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 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.
Mario Diaz de Leon
Cycle and Reveal
For years, New York composer Mario Diaz de Leon has toggled easily between the worlds of contemporary classical, black metal, and electronic music; rather than compartmentalizing those pursuits in different projects, he’s frequently blended them together in new hybrids. Such collisions usually work for him because he possesses a genuine ardor and depth of understanding for each style. This impressive new album is clearly contemporary classical, but those other elements are certainly present.
On “Sacrament,” slithering, cycling arpeggios voiced in ever-shifting iterations and phrase lengths on marimba, flute, and clarinet by members of Talea Ensemble are interlocked with meticulously-charted electronic tones, both serene and floor-rattling. The electronic interplay is no less gripping on “Labrys,” a piece featuring bassoonist Rebekah Heller, where spry electronic tones shadow and prod the snaking double reed patterns. Heller’s bassoon fractures into terse stabs, long tones, and turbulent melodies, while sub-bass swells and gaseous electronic textures swirl around her. “Irradiance” is an intense showcase for cellist Mariel Roberts, whose pitched-down instrument produces howling, viscous lows and shrieking, harmonic highs swaddled and buffeted by darkly ambient cloudbursts. The intertwined lines of Heller, clarinetist Josh Rubin, and flutist Claire Chase convey Arabic heterophony on the closing piece “Mysterium,” but things break apart ritualistically and reunite amid needling vintage synthesizers.
Pavone String Ensemble
Brick and Mortar
Violist/violinist Jessica Pavone is well known in improvised music circles, especially for her duo with guitarist Mary Halvorson, but she’s been composing music for deades—and on Brick and Mortar she delivers the most assured, bracing work of her career. Following a sustained focus on solo performance, where she invested heavily in playing long tones and became interested in cymatics (the study of vibrations, and in her case, how they impact the human body), Pavone has translated that practice for a dazzling string quartet with two violinists (Erica Dicker and Angela Morris) and two violists (herself and Joanna Mattrey).
While some pieces are fully scored—such as the haunting, pulsing opener “Hurt and Hurdle”—most of the music allows for performer input, where the players can alter tempo, transpose pitches, or jump ahead to different sections, which are often charted as blocks of time rather than written-out passages. Pavone and the ensemble dig deep into the friction emerging from the long tones, creating an electric sensation with the harmonically rich vibrations delivering a beautifully coarse weft of sound. At times the blend of the instruments recalls the sound of Norway’s Hardanger fiddle, with its sympathetic, resonating strings. Pavone’s writing is elegant in its crystalline simplicity, with movement that allows the listener to focus on the enveloping sound first and foremost.
Sleeping Giant: Ash
Long-time Bang on a Can All-Stars cellist Ashley Bathgate had her classical roots—particularly Bach’s six cello suites—in mind when she commissioned the members of the composers collective Sleeping Giant to each write her a movement for a new suite for her instrument. The results are impressively diverse, reflecting the personality of each composer, but they all hang together nicely, touching on some specific quality of Bach’s repertoire. Andrew Norman’s “For Ashley” applies some of the cycling arpeggios in the prelude to the fourth suite, while Jacob Cooper’s “Ley Line” extends a drone from the conclusion of the prelude to the fifth suite into ten dynamic, furiously driving minutes. The aptly titled “Small Wonder” by Timo Andres is an action-packed marvel that clearly draws on the baroque dance rhythms of Bach, while reflecting the whiplash pace of modern life. The pieces all zoom in on Bathgate’s musical adventurousness, as in the way Ted Hearne employs jagged snippets of a New Age-y commercial to float over thickly striated, stop-start cello outbursts and bittersweet arcs.
A surprising and welcome discovery of four diverse works from the archives of French electroacoustic genius Luc Ferrari, celebrating what would have been his 90th year (he died in 2005). The title work is the album’s centerpiece, a 1989 composition created for an exhibition of photographs by Alain Willaume that in vintage texts is described as “Telling the story of landscapes with the invisible presence of the photographer, also known as ‘Landscape with girls.” While the work draws upon familiar Ferrari tropes—collages of French language voices that merge in both serene and jarring ways into ever-shifting streams of electronic tones and prerecorded material that pulse, glide, and explode, with smears and smudges of tape manipulation clearly felt—those recognizable tools don’t render the work any less electrifying. “Il Était Un Fois,” a 1973 commission from Experimental Music Group of Bourges, is equally peripatetic in its swings from euphoric playground sounds, to spacey electronic shimmers, to electronic thunderbolts, to overloaded field recordings of some kind of celebration, to marching band music, all cut-up, layered, and fucking with time. There’s also a short commercial for the camera maker Leica and a 1992 miniature that feels like a cousin of the title track.
Violinist Maya Bennardo (Mivos Quartet) and violist Hannah Levinson (Talea Ensemble) formed their duo andPlay in 2012, and since then they’ve feverishly commissioned over 30 new pieces for the instrumental format. They reveal an astonishing rapport: a four-limbed ensemble of visceral intensity and nonchalant virtuosity. The duo’s bracing debut album features four pieces that explore the outer reaches of both the range and the techniques common to their instruments.
“Crescita Plastica,” by Ashkhan Bezadi, is a visceral collision of sustained lines that scratch and seethe, pierced by biting double stops. There’s a woozy, hydroplaning quality to the overall structure until the electrifying climax, where a twisted dance rhythm crashes through: unsettled, snarling, flitting between torpor and explosiveness. David Bird’s “Bezier” draws on different extremities of timbre—febrile scratches, breathy puffs, and tangled blurts—before gathering them all up into a delicate collage of avian chirps. Clara Ianotta’s “Limun” uses a similar set of sounds and timbres with greater volume and volatility in urgent stops and starts, before the piece switches gears and asks the musicians to play high frequency drones with harmonicas—suggesting electronic sine tones—over which they play spare, quiet glissandos. In a sharp sequencing move, the album closes with Bird’s “Apocrypha,” which extends the harmonica tone with an electronic one that opens up into a throb, which engages in a breathless battle with the strings.
Morton Feldman Piano
This monumental endeavor by British pianist Philip Thomas (well known as a member of the contemporary ensemble Apartment House) summarizes his decades of direct engagement and study with the music of Morton Feldman. In 1999, pianist John Tilbury released a masterful 4-CD collection of the composer’s piano music, which has led some to wonder why Thomas would feel the need to chime in, but such thinking is silly. The subtlety and openness of Feldman’s music certainly allows for every performer to leave his or her mark, and Thomas also adds more, rarely heard, material—including a previously unpublished minute-long gem from 1942 and a couple of others from 1954—to the mix.
Aside from the sublime, meticulous performances themselves, the pianist’s elaborate liner notes provide fascinating insights into his own approach. Thomas places a unique emphasis on experiencing sounds from the performer’s onstage perspective, noting that audiences often miss some of the nuances in Feldman’s generally-quiet music by dint of physical distance. He also waxes eloquently on the importance of touch in Feldman’s music, a quality elusive in the actual scores. Iconic works like “Triadic Memories” and “For Bunita Marcus” occupy a great chunk of the contents, but a lesser-celebrated work like 1977’s “Piano” prove equally more revealing. Essential stuff.
Hockets for Two Voices
Hocketing is a technique used throughout the centuries and around the world, from late Medieval choral music to the gamelan traditions of Indonesia and even the art-pop of Dirty Projectors, in which two or more voices (or instruments) shape a single melodic line by playing alternating notes in a steady flow. Los Angeles singer and a composer Meara O’Reilly spent seven months recording the 10 minutes of music on Hockets for Two Voices, and considering its jaw-dropping presentation and craftsmanship, that extended production time makes sense. O’Reilly did all of the singing to produce seven brief, wordless vignettes with otherworldly melodies occasionally redolent of ancient choral music. Short tones ping back and forth in the stereo field at rapid velocity —imagine the sonic foundation of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” fast forwarded through a prism)—as the notes glide in a breathtaking, glistening flow of sound. As it stands, this is a project of lapidary beauty.
Eye to Ivory
Pianist Kathleen Supové once again demonstrates her range as a leading voice in contemporary music with this diverse program, where her presence and personality complement her staggering instrumental skills. She collaborated with Nick Didovsky on “Rama Boom,” creating an oblique sound-poetry text that morphs from abstraction into disturbing clarity through her own vocalizations; scrambled language and phonemes crystallize into a violent dénouement, while the piano playing grows increasingly dissolute. On Randall Woolf’s “In the Privacy of My Own Home” her infectious, digitally manipulated laughter is treated as a compositional element, riding over a rollercoaster of jazzy chords and thorny melodic shards. The album also features two striking works using digital processing: Guy Barash’s “Talkback IV” refracts, distorts, and folds back in the intensely physical clusters, zigzag runs, inside-the-piano scrapes, and lightning-fast splatters into a quicksilver dialogue that demands listeners keep on their toes, while Dafna Naphtali’s “Landmine,” originally written for Supové in 1999, showcases technological evolution in this revised iteration, challenges the pianist to react and respond to unexpected algorithmic feedback.
Ben Melsky/Ensemble Dal Niente
On his second album Ben Melsky—with help from various members of Ensemble Dal Niente, the Chicago new music group for which serves as executive director—presents a collection of new, boundary-snapping pieces for harp, all composed by artists from his home city or with strong connections to it. The album opens with a pair of solo works by Tomás Gueglio, including “After L’Addio,” which plays with one of the instrument’s most iconic sounds—the cascading glissando—by blending conventional sweeps with those produced by Melsky’s finger calluses (humorously dubbed the “Guegliando”), for a dynamic mixture of sweetness and rudeness. The spacious “Felt” delivers music box-like tonal clusters, both clean and muted, thanks to the titular material used as damping agent. Fredrick Gifford’s “Mobile 2015: Satirist” is a modular duo with guitar (played here by Jesse Langen), allowing the performer to rearrange its sections for each new reading, with microtonality further expanding the mesh of plucking, rattling, scraping, and strumming. “Anima,” by Igor Santos, imagines the harp and the percussion of guest Kyle Flens as partly biomorphic, with sounds from their bodies and voices melding with a series of extended techniques—utterances of the performers are transformed through the lens of their instruments.
Bird as Prophet
David Bowlin is one of the premier violinists of contemporary music, a virtuoso who gamely pours his remarkable technique into challenging works that balance rigor and heart. His openness and curiosity are in full flower on this superb collection of pieces written over the last four decades. The album opens with the oldest work, Mario Davidovsky’s “Synchronisms No. 9”—an electro-acoustic journey in which Bowlin’s crystalline articulation engages with an elusive, deeply interactive synthetic line, practically melding his organic gestures with plastic ones. There are two disparate contributions by the Russian/Bulgarian composer Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin; “Kastena” is a duo with cellist Katinka Kleijn, who lays down a sonorous drone during the first half before erupting with slashing feedback to Bowlin’s upper register dexterity, while “Mari Mamo” is a trio work—with flutist Conor Nelson and percussionist Ayano Kataoka—transforming Bulgarian folk tradition into a heterophonic game of hot potato, only it directly referencing the inspiration in the final minutes, complemented by the composer’s lovely singing. Du Yun’s “Under a tree, an Udātta” mixes Vedic Sanskrit chanting with the violinist’s sobbing cries and ululations.