2016 in review: Journeys in Modern Classical

yir_montage_modernclassicalFrom the delicate minimalism of a single piano to the aching beauty of a string ensemble to the mysterious studio alchemy of the analog fused with the electronic, this is a selection of some particularly memorable journeys in modern classical music I enjoyed throughout the year. 

Ben Lukas Boysen – Spells [Erased Tapes]


Programmed piano pieces merged with live instruments and molded into a supremely elegant compositional framework so effectively and organically that Nils Frahm who mixed & mastered the record said, ““from now on, if anyone asks – this is a real piano”.  Truth in advertising – this is a truly spellbinding record.

Bruno Bavota – Out of the Blue [Sono Luminus]


Bavota traveled all the way from Naples, Italy all the way to the studios of Sono Luminus nestled in the town of Boyce, Virginia to record his warmest and most expressive record yet with an outpouring of pure unguarded emotion that touches every note of every song.

Bruno Sanfilippo – The Poets [Ad21]


Joined by Julián Kancepolski on cello and Pere Bardagí on violin, Sanfilippo delivers all the captivating resonance, stark counterpoint, and expressive minimalism found in ClarOscuro and Inside Life, but there is fresh infusion of energy and a new-found sense of compelling narrative here as well. If The Poet was a soundtrack, one would imagine it to be an absorbing historical epic and a grand film indeed.

Ceeys – The Grunewald Church Session


If Ceeys’ aching cello lines call to mind the most hauntingly beautiful work of Ólafur Arnalds, it is with good reason. It is Sebastian Selke’s cello samples that were used for Arnalds’ Spitfire Audio library. The tremendous talent, impeccable musicianship, and depth of feeling they bring to this record makes it an nailed-on must-listen for any modern classical fan, an absolute gem.

Christopher Tignor – Along a Vanishing Plane [Western Vinyl]


Other modern classical composers like Max Richter and Nils Frahm have staged their own revolt against social & cultural cacophony with very quiet music, but Tignor takes a slightly different approach here that still embraces thoughtful minimalism but is also imbued with a visceral energy and an anthemic quality that inspires the listener to rise above rather than retreat. A thought-provoking album of expressive beauty and invigorating power that will resonate in the ears and mind long after it is over.

Claire M Singer – Solas [Touch]


This double CD includes works spanning 14 years of Singer’s career in acoustic and electronic composition and performance mixing organ, cello and electronics. Several of the pieces were recorded at Union Chapel, where she is music director, on a pipe organ built in 1877 by Henry Willis (read more about the instrument here).  Steeped in historical references, vast tonal explorations juxtaposed with modern minimalist motifs, and moments of transcendent beauty it is a spellbinding and immersive listening experience.

Dead Light – Dead Light [Village Green]


The musical core of the record is composed of Anna Rose Carter’s alternately delicate and vibrant piano motifs along with guest contributions on violin, cello & voice all of which are then subject to Ed Hamilton’s tender ministrations using tape machines, homemade synthesizers, and hydrophones. In every case the studio treatments and textural elements simply meld concordantly and coalesce with the music in a single, sophisticated pastiche. Ambiguity never sounded so beautiful.

Ed Carlsen – The Journey Tapes


After nearly 20 years of playing guitar and covering other people’s music, Ed Carlsen decided to pursue his own compositions while teaching himself the piano and exploring the world of sound design. These new directions combined with the inspiration of the nearby landscape of Denmark’s Ravnholm Forest culminated this loosely conceptual modern classical record with a cinematic bent and discrete forays into electronica & pop. Be sure to check out the recently released deluxe edition which includes new remixes by the likes of Luke Howard, Lambert, and Bruno Sanfilippo.

Federico Albanese – The Blue Hour [Neue Meister]

The Blue Hour

Taking inspiration from the transitional state between day and night, when the indirect light of a sinking sun reaches from below the horizon to cast the sky in a melancholic shades of blue, these gorgeous piano-based miniatures evoke the same sense of awe, mystery, and longing as delicately layered electronics provide the ideal back-lit canvas for Albanese’s wistful melodies and fluid musical shapes. A perfect end of day companion.

Hidden Orchestra – Wingbeats [Tru Thoughts]


The title track is an exhilarating 12 minute epic of multi-layered, soaring beauty driven by the band’s scintillating rhythmic engine. Then, in a brilliant stroke, the song becomes an album as on the subsequent tracks each layer is isolated – field recordings, cello, piano, harp, drums & percussion – exposing the elegant framework of the piece while highlighting the unique qualities of each contribution as a work unto itself.

Himmelsrandt – Schneeland [Unperceived Records]


Inspired by snowfall and the landscapes it forms, Peter Honsalek taps in into rich veins of dark ambient, cinematic, and post rock material to create a musical sojourn of epic proportions performed with impressive skill and intense conviction, a moving exploration of the vastness of solitude.

IN-IS – Seven Days [NW1 Records]


After years of helping bring the visions of others to life, BAFTA nominated composer Sheridan Tongue unveils a narrative of his own in the form a new project called IN-IS to which he brings all his potent cinematic storytelling abilities interwoven with colorful strands pulled from classical, ambient, and electronic music,  a must listen for those who enjoy the work of other composers who straddle the world of soundtracks and personal compositions such as Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, or Michael Price.

Iván Muela – Unsound [Fluttery Records]


A musician since the age of 6 and once a guitarist in a progressive metal band, Muela juxtaposes structured composition and liberal experimentation here to hold the listener at rapt attention as he presents a veritable menagerie of tangential ideas, sounds, and motifs interlaced with elegant and effusive passages that deliver direct emotional impact.

Jason Van Wyk – Attachment


Replete with simple, unabashed beauty albeit with sophisticated underpinnings – bittersweet tunes rendered on dampened piano interwoven with soft melancholic drones and a variety of sonic ephemera in the form of incidental sounds and field recordings. This inviting little corner of Eilean is one you will not want to leave once you discover it.

Jóhann Jóhannsson – Orphée [Deutsche Grammaphon]


Inspired by the various tales of legendary poet Orpheus and their metaphorical implications and melding centuries of classical motifs with electronics and cryptic shortwave radio transmissions, Orphée is a beautiful mystery wrapped in a beguiling enigma, an exquisite work from a masterful and imaginative composer. Stunning.

Julien Marchal – Insight II [1631 recordings]


Julien Marchal follows up his delightful full-length solo debut with a second volume, this time released on the prolific new 1631 Recordings imprint. Once again he spins a oneiric cocoon of melancholic reveries from dampened piano played with impeccable finesse, nicely varying mood, style, and tempo.

Lena Natalia – Rendevous in Paris


“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.”  – Victor Hugo 

On each of these lovely pieces, Natalia’s fingers dance effortlessly and rapturously among the borderlands that live between minimalism and romanticism offering a movable feast of music that no enthusiast of solo piano music could resist.

Library Tapes – Escapism [1631 Recordings]


A collection of vignettes and sketches each of which is delicately poised between wistful reflection and soothing elegance. David Wenngren’s delicate piano lines and shimmering celeste frame each piece and provide the ideal platform for the plaintive cries of Julia Kent’s cello to weave the narrative and resonate its emotion. A sublime and graceful reverie that can turn any moment into a quiet Sunday afternoon that one hopes will never end.

Luke Howard – Two Places


In additional to a delightful EP of solo piano music on 1631 Recordings, Luke Howard also released this a collection of musical stories ranging from the fragile & intimate to the energetic & exuberant while seeming to travel time as Howard effortlessly juxtaposes modern minimalism and  cinematic flourish with affectionate throwbacks that sound as if they could have graced a classic of the silver screen. A rich & diverse offering.

M. Ostermeier – Tiny Birds [Home Normal]


A collection of 13 songs and sketches that effectively create a miniaturized world for the listener to inhabit, a sonic menagerie of rustling creatures that flit and skitter about, a kind of musical origami as it were. The piano lines themselves are exquisite, straddling modern classical and jazz motifs in a way that should appeal to fans of either genre while also pleasing the ambient music crowd who will appreciate the sound design, stillness and abstraction that permeates the entire captivating journey.

Marco Caricola – Innerfin [1631 Recordings]


The full-length album debut by the Italian composer, now living & working in London. Fuses delicate piano, chamber strings, and electronics into a rich amalgam of original compositions about half of which were drawn from his earlier film work which no doubts contributes to its distinctively cinematic feel and sense of narrative flow. Alternately lush, exhilarating, and intimate, it makes for a noteworthy debut.

Olafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm – Trance Frendz


Musical magic just seems to happen anytime Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm get together and this album is ample proof of it, the result of hours of collaboration following what was supposed to be a single improvisational session. They recognized it was something special and managed to bottle a sublime evening of piano-centric music and delicate electronic embellishments for us to enjoy.

Sophie Hutchings – Wide Asleep [Preservation]


Unaffected, heartfelt emotion courses through these six pieces unimpeded by the slightest hint of pretense or inauthenticity. Heart, hands, and keyboard seem as one in the fluid and articulate piano lines that alternately cascade and prance with effortless grace and elegant sonority – the effect is not unlike the dizzying joy of looking at a Van Gogh painting with its vibrant colors and broad strokes that veritably leap off the canvas.

Stefano Guzzetti – Leaf [Home Normal/Stella Recordings]


Leaf is perhaps the most romantic and effusive of the three releases offered this year by the Sardinian composer, a gorgeous collection of small ensemble pieces that should captivate any fan of modern classical music from start to finish and delivered in an exceptionally attractive CD package to boot.

Tess Said So – Scramble + Fate [Preserved Sound]


“One piano player. One percussionist.” On their second release, Rasa Daukus’ piano is expressive and effervescent as ever while Larsen .is a one-man percussion orchestra covering a gamut of instruments providing a robust rhythmic framework as well as adding atmosphere, drama, and splashes of color. Once again, Tess Said So proves that convention and genres can be defied and yet remain eminently listenable.