This year’s most competitive category overflows with life, even though some of its subject matter is death. This is a golden era for modern composition, which borrows from its ancestors in classical music but pushes it forward for newer generations. While listening, one can hear the drama and emotion of great literature and cinema, etched in vinyl grooves and preserved in zeroes and ones. Violins and cellos are everywhere, tugging at the heartstrings. In the hands of these composers, even darkness sounds like light. This year, they provided us with exactly what we needed to hear.
And now A Closer Listen presents the Top Ten Modern Composition Albums of 2016!
Christine Ott ~ Only Silence Remains (Gizeh)
I firmly believe that Only Silence Remains is one of the most hopeful albums of the year, in that post-rock ‘tiny lights vs. infinite darkness forever’ kind of hope that opposes the collectivity of mourning to the solitude of death. A crushing oppression brings us together, little stars in the vast nothingness, not as survivors (that great fantasy of the powerful) but as witnesses: of each other’s love, of each other’s sadness, of each other’s joy in being together as we all watch the night’s enclosure. It will leave nothing standing but our silence, that great refusal of the noise of man-made death, the silence of a life that never yielded to forgetfulness, that never renounced the happiness of friendship, that always doubted every single step forward for fear of giving in. Disaster will come, but we will be there to face it, each and every one of us. (David Murrieta)
Colin Stetson ~ Sorrow: a reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony (52Hz)
This reverent interpretation of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs breathes astonishing life into the Polish composer’s lamentation on war and death. With a motley cast from fellow Canadian heavyweights to his own sister on soprano, Stetson retains the repetitive arrangements of the three-movement original while imbuing them with louder crescendos courtesy of tremolo guitars and crashing drums. A vital collision of classical and metal-leaning post-rock, culminating in a wonderful coda whose vocals, despite their sorrow, reach to the sanguine. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Dakota Suite | Vampillia ~ The Sea Is Never Full (Karaoke Kalk)
This patient, heartfelt reflection of Japan’s Fukushima disaster begins like a lullaby, only to suddenly descend into chaos. In this recording, the artists rail against the abyss; they plumb the depths of their own mortality; and most of all, they present a cathartic suite that serves as a tribute to the victims and a solace to the survivors. To listen is to pass through the stages of grief. (Richard Allen)
Jherek Bischoff ~ Cistern (Leaf)
Cistern is a patiently-paced set that reflects Bischoff’s time improvising in an (empty) underground water tank. Yet the actual recording was anything but isolated, as the artist recruited an astonishing 26 guest musicians to help realize his vision. The title piece is the highlight, but the album is best played as a continuous suite; it sparkles like a vein of gold in an un-excavated rock and possesses a similar worth. (Richard Allen)
Kjartan Sveinsson ~ Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen (Vinyl Factory/Bel-Air Glamour)
Is there life after Sigur Rós? Yes, absolutely, as Kjartan Sveinsson proves with this astonishing Icelandic opera, based on Halldór Laxness’ novel World Light. The title (in English, The Explosive Sonics of Divinity) highlights the connection between music and spirituality, offering a sonic reflection of the famous prose. Looking back on our lives, we may realize that the light once shone, and may be shining still. (Richard Allen)
Ólafur Arnalds ~ Island Songs (Mercury Classics)
The album was released over the course of seven weeks, one video and song each week until the set was complete. (The CD includes an eighth.) As the artist traveled around his native Iceland, we traveled with him, meeting friends and family and experiencing beautiful collaborative sounds. The beauty of the country shines through, along with the music. Now the entire project is available on CD/DVD: a wonderful keepsake of a vicarious summer. (Richard Allen)
Pauline Oliveros & Musiques Nouvelles ~ Four Meditations / Sound Geometries (Sub Rosa)
Oliveros’ passing was a great loss for avant-garde music, but hopefully albums like this one signal that there is still a great deal of interest in her work. Composed of two reworked pieces, Four Meditations and Sound Geometries highlight the intense tri-alogue that develops from the encounter of different listening perspectives: players amongst themselves and listeners with players, making sounds into an almost accidental feature of music itself. The meditations open up speech to this sculptural moment of attention while the geometries explore sound’s relationship to space, whether a concert room or an ear canal, and they enable questions around the act of listening that cannot be reduced to the physical or the philosophic: it is boundlessly experienced. (David Murrieta)
Roger Goula ~ Overview Effect (Cognitive Shift Recordings)
We knew something special was in the works when we heard Roger Goula’s debut single, “Awe”, whose finale is one of the best of any track this year. The single’s title encapsulates our feeling for the album, whose string quartet features ACL favorite Peter Gregson. The album imagines the feeling of being in space looking back on earth, the “pale blue dot.” The songs are weightless, rising into the heavens like pioneers. When we return home, we’ll do so with new perspective. (Richard Allen)
Sophie Hutchings ~ Wide Asleep (Preservation)
The wonderfully cool, moonlit piano music of Sydney’s Sophie Hutchings is kind and serene. Her enchanted music unfolds with a fabulous mysticism, making the music feel like a magical fairy tale. There are plenty of stars to wish on at this time of night, and her music hints at bigger things surrounding and passing this little blue orb. Your dreams will come true. (James Catchpole)
Tilman Robinson ~ Deer Heart (Hobbledehoy)
There’s nothing else quite like Deer Heart. Thanks to Tilman Robinson’s unique approach and styling, the music occasionally leans towards the experimental, but it’s also a tender, emotionally-strung record. Something’s in the process of decline, be it a relationship or the self, with tense strings fatiguing under the weight of frustration. A hurt spirit makes for some noticeable tension. A venomous temper gushes from the open wound before slowly resigning towards sadness, ruminating on romance as it writes an open letter; a parting wish for happiness, wherever that someone may be, and signed with the words I love you, sweetheart. (James Catchpole)
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