Piano piano. This Italian expression, meaning “slowly”, is a good summation of my year. If I wasn’t working slow enough already, then spending three months in Italy certainly didn’t inspire me to move any faster.
2018 was an unusual year for me. My partner and I have been living an itinerant lifestyle since leaving Minneapolis in mid-May, mostly back and forth between New York, Montreal, and Napoli. Because we’ve been moving around so much, I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of memorable performances and exhibitions over the past 12 months, for which I am truly grateful. But traveling (and writing my dissertation) has also disrupted my ability to dedicate time to music writing, to plan very far ahead, to be a regularly part of any community, and indeed to focus on much else at all.
Below are some reflections on some of my favorite things from 2018, including a selection of records I wish I had been able to find time to write about. 2019 will be much the same, but I’ll do my best to find new ways to share and promote music I believe in. And in any case, ACL is a community, and one that keeps growing. We reached more readers and listeners than ever before in 2018. We started an Instagram last spring, so if you’re into that, follow us at @acloserlisten. Collectively we all have a lot in store for you this year, and as always we warmly invite all our readers to be as active as you’d like in this community: read, comment, share, send us mixes you’ve made, send us your music for review, whatever, even just reach out and let us know you’re out there. Thanks for listening. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Patricia Kopatchinskaja‘s performance of Luigi Nono’s La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura actually took place in 2017, on 26 October, but I neglected to mention it in my review column last year, and Kopatchinskaja’s movements through Nono’s score and the galleries of the Walker Art Center have stayed with me ever since.
In Brooklyn, in November of 2017, I caught one of the final shows of the most recent incarnation of Swans, and it seemed to me like perhaps stopping was the right call. I was similarly disappointed by Godspeed when I saw them in Chicago in March 2018. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but perhaps there’s something about Trump’s America that made them seem more impotent rather than cathartic. Or maybe it was less them and more us, the crowd. Either way, more than ever I feel like we need to stop fixating on the old guard, and I am approaching 2019 searching for the new.
That said, sometimes the old can still feed very contemporary. John Zorn‘s “Cobra” may be as old as I am, but the woman-led performance at National Sawdust in June made it feel fresher than ever, with performers including Annie Gosfield, Okkyung Lee, and Ikue Mori.
In Napoli, I attended an evening of the films (and music) of Phill Niblock and Katherine Liberovskaya, and was hypnotized by the effect of their work. Each produce work that, in different ways, might be described as visual drone. One understands immediately how the duration of the film will play out, but this isn’t a detriment. For instance, in Liberovskaya’s work, with a score by Niblock, we see grains of rice removed off-screen one by one, or ice cubs in a sink slowly melting. This is not film-making driven by plot, but an exploration of time and gesture.
And how could I forget! I spent two wonderful nights in Torino for Ambienti Digitali, part of the Today’s Festival, curated by Riccardo Giovinetto. Held apart from the main stages, Ambienti Digitali took place in (what I believe was) a former carpet factory soon to be converted into a museum, a suitably minimal space for performances by Philip Jeck, Fabio Perlatta, Simon Scott, and the mighty Giuseppe Ielasi. While we’d met before, this was the first time I’d seen Ielasi perform, and he did not disappoint. His work was raw and yet very refined, sometimes forceful and seemingly effortless. At times it felt like he was playing very stripped down Inventing Masks tracks, or half-speed cuts from Aix. The ex-factory was also the site of the installation Touch Movement, showcasing work on the Touch label.
While in Berlin, I witnessed impressive solo performances by Clarice Jensen and Svarte Greiner in the remarkable Musikbrauerei venue. And I fondly recall a memorable evening at Cafe OTO in London, a Fort Process Dispersion event featuring Isnaj Dui, Merkaba Macabre, and Clive Bell & David Ross. It was also a pleasure to finally meet Kate Carr IRL. I’ve already written (much too) extensively about my experience at 2018’s Unsound festival in Krakow, but suffice to say it was a highlight.
My new podcast Sound Propositions will be dropping soon. I’ve been hard at work on the first half dozen or so episodes since October, and I am very excited to finally share some interviews and music from an incredible range of artists.
2018 also saw the milestone 100th LCNL mix, and the release of a new series, Inverted Microphones. Giovanni Lami kicked things off with Tapeocracy #1. More mixes fusing tapes and field recordings in Lami’s Tapeocracy series will follow, as well as mixes from guest artists exploring the diversity of field-recording practices.
My conversations with Nicola Ratti and Lawrence English were published this year as part of my semi-regular Sound Propositions column. You can expect the next installments featuring Félicia Atkinson and Sarah Davachi to arrive sometime in 2019.
My friend Matteo Uggeri interviewed me for his fantastic new blog Concrete Shelves. It was nice to be on the other side of an interiew. Forget about my ramblings if you wish, but please do yourself a favor and check out his interviews with an incredible cast of characters discussing their music collections.
On a more personal note, Stefan Christoff and I finally released our second tape with the support of Moon Villain. I’m so glad to be able to share it, especially now as it feels like such a winter-appropriate piece. I performed a solo improv set in Boston, as well as the presentation of a new work in progress at an art gallery there, a project I’m tentatively calling Ma(d)re Nostrx. I presented another iteration of this work live on CKUT in Montreal, and also performed with Stefan as a duo for a lovely house show. It was a real pleasure play alongside Julia Dyck and Amir Amiri for that.
How’s this for a concept?
Phantom Islands are artifacts of the age of maritime discovery and colonial expansion. During centuries of ocean exploration these islands were sighted, charted, described and even explored – but their existence has never been ultimately verified. Poised somewhere between cartographical fact and maritime fiction, they haunted seafarers’ maps for hundreds of years, inspiring legends, fantasies, and counterfactual histories. Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas interprets and presents these imaginations in the form of an interactive map which charts the sounds of a number of historical phantom islands.
Pekler’s website allows users to explore these cartographic anomalies, evoking the utopian fictions that animate Jon Hassell’s “Fourth World” music. Each navigator controls the course from one island to another, deciding how long to stay in one location and where to move to next. Manipulating the map (dragging this way or that, zooming in or out) gently alters the parameters of the music (spatialization, volume). Just navigate there right now if you haven’t explored his “sonic atlas” yet.
Re-Issue madness shows no sign of slowing down, and I’m still torn about what this means for music. On the one hand, many artists from earlier generations who have contributed so much to the culture have not been adequately remunerated for their work, and if re-issues are getting them paid and exposing their work to new generations (or in some cases finding audiences for the first time) then this is undoubtedly a good thing. But it also has become harder for contemporary artists to break out and find support for their own work, and I don’t want them to have to wait until a precarious retirement to find material rewards for their craft. So here’s my little plea: as much as you are able, support artists and culture workers whenever and wherever possible. And maybe we can together find better ways to support culture than selling ad-space or pimping unnecessary consumer goods.
Last year I celebrated the fact that the Italian musician Franco Battiato was finally reaching audiences in the US, as Superior Viaduct released four of his classic albums from the early 1970s on vinyl there for the first time. 2017 saw the re-release of Michele Fedrigotti and Danilo Lorenzini‘s I Fiori Del Sole (1979) and Giusto Pio‘s Motore Immobile (1979), two largely forgotten classics of Italian Minimalism. While Raul Lovisoni and Francesco Messina‘s masterpiece Prati Bagnati Del Monte Analogo (1979) likely hit many of your radars owing to Die Schachtel’s CD and LP editions from 2013, I know that Superior Viaduct’s 2018 LP release has raised the profile of that record in the US even higher. (As an aside, since this doesn’t seem to have been pointed out by anyone in English yet, I’d like to note that in the 1990s Lovisoni would become an MP for Lega Nord, a northern separatist party who built their brand on vilifying southern Italians and, especially in the last several years, immigrants from abroad. In their most recent incarnation as the Lega, 2018 saw the party become the dominant partner of a coalition which has been governing Italy since June of 2018. The fact that Lovisoni belongs to a racist and xenophobic political party strikes a somewhat dissonant tone.)
These three records records were all originally released in 1979 and produced by Battiato at the culmination of his experimentation with the avant-garde and minimalism. Battiato had spent the past five years working under the influence of mysticism, Stockhausen, and the political ferment of the 1970s. Battiato was closely associated with all of these artists, and listening to these three helps provide a key to unlocking his own records from that period (M.elle Le “Gladiator”, Franco Battiato, and L’Egitto Prima Delle Sabbie), which I suspect are due for the re-issue treatment soon enough.
A Few Labels
Surfing on the Soundcloud back in 2013 I came across a preview of Gonzo and Lowjo‘s The Trilogy Tapes NOISES(s), reminiscent of the kind of anything goes travel diaries Sublime Frequencies puts out, but totally doing their own thing. Label boss Gonçalo F Cardoso (Gonzo, Papillon, Visions Congo) has stayed on our radar ever since, and Discrepant has continued to impress with releases from the likes of Carlos Casas, Mike Cooper, and Kink Gong. 2018 was a particularly strong year. A few highlights…
Musique con Crète is Tasos Stamou‘s electroacoustic distillation of the past and future of the island of Crete, fusing traditional sounds, experimental manipulations, and field-recordings from the eastern corner of the Mediterranean. Props for the great pun.
Félix Blume presents listeners with a unique window into Haitian funeral rites on Death In Haiti (Funeral Brass Band & Sounds Of Port Au Prince).
Inkanakuntuby marked the full-length debut from Muqata’a, launching the beat driven sub-label SOUK Records. Formerly the MC known as Boikutt, part of the pioneering Palestinian hip hop crew Ramallah Underground, Muqata’a’s unique brand of production will make him a name to watch. Don’t take my word, a recent Boiler Room performance and documentary Palestine Underground should convince you, also spotlghting the Jazar Crew, DJ Sama, and Al Nather.
Spotify be damned! This Preservation imprint put out so many excellent releases in 2018, including from Lee Noble, Matthewdavid’s Mindflight, Caterina Barbieri, Upgrayedd Smurphy, and Cruel Diagonals, but you really can’t go wrong with any of their 4-release batches. Visually I’m reminded of Preservation’s Circa series, but with a different intent and greater sonic cohesion: each artist creates one long piece with the intent of deep immersion in sound. Subscribe if you can, and look out for an interview with label-head Andrew Khedoori sometime in the coming months.
Launched in 2006 by Hicham Chadly, an Algerian based in Cairo, Nashazphone has built up a reputation for their genre bending roster, spanning noise, psychedelic, punk, and free jazz. Early years saw releases from Alan Bishop’s Sun City Girls, later the early releases of Islam Chipsy (of the Mahraganat group E.E.K.), and more recently Sam Shalabi’s Isis and Osiris. As a vinyl only-label based in Egypt, their reach may not quite extend as far as it might otherwise, but this is also part of what makes them standout, with a clear aesthetic despite the stylistic diversity. In 2018 they released Bastet from Alberto Boccardi and Stefan Pilia. Boccardi has collaborated with a number of artists over the years, but his more recent experiences seem to have elevated his work with Stefano Pilia. Pilia is an eletroacoustic guitarist who has also done some impressive collaborations (Mike Watt, Oren Ambarchi, Z’ev) but I remember best from the criminally underrated group 3/4HadBeenEliminated (which also included Valerio Tricoli and Claudio Rocchetti). Highly recommend this LP, but all of Nashazphone’s 2018 records are worth seeking out: a mind bending debut of vocal tape manipulations from Olivier Brisson; Skullflower, a noisy psychedelic group who debuted in 1988 on the legendary Broken Flag; a very dark record from the French group Trou Aux Rats; and Sister Iodine, another obscure French noise group from the early 90s, reformed some years ago for the sporadic new album.
Giuseppe Ielasi‘s even when they speak of space was released rather late in 2017, so it’s still worth mentioning here. As his more beat-driven persona Inventing Masks has satisfied his rhythmic urges, Ielasi’s solo music has become sparser. Described simply as “music for whistling, microphone and digital degradation,” even when they speak of space comes with the instructions to be played at low volume. The title seems to be drawn from a line in the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 book The Poetics of Space, from a section entitled “Miniature.” This seems fitting for a record that takes questions of scale and space as a central concern. Its subtle layers of electronic manipulation are perhaps closest to Ielasi’s 2011 Untitled CD for Entr’acte, but even less assuming. Imagine if Luc Ferrari’s anecdotal music was listening in on our digital lives instead of the seashore, or if Jon Hassell’s fourth world manifested as an oasis of microphones and speakers.
Senufo did release two new CDs that actually did come out in 2018, both in the fall. Luciano Maggiore‘s 9 enclosures continues his electroacoustic research into sound diffusion, here in the form of cassette recorders and small electronics. Richard Francis‘s Combinations (3) may utilize modular synth processing of recordings of wind and objects (if “Wind Versus Bottle Tops” is any indication). The sources are not clear, but the result is 6 tracks of finely detailed sounds that you’ll want to keep on loop.
Some Other Records I Meant to Write About
Andrew Tasselmyer ~ Tines
This is a record dedicated to deep explorations of the Rhodes piano, but it sounds almost nothing like you would expect. It’s release in October of 2018 came late enough in the year that I wasn’t able to get to it before End of Year time set in, but some copies of the cassette are still available so jump on that. Tasselmeyr is one third of the group Hotel Neon, whose excellent mix “Cold Suns” we debuted back in February. Tasselmyer released a number of strong releases in 2018, but something about the intimacy and unusual perspective on the beautiful tones of the Rhodes keeps me coming back to Tines for repeated engagements.
Jean Grae & Quelle Chris ~ Everything’s Fine
We don’t normally cover lyric-oriented music here at ACL, and for this reason we don’t generally cover hip hop. That said, many of us are big fans, and for years now I’ve wanted to write about the relationship between hip hop production (instrumentals, the beat scene, trap) and experimental electronic music. Lee Bannon’s evolution into the Dedekind Cut is one obvious example of the flexibility here, but this overlap is nothing new. Let’s be honest, divisions between genres are more very often social than aesthetic. Just listen to the music of Public Enemy’s the Bomb Squad or J Dilla and you’ll find some of the most challenging and deep musical production anywhere. Gabe Bogart and I did team up for an instrumental hip hop mixes in 2013 to try to tease out some of that and maybe expose our listeners to music they might not otherwise be tuned-in to.
Jean Grae should need no introduction, she’s been at it so long and been killing it so consistently. She even appeared (over two decades ago) on the legendary taste making NYC radio program Stretch & Bobbito. Her long delayed Jeanius, produced with 9th Wonder and finally released in 2008, should have made her a household name. Despite her facility as an MC and producer, in recent year’s her musical output has taken a backseat as she pursues other creative endeavors, including audio-books and acting.
Quelle Chris popped up on my radar when he appeared on Knxwledge‘s Rap Joints Vol. 1 10″ in 2013, showing up as MC and producer with a who’s-who of contemporary talent: Iman Omari, Cavlier, DIBIA$E, Jonwayne, Pharoahe Monch, and the list goes on.
Everything’s Fine is the first full-length collaboration from the pair and from the day it dropped it’s been my most played release of 2018. Blasted from my Bluetooth speaker on my long daily bike commute in Minneapolis, in the car in New York, on my headphones around Europe, this album has seen me through all the ups and downs 2018 had to offer. Its dry humor, cutting satire, and genre-spanning beats have been the perfect companion to our increasingly unbelievable world. But everything’s fine, right?
Jon Hassell ~ Listening To Pictures (Pentimento Volume One)
Sly & Robbie finally released a record of their team up with Nils Petter Molvaer, Eivind Aarset, and Vladislav Delay with Nordub. And then Jon Hassell finally released his first record since 2009′ Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street and that cemented its place as my favorite tripped out trumpet record of 2018. It’s not really fair to compare them, and I recommend anyone pick them both up ASAP. That said, a new Jon Hassell record after nearly a decade really feels like an event, and the man’s still got it. His trademark sound is in tact but his current crop of collaborators keep him fresh and moving forward, striking a difficult balance between classic and contemporary. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another decade for Volume Two.
Kali Malone ~ Cast of Mind
Richard Allen was very impressed by Malone‘s Organ Dirges 2016-2017 (2018) but we never got around to a review, unfortunately. With a name like that, you can assume it’d be the kind of thing that would resonate us, and the Stockholm-based composer does not disappoint. Ascetic House affiliated and frequent Caterina Barbieri collaborator, Malone is one to watch. Cast of Mind appeared just two months afterward the tape release of Organ Dirges and bowled me over even harder. Low, sustained tones from alto sax, bass clarinet, bassoon, and trombone, ebb and slow alongside Malone’s Buchla. The A-side is more serene than the B-side, where her synth scrapes up against the acoustic instruments in a slightly more abrasive way. I take it the compositions are somehow process- or rule- based, but each of the four compositions unfolds organically and envelopes the listener without any sense of rigidity.
Maryam Sirvan ~ Untamed Terror
Tbilisi-based Maryam Sirvan is an Iranian sound artist and composer, member of the duo NUM. She brings her experience as a flautist and vocalist to her compositions. Untamed Terror consists of two tracks, the first in two parts, so each movement clocks in around 15 minutes. Her compositions are atmospheric, textured, deeply considered, and, just as often, deeply unsettling. One of the standout releases of 2018.
Nick Schofield ~ Water Sine
On the opposite end of the spectrum, and world away, comes Water Sine, the debut solo album from Montreal-based musician, producer, and radio host Nick Schofield. Schofield’s music is the result of a self-imposed minimal set up, just one synth and one pedal with the occasional nature recording. The 12 tracks of Water Sine each aim for a peaceful tranquility that inspires deep listening and contemplation. The accompanying video for video for “Isle of Skye” recalls the late Geoffrey Hendricks, and why not, there are few things more sublime than the movement of the clouds against the blue sky.
PJS ~ Sweet La Vie
PJS operate in a similar vein of peaceful and contemplative ambient music. The duo made their debut on Lost Children in 2015 presenting an all-hardware four-part suite of positive intentions and blissed out ambient straight from the very west coast of Canada. It was an honor to provide them a platform back then, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see them release the gorgeous Sweet La Vie on Leaving Records, a longtime favorite of mine. It’s really no surprise that they would find common ground with Matthewdavid, and they’ve got a lot more in store for you coming out soon. This record was timed to coincide with the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, while their Glows, released on Pyramid Blood, coincides with the Winter Solstice, the longest night. Such attunement to cosmic rhythms should tell you something about the nature of their music, but espite utilizing all electronic hardware and cosmic reference points, there’s is a firmly organic, earth-bound sound.
Sarah Hennies ~ Sisters
I’d heard a lot of mumbling that Hennies’ LP Embedded Environments was among the year’s best, composed of various percussion instruments played inside an old grain silo in Buffalo. But since I’ve been traveling I haven’t really been buying many LPs, as I couldn’t play them anyhow, and it’s not yet available on streaming platforms. But I did purchase Sisters, two compositions for vibraphone performed by Lenka Novosedlíková in a medieval church in southern Slovakia, and it is just beautiful.
I don’t watch a lot of TV and don’t generally encourage it, but just want to mention one series in particular that might be of interest due the contributions of a familiar name: the Netflix series Suburra: Blood on Rome (aka Suburra: La Serie) which was scored by Scott Morgan (Loscil). Morgan’s electronic motifs help tie together the disparate elements of the plot, which slowly converge as the series progresses.
Various crime families make deals (and come into conflict) over a proposed seaside redevelopment deal, revealing the ways the Vatican and the government are deeply implicated in all levels of corruption, which the protagonists resist or embrace to varying degrees. That said, this isn’t a mafia show but a good balance of character driven storytelling and a fascinating plot.
Walter Benjamin wrote almost 80 years that that “we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” Well, the massive abandoned and unfinished sports complex where the three young leads meet to conspire doesn’t even need to crumble to appear as a ruin. At least it’s found good use a set for a show about contemporary Italy’s continued struggles with crime and corruption.
I’ve been a regular comics reader since 1991. For whatever reading, I’ve rarely written about comics. There’s a half-drafted essay on the back-burner that I’ll polish off eventually, but for now I’d like to mention a few books from 2018 I enjoyed. Many of the books that resonated with me experiment with format, panel grids, size, medium, and the best find ways to connect those decisions to the theme or concept of the work.
Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente’s Eisner-nominated, Harvey-wining Barrier was initially released as five digital issues via the trio’s Panel Syndicate site (where everything is always Pay What You Want). Image comics gave the series a suitable physical release in the form of a box set. While made for laptop viewing (with a horizontal orientation and aspect ratio made for the format), the physical format is something to behold. The subject matter is only too fitting for the current climate, one of the reasons I keep coming back to Vaughan’s work going on two decades.
Vaughan’s ongoing series Saga and Paper Girls, with artists Fiona Staples and Cliff Chang, respectively, both produced some of their best work to date in 2018. Saga has become so popular that the comics press seems to have stopped talking about it, but 2018’s issues, leading up to a year-long hiatus, show why BKV is still master of the cliffhanger, and why comics remains a serial medium (“graphic novels” and trades be damned). Paper Girls is personal in a different way and without spoiling anything manages to make the 80s setting feel new, and deals with the question of new technology in a really fresh way.
Mike Carey and Peter Gross, the team behind the Unwritten, returned with The Highest House, a fantasy book that employs well-worn tropes yet manages to feel entirely its own. Many readers felt that the Unwritten should have ended after issue #25, when the primary story-line was resolved. Carey and Gross eventually managed to find a story worth telling in the back end of the book’s run, a meta-narrative about the power of stories that provided plot mechanics allowing for a romp through classic literary settings. But, while I faithfully followed those stories for years, fortunately The Highest House is more manageable in scope, as a 6-issue limited series, with future limited series to come. Jet, a young boy living in an impoverished village, is sold off as a slave to a visiting royal dignitary, who recognizes in him some supernatural potential. The boy makes a deal with an ancient, dark force, but his commitment to justice doesn’t waver, forcing him to be creative in playing all sides to his advantage without compromising his morals. It is a book defined by carrying on relationships despite imbalances of power, with a political backdrop that is removed enough from our world that it is able to stake out big questions without inspiring new jerk reactions. And Peter Gross produces perhaps the best work of his career, all the more stunning in the slightly larger than normal format of the serial issues.
Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’s DIE has an excellent, and concise, elevator pitch: it’s goth Naria. With just one issue out in 2018 it still warrants a mention. It also comes has its own bespoke RPG. Gillen is a writer whose best work can go head to head with just about anybody working today: Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine, both with Jamie McKelvie, tap into that something transcendent in music and fandom; Journey Into Mystery took the limitations of a corporate owned property (based on Norse mythology) and turned it into a monthly epic that is more affecting and emotionally powerful than probably anything the Big Two have ever done. DIE gives him room to stretch some new muscles. It has room for his obsessive world building and depth of characters, and Hans brings them to life. By tapping into the potential of RPG and game culture, DIE’s story invites the readers to play and join in the meta-narrative.
Ryan North is still writing Squirrel Girl, but 2018 saw long-time penciler Erica Henderson depart the book on a high note. Her angular cartooning style may not be to everyone’s taste, but what a run this team accomplished. Perfect for for kids and adults, both.
Michael DeForge’s Brat is the latest proof of why the Canadian remains a darling of indie comics, with an uncanny knack for imbuing his bizarre and often abstract stories with real pathos. Giant Days, a sort of university sit-com, is just a perfect book that hasn’t lost any of its power after nearly 50 issues. Anne Nocenti and David Aja’s Seeds
Brubaker and Phillips Kill or Be Killed was the closest the esteemed pair have come to a super-hero book in some time, though it’s really not that at all. Anti-hero vigilante’s dispensing righteous, violent, justice without eliding any of the moral or practical complexity felt like just the right thing for present.