding that only comes from years of close collaboration. A particular highlight on Dinosaur Scar is Air Glow, which has received a GRAMMY nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
The Hands Free
The Hands Free is an acoustic band comprised of composer/performers James Moore (guitar/banjo), Caroline Shaw (violin), Nathan Koci (accordion) and Eleonore Oppenheim (bass). Their self-titled debut album (New Amsterdam Records) features works that explore contemporary classical, folk, and improvisatory idioms.
The offerings on The Hands Free are loosely strung together by the overall aesthetic of an impromptu jam session, with individual tracks ranging from exuberant reels (“Kellam’s Reel/Rusty Gully”) to angular, conversational bursts (“Yes or No”) to tender solos suspended in time (“It’s She”). The result is an eclectic and whimsical release that allows the listener a glimpse into the joyful after-hours music making of this wildly talented quartet.
He(a)r: Nordic Affect
He(a)r (Sono Luminus) is the latest album from Icelandic ensemble Nordic Affect (Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, violin and voice; Gudrún Hrund Hardardóttir, viola and voice; Hanna Loftsdóttir, cello and voice; and Gudrún Óskarsdóttir, harpsichord and voice). He(a)r features seven world premiere recordings of works by Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Mirjam Tally, and Hildur Guðnadóttir.
Halla says, “He(a)r is an ode to hear, here, hér (the Icelandic word for here) and her…an album which rides on the wave of questions that rise and rise–Whose sounds? Whose bodies? Whose voices?” These topics are poignantly explored through spoken tracks that are interwoven throughout the album. The musical selections include sparse and sustained landscapes (Spirals), an aggressive juxtaposition of harpsichord and extended string techniques (Warm Life at the Foot of the Iceberg), and meditative repetitions that grow into glorious codas (Point of Departure). Throughout, Nordic Affect is exceptionally versatile and sensitive, proving to be equally at home in both driving minimalism and serene atmospheres.
Night Triptych: Duo Noire
Night Triptych (New Focus Recordings) is the debut album from Duo Noire (guitarists Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett). Night Triptych features world premiere recordings of newly commissioned works by Clarice Assad, Courtney Bryan, Golfam Khayam, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Gity Razaz, and Gabriella Smith.
On Night Triptych, Duo Noire not only addresses the paucity of contemporary guitar music, but also the overwhelming lack of composer diversity in the guitar canon. The result of this commissioning and recording project is an album rich with stylistic influences, including traces of blues slide guitar (Smith’s Loop the Fractal Hold), solemn hymns (Bryan’s Soli Deo Gloria), and the guitar’s Middle Eastern cousin: the oud (Kouyoumdjian’s Byblos and Razaz’s Four Haikus).
Silent Voices: Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Silent Voices (New Amsterdam Records) is the sophomore album from Brooklyn Youth Chorus featuring works commissioned for their multimedia concert series of the same name. This first installment includes works by Jeff Beal, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, Paul Miller/DJ Spooky, Nico Muhly, Shara Nova, Toshi Reagon, Kamala Sankaram, and Caroline Shaw performed by Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the International Contemporary Ensemble.
Silent Voices not only gives voice to those who have been historically marginalized, but also gives the members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus agency over their message and their music making, allowing them to act as catalysts for change. The young choristers not only demonstrate a mature comprehension of the subject matter, but also exhibit an impressive command of vocal styles ranging from hip hop to gospel to contemporary techniques to bel canto singing.
The Sound of Science: Golden Hornet
The Sound of Science (National Sawdust Tracks) is the latest project from cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and Austin’s composer laboratory Golden Hornet. Composers Graham Reynolds, Foday Musa Suso, Yuka C. Honda, Paola Prestini, Sarah Lipstate, Felipe Pérez Santiago, and Maja S.K. Ratkje each drew inspiration from a scientist of their choosing and developed a work that reflects the scientist’s life and practice.
Included in these eight pieces for amplified cello and electronics are Lipstate’s cinematic minimalist celebration of Marie Curie’s theory of radioactivity (Radiation in Moderation), Suso’s churning pizzicatos that capture the imagery of George Washington Carver planting peanuts (Salumba), and Honda’s celestial ode NASA to mathematician Katherine Johnson (Her Confirmation). Zeigler is outstanding throughout, demonstrating a command over a myriad of styles and techniques.
Strange Paradise: Tigue
Strange Paradise (New Amsterdam Records/NNA Tapes) is the sophomore album from Brooklyn-based percussion trio Tigue (Matt Evans, Amy Garapic and Carson Moody). The album features three tracks ranging from 8-21 minutes in length, each of which are intended for “extended listening,” according to the ensemble.
Ordinarily know for their high-octane performances, Tigue takes an ambient and atmospheric turn on Strange Paradise. Each track explores gradual shifts in texture and groove that create a kaleidoscopic listening experience. Tigue effortlessly skates from hypnotic beats to serene stillness to drone-based rhythmic explorations with incredible versatility, unlocking another realm of capabilities as an ensemble.
This is Not a Land of Kings: Gelsey Bell
Gelsey Bell‘s EP This is Not A Land of Kings (Gold Bolus Recordings) features three short songs performed by Bell, Amber Grey, and Grace McLean. Their trio of unaccompanied voices traverse a range of timbres and vocal techniques, with influences from musical theater, pop music, folk music, and contemporary extended techniques.
Bell’s direct and powerful songwriting addresses social and political issues through lilting homorhythmic declamations (“This is Not a Land of Kings”), plaintive cries (“Rains on Me”), and a coming together of individual voices to create a unified front (“She’s Gonna Breathe Now”).