ACL 2019 ~ Top Ten Modern Composition

Some of the year’s most ambitious projects are found in this category, crisscrossing the globe from the history of Appalachia to the future of Australia.  Visual poems tell deep stories; singers connect to folklore and spirit.  And everywhere, there are strings: strings of family, strings of community, and of course the violin, viola and cello.

Unlike its grandparent genre of classical music, modern composition resists all that is stuffy, embracing instead the vibrant and new.  And now, A Closer Listen presents the best modern composition releases of 2019!

Blair Coron ~ On the Nature of Things (Self-Released)
A glance at some of the other names on this list will give you some idea of the high regard we have for Blair Coron, who finds himself in great company with his remarkable debut album. Released back in January, it has managed to soundtrack the whole year; listened to in a spring morning with the birds chirruping outside, or during the midsummer twilight, as the sun is overtaken by stars. Or, indeed, in December when the first frosts arrive and we need a reminder that Spring will be here again. As with many debut albums, there’s a little bit of everything to be found here – epic chamber orchestra works sit alongside choral folk tunes and solo piano pieces – but there’s a confidence behind the sequencing of the tracks so everything works beautifully together. Which is, after all, what nature is all about. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Christopher Tignor ~ A Light Below (Western Vinyl)
There is a light below.  Sometimes the light is a community, or a feel-good story.  Sometimes the light is a loved one.  In this case the light is Christopher Tignor’s daughter, the inspiration for this LP.  This is a tough time to be a parent, and here the artist brings the tension to the surface through layers of strings filtered through homemade software.  In the midst of the turmoil, he finds peace: a reminder that as complex as life may be, the simple things are still the best.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Daniel Thorne ~ Lines of Sight (Erased Tapes)
From its first moments we are assaulted by a barrage of cacophonous saxophones, each line simple but in unison creating something undefinable. Indeed, the coming together of separate states ~ specifically the organic with the synthetic ~ forms the conceit of this remarkable record in both abstract and very literal (musical) senses, as the saxophonist sought to blend calculated composition with free-form improvisation. Confounding with his use of just a handful of saxes and bass synth tones, Thorne takes us on an unpredictable and engrossing journey above mountains and through clouds to the stars beyond. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Original Review

Julia Kent ~ Temporal (Leaf)
The roots of Temporal stem from a variety of different works that Julia Kent wrote for theatrical productions and dance pieces. Whatever the origins are, it doesn’t sound like a product of multiple sources when playing the album; it feels as if the works have always sat side-by-side, one sparking inspiration in the next. That may be down to the arrangements, of course, as Kent tweaks her compositions so they are accompanied in places by the (very) hushed voices of theatrical folk. It’s a clever way to square the creative circle and it lends further cohesion to the pieces. More importantly, the layered cello provides the anticipated lush textures, the delicate piano weaves its crepuscule magic. Temporal feels more delicate than many of Kent’s previous works, a subtle salute to the dimming of the day. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Luke Howard ~ The Sand That Ate the Sea (Mercury KX)
One of the year’s best team-ups comes from composer Luke Howard and vocal group Shards (who also released a fine album of their own).  The Sand That Ate the Sea is a resonant set enhanced by a visual component, as shown below.  There’s more than a touch of holiness in the wordless vocals, and as the residents of Andamooka await a great storm, one can imagine a great army of angels gathering as well.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Manu Delago ~ Circadian (One Little Indian)
Last year, Manu Delago brought his ensemble to the Alps; this year he went easier on them, and they seem more relaxed as a result.  Or perhaps the new mood is a reflection of the subject: sleep and the lack thereof.  But don’t be fooled: this is an album about sleep, but it is not an album to sleep to; it’s way too active for that.  Consider it a reflection of firing neurons during REM sleep melded with the overactive imagination of insomnia.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Maria W Horn ~ Epistasis (Hallow Ground)
Epistasis is, in its way, a peek behind the curtain at Maria W Horn’s influences whilst underlining her unique approach as artist and composer. Of the four pieces here, the two halves of “Interlocked Cycles” demonstrate her forward-thinking approach, using a computer-controlled piano to gradually increase the tempo and, consequently, the intensity of the work. Initially created as an audiovisual piece, it works perfectly as a stand-alone work, catching hold of the listener and dragging them along for the ride. Elsewhere, the title track is essentially a doom metal track scored for strings, and therefore the heaviest orchestral work you will hear all year and “Konvektion” tips the hat to Arvo Pärt, using techniques far beyond my understanding. Does it work altogether, though? It surely does, all four works complementing each other and together showcasing a powerful new talent in neo-classical. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Mario Diaz de Leon ~ Cycle and Reveal (Denovali)
Opening with one of the prettiest, most engaging pieces of modern composition of the year, Cycle and Reveal is full of riches. It is in constant dialogue with a kind of esoteric classicism that attempts to elude the idealization of antiquity, concentrating on its alien qualities, on the very structures of sound that evoke the smell of myrrh and the enlightened dampness of an underground temple of Mithras. Delve into the mystery – there are many hybrid, modern wonders to be found. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Rachel Grimes ~ The Way Forth (Temporary Residence)
Grimes’ “folk opera” is one of the most interesting releases of the year, not only because of its concept (the struggle of women in the Kentucky border), easily paired with Matana Roberts’ own, but also because it showcases the artist’s strengths as a composer. The dramatic aspects of her previous albums are perfectly put to work, suggesting emotional depth and human connection. Along with the forays into less conventional territory, like spoken word segments, they make the struggle accessible, immediate, anchored on the shared hope of a new path now opening before us. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Thomas William Hill ~ Grains of Space (Village Green)
Thomas William Hill’s last two albums have been so good that we’ve almost forgotten he was once called Origamibiro.  No matter what the moniker, his albums are connected by a clarity of vision and playfulness of tone.  The viola de gamba is the main instrument, but kalimba, thumb piano, singing bowls and gongs make appearances as well.  We have fun because Hill has fun; his exuberance is contagious.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

One comment

  1. Pingback: 2019 Best of Lists from Around the Web: Part IX – Avant Music News

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