European modernism stands as the genesis for some of the most important trends in 20th century experimental music. Process-driven composition, chaotic atonality and electronic music (among many other styles) all rose out of this movement. Contemporary composers inevitably find themselves drawn to the landmark works of the modernist artists. Fittingly, the insular electronic label Unexplained Sounds Group has collected 14 of its artists to assemble a sort of rehashing of modernism’s ideas. To the compilation’s benefit, the music here is more than just a revision of modernist styles, and the best parts of the New Modernism showcase a means of looking at the past that’s more than just isolating and worshiping the music of our predecessors.
Like the first iteration of modernism, one of the stunning characteristics of New Modernism is its stylistic diversity. Stephono-ZIP’s early highlight, “Orango tango,” recalls Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète experiments, but with an updated sense of humor. Samples from the titular genre phase in and out of eerie, oscillating tones, and the fleeting references to a rhythmic dance remain jarring against the outlandish contrasting music. Later, Julien Palomo’s “Saliva Sample 8” offers one of the album’s most arresting moments. The swirling pattern that repeats throughout plays against pulsing low tones and abrasive static. The quick-shifting nature of this track constantly disrupts any conventional cohesion, but the overtly over-the-top nature allows Palomo to provide an easy in to the otherwise difficult music.
Within this wide variety are a few key similarities that hold New Modernism together. One is a reverence for artists like Autechre, Mego-affiliates from the early 2000s and, of course, Stockhausen. Being able to point to specific moments and recall the early works of Fennesz or the stranger parts of Confield not only provide helpful reference points, but affirm that each artist understands their history and musical inheritance. More than this, the playful attitude of each track keeps all the music from becoming too self-serious. The straight-faced inclusion of campy MIDI textures on Orfeon Gagarin’s “Kedrmusik VIII” helps soften the harsh textures, and the science-fiction synthesizers on the following track (TRI:.OBYTE’s “Visitation”) create a relatable mental visual that much modernist music evaded in a search for the impossible “music for music’s sake.”
While some of the excess here is wonderful, New Modernism’s finest moments come from composers who expertly harness subtlety. On the surface, JS-Horseman’s “iV” appears to have no momentum, but closer focus reveals the small but powerful ascent of the music. The constantly shifting harmonic rhythm allows the energy and emotion to build to a peak. In a different vein, the densely layered collage of sounds Dariusz Jackowski’s “Preparative ultracentrifuge” uses small shifts in timbre, register and volume to create a sound world all its own. In these more nuanced moments, the echoes of a modernist like Anton Webern show themselves. By cutting away any bombast, the musicians leave more room for moments of contemplation.
Outside of a few lackluster cuts (Peri Esvultras’s somewhat aimless “Osmium Wedding Ring” and ZUMAIA’s lackluster, awkward incorporation of a Charles Bukowski poem on “a lot of young men” ), this compilation offers a lengthy, heady excursion into peak-quality experimental electronic music. Regardless of whether these artists have anything to do with a new wave of modernism or not, they nonetheless showcase a niche, practiced style of composition that sounds wholly of the present. (Connor Lockie)