We’re well into 2020 by now, but I’m still thinking about 2019. I always wait until the new year to reflect on the last, but this one is late even for me. And I haven’t even made any end of decade lists. Instead, throughout 2020 I’m going to publish reviews from key albums from the previous decade that ACL hasn’t covered.
So before 2019 is too distant in the rear view, here is a recap of some of my activities and some of my personal favorites. Enjoy some unofficial lists, stray thoughts, and personal recollections.
The Sound Propositions podcast debuted with its first season of 12 episodes. This series maintains something of the feeling of a mix, while being something else entirely. Each episodes foregrounds the voice of its subject, but isn’t the kind of series where two people sit in front of some microphones chatting, either. My own voice is downplayed, my presence is felt instead in the framing, the editing, and the sound design, focusing on the narrative of each subject.
I also launched a low-profile series of unprocessed field-recordings called [Useless Sounds], in order to share some recordings I was making while based in the south of Italy last year, as well as some recordings from friends elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Both series will return in 2020. Season two of the podcast will feature Bruno Stucchi, co-founder of the Die Schachtel label; an interview with the director of a documentary about the Turkish composer İlhan Mimaroğlu and his wife, political activist Güngör Mimaroğlu; a profile of Istanbul’s experimental music scenes; Ina-GRM director Francois J. Bonnet (Kassel Jaeger); and much more.
In addition to the podcast, 2019 saw the publication of four written installments of Sound Propositions with Rutger Zuydervelt, Félicia Atkinson, the Tapeworm, and Gonzo. Upcoming columns will feature Ahnnu, Amulets, KMRU, and more.
I released a cassette version of As The Sun Sets In The West on KMAN 92.5 tapes. It was originally a digital-only release, recorded and shared quickly after I learned of the death of Ryan West, a close friend from childhood I’d lost touch with. I knew he was battling cancer and had written him with well wishes, but I had still expected to see him again. This piece was composed out of manipulations of processed piano improvisation I recorded on the morning of the Pulse night club shooting. Somehow putting these two together felt right, as both events were infused with a sense of loss and melancholy. I’m happy to be able to share a small physical run with the world thanks to Richard at KMAN.
I also co-authored an essay with Sam Galloway entitled “Queer Noise: Sounding the Body of Historical Trauma,” which was including in the collection Towards Gender Equality in the Music Industry: Education, Practice and Strategies for Change, edited by Sarah Raine and Catherine Strong. (Bloomsbury, 2019) You can check that out that the link.
A piece of mine entitled “Alea Iacta Est” was included at an exhibition at IKLEKTIC in London as part of The Engine Room’s International Sound Art competition. I’m very grateful to have been included, and to announce that that composition will be released on Dinzu Artefacts in 2020. I also did a couple DJ sets at Casa del Popolo in Montreal, as well as some radiophonic work on CKUT, some of which you can find on our soundcloud with more to come. I’ve got some more exhibitions and releases in the pipeline that I hope to share soon.
We tend not to cover vocal music here, as there are plenty of other venues for that kind of writing. But my top three vocal records of the year that I kept coming back to were Solange‘s When I Get Home, James Blake‘s Assume Form, and Heather Woods Broderick‘s Invitation. The former two feature plenty of guests and the kind of lethargic, hip-hop influenced production that is by now commonplace, but they each demonstrate the degree to which electronic experimentation with texture and rhythm has gone mainstream. Heather Woods Broderick’s From The Ground (2009) remains a favorite of mine. Some listeners may remember her for her time with Efterklang alongside her brother, Peter Broderick, or know her more recently as a member of Sharon Van Etten‘s live band. Invitation is another showcase for her strong songwriting and gorgeous voice, moving between plaintive songcraft and elegant arrangements.
While our reliable old labels continued to release great music, I’d like to highlight some smaller labels here that I found myself consistently impressed by.
Careful Catalog – This label launched in 2018 with a tape from Will Guthrie, but it was in 2019 that they really came into their own with a string of excellent releases. Takamitsu Ohta‘s Three Ways to Output from a Recorder and Connor Camburn‘s aulos – αυλός both feature CDs packaged in accompanying booklets with art and text conceptually tied to the sounds on disc. Later releases from Mattias Gustafsson and Barn Sour confirm this is a label to watch. (And surely the latter’s horses fucked over the head with bricks 7″ must have the most memorable title of the year.) Careful Catalog’s shop also distributes releases from a good number of other excellent labels, so if you’re looking for a mail order to fill the void left by our old friends at Experimedia, have a look at their shop for those hard to find European and Japanese niche physical music objects.
tsss tapes – This tape label just celebrated their first anniversary, and founder Francesco Covarino created a mix for us to share excerpts from all nine of their releases. Their debut release was the compilation Free Percussion, which includes tracks from Claire Rousay, Will Guthrie, Ted Byrnes, and many others, an impressive catalogue of contemporary sonic research happening in this area. Subsequent releases have brought artists into conversation with each other, prompting new and fruitful relationships, beginning with Masayuki Imanishi and Marco Serrato, Graham Dunning and Edward Lucas, and Danny Clay and Matt Atkins. But the label’s growing discography also includes solo releases from Rie Nakajima and Dominique Vaccaro.
Vertical Music – It seems that Ludwig Berger’s recent relocation to Milan may have delayed the launch of his new tape label, but the first batch of three was worth the wait. Berger’s Inumaki, Esuzaki is a lovely piece, the recording of a contacted mic’d tree in strong wing played back within the same forest. I’m not sure how well-known Jen Reimer & Max Stein are outside of Montreal, but I was very pleased to see their Sounding the City 001-002 included in this batch. I’d seen the duo, sometimes joined by Adam Basanta, perform before in a Montreal underpass and a bath house. Their practice involves in-situ performances utilizing processed french horn and field-recordings in public spaces, including metro stations, tunnels, cisterns, and other resonant locations. On Bolero Transparente, Rubén D’Hers takes a different approach to space, lingering in the transitions between open tunings used for different boleros, a loudspeaker amplifying his acoustic guitar to explore the acoustic and harmonic properties of his studio.
Oren Ambarchi ~ Simian Angel
Ambarchi has a long discography of excellent solo records, collaborations with crys cole, Richard Pinhas, Merzbow, Jim O’Rourke, Keiji Haino, and dozens more, and his Black Truffle label has gotten better and better, releasing fantastic re-issues of out of print gems alongside new work from some of the best artists working today. Simian Angel sees him team up legendary percussionist Cyro Baptista for two sidelong tracks exploring Brazilian music, in typically oblique fashion. Just lovely stuff.
Maria Chavez ~ Plays
Maria Chavez has been taking a break from her usually rigorous schedule of touring and workshops to recover from surgery. Her first solo record in 15 years, for Erstwhile, was delayed until 2020, but instead we were treated to this conceptual gem. Two decades after Sachiko M (in)famously produced Sine Wave Solo utilizing a sampler loaded solely with the machine’s internal sine waves, Chavez has produced a DJ mix comprised of non-tracks. Known for her path-breaking abstract turntablism, Plays finds Chavez manipulating empty locked grooves from Stefan Goldmann‘s double-vinyl Ghost Hemiola. With no explicit content of its own, Play reveals Chavez’s technique at its most pure, a deep exploration of the materiality of vinyl, even when it is empty save for a locked groove. Chavez manipulates these grooves in a way that recalls electroacoustic glitch at its most minimalist.
Sarah Davachi ~ Pale Bloom
No surprise here, other than witnessing Davachi returning to the piano of her youth. We’ve heard her compose for acoustic instruments before, but the three “Perfumes” on the A-side document Davachi at her most bare, her piano flourishes dancing around Hammond Organ and countertenor vocals. Yet I prefer the B-side long composition, “If It Pleased Me To Appear To You Wrapped In This Drapery,” in which Davachi’s organ is accompanied by violin and viola da gamba, slowly unfolding layers push and pull the droning pitch, a constantly evolving minimalist masterpiece.
Kali Malone ~ The Sacrificial Code
Much has already been written about Malone and this record elsewhere, for good reason. I mentioned Cast of Mind in my 2018 wrap up column, which I loved for its timbral variety and and so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I loved this record. I’m also glad to report that she’ll be performing in Montreal later this year. The Sacrificial Code is more of a return to her work on Organ Dirges, however, as she methodically approaches a series three pipe organs, close mic’d so as to strip the instrument of the long reverb which always accompanies pipe organs. While claiming to have reduced away all expressive and gestural adornments (she does live in Stockholm…), the record nonetheless strikes a chord with me on an emotional level. Maybe its the breathy sustain, or the cycling of chords, or the austerity and focus, but The Sacrificial Code loses none of its affective power.
Moor Mother ~ Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes
Camae Ayewa’s Moor Mother attracted praise for her first two LPs in 2016 and 2017, and made some scene stealing appearances on records by Eartheater and Zonal (Justin Broadrick and Kevin martin). Analog Fluids is her crowning achievement to date. Is it fair to say that above all Moor Mother is a poet? Constantly drawing on history, on her activism, on current events, on local politics, on global trends, Musically Analog Fluids switches gears often, mashing up genres to such an extent that it feels futile to even begin to assign this music a genre. As with artists associated with PTP, such as Geng (who collaborated with Moor Mother on an earlier record) the sound here occupies a space where hip hop, punk, and noise coincide. Rhythm plays a prominent role throughout as a unifying force, but it is Ayewa’s vocals that really ties it all together. The energy and palpable rage, the grief and frustration, feels very appropriate for 2019.
Phill Niblock ~ Music For Organ
The 86-year old snuck in this massive record just shy of New Years, and its a banger. Niblock has been a fixture on the scene since the ’60s, his NY loft still an important venue in the underground. But when he switched from working with tape to ProTools, his music became more aggressive and dense, his penchant for maximalism reaching final form. The two compositions on Music For Organ, are in some ways a departure from his more recent work, more static and less muscular. Both compositions are live recordings of organist Hampus Lindwall accompanied by pre-recorded tape layers from other organs, each with anagramic titles. The playfulness of the titles isn’t reflected in the music, however. The mass of organ drones and overtones are best at high volume.
Sean McCann ~ Puck
I’ve been a fan of McCann’s at a distance, mostly because I could never quite figure out what to say about his work, even though I think very highly of it. About a decade ago, I noticed his name started popping up alongside artists like Alex Gray and Rob Magill. I remember he mastered some Deep Magic releases, and Alex talked him up in interviews and lists. McCann’s 2012 album with Matthew Sullivan is still one I’ll return to often, and he’s built up quite the catalogue with his Recital label. I saw him perform in Minnesota on a cold April day in 2018, and was struck by relative economy of his performance. His Public Assembly saw his private orchestral work brought to life by contributions from Sarah Davachi, Nick Storring, and Ian William Craig. Vilon, his side on Orange Milk‘s split was a fantastic piece, closer to the kind of chamber music that has been occupying his time these last few years. Puck brings all these elements together, sometimes literally, fusing fragments from informal rehearsals with old bedroom recordings, parts of commissioned work, with strange dialogues and humming. There is just so much going on here, without ever feeling too dense. Perhaps because McCann maintains his sense of playfulness throughout, as the title suggests, Puck feels very human. A real achievement, McCann is one of our great composers.
Éliane Radigue ~ Occam Ocean II
Another record from an octogenarian. Respect your elders and honor them while they’re still here. But her latest Occam is just further proof that Radigue is one of our greatest composers. In the first decade of the new millennium, just as she was finally receiving attention for her groundbreaking electronic work (for feedback systems and, especially, for her her longstanding relationship with the ARP synthesizer), Radigue surprised everyone by turning to composing for acoustic instruments. Although this isn’t quite right, as in fact what she does is compose for a particular performer and their particular instrument. Beginning with Charles Curtis’ cello (Naldjorlak I, 2006) she began the series which would become her Occams, developing compositions based on the particular resonances of a given instrument, the score growing out of the relationship between a performers and their instrument’s materiality. Diffusion of sound and personal relationship with an instrument is still at the core of her work, acoustic or electronic. Her Occams can be Rivers (solo performer), Delta (small ensemble), or finally Oceans (large ensemble). Occam Ocean II may be the best yet, exemplifying the harmonic potential of a large ensemble of acoustic instruments.
Swans ~ leaving meaning.
I have been a fan of Swans since high school, and was able to see Angels of Light and follow Young Gods records at a very creative juncture in their history. So I was ecstatic when they reformed in 2010 and I had a chance to document their new record and tour for SSG. I flew back to New York in the fall of 2017 to catch the final live performance of that version of the group, but found it completely lackluster and lethargic. It was time to call it quits. So I approached leaving meaning. with some caution. Whatever you think of Michael Gira, he knows how to assemble a strong team of collaborators to make his compositions come alive. In addition to some contributions from Norman Westerberg and Thor, this record takes an approach that is aesthetically much closer to Angels of Light. Gira assembled a core band of Kristof Hahn, Larry Mullins, and Yoyo Röhm, each with long and storied careers of their own, with further contributions from The Necks (!), choral backing vocals from Anna and Maria von Hausswolff, treatments by Ben Frost, lead vocals on one song by Baby Dee, and too many other artists to name. My faith in Swans has been restored.
Since I spent half the year in Italy and traveling around Europe, and half the year getting resettled back in Montreal after five years away, my live music experiences were different than usual. I didn’t have the chance to settle into an ordinary routine, but I did happen to catch some fantastic performances mostly through good luck.
Some highlights: Alvin Curran at the Terme di Caracalla, and Mai Mai Mai and Sun Araw at La Fine, both in Rome. While in Kuwait, I saw a trio of white musicians from Oklahoma perform a history lesson in Americana organized by the US consulate. But the peak was when they were asked explicitly how they could justify their elision of black music, and calling “country” the most popular genre in America. Musica Sanae in Napoli included some really memorable performances, including Félicia Atkinson, Okkyung Lee, Anthony Pateras, and many others, all the more so due to being staged in a Medieval castle. Jazz is Dead in Torino featured The Necks, Lino Capra Vaccina, and Tomaga. I was especially blown away by the latter, which is saying a lot considering that bill. In Venice I attended a workshop with Nuova Superficie (Giovanni Lami and Enrico Malatesta) in which they performed in the garden courtyard of the school of architecture. I was very lucky to finally catch Muqata’a perform during Suoni per il Popolo in Montreal. My friends Esther B, Cole Pulice, and Stefan Christoff played a house show in Montreal, just one of many house shows that summer, that stands out as particularly great. Francois J. Bonnett was in Montreal for Akousma, the city’s festival of electroacoustic music. I interviewed him for the local paper, focusing in particular on his diffusion of Éliane Radigue‘s Arthesis. (Bonnet, now director of the Ina-GRM, will appear as a subject of an upcoming episode of Sound Propositions.) Of course, he also performed of his works as Kassel Jaeger. Both were highlights. And if that’s not enough, I was also fortunate enough to be in NYC in time for a full three hour diffusion of Radigue’s classic Trilogie de la Mort organized by Blank Forms.
There was an awful lot of strong work to recommend at the Venice Biennale last year (Sonia Boyce, Ryoji Ikeda, Tarek Atoui, Arthur Jafa, Kahlil Joseph, Dane Mitchell, Zhanna Kadyrova, Laure Prouvost). But I was perhaps even more impressed by the Milan Triennale, given it was a complete surprise. Curator Paola Antonelli, of the MoMA, always impresses, and deserves special praise for her work on this exhibition. Unlike Venice, the Milan Triennale benefits from a cohesive vision. Entitled Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, the multifaceted work in the show addressed climate change and our relationship to nature in a way that never felt didactic but nonetheless left me having learned, and felt, a great deal. Highlights include United Visual Artists’ The Great Animal Orchestra, Scott Bodenner’s Mixtape, and Accurat‘s The Room of Change, though I could easily write a whole article reflecting on the richness of Broken Nature.
Ras G. This one really hurt, because he has left the planet far too soon. I still can’t believe it’s true.
I’m a podcaster now, so it won’t be a surprise to know I listen to a lot of podcasts. Since I’ve moved around a lot, I’ve lost my loyalty to most of my old public radio, but podcasts became a way to follow particular shows I enjoyed. I tend to listen to podcasts when I’m cooking, doing chores, or when I’m on public transit and don’t feel like reading.
This Is Love is a spin off from the team that produces Criminal, a first-rate “true crime” podcast that avoids all moralism, focusing instead on human stories, neither glorifying nor demonizing criminals nor law enforcement. I’ve enjoyed “This Is Love” as a welcomed counter-balance to the generally depressing news that tends to reach our ears. Since its produced by the same team that makes Criminal, its also a nice trick when the host, Phoebe Judge, says “This…is Love,” instead of “This is Criminal,” signalling that there’s no tragic twist coming, but instead a feel good story. We need more of those in our lives. Season 3 of the series aired in 2019, and featured all stories taking place in Italy, a nice bit of synchronicity seeing as I was in Italy as well.
We have come to expect our entertainment media to offer us a sense of justice, of resolution, that the world itself rarely seems to offer. While liberal fantasies like Sorkin’s The Newsroom or Jon Stewart’s the Daily Show relied on rational arguments and satire, they offered more catharsis than efficacious action. Tarantino’s revisionist histories, Inglourious Basterds and Django, achieved this catharsis not through argumentation but through the imagination of a righteous violence capable of providing justice. The end of the decade saw this form of violent fantasy proliferate, as with Netflix’s The Punisher.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who would have thought that a Lost producer could pull off such a good sequel to a classic like The Watchmen? Like the final Star Wars trilogy, the 2019 Watchmen series follows up on a beloved original, finding a means of connecting the original with the new in a way which expands and deepens rather than cheapens with derivative dreck. Race was one factor that bore very little on the original, and showrunner Damon Lindelof was able to make the series generative and timely through retelling the story through this lens. Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the series makes uses of the historic race massacre that occurred there in 1921, as well as a complicated use of the reality and mythologies associated with superheros, the police, vigilantism, and the law. In the original Veight’s amoral grey area was clearly aimed at those who defended the use of nuclear weapons to “end the war,” while also underscoring the difficult paradox of a genre in which the heroes tend to solve all their problems with punching. As the HBO series makes clear, in fact the war has never ended. The ambivalence of Moore’s original character is somewhat maintained in Jeremy Iron’s fantastic performance, but that doesn’t mean the character is above judgment. The murder of millions of the people to the benefit of millions more, death camps, nuclear bombs, giant alien psychic squids. Well, this is a comic book story after all. And the character of Rorschach, who like the Punisher has been willfully appropriated by misunderstanding morons who were precisely the subject of critique, is reoriented here in no uncertain terms as psychotic, having been fused with the Ku Klux Klan. Regina King carries the series, and while I would love to see a second season, like the original it seems that it has said all that needs to be said (for now).
Many commenters have noted they found Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young too slow and drawn out, indulgent, “not art,” etc, accusations that have often been hurled at drone music as well. For this reason I suspect it might appeal to many of our readers. The influence of Ed Brubaker, who co-wrote the series, is there, but there’s no doubt this is Refn’s work, his status as auteur given space to be self-indulgent, an object lesson in the dangers of lack of constraints, or else testament to what can be accomplished when the rules of a medium are in flux. Taking place in Los Angeles and the deserts of the southwest, filmed by a European auteur, I can’t help but draw parallels to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. In both cases, the view of America is very much that of an outsider looking in, part of what makes both works so interesting. Cliff Martinez’s score is given plenty of space to breath, mostly over slow still scenes full of dark shadows and neon lights.
In 2018 it was reported that the penciler Stuart Immonen had retired from comics, although in fact it was more of a hiatus. It was recently announced that he would be working on a new horror book for Joe Hill over at DC. But even his retirement was active, as he and wife Kathryn Immonen published The Grass of Parnasus in the form of sporadic Instagram posts. I love experimentation with form, and seeing as comics have become so expensive, it was a real treat to see the duo produce a free comic available where the people are: on social media. The whole series is available on Instagram, check it out (but start at the bottom!).