The taxonomy of contemporary classical music—new music, contemporary music, whatever you want to call it—is a thorny issue. That ambiguity makes rating the year’s best offerings difficult, if not impossible, but embracing the big picture of musical diversity these 10 albums, listed alphabetically, have delivered all year long—they provided excitement, asked questions, and delivered disparate sorts of beauty. These are the best contemporary classical albums of 2018.
Erik Carlson and Greg Stuart
Eva-Maria Houben: Duos
German composer Eva-Maria Houben is a leading light of the Wandelweiser Collective, a bold post-Cagean network who often embody these thoughts of hers: “Music may exist ‘between’: between appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence, as something ‘nearly nothing.’” These four pieces for violinist Erik Carlson and percussionist Greg Stuart—the latter a trusted collaborator of the best known Wandelweiser figure in the U.S., Michael Pisaro—are deliriously minimal, with scores that sketch out only the most basic of precepts. The score for the piece “Duo II,” for instance, is some prescribed pitches and loose instructions, like “a drone, rarely interrupted (perhaps only once) for a while.” These demand the performers make plenty of choices on their own (much like Cage’s work), and the musicians have clearly spent a great deal of time developing each piece for maximum impact. That said, this is music that demands full immersion in its resonant universe, where extended notes, mostly voiced by Carlson, unfold leisurely, taking their time to explore a microscopic sonic environment: one that almost puts the focus on the silence between tones, more than what the musicians themselves are producing.
Michael Gordon: Sonatra
Over the last few decades, New York composer Michael Gordon has steadfastly advanced the cause of classic minimalism, following in the footsteps of Glass, Reich, and Reilly. But nothing he’s ever done has riveted me like Sonatra, a demanding solo piano gem in sonata form—actually “somewhere between sonata and Sinatra,” the composer has written—played here by Vicky Chow of Bang on a Can All-Stars. Long skeins of notes cascade down the length of the piano in major and minor third intervals, in breathlessly exhilarating fashion; with each cycle, the patterns begin to shift almost imperceptibly. During the second section, Chow digs into the right side of the piano, delivering glassy notes with numbing precision—there’s a jazz-like virtuosity in the percussiveness—and when notes begin heading downward, there’s the sensation of Nat King Cole’s charming melodic touch, albeit with a razor-like drive and maniacal, tightly-coiled heft.
Describing his own piece, Gordon has written, “Eventually they start cascading and intersperse with glissandos half the length of the keyboard, sounding to me like the performer has at least four hands.” It’s an accurate observation. The second half of the album contains the same piece, played on a piano using just intonation: a melding of two different just tunings, developed by keyboardist Wendy Carlos. For ears used to Western tuning, this system always sounds a bit off at first, but as the piece gallops along, the listener adjusts, and begins to absorb mind-warping psychoacoustic effects that recast the piece in a whole new light.
We Who Walk Again
This spry New York group takes serious inspiration from the Deep Listening philosophy of Pauline Oliveros. The album includes a rambunctious version of Oliveros’s 1980 text score “Angels & Demons,” and the ensemble’s interpretation of her directive to represent “collective guardian spirits” is manifested in an appealingly loose set of overlapping, gently discordant long tones, occasionally ruptured by knotty bass rumbling that slowly intensifies. The general drone is steadily punctured by internal skirmishes between the instruments—sometimes fricative, sometimes piercing. Strings, accordion, and reeds coalesce in wonderfully sour harmonies—a collective move that still allows for each instrumentalist to freely express their individual personalities. The album opens with “60 Degree Mirrors,” a wonderful work by the group’s oboist Sky Macklay that draws inspiration from “geometric-mosaic patterns.” The work toggles between sustained astringent pitches highlighted by serene, rippling waves and stirring, ominous surges of sound. The combined effect delivers a woozy merry-go-round effect, a warped ride both exhilarating and a bit scary. They conclude with “Wind People,” a massive drone of lapidary detail by the group’s accordionist Ben Richter, that thrums, throbs, and glides with surging and ebbing density.
Influence of Buildings on Musical Tone
On this dazzling portrait-cum-album, the young Icelandic composer Thrainn Hjalmarsson expands ideas he gleaned from a 1927 essay—which gives the collection its title—by a British architect and theoretician about the relationship between sound and architecture. Its ideas are put into practice on the title piece, magnificently performed by Caput Ensemble; all five pieces are performed primarily by musicians from the composer’s homeland. The sounds found here approximate the sonic properties of a traditional Iceland turf house, with harmonic-laced arco lines, some bristling with dissonance, others snaking in the upper registers, engaged in an exploration of a confined space. The sounds produced by the 12-member Icelandic Flute Ensemble on “Grisaille” are no less arresting. The title refers to a painting method where grey monochrome imitates the dimensions of sculpture, and the bracing harmonies of clustered flutes portray something ominous, shadowed by slightly ethereal washes that do nothing to alleviate the exquisite tension. “Persona” is a solo piece for the remarkable cellist Kristín Haraldsdóttir that navigates a series of abrasive tones marbled generously with silence—a transmission from beyond that again makes stunning use of space. “Mise en Scène,” performed by the German-Iceland group Ensemble Adapter, blends percussive thwacks, unpitched breaths, ghostly flutes, and dynamic scratches, while the closing piece, “Lucid/Opaque” calls on the wonderful musicians of the Nordic Affect collective to articulate its elliptical, aerated melody. A real knockout.
Julius Eastman Piano Interpretations
The resurrection and rediscovery of the powerful music composed by Julius Eastman—a gay African-American composer who died penniless and homeless in 1990—has been one of the great stories in contemporary classical music over the last few years, and this dynamic Swiss four-piano ensemble has added fuel to the movement with this stunning collection. The Kukuruz Quartet features four of Switzerland’s boldest new music pianists, and while they didn’t form with the goal of tackling Eastman’s work, it has become something of a mission for them. This beautifully recorded effort allows the rhythmic vitality and electric dynamics of Eastman’s work to seethe, simmer, and explode. His “Fugue no. 7” aims to capture the ringing of European church bells ricocheting across a town with four pianos, and the massive gap between the piano’s high and low ends is masterfully exploited to such a purpose; the low end hits here like a crushing bomb. There’s almost a punk fury to the way one of the ensemble numbers counts off out loud (as Eastman did in his own recording) between sections of the furious yet transcendent epic “Evil N**ger,” as waves of meticulously registered lines send sonic shockwaves that practically thrust the listener backwards. On the other hand, “Buddha” is a work of stunning fragility, with inside-the-piano machinations that whisper. The album concludes with a masterful reading of Eastman’s classic “Gay Guerrilla.”
Georg Friedrich Haas: Trois Hommages
Chicago pianist Mabel Kwan, a core member of Ensemble Dal Niente, brings a crisp, patient precision to these three solo pieces by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, composed between 1982-84—presented here, on record for the very first time. All three works employ two separate pianos, each played with one of the performer’s hands, tuned a quarter-tone apart to produce a 24-note scale—a simultaneous embrace of an even temperament and a rejection of its limitations. Each study is dedicated to an important 20th century composer. The monumental Hommage à György Ligeti offers a pummeling exercise in rhythm; as Kwan hammers through a series of dyads and chords with forceful staccato, the harmony of the two instruments cycles through moments of clarity and dissonance. Hommage à Josef Matthias Hauer offers a dramatic shift toward the elegiac, saluting the fellow Austrian who developed a 12-tone theory just prior to Schoenberg. As the piece unfolds, elegant arpeggios gently extend from five notes at the start to eight by the climax, one section at a time, with the trickle of sounds underlining the peculiarities of the tuning, producing effects ranging from sweet to deliciously sour. (At the end, it almost sounds like Kwan is playing an inside-out boogie-woogie.) The album closes with another thrumming composition, Hommage à Steve Reich, which deftly embraces the American minimalist’s trademark exploration of polyrhythm.
Violinist Josh Modney has consistently demonstrated jaw-dropping technical skill and deep, exploratory impulses through his work in Wet Ink Ensemble, Mivos Quartet, International Contemporary Ensemble, and alongside Zs guitarist Patrick Higgins, but he outdoes himself on this powerful solo effort. Modney organized the double-album into three discrete programs, all utterly astonishing. The first includes some dazzling interactive components, such as Sam Pluta’s reactive electronics on “Jem Altieri With a Ring Modulator Circuit,” where acoustic and electronic sounds dance in wild, breathtaking patterns, or the way Kate Soper’s voice virtually becomes one with Modney’s violin on her “Cipher.” The second program opens with a transformation of Bach’s “Ciaccona” in just intonation, followed by the duo piece “the children of fire come looking for fire” by and with Modney’s Wet Ink collaborator, pianist Eric Wubbels, also in just intonation. Both pieces are physically demanding, and produce wild psychoacoustic effects. The collection concludes with five solo improvisations where Modney pushes the boundaries of his instrument and his body without any kind of treatments, alternate tunings, or editing. As a whole, the album stands as powerful testimony to sound-seeking by one of today’s most intrepid experimentalists.
Doug Perkins and Karl Larson
Robert Honstein: An Economy of Means
These two gorgeous works by Robert Honstein present a kind of minimalist composition that refuses to be limited by austerity. The title piece is a stunning vehicle for percussionist Doug Perkins, exclusively playing the vibraphone here. The six exquisite movements alternate between deeply contemplative, glacially slow passages with billowing, ghostly overtones, meticulously produced by both precise mallet work and luxuriant bowing, while other movements cleave to a more kinetic sort of minimalism, with technically complex cycling patterns. Occasionally, Perkins prepares his instrument with sheets of tin foil—producing a wonderful, subtle buzz like the sound of a West African mbira—and even manila folders, which provide a damping effect. Elsewhere, he bangs his mallets on the outer frame of the instrument to create a clanky sound, with each extended technique deftly enfolded into the orderly flow. Grand Tour is performed with equal poise by pianist Karl Larson. The seven-movement piece reflects on the composer’s time in Venice, Italy, but it’s less about a tourist’s visit than a complicated, internal dialogue with the city. The composition is bookended by two versions of “Per,” a fragile string of haunting single notes that hang in the air precariously, but then Larson bangs out the steeplechase motion of “Strada Nuova,” setting up a toggling action between spare melancholy and churning movement.
For more than a decade, composer and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey has artfully and convincingly forged deep connections between improvisational practice and rigorous composition, often restraining his powerful performances in service of the ensemble-oriented explorations of his sublime trio with pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini. He ups the ante in a big way on Pillars, a triple-album, featuring three-hour-plus iterations of the titular piece magnificently brought to life by an agile, elastic octet. While there’s no missing the profound influence of like-minded pioneers such as Anthony Braxton and Bill Dixon, Sorey stakes out his own turf. The music flows through seductively languid sequences that bleed organically into one another. The ensemble emphasizes a visceral low-end presence, with no less than four bassists (Joe Morris, Carl Testa, Zach Rowden, and Mark Helias), to say nothing of sporadic bursts of thunderous drumming. This is all patiently embroidered by the spiky guitar of Todd Neufeld, the fat-tone trombone gurgles and cries of Ben Gerstein (and, at times, the composer himself), and tart smears of sound from trumpeter Stephen Haynes. The ensemble’s improvisatory excellence accordingly complements Sorey’s deft, masterfully plotted structural elements, enabling the producer to make another dazzling leap forward in a storied career already punctuated by impressive accomplishments.
Images of Duration
The New York ensemble Yarn/Wire—the quartet of pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu, and percussionists Russell Greenberg and Ian Antonio—tackle one of the most fascinating and ambitious works in their compelling repertoire. This is a new piece by Alex Mincek of Wet Ink Ensemble. Images of Duration, which takes its title from writings by philosopher Henri Bergson, explores the ways humans perceive time and objects in shifting ways over extended durations—with changing scale and understanding. Barger and Yu tuned their respective pianos a quarter tone apart from the other (which results in unusual harmonics), while percussionists Greenberg and Antonio deploy tuned gongs, air canisters, waterphones, white noise machines, and even baby monitors, in addition to standard drums, tuned percussion, and chimes.
As a whole, the hour-long piece covers vast terrain, nearly all of it riddled with exquisite tension—in both the most quiet, fragile passages and the most tumultuous, punishing ones. Mincek dedicates the piece to painter Ellsworth Kelly, known for his two-dimensional landscapes where depth occasionally surfaces through the use of reliefs, and the music mirrors that methodology, with sustained, ominous expanses of sound marked by sudden, fleeting instrumental eruptions. The way it’s paced allows the listener to bask in those shifts, sensing the overarching connectivity of the soundscape while highlighting the changes in perspective as it all unfolds. Even beyond that exercise in perception, the actual sounds, motion, and structure offer a thrilling experience.