The taxonomy of contemporary classical music—new music, contemporary music, whatever you want to call it—is a thorny issue. But every two months, we’ll take a look at some of the best composer-driven music to surface here on Bandcamp, that which makes room for electronic experimentation, improvisation, and powerful takes on old classics.
Natalie Joachim with Spektral Quartet
Haitian-American vocalist, flutist, and composer Nathalie Joachim—a member of the flute duo Flutronix and the popular Chicago chamber ensemble eighth blackbird—delivers her most personal lyric work with this set of pieces derived from the traditional music of her ancestral homeland, Haiti. She launched the project not long after the passing of her maternal grandmother in 2015—a powerful link for her to the music and culture of that island, through the stories and songs shared in the rural farming village of Dantan. Joachim conducted research, recording interviews with storied vocalists Emerante de Pradines and Carole Demesmin, as well as Milena Sandler, daughter of the great Toto Bissainthe, who all shared stories about Haitian musical tradition and feminist freedom in Haiti—their words are spread throughout the album. She wrote new arrangements for most of the traditional songs, while she composed new music for “Suite pou Dantan,” using the original lyrics of old songs and hymns.
She’s empathically supported by the lustrous strings of Spektral Quartet—sometimes solemn, sometimes playful—and several pieces meticulously deploy electronic beats and her own serene flute lines. For “Suite pou Dantan” she built the pieces around a children’s church choir she recorded in Dantan, underlining how Haitians adapted Catholic liturgy into tribal religions from West Africa. Her singing has a measured, crystalline soulfulness to it, and throughout this spectacular record she effortlessly blends the past and present, the rustic and sophisticated.
Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti
In manus tuas
Violist Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti designed this stunning recital around the concept of transcription—or perhaps more accurately, the challenge of notating sounds for which sheet music didn’t previously exist. The forms of transcription she used vary. Some pieces were originally written for a different string instrument; for pieces like Caroline Shaw’s extravagantly atmospheric, mood-shifting “in manus tuas,” fragments of the Thomas Tallis motet of the same name were used as a foundation.
Lanzilotti is joined by Bearthoven pianist Karl Larson on Andrew Norman’s richly varied, idea-packed “Sonnets,” a brief five-movement work based on fragments from Shakespearean sonnets, and which convey essential sounds like giggling or stuttering. Although Lanzilotti wrote “Gray,” a duet with percussionist Sarah Mullins, handwritten text by the violist is translated into rhythmic material which turns up late in the wonderfully spiky piece, where droning long tones are surrounded by swelling percussive clangs performed on temple bowls, snare drum, and the Hawaiian bamboo rattle called pū‘ili. Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir transcribed her own “Transitions,” originally written for cellist Michael Nicolas, for viola, and Lanzilotti heightens the prescribed duality between “man and machine” with viscerally stunning shifts that fade away as the piece unfolds.
Hannah Lash/JACK Quartet
Filigree—Music of Hannah Lash
This stunning collection of string quartet music by composer Hannah Lash, performed by the singular JACK Quartet, ripples with fresh ideas and energy while engaging with some of classical music’s most cherished conventions. The opening movement of “Suite: Remembered and Imagined,” for example, draws inspiration from the Baroque suite, but the various lines progress at different speeds, conveying an off-kilter canter on the edge of the abyss. The second movement references bits of the prelude from Bach’s C major cello suite, as individual lines start finishing one another’s sentences, while a needling upper register violin line cleaves things open.
“Filigree” uses tapestry arts from the Middle Ages as its point of reference, with the composer’s own harp playing beautifully interweaving with JACK Quartet’s luminous strings. All three movements introduce different sorts of meshed lines and counterpoint, as in the mournful “Gold,” or the pithy pizzicato of “Silver.” “Frayed” is a dazzling back-and-forth between delicately voiced, muted sighs or exhalations—at times suggesting the sound of a glass harmonica—and slashing, almost primeval lines pushed to the point of unraveling by masterful bow pressure, and “Pulse-space” is a relentlessly driving juggernaut of acoustic beating and massed sound, with brief solo excursions poking out of the din.
River Without Banks
Hague-based American composer Leo Svirsky makes a radical departure from his overtone-soaked 2017 album for solo accordion, Heights in Depths, with this unabashedly melodic suite, where he scrupulously creates waves of soothing sound by layering two related piano parts. The writing is lush, with the two primary components inextricably linked, as if each part is a watery reflection of the other. That quality makes sense given the album’s inspiration: an idea posited by musicologist Genrikh “Henry” Orlov that the history of sacred music has witnessed the blurring between the physical and the spiritual.
The gentle arpeggios billow outward in tuneful tendrils and trills, as one motif unfurls fluidly into the next—the gurgling quality of his shapes touch on Chopin, New Age, and ambient techno (without the beats), but there’s a clarity and complexity to his writing that’s far more substantive than that suggests. On a number of pieces there are additional layers of abstracted warmth, such as the keening bowed cello of Leila Bordreuil on the title piece and the creamy trumpet swells of Tim Byrnes on “Rain, Rivers, Forest, Corn, Wind, Sand,” but most of the time it’s just those lapping, overlapping pianos, which need little help.
Reiner van Houdt/Bruno Duplant
Lettres et Replis
A gorgeously meditative yet vividly-present project—a kind of musical correspondence—Lettres et Replis was conceived and initiated by French sound artist and composer Bruno Duplant. In lieu of standard-issue scores, Duplant sent personal letters to the record’s featured musicians (including the revered Japanese guitarist Taku Sugimoto); all but the notes in the musical scale (A B C D E F G) were removed from these letters, leaving plenty of gaps of varying spaces. Apart from an instruction to play softly, with a sense of nostalgia, seriousness, and suspension, it was left to the performers to decide how to interpret them—duration, attack, and chordal choices.
The Dutch pianist Reiner van Houdt created multi-layered readings of the letter scores, playing in a recording studio as well as his home. His three renderings are marked by a sublime touch, a Satie-esque delicateness—tracing elliptical, ruminative melodies of remarkable tenderness, rich in overtones and ambient noise. Van Houdt advanced the project further by creating three corresponding reply pieces drawn from the same library of piano recordings edited and layered with field recordings he made along the harbor in Rotterdam on John Cage’s 100th birthday on September 5, 2012, exquisitely and subtly pushing his responses to the letter scores toward an exterior space, as lapping water, distantly passing boats, and muffled fauna gently commingle with patiently decaying notes.
One of Norway’s most curious contemporary music ensembles tackle two very different commissioned pieces here, bringing searing intensity to Phill Niblock’s “To Two Roses” and inscrutable fragility to Catherine Lamb’s “Parallaxis Forma.” Despite the sonic dissimilarities, both works exist within a very narrow harmonic range, occupying very distinctive spaces for their extended durations.
The Niblock pieces features Ensemble neoN playing against a recording of itself—two colliding takes of the same piece using different chords. In typical Niblock fashion, it’s a richly striated sound-mass teeming with the most extreme microtones of any of his orchestral writing: impossibly thick bowed strings, pianos, and vibraphone with reeds blowing unstable long tones. The piece doesn’t unfold so much as it hovers, inviting the listener to meticulously pick out the undulating textures and psychoacoustic flourishes hidden within the din.
By contrast, Lamb’s piece is translucent and airy as Niblock’s is opaque and viscous. Ensemble vocalist Silje Aker Johnsen is joined by guest Stine Janvin Motland, and they beautifully articulate the same wordless line, the distinct timbre of each bringing a beguiling eeriness to the piece. The gossamer long tones shaped by strings, reeds, electric guitar, and Jennifer Torrence’s wine glasses, seem to blossom from the vocal sounds, all of them descending slowly into an enveloping pool. The piece’s otherworldly beauty is undeniable.
Pauline Oliveros & Guy Klucevsek
Sounding / Way
Another invaluable entry in the ongoing series of reissues of recordings by composer-performer Pauline Oliveros, Sounding / Way was originally released in a tiny cassette-only edition self-released in 1986. The duo album features one piece each by her and fellow accordion experimenter Guy Klucevsek, and while both scores are open-ended, the results are worlds apart.
“The Tuning Meditation” has become one of the most iconic Oliveros pieces, using her practice of “deep listening.” In performance it usually draws upon audience participation, in which listeners inhale, and deeply exhale while humming a note of their own choosing, as long as desired, carrying on but exhaling on a note they hear nearby. In this iteration Oliveros and Klucevsek use their accordions for a beautifully serene marathon of give-and-take (the duration here is actually only 17 minutes, while score usually dictates a length of 40). Long tones move slowly throughout the mix, affording the listener a clear-eyed demonstration of how important it was for the composer to be fully present. Klucevsek’s “Tremolo No. 6” is an intensely pulsating array of minimalist repetition, in which overtones produced by the tight intervals suggest a third voice rising from the hammering din.
R. Andrew Lee
Each flows into the other
Pianist R. Andrew Lee made a name for himself partly through long, heady performances—most famously, his four-plus hour readings of the Dennis Johnson epic November. He creates work that, as he has said in the liner notes, “presents an invitation to explore a musical space slowly and carefully.” That’s certainly the case with “Each flows into the other,” a piece he commissioned from composer Bryan Christian.
Over the course of two luxurious hours, Lee’s delicate playing—gently ringing chords and cascading, melodic lines—float over a series of glissing electronic drones that descend microscopically in a steady, oddly soothing drift. Lee’s heavily improvised part sticks to a diatonic system, while the electronic component—distant but inescapable, with the embedded harmonic series stretched like taffy—embraces a spectral approach. The electronics are larded with microtones that unfold glacially, producing unexpected overtones in concert with the ringing piano notes. The work eschews any clear narrative path, instead presenting itself as a kind of floating sound installation—constantly producing strange sonic confluences that ooze like molasses but sparkle like crystal.
Musica Nova Contemplativa
Over the last half-century or so, some visual artists have augmented their practices with sound, and occasionally they produce limited-run recordings of that work. That’s the case with this impossibly rare effort by the German painter Winfried Mühlum-Pyrápheros, who grew up playing violin. In 1967, he recorded the material on Musica Nova Contemplativa in a Franciscan church, using a graphic notation system of his own design with a predesigned set of “mobile and variable elements.” The record wasn’t released until 1970.
His own grainy violin playing collides with ghostly organ patterns, played by Johann Georg Ickler—here and there an uncredited friend adds some triangle percussion—summoning the spirit of New York’s experimental underground of the time, particularly the visceral work of Tony Conrad and Henry Flynt, although the dark melodic nature of Mühlum-Pyrápheros’s music puts the results in a category of its own. The score requires plenty of improvisation, and there’s no missing the rapport the musicians have for one another. Although designed as extensions of a specific set of paintings, the music bristles with energy, emotion, and beauty on its own stark terms. Mühlum-Pyrápheros never made any other recordings, but this reissue both opens a previously hidden door to the era and reveals the ongoing prescience of this work.
Music for Lock Grooves
London-based musician Adrian Corker spends much of his time scoring for television and film, while using his imprint SN Variations to explore experimental takes on the work of crucial 20th century composers like John Cage and Jacinto Scull. He has deftly used locked grooves from vinyl records as an elements in some of his film scores, like The Have-Nots, but on this fascinating project he puts that practice front-and-center.
The short, looping patterns (ranging from 1.8 seconds on 33 RPM vinyl to 1.33 seconds on 45 RPM), built and abstracted from a mix of electronics, voice, and live instrumental performances, were pressed on acetate discs, which physically disintegrate with each spin; white noise gradually supplants the original sounds. That decay introduces sonic surprises with each pass. Corker further enhances the process with directed improvisational patterns from several of London’s strongest players, including violinist Aisha Orazbayeva, percussionist Sam Wilson, and pianist Mark Knoop, which were edited and mixed with the locked grooves, producing something simultaneously hypnotic and narrative. These meticulously sculpted vignettes, rich in analog atmosphere, function a bit like film scores in their concision, but even the shortest pieces here pack a satisfying, self-contained wallop.