ACL 2018 ~ Top Ten Modern Composition

When averaged, the Modern Composition category included not the most submissions, but the best.  We wish we could make this a list of 20, but then we’d have to double every list, and not every category features this many excellent releases in a given year.  Suffice it to say that the world of modern composition is in extremely good hands.  From conductors to composers to stage performers to studio musicians, the genre bursts with creative energy.  Some of our selections are solo efforts; others involve symphonies.  One album is dedicated to life, another to final words.  One was recorded on an Alpine hike; another was recorded, re-recorded and re-released and appears here in two forms.  And now, in alphabetical order, A Closer Listen presents the best modern composition albums of 2018!

Daniel Bjarnason ~ Collider (Bedroom Community)
There’s little doubt that Bjarnason’s music is truly new, wielding all sorts of styles into a dazzling, emotional force comparable to the grandiosity of the late romantics’ orchestrations. There’s no resource forbidden or alien to this composer, from the narrative and textural use of choir in “The Isle Is Full Of Noises” (in the second part, it even sounds like a modernist’s reinterpretation of a Greek mode) to the expressively muddled minimalism of the middle of “Collider”. Bjarnason is blazing a path in modern composition, one whose simultaneous accessibility and profundity renders the genre wide open for all sorts of preferences, from the avant-garde to the pop-inclined.  (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Ben Chatwin ~ Staccato Signals (Village Green Recordings)
Along with its companion Drone Signals, this album grows with sharp tones and dissonant soundscapes, all of its geographical references (titles such as “Silver Pit”, “Fossils”, “Substrates”) a dramatic buildup of a sublime place. Like a storm or the roaring open sea, Staccato fields small dynamic elements (a short drone here, a tortured string melody there) that suddenly illuminate a vast, dark panorama, using the particular in small ways to indicate a grand, melancholic entity of which we only see a flash. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review (Staccato Signals) / Original Review (Drone Signals)

Manu Delago ~ Parasol Peak (One Little Indian)
We’re not accustomed to albums recorded live during hiking trips. Part conceptual project and part triumph of human endurance, on Parasol Peaks, Delago led six musicians, with instruments in tow, on a grueling trip in the Alps. Each track tells the story of one leg of the journey, from mountain base, “Parasol Woods,” to summit, “Parasol Peak.” The album opens by strutting like a marching band; carrying steel drums, brass horns, flutes, and even a cello (?!), the pace slows as the snowfall thickens and the air thins. Delago revisits a music theme from the opening track throughout the album as the hikers ascend, tweaking the formerly cheery melody with shades of doubt and burnout. But don’t worry, it all ends well; the hikers reach base camp, alive and delighted—and, yes, more than a little tired. While Delago and company packed mittens and a thermos, thanks to director Johannes Aitzetmüller’s video documentary, we’re invited to celebrate the journey in our homes, marveling at their accomplishment.  (Todd B. Gruel)

Original Review

Floex & Tom Hodge ~ A Portrait of John Doe (Mercury KX)
Is ‘John Doe’ the everyman or the nobody? Three years in the making, this remarkable collaboration of electronics and modern composition sweeps us initially through mechanical dances of drum grooves and bouncing synths, before guiding us into cinematic embraces that darken the tone. Interrupting this arc are moments of histrionics – crackling noise, stabbing beats. Full of playfulness, sorrow and menace, A Portrait of John Doe is ultimately for everybody – a warning against the unceasing pursuit toward efficiency and uniqueness at any cost. The irony of this record’s wonderful uniqueness is not lost. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Original Review

Masayoshi Fujita ~ Book of Life (Erased Tapes)
Book of Life is an album that just sounds gorgeous from beginning to end – primarily because Masayoshi Fujita puts his vibraphone playing front and centre and surrounds it with sympathetic string and choral arrangements. Rich in detail and melody, these ten compositions have numerous layers to them, yet feel lighter than air – a singular achievement.(Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Kaada ~ Closing Statements (Mirakel)
This album scores on two counts: firstly, Norwegian composer John Erik Kaada has created an engaging and refreshing sequence of pieces that beguile from the opening notes to the final fade.  Secondly, although not composing to a brief, Kaada’s inspiration – famous last words – makes for a fascinating hook to hang the work on.  It wears the concept lightly but feels like a work that will have real longevity.  (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Lubomyr Melnyk ~ Fallen Trees (Erased Tapes)
For these fallen trees, death wasn’t the end. When Melnyk, looking out of his train window somewhere in the wilds of Europe, saw an entire colony on its knees, senselessly slaughtered, the composer inwardly noted their glowing apearance, resonating with golden light. Melnyk’s music is both an epitaph and a resurrection. The composer has the utmost respect for his environment, and his playing shows no signs of slowing down. The air is melancholic, but the music doesn’t suffer the threat of deforestation; his continuous piano music is as rich and as populated as ever. The trees gave life and helped to sustain it. The people who received its gifts murdered a life-giver. In 2018, more of a focus on environmental awareness was required, and Fallen Trees did just that, planting new seeds of thought in secret ground.  (James Catchpole)

Original Review

Jessica Moss ~ Entanglement (Constellation)
Jessica Moss’ second solo full-length happily comes relatively close on the heels of her debut (which we loved), and follows the same format of two side-long compositions. “Particles” slowly builds into a masterpiece of modern composition using its 20+ minutes to great impact. Even at its grandest, her sound never feels excessive. The four “Fractals (Truth #)” on side B showcase a different mode of Moss’ artistry, more compact  compositions drawing on melodies from Klezmer, Balkan, and Middle Eastern music. The violin dominates as the main instrument throughout but Moss’ voice is no less important. Where the long “Particles” is comprised by a swell of minimal drones and oscillating texture, the “Fractals” feature more traditional violin tones, made more complex by the interplay between melodic lines. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review

Michael Price ~ Tender Symmetry (Erased Tapes)
Lovely, lilting and ultimately transportive, Tender Symmetry is evidence of a composer at the top of his craft.  Tender Symmetry features Grace Davidson (the soprano from Max Richter’s Sleep), the Shards choir (from Nils Frahm’s All Melody), Peter Gregson and a host of other musicians.  But it’s much more than an album; the music was recorded at various National Trust locations in the U.K. and inspired by those locales.  There’s tender symmetry in all these connections, and in this recording, Price captures lightning in a bottle.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Rhian Sheehan ~ A Quiet Divide (Aot(ear)oa/Loop Recordings)
It’s hard to believe but there was a five year gap between Rhian Sheehan’s studio albums although he kept busy with a steady output of film and installation work. It’s good to have him back, though, with a release that tips the hat to all the genres we love from understated drone to epic post-rock. The variety of styles encompassed and the mixed emotions described in the titles suggest this could have been a real hodgepodge. Instead it’s simply outstanding. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

One comment

  1. Pingback: 2018 Best of Lists from Around the Web: Part VII – Avant Music News

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