A Closer Listen’s Best Modern Composition Albums of the Decade

How does one decide between piano and orchestra, between the lugubrious and buoyant?  The modern composition genre offers a wide range of timbres and emotions, and is the only genre we cover that is also recognized by the major music awards (although it is called by different names).  We’ve never liked the phrase “contemporary classical,” as the oxymoron seems stuffy ~ this music may reflect years of training, but it is also in turns comforting, soaring, heartrending and thrilling.  From a composer who broke into the public eye late in life, playing as many as 19.5 notes per second, to a percussion ensemble writing a new score to an old film, our selections form an intense tapestry of sound.  And now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents the Best Modern Composition Albums of 2010-19!

Christina Vantzou ~ No. 2 (Kranky, 2014)
Right before Vantzou veered entirely into ambient, she created a hybrid of modern composition that arguably gave the neo-classical style of the 2000s its crowning culmination. No. 2, like all the productions in that style, emphasizes the bending of the rules instead of their destruction, presenting a highly accessible facade for a darker, deeper interior. But it also achieves something only the most acclaimed neo-classical bands/composers of the previous decade did, and does so in every track: the dramatism of the style is restrained by means of an ambient approach, articulating powerful, moving environments that do not need more than five minutes to develop. It gives the style’s innate eclecticism room to breathe and be effective, also giving listeners just the right amount of time for an immersion that the more melodically-inclined albums of this kind end up eluding. No. 2 shows us the spirit of the decade in an unexpected format: a hybrid, accessible, complex, uncompromising, yet careful work of art. (David Murrieta Flores)


Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld ~ Never Were the Way She Was (Constellation, 2015)
As solo artists, both Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld play their respective instruments (saxophone and violin) with the conviction of sculptors chiseling away rock in an attempt to defy nature through art. Stetson battles the confining metal with otherworldly breathing, and Neufeld treats each piece of wood and string as undiscovered territory, drawing attention to the physicality of her craft. Together, their work is positively alchemical, imitating instruments that do not exist through borderline formless compositions that meander and falter like a living creature. Never Were The Was She Was is a succinct, melancholic record that hones in on the elemental aspects of sound— the thumping clicks of fingers on “Won’t Be A Thing To Become,” the fibrous bow motions on the title track— and takes them to their logical extremes. The compositions feel both restrained and wide open, as though Stetson and Neufeld have discovered a nebulous space that has never before been articulated so well.  (Josh Hughes)

Daniel Bjarnason ~ Processions (Bedroom Community, 2010)
While visiting Iceland a decade ago, I picked up a disc from Ísafold Chamber Orchestra that contained a remarkable two-part suite titled “all sounds to silence come,” from conductor Daníel Bjarnason.  The piece was unlike anything I’d ever heard, as if beamed over from an alternate reality.  When Bjarnason released Processions, the future arrived, with Penderecki-like staccato strings and a tenderness all too rare in modern composition.  Since then, the composer has gone on to release numerous other albums, and attention to Icelandic composers have bloomed: Valgeir Sigurðsson, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, to name but a few.  But this is where it all began; and now “all sounds to silence come” has found a new home as well, tucked away as a digital bonus.  (Richard Allen)


Dmitry Evgrafov ~ Comprehension of Light (Fatcat, 2017)
There’s often a pensiveness to modern classical music that distracts us from the viscerally spiritual, where thoughtful arrangements shutter out any possibility of weeping to a violin ascension or a bristling piano phrase. Dmitry Evgrafov begins Comprehension of Light with that all-too-familiar subtlety, but by track four the cinematic ambience cracks into a breathtaking uplift that still gives me butterflies whenever I feel emotionally functional enough to listen to it. From “Rajas” onward, the album is an unwavering exercise in beauty; there is no need for any subtext that cannot be summated by the titular goal of basking in lightness. Piano and string trills rise ever upward, and chord patterns repeat themselves with a sense of natural, effervescent spiraling. The narrative path of the album mirrors the trajectory of a Terrence Malick film, and it could indeed soundtrack one with its life-affirming, glacial power.  (Josh Hughes)


Jürg Frey ~ Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014 (Another Timbre, 2015)
Modernity does not need to be all about speed and futurist force lines. Talking about this decade in particular, it does not need to be all about data and automation: to the contemplation of the cosmic dimensions of information there still corresponds a contemplation of the gesture as it relates a subject to an environment. Frey’s work as minimalist provides that sense of background, so much so that in this compilation comes to include the use of field recordings; the transcendental is not to be found in the folds beyond 3D, but within the mirroring of the body and its surroundings. A pattern, a repetition, is in this sound-world an exceptional matter. Material life is intimately connected to its immaterial counterpart, without one commanding the other: being modern is also being peacefully in tune. This music, in other words, is a safe space from the violence of futures that pretend not to include all of us. (David Murrieta Flores)

Lubomyr Melnyk ~ Windmills (Hinterzimmer, 2013)
Lubomyr Melnyk’s piano compositions are legendary, but this record gave many listeners their first taste of his ‘continuous piano music’. Melodies are able to hypnotize listeners with a fountain of notes, but it isn’t just a pretty face. There’s a narrarive within Melnyk’s music, and dark turns are aplenty; major sequences can easily turn to rainy minor arpeggios. While Melnyk’s technique is impressive, it’s all about the music; it never sounds like an exercise. More impressive is his ability to wring out emotion and pour it out through his music, even within an unending stream of notes, as well as an ability to produce soothing music when it should be suffocating.  (James Catchpole)


Michael Price ~ Entanglement (Erased Tapes, 2015)
In 2015 Michael Price’s first major work as a solo artist, after almost two decades involved with film soundtracks, captivated a number of us at A Closer Listen ~ and still does today. Across a spellbinding set of modern composition shrouded in the dust of the past, the composer evokes different landscapes, cultures and eras across nine distinct pieces. Positioned as though a record discovered in an old German record store, Entanglement carries strong echoes of the past but in truth floats atop timeless winds, with arpeggiated synth lines and mobile phone recordings coming across as enchanting anachronisms amidst the dominating chamber sections and female soprano. In pieces such as “The Attachment” and “Little Warm Thing” does drama of such richness and complexity unfurl, yet despite Price’s background this does not come across as overtly cinematic or removed; Entanglement is at once dramatic and intimate, both heartbreaking and life-affirming. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)


Richard Skelton ~ Verse of Birds (Aeolian, 2012)
If there’s one word to describe Richard Skelton’s work it’s care. There’s a lot of care put into every element of his output, whether it’s a steady stream of CDs, or his art, or the publications through Corbel Stone Press run with his wife Autumn Richardson. When you experience one of his albums, your appreciation is often broadened by additional texts and multi-layered artwork all working together to position the music to a time and location: to provide, in a way, a story behind the inspiration. Verse Of Birds, which was released in two editions with different designs, was created whilst they lived in the west of Ireland although you don’t need to know that to sense that it is imbued with windswept textures. But a little background detail assists appreciation. The first disc stands on the cliff-top and faces down the rain and the ocean, the second looks inland and upward to watch the birds in flight, and in conflict. The listener sits in awe at the effortless manner these images are evoked. It’s another masterpiece from an artist who has a few to his name. (Jeremy Bye)


Third Coast Percussion ~ Paddle to the Sea (Cedille, 2018)
Without meaning to get too personal: some of my best listening happens in the bathroom. At almost two hours, the expanded edition of Paddle to the Sea is long enough for the most luxurious of bubble baths. More than that, it is intrinsically aquatic. Each percussive note is one droplet, but soon a torrent emerges in David Skidmore’s composition, with the bonus renditions of Jacob Druckman and Philip Glass as vital tributaries. The short arrangement of Zimbabwean mbira music is a highlight, and my only wish is for the crosscurrents of American minimalism and traditional folk cultures to be more extensively navigated. Nonetheless, as the mallets of Third Coast Percussion row ceaselessly on, the boundary between myself and the water becomes osmotic.  (Samuel Rogers)

A Winged Victory for the Sullen ~ S/T (Erased Tapes, 2012)
A Winged Victory for the Sullen are somewhat of a dream team, but their debut is still their finest hour. The piano hovers over strings, creating a fragile sound where ambient meets modern classical music. Some musicians just click, and this is the case for Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran. They know when to increase the drama and when to let it simmer. It was as stunning then as it is now.  (James Catchpole)

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