2020 in Review: Modern Classical

From a solitary piano to the camaraderie of an ensemble or the mysterious studio alchemy that fuses the analog with the electronic, here is a selection of some especially memorable journeys in modern classical music released during the past year.

Ariel Marx – Luthier

[Node Records]

Link: https://www.noderecords.com/release/luthier-by-ariel-marx/

Multi-instrumentalist and composer of scores for a number of critically acclaimed films, Ariel Marx (The Tale, 13 Minutes ) is joined by a quintet of guest musicians in creating this ebullient “love letter to strings” that is striking for its deep resonance and cinematic range.

Released on limited edition CD and digital

BPMoore – Komorebi

[Rhodium Publishing]

Link: https://bpmoore.bandcamp.com/album/komorebi

Komorebi is a Japanese word meaning ‘sunlight filtering through the trees’ or ‘dappled sunlight’. shape of the written characters that make it up actually convey the the notion of light escaping, an apt metaphor for the life-affirming beauty that infuses the music on this solo debut by Ben Moore aka BPMoore which has its roots in processing personal loss and coping with inner demons yet brims with hope and a sense of renewal.

Released on limited edition CD & digital

Danny Clay – Ocean Park


Link: https://laaps-records.com/album/ocean-park

Having released albums on Mathias Van Eecloo’s Eilean Rec. and IIKKI Books imprints, Danny Clay makes an appearance on the recently launched Laaps taking long strands of beatific chamber music and binding it to the ephemeral by weaving in voice, music box, electronic treatments, and combs (you can even hear the stroking of the tines as the last track fades). Danny’s albums are always highly unique in concept and sound and this one stands out for its sheer beauty and tranquility.

Released on limited edition CD, blue vinyl LP, & digital

Danny Mulhern – Flow States

[1631 Recordings]

Link: https://1631recordings.bandcamp.com/album/flow-states

A beguiling multi-faceted album from composer Danny Mulhern (Silent Witness, What They Had), Flow States explores three different methods of improvisation across 19 different pieces – “desnuda” (solo piano), “vestida” (solo piano with orchestral elements overdubbed afterwards), and “group flow” (blank canvass improvisations with a group of musicians from London Contemporary Orchestra).

Released on digital only

Glowworm – Midnight Intervals

[Post Dog Productions]

Link: https://glowwormmusic.bandcamp.com/album/midnight-intervals

A somber, elegiac opus from classically trained composer, ambient producer Kevin Scott Davis aka Glowworm, but ultimately an uplifting one as an international roster of guest musicians add threads of voice and strings like tendrils stretching toward the light.

Releasd on limited edition CD & digital

Goldmund – The Time It Takes

[Western Vinyl]

Link: https://goldmund.bandcamp.com/album/the-time-it-takes

On his newest album as Goldmund, Keith Kenniff furnishes a collection of musical vignettes that create a space in which to “unfold the sorrows of a troubling age and revel in the hope and beauty that follow thereafter.” It is, to be sure, some of his most affecting work that strikes an ideal balance between restrained minimalism and emotive expression while touching on themes both profound an personal. PS: You can read some of Keith’s own thoughts on the album here in our recent interview.

Released digitally, on CD, and in a ‘marigold orange’ limited edition vinyl LP

Hania Rani – Home

[Gondwana Records]

Link: https://haniarani.bandcamp.com/album/home

Composer and pianist Hania Rani follows up her stunning debut in splendid fashion with an album that expands her instrumental palette to include to voice, electronics, strings, and percussion as she stretches her fluid piano compositions into atmospheric and cinematic territories.

Released digitally, on CD, and in two 2x vinyl LP editions – black and limited clear

Hugar – The Vasulka Affect: Muisc for the Motion Picture

[Sony Masterworks]

Link: https://hugar.lnk.to/TheVasulkaEffect

The Icelandic duo of Bergur Þórisson and Pétur Jónsson known as Hugar lend their considerable talents to creating soundtrack to a documentary about early video art pioneers Steina and Woody Vasulka, sometimes called the “grandparents of the YouTube generation”. Temporarily setting aside the glacial post rock atmospherics that crested on last year’s Varða, they weave a more pensive and lulling atmosphere that allows a narrative arc to gently unfold.

Digital release only

John Hayes – The Last Best Place


Link: https://johnhayes.bandcamp.com/album/the-last-best-place

The second full-length release from Minneapolis- based pianist, John Hayes which began as a single solo piano piece written to cope with the unexpected loss of a friend but evolved during the late nights in a new studio into a complete album. Born in the hours when our losses, regrets, and fears come to call, but each brush of each hammer brings us closer to the dawn of a new day…

Released digitally and in two vinyl LP editions – black and limited edition white

Madeleine Cocolas – Ithaca


Link: https://room40.bandcamp.com/album/ithaca

After many years away living in Melbourne, Seattle and New York, composer & sound designer Madeleine Cocolas returned to her hometown of Brisbane, Australia and wrote this album named for one of its neighborhood’s as a “raw, personal and cathartic experience”. Able to summon tender melodies from a solo piano or spin up a kaleidoscopic storm of electronic sounds, Ithaca traverses a dazzling range of tones, textures, moods, and emotions.

Digital release only

Manos Milonakis – The Seagull

[Piano and Coffee Records]

Link: https://manosmilonakismusic.bandcamp.com/album/the-seagull

An album-length synopsis of an original score for a production of Anton Chekhov’s play by Thessaloniki-based composer, producer & multi-instrumentalist Manos Milonakis. A clever blending of electronic soundscapes with graceful piano lines to parallel the themes and narrative flow of the play punctuated by moments of profound emotion voiced by cello and violin.

Released digitally and on limited edition CD

Nils Frahm – Empty

[Erased Tapes]

Link: https://nilsfrahm.bandcamp.com/album/empty

It is hard not to run out of superlatives when talking about Nils Frahm and his music. He ended the year with a film and album documenting his spectacular live shows which I am poised to dive into, but not to be overlooked is this quiet gem he released for Piano Day 2020 containing solo upright piano pieces recorded over two summer nights in Berlin eight years ago.

Released digitally, on CD, and vinyl LP

Ólafur Arnalds – Some Kind of Peace

[Mercury KX]

Produced by Árni Þór Árnason & krassasig

Link: https://mkx.lnk.to/OASKOPID

A self-confessed journey of personal and creative growth, Ólafur Arnalds gives tender musical expression to his own quest for peace with these disarmingly beautiful musical stories that may just help the listener seek out their own as well. Featured in the video above is a beautiful performance of three songs from the album filmed on the winter solstice with Ólafur accompanied by the string quartet of Karl Pestka, Sigrún Harðardóttir, Sólveig Vaka Eyþórsdóttir & Unnur Jónsdóttir and JFDR on vocals.

Released digitally, on CD, and vinyl LP

Philip Glass & Paul Leonard-Morgan – Tales From the Loop (Original Soundtrack)

[Twentieth Century Fox]

Link: https://mondoshop.com/products/tales-from-the-loop-original-soundtrack-2xlp

One of the most memorable passages of music for me this year was the haunting piano theme from Tales From the Loop which on the first hearing made me want to watch this mesmerizing science fiction series based on Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag’s striking crowd-funded art books. The score co-composed by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan proves eminently listenable on its own, but serves a crucial role in not only supporting the narrative and letting the viewer into the souls of the characters.

Released on limited edition CD & digital

Preserved Sound Artists – Invisible

[Preserved Sound]

Link: https://preservedsound.bandcamp.com/album/invisible

In recent years, I have excluded compilation albums from the year in review. That is not meant as a slight. Compilations can serve as valuable intersections of discovery, community, and charity but generally speaking not as a singular artistic work. And that is where this album from an ensemble of artists associated with the Preserved Sound label feels very different. Each song is a “blind collaboration” between three artists in which one recorded a basic track and the others added overdubs in isolation. Somehow all the strands intertwines in an overarching and cohesive way to project a palpable longing for meaningful human connection.

Released digitally and on limited edition CD. Featuring Aaron Martin, Adrian Lane, Ales Tsurko, Benjamin Louis Brody, Cédric Dind-Lavoie, Glacis, Neal Heppleston, Tess Said So, Thomas Méreur, Trigg & Gusset, and Visionary Hours.

Richard J Birkin – matterlightblooming

[Reveal Records]

Link: https://rjbirkin.bandcamp.com/album/matterlightblooming

For his first full-length album since 2016’s Vigils, composer & media producer Richard J. Birkin went all in to create something big-hearted and beautiful at a time when such things are arguably most needed. An impassioned plea to envision something better on the other side of the dark and bitter times which we find ourselves traversing.

Released digitally and on CD

Simeon Walker – Winnow


Link: https://simeonwalkermusic.bandcamp.com/track/unravelling

UK-based pianist & composer Simeon Walker translates his own experience into a beautiful suite of music exploring themes of negotiating personal change from a forward looking point of view.

“Winnow refers to the idea of blowing something away until you are left with solely what is authentic; removing something that feels untrue to oneself; separating the wheat from the chaff…” – Simeon Walker

Released digitally and on limited edition CD and vinyl LP with cover art by Gregory Euclide

Snorri Hallgrímsson – Chasing the Present (Original Soundtrack)


Link: https://modernarecords.bandcamp.com/album/chasing-the-present-original-soundtrack

Icelandic composer/producer Snorri Hallgrímsson (along with Karl James Pestka on violin & viola and Unnur Jónsdóttir on cello) certainly creates a gorgeous web of introspective beauty with this suite of music capable of assuaging the most anxious of souls. The music stands on its own, but was created as a score for Mark Waters’ feature length documentary that ells the story of a materially successful young man who suffers from debilitating anxiety and embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

Digital release only

Sophie Hutchings – Scattered on the Wind

[Mercury KX]

Link: https://www.sophiehutchings.com/music/scattered-on-the-wind

Australian pianist & composer Sophie Hutchings has a gift for expressing herself on the piano with uncanny fluidity that is at once deeply introspective and exhilarating. She is at the peak of her powers on this sweeping album that marks her debut on the Mercury KX imprint. Joining her to add color and depth to the compositions are longtime collaborators Peter Hollo (cello) and Jay Kong (violin) with additional contributions from Bree Baxter (violin), Vera Marcu (violin), soprano singers Sandra Liu and Josephine Stark, and Lee Hutchings (flute and alto flute).

“That’s the beauty of instrumental music: it’s felt, not spoken, and sometimes the things we feel can’t always be articulated through spoken language.” – Sophie Hutchings

Released digitally and on CD & vinyl LP

Tiny Leaves – Alone, Not Alone

[Pegdoll Records]

film by Kaan Orgunmat starring Ronja Svedmark

Link: https://tinyleaves.bandcamp.com/album/alone-not-alone

Inspired by a visit to a peninsula in Western France in 2018, this album by Joel Nathaniel Pike, aka Tiny Leaves, was three years in the making and became what he called “a collection of musings on solitude and togetherness”. Choosing not to begin a new track until the previous one had been fully explored, he created a directional flow for his writing that resulted in an overarching personal and musical journey. With the addition of Faith Brackenbury on violin, the songs the songs give voice to a wide range of moods & emotions from contemplative to exuberant.

Digital release only