This year I seemed to listen to a lot more new classical music; not just that, but a lot more really good new classical music, so much so that it deserves its own end-of-year list (an “old” music list will follow). I’m defining “new” music simply as music written by people who are still alive, though the bulk of what appears here is from the present century. If you know nothing about contemporary classical, let me assure you that my list is utterly unrepresentative of the overall state of the art. So, with that in mind…
John Allemeier. Deep Water: The Murder Ballads [Albany]
Ellen Smith, shot through the heart; Frankie Silver, who killed her abusive husband with his own gun and then dismembered him; and Omie Wise, seduced and drowned by a wealthy young man. Three folk songs from North Carolina inspired John Allemeier and choreographer E.E. Balcos to create a darkly lyrical trio of chamber works that together make a single piece of dance theatre. This is vivid music that doesn’t need to be seen to be believed.
Julia Wolfe. Steel Hammer [Cantaloupe]
Julia Wolfe picks apart the many variations of “John Henry” and reconstructs them all into an extraordinary monument. The work burns slowly to begin with—it takes nearly ten minutes just to get done with the first four words—but the fateful race is genuinely climactic. The Bang On A Can All-Stars provide support for the inspired Trio Medieval in a work that’s billed by the label as “alt-folk”, though to me “epic minimalism” is probably a better pigeon-hole.
John Luther Adams. Become Ocean [Cantaloupe]
A vast, slowly rolling orchestral work that perfectly lives up to its title. I’ve heard it described by a baffled listener as “nothing happens”, which is correct only if you think that nothing happens in an ocean. It won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for music, which I guess in and of itself means little, but “Become Ocean” has the air of an instant classic about it.
The Dublin Guitar Quartet performs Philip Glass [Orange Mountain]
These are the DGQ’s own arrangements of Glass’s 2nd to 5th string quartets, released on the composer’s own label so he clearly approves. I love the sounds produced here, which inspire in me the possibly heretical thought that these versions actually improve on the originals.
George Crumb. Voices from the Heartland [Bridge]
The title work is the seventh (and last) volume of Crumb’s American Songbook, his unique collection of song settings, here ranging from “On Top of Old Smokey” to Navajo chants, the latter forming a piece called “Song of the Earth”. Maybe not a Mahler reference, but in its way Crumb’s often-mysterious, always-surprising take on the commonplace merits comparison to that composer.
Valentina Lisitsa. Chasing Pianos – music of Michael Nyman [Decca]
After recent albums of Rachmaninov and Liszt, I’m not sure if the high-profile pianist’s foray into Nyman’s soundtrack minimalism—“The Piano” inevitably provides the backbone, but there’s much more besides—counts as a brave move or a crossover sell-out. It certainly sounds wholly genuine to me. Oh, and Paul Morley’s booklet note is a marvel.
Nicholas Phillips. American Vernacular – New Music for Solo Piano [New Focus]
“The idea was simple, really”, the pianist explains in the booklet: he asked a bunch of composers to write something that might reach a wide audience, with just the theme “American vernacular”. The result is a fascinating sampler of styles and emotions, with inspiration ranging from John Fahey to the night sky to Trayvon Martin.
Tristan Perich. Surface Image [New Amsterdam]
An hour-long work for piano (Vicky Chow’s the pianist) with 1-bit electronics. Yes, it will doubtless remind you of Steve Reich, and there seems to be a direct nod to Terry Riley’s “In C” at one point, but the electronics brings us to so many fantastic places that the piece feels wholly fresh.
Michael Gordon. Rushes [Cantaloupe]
Goodness me yes, more minimalism! This one might sound electronic, but the textures you hear are brought to you by seven bassoons, providing a gently shifting ambience intended to evoke a trance-like experience, in which regard Gordon’s wholly successful.
Anne Hytta. Draumsyn [Carpe Diem]
Hmm, maybe this isn’t classical as such, but who’s counting? Anne Hytta plays the hardanger fiddle of her native Norway in a collection of her own compositions, inspired by “imagining landscapes without people”. You might call most of these pieces melancholic or dark-hued, but the playing is full of warmth.
James MacMillan. Visions of a November Spring [Delphian]
MacMillan’s been a favourite composer for a while but I’d not listened to him much lately. This intense group of pieces from the Edinburgh Quartet has prompted renewed enthusiasm. It’s a quite recent purchase so I haven’t fully absorbed it yet, but it’s certainly a keeper; ask me again in a year and it might well place a lot higher in the list.
Meredith Monk. Piano Songs [ECM New Series]
Pianists Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker share the honours in what you might call a career-spanning selection of mostly duets and some solo pieces. Monk’s characteristic, and indeed idiosyncratic, features of driving rhythms and sad beauty are on full display.
Nicole Lizée. Bookburners [Centrediscs]
Lizées’s ‘Hitchcock Preludes” is a magnificent collision in which soundtrack snippets are repurposed in startling ways, underscored and commented on by a piano. If the rest of the album—more eclectic electroacoustic works—doesn’t quite live up to this gleeful insanity, it’s never less than fascinating.
Jonathan Dove. All You Who Sleep Tonight: Song Cycles [Naxos]
The English song tradition is alive and well, as evidenced by these four cycles, settings of texts by, respectively, the late tenor Robert Tear, Lorca, Shakespeare, and Vikram Seth. Dove’s probably best known for his operas, and these songs display the same lyricism and sensitivity.
Donnacha Dennehy. Crane/O/The Vandal/Hive [RTÉ Lyric FM]
Three muscular and boisterous works of orchestral post-minimalism, and a fourth that matches that description but also includes a choir. If I can compare an entire album to someone else’s short work, I’d say we’re not a huge distance from John Adams’s “Short Ride in a Fast Machine”, but these rides are longer and the machines bigger and more liable to crash and explode.