The taxonomy of contemporary classical music—new music, contemporary music, whatever you want to call it—is a thorny issue. But every month, 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.
To You Through
Compact Disc (CD)
Like an ever-expanding number of young musicians, Halifax-based cellist India Gailey is equally at home in the worlds of composed and improvised music. While her second solo album firmly belongs to the first category, there’s no missing a certain air of spontaneity and an abiding curiosity from the latter. Gailey’s poignant liner notes describe her personal connections to these pieces, including her own work “Ghost,” which includes some performer agency in terms of tonal color and an appropriately haunting wordless vocal during its final part. The opening work, “Augun” by Icelandic-Canadian composer Fjóla Evans—in 2017 the cellist heard Evans being paged in a Toronto airport and ran over to introduce herself—combines seven separate, overdubbed parts. The music, based in part on an Icelandic folk tune, hovers even as individual parts scurry and soar. In fact, that sense of inner activity within placid surfaces extends through much of the collection. Her accounts of pieces by well-known composers Philip Glass (“Orbit”) and Michael Gordon (his post-9/11 rumination “Light is Calling”) are both assured and tender. The highlight of the album, though, might well be “ko’u inoa” by Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, a piece about homeland that the composer wrote about her native Hawaii and that resonates with Gailey, who notes her struggles in finding her own sense of home.
Compact Disc (CD)
Although composer Mathew Arrellin’s titular concept on this album is a bit dicey—a full paragraph in the liner notes makes a rather long-winded explanation of a sonic trill, which functions as the binding agent of these five pieces—the music itself is strong enough to stand on its own. The opening piece “Portals” is performed by ~nois, a terrific saxophone quartet from Chicago who are alums of Northwestern University, where the composer just earned his PhD. The wild piece asks them to chew up the scenery with feverish upper register chords heard against solo digressions. The piece ties into the trill idea as individual lines pull apart and reintegrate within the constantly shifting landscape laid out by the other horns, who blow some wonderfully piercing harmonies. Arrellin himself tackles “Bifurcations,” a dynamically textured solo cello piece that thrums and wobbles in place as it underlines the movement of “the higher partials of the two lower strings of the cello, as well as the proliferation of harmonics to multiphonics as the piece grows.” Mivos Quartet perform his “Coalescences,” which starts out similarly to the solo cello piece, but gains in richness and counterpoint as it unfolds, amplifying the trill even further, qualities heard in the final two works played by former ~nois saxophonist Brandon Quarles and Arrellin himself. Keep an eye peeled for this guy.
TAK Ensemble & Ashkan Behzadi
Love, Crystal & Stone
New York’s TAK Ensemble seem drawn to artistic challenges, commissioning and performing work by composers who share their chance-taking desires. This new effort was written by Iranian-Canadian composer Ashkan Behzadi, who created settings for the poetry of Federico García Lorca. As with many other Iranians, his connection to the poet came through translations made by Iranian modernist poet Ahmad Shamlou in the early 1970s, who also recorded readings of those translations over the music of Argentine composer Atahualpa Yupanqui in 1981 which reached an even wider audience. The music Behzadi composed veers between jagged, strident, and fiercely lyric. Singer Charlotte Mundy toggles between sibilant recitations, lyric melodies, and fiery chants. Her delivery rides abstract arrangements laid out by flutist Laura Cocks, clarinetist Madison Greenstone, violinist Marina Kifferstein, and percussionist Ellery Trafford—heaving, sibilant, bumpy, and meditative, reflecting the full gamut of human expression. As a document, this release goes deeper, as TAK and Behzadi enlisted the Chicago design team Sonnenzimmer to create a gorgeous booklet containing Shamlou’s Farsi translations, as well as imaginary correspondence between the composer, Lorca, and Shamlou written by cultural theorist Saharnaz Samaeinejad, and paintings by Mehrdad Jafari.
Compact Disc (CD)
Berlin-based pianist Quentin Tolmieri unleashes a clearing house of 15 hyper-specific works spread across three CDs, pushing the titular concept to the breaking point. Apart from the set’s three-hour duration, much of this music tests boundaries in its almost elegant conceptual simplicity, with certain pieces so punishing and single-minded that if someone walked in on the music mid-way it might feel downright combative. But once I spent some focused time with Monochromes each piece blossomed in dazzling, often unexpected ways. “Monochrome 1,” which evokes both Morton Feldman and Ran Blake, begins with a gentle melody emerging from an austere, almost rickety chord progression, cycling with little variation. But as the piece proceeds the overtones seem to give the notes a new life, opening up with resonances that hover and envelop the struck notes. Before the listener can settle into that sort of spacious lyricism, on “Monochrome 2” Tolmieri leapfrogs to an incessant tangle of microscopically shifting patterns played in the extreme upper register of the instrument, where the percussive clatter upstages the glassy tones. Once again, an otherworldly veil of psychedelic overtones and elusive internal melodic shapes seem to take over before long. Tolmieri’s studies all produce wonderful discoveries, and his rigor in wringing out possibilities has clearly required significant research; he’s worked through each scenario, so we can inhale the heady results. One of the year’s most gratifying challenges.
Quatuor Umlaut & Joris Rühl
Compact Disc (CD)
The members of the relatively new Parisian string ensemble Quatuor Umlaut—violinists Amaryllis Billet and Anna Jalving; violist Fanny Paccoud; and cellist Sarah Ledoux—also pivot easily between improvised and composed music, and while the titular Karl Naegelen work on this trenchant collaboration with clarinetist Joris Rühl draws upon some of the extended technique and sonic language of free improvisation, the two pieces on the album are both composed. “Calques,” which relates to layers or transparencies, and the other featured work, Morton Feldman’s “Clarinet & String Quartet” both involve ways in which the reed instrument interacts, piles upon, and diverges from the strings. The Naegeln composition is a distillation of materials the composer used in a clarinet concerto written previously for Rühl and the superb ONCEIM. It’s kind of an abstract game of cat and mouse, as some of the extreme sounds of the reed instrument are duplicated by the strings, while at other times it seems to get lost within some of the more strident passages. There are similar effects in Feldman’s 1983 work, where evolving sonic blends and contrasts occur in the composer’s measured, gorgeously fraught melodic shapes.
String Noise, the violin duo of Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris, continues to take on visceral new work, following up three bracing, wildly disparate albums from 2021 with this sonic head punch. The bulk of the collection is occupied by the titular Alex Mincek piece, an epic assemblage of biting lines that prod, grind, and saw, transforming lean materials into maximalist power. Like Luigi Nono’s classic “Hay Que Caminar,” (“You Must Walk”), the title is taken from the same Antonio Machado poem (“Caminate, no hay camino”), and it reflects its meditation on how every path we traverse brings something new. Over the course of 28 transformative, richly grained, microtonal moments, slowly altered gestures reveal fresh perspectives, all of which makes the bittersweet tenderness during the final six moments even more powerful. Lou Bunk’s five-movement “Field” deftly plays with patterns of silence, exploring how the absence of sound transforms musical passages—extended techniques to generate glistening harmonics and grinding scratch tones—that reappear in changed iterations over time. The album closes with an early work from Catherine Lamb called “(in) tone,” a typically slow-moving, close-up study of dense harmony and beating patterns sluiced by chunks of silence. All three pieces revel in the wide textural range of the violin.
Four String Quartets
Compact Disc (CD)
This essential new recording features New York’s Momenta Quartet surveying each of Alvin Singleton’s string quartets, which span 42 years—1967 to 2019, the last of which this ensemble commissioned for its 15th anniversary. Each of these neatly contained works eschew the sort of conventional structures works for this configuration usually employ. Instead, they tell beautifully unfolding stories, like a sonic road trip past quietly evolving landscapes. The earliest piece, “String Quartet No. 1,” is unsurprisingly the most traditional-sounding entry, with elaborately detailed contrapuntal scaffolding containing elegant passages that toggle between bittersweet romanticism, knotty pizzicato, and slaloming lines of emotional ambiguity. “Secret Desire to Be Black,” commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 1988, cycles through repeating sequences marked by subtly shifting change, building into a strident fury released by a needling violin figure and a sudden calm, slowly winding down into unexpected serenity. My favorite work is “Some We Can” from 1994—an homage to the singer Marian Anderson—which offers a thrilling rollercoaster ride of slashing high-velocity lines. A head-snapping descent into an ominous stillness heralds the return of even more thrilling locomotion, with sustained tones and lyric swells following later. Singleton’s sense of scale and proportion are remarkable. “Hallelujah Anyhow” engages in a similarly jagged, wildly dynamic experience.
Michael Francis Duch
mind is moving (IV)
2 x Vinyl LP
Norwegian bassist Michael Francis Duch delivers the first recording of an early, infrequently performed work by Michael Pisaro-Liu, a minimal 1996 composition called mind is moving (IV) that finds the composer at his most Cagean. He created an array of 60 sounds for the instrument, with the performer choosing at least 30 of them in any sequence, one for each minute of the hour-long performance. Each softly-voiced pizzicato gesture is brief and direct. Within the Nidaros Cathedral, the Trondheim church where Duch played the work around midnight one August evening in 2019, the decay of each tone occupies as much or more space than the attack. The ambient sounds of the church exert a subtle presence in contrast with each of Duch’s gestures, giving each sound an elegant profundity, with an ordering of sounds be unlikely to be replicated The music requires a certain degree of surrender on the part of the listener, achieving a Zen-like contemplation that brings each fragile detail greater depth and meaning.
Katelyn Clark & Isaiah Ceccarelli
Compact Disc (CD)
On his superb 2019 album, Bow, Montréal composer and percussionist Isaiah Ceccarelli bookended the collection with a pair of elusive organ-percussion duos played with Katelyn Clark. Now they’re back with a full-blown collaboration, a series of expansive explorations where the timbres of each of their instruments collide beautifully, glowing, breathing, and billowing. The duo creates through improvisation, refining and honing spontaneous ideas into self-contained wonders. Nearly every struck or bowed sound Ceccarelli produces—he also adds some extra keyboards in lieu of percussion on some pieces—seems to resonate with the organ, even the cumulous puffs on a bass drum, and those glimmering sounds seem a bit camouflaged by the tremulous swells produced by Clark. Yet they also stand on their own as a kind of occasional foreground activity that decorates the massive organ chords. In percussion-free pieces like “Landmarks” and “Distances,” measured long tones flow, ripple, and quietly abrade. Whether we’re enveloped by richly striated drones or feeling the friction between resonant objects, few experiences this year have delivered such a profound blend of hypnosis, mystery, and lush beauty.
Composers Inside Electronics
David Tudor’s Rainforest IV
Compact Disc (CD)
Pianist and composer David Tudor originally created his classic live electronics piece Rainforest in 1968 for choreographer Merce Cunningham, an abstract adaptation of sound he encountered in the Olympia National Forest growing up. He designed a number of amplified objects that cumulatively but very much non-literally approximated the lush ambiance of a natural ecosystem. Its richly evocative sound world made it a beloved piece, and after performing at a small New Hampshire festival in 1973, a group of young experimental composers and performers in the crowd worked with Tudor to create an ensemble version of the piece which became Rainforest IV. The performers, who played the work regularly, called themselves Composers Inside Electronics. This dazzling binaural recording of a 1977 performance at the University of California in San Diego—with a seven-member ensemble including Tudor, Bill Viola, Paul DeMarinis, and Phil Edelstein—attests to its broad, increasingly timeless appeal. The piece feels like a slice of time, as an electronic symphony chirps, gurgles, drips, and keens with no beginning or end. The listener is simply dropped into a magical dream world, surrounded by sounds both mysterious and comforting. Tudor’s masterpiece remains vital, a precursor to so many live electronics and ambient practices we hear today, and one that still trumps most of them.