Winter music is more than a seasonal score; it also represents a state of mind. We’ve all been wintering this year: hunkering down, staying in, waiting for the storm to pass. Will we simply survive, or will we be able to locate peace, tranquility and even joy in the harshest of conditions? To do so, we may need to regard winter with new eyes, eager for landscapes of blue and white, offering opportunities for reflection and inner growth.
Half of this year’s selections are appearing here for the first time; the others were reviewed earlier this year. All share a heart of winter and offer a path to peace; some even invite dancing in the snow!
And now, A Closer Listen presents The Best Winter Music of 2020 in recommended listening order, from placid to stormy, from indoor lullabies to outdoor sleds. As the cold weather descends, may the music below renew your spirits!
Machinefabriek ~ Stillness Soundtracks II (Glacial Movements)
Esther Kokmeijer’s stunning videos of glaciers and icebergs are once again paired with Rutger Zuydervelt’s evocative, slow-developing soundscapes. The accompanying photos are stunning. In a time of climate change, this project reminds us of the beauty that is worth preserving, even if we might never get to see these extremes up close, as did the artist, who visited both poles to capture these endangered images.
Richard Skelton ~ LASTGLACIALMAXIMUM (Aeolian Editions)
Richard Skelton had a banner year, culminating in new timbres on his fall release These Charms May Be Sung Over a Wound. LASTGLACIALMAXIMUM falls into the genre of ambient drone, but eschews percussion, concentrating on incremental changes in timbre. As the glaciers recede, the composer’s soundscape grows increasingly bleak ~ a portent of things to come should we remain on our current course.
Valotihkuu ~ Winter Lullabies (Self-Released)
Winter Lullabies is at times so placid that it invites sleep ~ which is the intention, as stated in the title. Lo-fi loops mingle with the static sounds of precipitation; music boxes twirl in slow motion. The most effective segments directly evoke the season: the finale of “First Snow,” the twinkling “Nighttime in the Forest,” the hollows of “Snowy Morning” and “Glittering Flakes.” “Cold Water Music” even references a cold weather classic by Aim. One can almost taste the nip in the air.
Weber & Alcantu ~ Soundstory: Schneewehen (Weber & Alcantu)
Polaroid Notes provides the music on two CD5″s, Lorenz Weber the German fairy tale zine, Celina Schadow the illustrations. This handsewn delight is a perfect package for the holidays. The soft piano tones and gentle ambience guide one deep into the soft winter night. Google Translate is often dicey, but a taste is below; for those not fluent in German, the music will do the talking.
Blu had shoveled the windows and doors free early in the twilight. The sky glowed blue and made the snow appear even brighter. When she crept back into the house, Emi was already awake. She was still in the duvet, looked through the window and lost herself in snow-covered fir trees. Blu saw her eyes, smiled “Good morning”, made tea and put new wood in the ovens.
flica ~ Tapsskog (Schole Records)
This peaceful, 15-minute EP passes like a flurry, but leaves behind a warm glow. The simple story that accompanies the release is akin to a diary entry: a brief trip into the woods, eyes alert for any passing griffins. As the light recedes, the travelers return to the hearth. Piano and acoustic guitar exude a feeling of safety as the travelers warm their boots by the fire.
Sketch for Winter VI – Abyss: For Cello (Geographic North)
Sketch for Winter VII – Floating Tone (Geographic North)
We didn’t feel it would be right to choose between these two solid entries in Geographic North’s ongoing series, as their timbres are so different. Louise Bock’s Abyss: For Cello is mournful, dark and deep, like being locked in to a winter cabin as a storm swirls around. Aria Rostrami & Daniel Blomquist’s Floating Tone leans more toward the magical side of winter, and sounds like fairies flitting around an enchanted forest. We especially recommend the opening tracks of each.
Alexina Louie / Esprit Orchesta ~ Take the Dog Sled (Centrediscs)
Here’s a fun release that seems spontaneous but reflects a great deal of work. When she was commissioned to write a piece for Inuit throat singers and ensemble, Alexina Louie responded with creativity and verve. River rocks, glass bottles, log drums and sleigh bells create percussive sounds that honor the location, while traditional folk songs anchor the compositions. The earliest performances took place in a Nunavik gym, community center and town hall, and the response was pure glee. We feel the same sense of playful release while listening today.
Note: This article’s cover image of the Sirimilik Glacier is taken from Alexina Louie’s blog.
Elskavon & John Hayes ~ Du Nord (Western Vinyl)
Minnesota magic! This combination of modern composition and electronics honors the intense winters of the American Midwest: “a sun that shone gold in the spring and summer now beams a faint purple light from behind cloud cover that only shows mercy at dawn and dusk.” Elskavon & Hayes present the season as something not to be feared, but embraced. From the playful opener “Vermillion” to the encouraging “Cold Is Not So Cold,” they suggest that one may thrive, clapping one’s hands in joy rather than just to keep warm.
Jeads ~ Under the Veneer (Self-Released)
The sounds of a Washington snowstorm ~ icicles breaking, snow falling, branches snapping ~ are incorporated into this enveloping recording, inspired by an old music box. While tracks such as “Deception Pass” sparkle and comfort, the electronics rise create some active textures, resulting in a danceable album (although listeners may want to twirl instead). The tone feels like home: safe, secure, surrounded by love.
Niklas Paschburg ~ Svalbard (7K!)
Our last entry returns to the Arctic setting of the first, with a different tonal pallete. Paschburg’s primary instrument is the piano, but percussion makes a major splash here, along with swaths of electronics. Opening track “If” travels from introversion to extroversion in the space of only five minutes, and the rest of the album continues to travel between these poles like a dinner host who checks on all attendees, making sure everyone is content. “Cyan” is uplifting, “Little Orc” playful, creating an image of an alternate, equally possible winter in which we’ll all be okay, snow or sun, indoors or out, no matter what unfolds.