ACL 2020 ~ Top Ten Modern Composition

Modern composition is arguably the most upscale of our categories, and often includes music composed for film, dance and theatre.  The genre lends itself well to conceptual projects and is strong enough to incorporate a great deal of experimentalism without toppling into abstraction.

Female composers dominate our Modern Composition chart with seven entries, but that’s our 2020 list’s only unifying thread.  There’s a wide range of timbres below, from piano to full orchestra, film work to socio-political statements.  Some of the albums are accessible enough to puncture the mainstream, others avant garde.  And now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents The Best Modern Composition Releases of 2020!

Angèle David-Guillou ~ A Question of Angles (Village Green Recordings)
Brash, buoyant and brilliant, these elusive pieces make one question where the angles are.  Follow the threads to see where they head; roads that seem straightforward turn out to bend.  This is high drama, suited for cinema but perfect for home listening.  Without the luxury of a map, one may allow the music to travel where it will, trusting that it will eventually return home, as the closing track returns to the first, reflecting its tempo while modifying its tone.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Atli Örvarsson ~ You Are Here (INNI)
Atli’s debut album coincided with his 50th birthday, which is an unusual occurrence in the music-world: by comparison, his fellow Icelander Björk released her first album at 11. Atli has a sizeable CV of scoring and orchestrating films and TV shows, having lived and worked in Hollywood for decades, but this is a personal statement. You Are Here celebrates Atli’s return home, to the town of Akureyri in 2014, with pieces that were composed looking out at the landscape – the sea, the mountains, the snow – and the music is slow, meditative, mournful even. It’s an album that takes its time, with a lifetime behind each note, a work of profound beauty. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Gyða Valtýsdóttir ~ Epicycle II (Sono Luminus)
As a co-founder of múm, Valtýsdóttir is responsible for some of the most influential releases in experimental electronics.  On her own, she continues to surprise, moving from genre to genre with aplomb.  On Epicycle II, she honors Icelandic composers from Bjarnason to Thorvaldsdóttir, gracing their art with an elegant twist.  When she sings, Kate Bush comes to mind; but when she allows the instruments to sing for her (as on most of the album), the results are sublime.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Jacaszek ~ Music for Film (Ghostly International)
Music for Film is interesting not only because of the music itself, but also due to the self-curatorial, edit-based process of a composer turning towards his own work. The selections here, connected into a whole, show us a reflexivity not usually obvious when it comes to instrumental music: it focuses what Jacaszek considers unifying in his compositions. The themes that emerge are like a condensed guide to his various releases over the past decade: glimmers of tension in sadness; the noisy and estranged appearance of hope when immersed in the dark; the delicate, almost classical character of thinking about uncertainty. Here it is: Jacaszek at his very best. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Jessica Moss ~ Opened Ending (Constellation)
What does it mean to love the world in face of great loss? Opened Ending is an audio-visual work in which the music of Jessica Moss is set to images by the filmmaker Jem Cohen. Moss draws upon her personal relationship with Jewish music for this meditation on mourning, during a year that has upended our traditional rituals for grieving. This pandemic has been especially cruel, preventing us from visiting the sick, or even gathering to mourn the dead. Montréal and New York, the two cities I call home, have been amongst the hardest hit by this pandemic. I’ve been unable to visit my family in New York, so I found Cohen’s mundane shots of pre-pandemic life in the city particularly affecting. But in one way or another, we are all in mourning this year, and it is necessary we find ways to externalize our internal pain. Opened Ending is an invitation to find new ways to share our sadness and love, alone together. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review

Less Bells ~ Mourning Jewelry (Kranky)
The wordplay of the album title is an indicator of how Less Bells uses instruments – her orchestrations are bright and melodic, but they are also intense (in that Romantic way that builds up emotional energy to then let it go) and layered. The black sun of melancholia is warm and caring, its black light darting from one breath-taking view of the self to another. Loneliness is a honey-textured dream, a flash of choirs and strings that reassure: you remain. The added folk tones are sparse and used with precision, a sudden evocation of nightfall covering the entirety of the earth, a reminder that nature will offer you a welcome embrace in the end – to dust you shall return, and you will wear your self as luxury. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Madeleine Cocolas ~ Ithaca (Room40)
Inspired by returning to her home town, which was once named Ithaca, after Odysseus’ island home, Madeleine Cocolas has crafted a sequence of compositions that flow from the reflective, slow-moving and thoughtful, towards up-tempo and percussive works, soaring towards a release. The arrangements are fantastic: the gradual accumulation of thick layers of static and found sound whirl around the listener’s head, drums beat propulsively, and the arpeggiating analogue synths of the 70s find a space here too. When it’s all stripped away for the solo piano of the penultimate piece the emotional punch hits deeper. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Max Richter ~ Voices (Decca/Deutsche Grammophon)
In the midst of global struggles for human rights, from Hong Kong protests to the George Floyd murder, this elegant suite arrived.  The voice of Eleanor Roosevelt leads the listener into lovely waves of strings and multi-language readings of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  We didn’t know it at the time of review, but a second, instrumental disc is included in the physical edition.  On its own, the music possesses new poignancy, and invites us to listen all over again. (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Sarah Hennies ~ The Reinvention of Romance (Astral Spirits)
The Reinvention of Romance was recorded before the pandemic, but this long composition for cello-percussion duo is well-suited to quotidian attunements of the present. The cover of Reinvention depicts a pink balloon suspended upon a “Bed of Nails,” also the title of Hennies’ contribution to Amplify 2020. Whereas that short composition features a repetitive accumulation of squeaks and peeling bells, the slow unfolding of the 86-minute long Reinvention is all about dynamic that develops between a couple over an extended period of time. Not always in dialogue with each other but always in relation, the two musicians trade roles and share space with care and empathy. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Original Review

Sophie Hutchings ~ Scattered On the Wind (Mercury KX)
Hutchings’ work has always been steady comfort in a difficult world. Her playing is as emotive as ever, her compositions as fluid as they’ve ever been; Scattered on the Wind is the kind of dramatic development we can find comfort in. This music is not about the void of the unknown, but the fullness of the potential the unknown represents. Its melodic sway points us toward branching paths in evergreen forests, a peaceful, yet intense emotional state – the feeling that the only way is forwards, but there’s always one last peek left towards the past. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

One comment

  1. Pingback: 2020 Best of Lists from Around the Web: Part V – Avant Music News

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