This month’s adventure in new releases focuses on the most autumnal of musics, that nebulous genre we’ve come to call “modern classical.” In fact, some of these artists stretch that term pretty widely to include elements of pop, minimalism, and some reimagined J.S. Bach with synthesized processing. Many of you instrumentalists might also accidentally find yourselves slumped into the modern classical genre for lack of a definitive way to compare your work to other music out there. This isn’t always a bad thing, as historically this type of confusing categorical compartmentalism has signaled emergences of influential trends in the music industry.
As we float towards the end of 2015, a pretty dynamite year in music, a certain reflection on how we listen to and how we buy music across genres is necessary. Categorizing artists is increasingly difficult in an era marked by collaboration, innovation, and experimentation with form, since from album to album they may traverse quite a diverse landscape of sound. Such is the case with Patrick Higgins — a guitarist always, but how his music sounds when it finally trickles out of his electronics has shifted tremendously from project to project, from angular noise glitches to Steve Reichian repetitions in Zs and now arriving at a pseudo-puritanical nylon-string classical guitar sound (he also composes for string ensembles).
Genres make it easier to sell music, and they make lists like this one possible. But we don’t listen to genres anymore, we listen to artists, and that’s badass. Thoughts? (Please comment below!)
Stefano Guzzetti — “Scusa”
Stefano Guzzetti is a composer based on the beautiful island of Sardinia. There is a certain sentiment of solitude that resonates through his blissed out modernist instrumental music (the same pensive, pretty pendulum that swings around Yann Tiersen’s music), which makes sense considering the isolated experience of island-dwelling, but overall I can’t seem to figure out where the sadness comes from. What could be so sad about wine, beaches, and seafood? Okay, I digress in a major way… Just listen to this music, Guzzetti’s entire album Ensemble is streaming via his bandcamp and it will take your whole day away! His previous releases on great labels such as Home Normal are constantly something to come back to, depending on the weather, of course.
Esmerine — “The Neighbourhoods Rise”
(from Lost Voices)
Described as chamber-rock by their label Constellation and journalists everywhere, Esmerine has gone to great lengths to create music that transcends even that hybrid categorization. Although the Montréal group has changed personnel quite a lot in past years, the core has remained with cellist Rebecca Foon (Thee Silver Mount Zion, Saltland) and Bruce Cawdron (Godspeed You! Black Emperor). Through a mix of influences including African and Turkish folk music and math-rock, they effectively build spiraling, pulsating pieces around the marimba and strings as centerpieces. When the bass and guitar parts become secondary to song composition, unique music always ensues!
Julia Kent — “The Leopard”
Julia Kent’s music has been an important influence on mine for a very long time. She has played in the cello-led group Rasputina, and in bands such as Antony and the Johnsons, Larsen, and Angels of Light, but her solo music for cello and laptop has dug such a deep hole in my listening, I may never be able to reach in and pull it out! Kent is generally known for building dense chordal layers of cello, expanding the stringed resonances with digitally-mapped reverb and delays, and filling the contours of interior spaces like churches with a lake of tones. What makes her new record, Asperities, different is an acute narrative of tension and struggle. Marching rhythms, field recording intrusions, and cinematic-scope descending progressions make this release darkly captivating form end to end. I’m not sure whether this track refers to themes present in the novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, but it would make a lot of sense to me.
Patrick Higgins — “Prelude — Violin Partita No. 3 BWV 1006”
As mentioned above, Patrick Higgins is one dynamic dude. Shortly after released the mesmerizing Social Death Mixtape cassette on NNA Tapes, and the extremely well-acclaimed Zs record Xe on Northern Spy, he’s baaaccccchhhh! Bachanalia features Higgins playing J.S. Bach’s works for solo guitar in two churches, making use of both stereo electronic processing and the natural acoustic reverb in each space. This track “Prelude” actually features very little electronic processing. I guess as a prelude it does serve the purpose of introducing the themes and emotional temperament of the music to follow, that music being heavily laden with delay, granulated distortion, and spectral filtering. Do yourself a flavor, and check this album out in full.
Joanna Newsom — “Divers”
And then there’s Joanna Newsom, America’s harp-wielding sweetheart. I kept her towards the end of the list, knowing she least fits the modern classical description. But then again, with music this complex, written for solo harp and voice, perhaps calling it “pop music” isn’t doing her any justice either. If anything, she should be deemed Headmistress at the Americana School of Musical Poetry alongside the likes of Van Dyke Parks and Suzanne Vega!
Divers is already considered her greatest accomplishment to date, and I might easily agree. It follows its own rules, it paves its own roads through song and lyric, and her contrapuntal American modernist passages navigate this exciting journey in an IMAX-worthy array of emotions that always bring me back to composers like Charles Ives. The multi-hued cover artwork chosen to represent this journey could not be more appropriate. “Divers” features an orchestra of tracks recorded by Newsom herself, as do many of the songs on the album giving it a Brian Wilson-esque air of perfectionism. But songs like “Sapokanikan” and “Leaving the City” do feature casts of other like-minded virtuosic instrumentalists. Don’t be surprised if this one appears on “Best of the Decade” lists in five years…
Christina Vantzou — “No. 3 (S16mm film)”
(from No. 3)
Synthesizer master, minimalist composer, and filmmaker Christina Vantzou (formerly of the band the Dead Texan), has had a profound effect on the contemporary music world despite being somewhat isolated and removed from it all since moving to Belgium in 2003. Her music is as still as a winter pond, yet as captivating as a raging avalanche. Her first two solo albums, aptly titled No. 1 and No. 2 were composed and recorded with zero rhythmic structures. No. 3, her latest full-album work for classical instruments, choir, synths, and electronics, is actually meticulously scored to time charts, and is the culmination of two years worth of composing and experimenting. To cap off its release, Vantzou shot this sped-up 16mm film and soundtracked it with works from the album. Not unlike Tarkovsky’s Solaris, It’s the kind of megawork that has an effect on you, whether you realize it or not. Your mood changes, your senses heighten, the lights above your head feel warm on the back of your neck, and then it ends, and the dishes in the sink still need washing.
Did we miss your favorite recent release? Share it in the comments below, and then check out the full “What I’ve Been Digging Lately” series!