ACL 2021 ~ Top Ten Modern Composition

This year, we reviewed more modern composition albums than those in any other genre ~ not because more were submitted, but because their overall quality was so high.  We read this trend early in our Spring Music Preview, and it continued throughout the year.  The backstories were intriguing as well, from Australian wildfires to the passing of a friend.  Could it be that the break from touring and concert performances made room for an inordinate amount of inspiration?  Whatever the reason, we were glad to have so many to choose from at the end of the year, though this also meant that many worthy recordings were left out.  We’ve listed only the best of the best, the albums that moved us, inspired us and made an impact on our souls.

Bryce Dessner, Australian String Quartet, Sydney Dance Company ~ Impermanence / Disintegration (37d03d)
Between wildfires and the pandemic, Australia has endured a harsh couple years.  This enthralling mini-symphony was written for dancers who were unable to perform, waiting over a year to debut their choreographies.  Now that restrictions have been eased, the music has an even more visceral impact; it sounds like challenge, battle and temporary triumph.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

giant skeletons ~ Von Belkinrode nach Bellingroth – an Audio Geography (Self-Released)
A magical fusion of location recordings and a lush soundtrack that brings in both electronic and acoustic instrumentation, giant skeletons’ Nico Walser takes us on a journey around his hometown. It’s possible to conjure up your own mental images of industry, nature, and people but Walser helpfully provides notes and images for each composition. Children play in the schoolyard, chainsaws and leafblowers disrupt the peace, frogs chatter by the pond – it is all part of life’s rich tapestry. It is captivating; with journeys abroad likely to face limitations once again going into the new year it’s a fine opportunity to spend 50 minutes travelling through a small town in Germany. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

Hauschka with Rob Petit & Robert Macfarlane ~ Upstream (Sonic Pieces)
The Upstream “Movements”, though constituting two-thirds of the album, feel like a prelude to the powerful combination of expressionist cello, dark ambience, and spoken-word of the last third. They set up a stirring, cold soundscape, the coldest that Hauschka’s cello has ever been, only to lead us to the warm darkness of Macfarlane’s poems, letting our senses melt and flow quietly along the river. It’s pure Romance, an aural and textual connection to the natural world, a sentimental environment that in the touch of icy water opens our hearts to the pulse of the Earth. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Jessica Moss ~ Phosphenes (Constellation)
Few musical voices represent so well the estrangement and intensity of our times, and Moss is perhaps among the best of them. This album synthesizes the grave feelings of living through layers of unprecedented damage: to ourselves, to others, to the planet itself. And yet there is always something else, something more, which makes those feelings complex – a measure of joy, a tenderness that seeps through the cracks of our collectively broken psyche, the pleasurable cruelty of relentlessly hoping, once and again, for something to change. Because we envision that utopia, all the time, and yet, like the Phosphenes to which the title alludes, it melts away within seconds. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Justina Jaruševičiūtė ~ Silhouettes (piano and coffee records)
The first of two albums on our list inspired by the departed Jóhann Jóhannsson, Silhouettes is an exercise in yearning.  Touching on themes of insomnia, prayer and spirituality, the string quartet builds a ladder from the bedside to the heavenly gates, where the ears of angels attend to their notes, pillowing them in comfort and calm.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Peter Gregson ~ Patina (Deutsche Grammophon)
The gentler side of modern composition has always been a refuge for those who might seek stability, the solace of a good melody a greatly fulfilling experience. Patina is exemplary in this respect, an album to let go with, that will carefully accompany you when you need a moment of emotional rest, and one of the year’s best when it comes to pure strings-led arrangements. The electronics are a fun, interesting bonus, merging well with the sense of quiet expression that marks each and every piece. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

Resina ~ Speechless (FatCat/130701)
Resina’s album may be speechless, but it is not without voice.  The composer integrates the human tongue as a testimony to those whose voices have been ignored over the centuries, as epitomized by the Women’s Strikes that raged in Poland at the time of composition.  Resina’s cello continues to be the main instrument, while drums and sirens compete for attention, increasing the intensity of this confrontational set.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Rutger Hoedemaekers ~ The Age of Oddities (FatCat/130701)
The highlight is “The Invention of the Moon,” which was performed at Johann Jóhannsson’s memorial concert and serves as a poignant tribute to a greatly missed composer.  The rest of the album expands on this vision with the help of the Budapest Art Orchestra and a wide spectrum of luminaries.  Byron, Tennyson and Wordsworth also come into play, making this one of the year’s most literary releases: poetry translated into breathtaking notes.  (Richard Allen)

Original Review

Sarah Neufeld ~ Detritus (One Little Independent)
Bathed in a beautifully atmospheric glow, Detritus sees Bell Orchestre’s Sarah Neufeld accompanied by drummer Jeremy Gara, at times expanding the line up to a quartet. But it’s very much Neufeld’s record, rather than a group effort – you will find that on House Music, released within a few weeks of Detritus and will appear in our Best of Rock, Post-Rock, etc, list. Here, we can luxuriate in a sequence of luminescent compositions, richly melodic and warmly arranged. Sometimes thoughtful and sparse, otherwise cracking along a frantic pace, this is an album that benefits from its track sequencing, easing the listener in and then building up the tension before providing a wonderful release. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

A Winged Victory for the Sullen ~ Invisible Cities (Artificial Pinearch Manufacturing)
The opening tracks sit within the parameters we typically expect from A Winged Victory for the Sullen – thoughtful piano notes sitting within a field of rumbling ambience. But Invisible Cities is not a traditional album for the duo – rather, it is a distillation of a theatrical score for a multimedia work that debuted in July 2019, adapted from Italo Calvino’s novel. As such, there are a few departures into areas where the music pulses and judders and crackles. There’s a choir, brass, and string instrumentation in addition to broaden the palette. Self-released, rather than appearing on their new label Ninja Tune, this is a rewarding glimpse at the extended universe of AWVftS. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

One comment

  1. Pingback: 2021 Best of Lists from Around the Web: Part VIII – Avant Music News

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