Normally I reveal my annual Top 10 on the air, in January. But while the New Sounds Staff (i.e, Caryn) was out on tour, playing her devil music with her metal band Mortals, the fill-in Staff (that’s Isabel) and our intern (Emma) compiled end of year lists and everyone assumed I’d do the same. When Caryn returned, I explained that it would spoil the surprise if I printed my top 10 before airing it. Then I think her eyes briefly glowed red, and she said something that sounded like “these are not the droids you’re looking for,” and I suddenly realized that I didn’t mind spoiling the surprise. So here’s a look at what will be on New Sounds on January 7, when I run down my Top 10 new music recordings of 2014.
Julia Wolfe: Steel Hammer
I was at the world premiere of this work, written in 2009 for the Bang On A Can All-Stars and the stellar Norwegian vocal group Trio Mediaeval, and I thought it was the best live performance of any kind I saw that year. The recording was finally released in 2014 – and we presented the piece at Brookfield Place in a New Sounds Live event. I love the way this piece blends the driving, post-minimalist rhythms we associate with Wolfe and her Bang On A Can cohorts with echoes of American folk music – clogging, dulcimer, bones, etc. And I love the way it refuses to tell the story of John Henry, this enormous figure in American folklore, in a straightforward way. Instead, Wolfe plays on the many variations on the story that appear in the many versions of the song “John Henry,” leaving plenty of room for us, the listeners, to figure out what it’s all about.
Yann Tiersen: ∞ (Infinity)
Tiersen is from Brittany, the northwestern corner of France where the people are of Celtic extraction. But Tiersen made the record mostly in Iceland, and it shows: in the cool, expansive sonic palette, and in songs like “Midsummer Evening,” where the inhabitants of an island watch an apocalypse unfold over on the mainland. The album is full of processed toys; dark electronics; voices singing or speaking in Icelandic, Faroese, Breton, and occasionally English; and surging, rocking rhythms. It may remind Brian Eno fans of both his classic “song” albums of the mid 70s and his later ambient works, somehow fused together. This is "Ar Maen Bihan":
The Gloaming: The Gloaming
This Irish/American supergroup features the renowned sean nos singer Iarla O Lionaird, the fiddle/guitar team of Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill, New York producer/pianist Thomas Bartlett, and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, who plays the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. Starting with old Irish songs and dances, the Gloaming expands into minimalism, improvisation, and a kind of Celtic-flavored modern chamber music. Haunting, ethereal, and definitely twilit (as befits the group’s name), this album is a quietly startling leap forward in Irish music.
Bora Yoon: Sunken Cathedral
A wild combination of natural, acoustic, electronic, and highly processed sounds, this work by the polymath Korean-American composer takes its name from the famous Debussy piano prelude, and like that Debussy work, it looks back to medieval music at times. Of course, it also looks back to Korean pansori music, examines the physical properties of sound, and exhumes a message left by Yoon’s mom on her phone answering machine. What does it all add up to? Perhaps a sonic meditation on the nature of the many levels of human consciousness.
John Luther Adams: Become Ocean
The Pulitzer Prize-winning work by the longtime Alaskan (who has apparently had enough of the cold and now divides his time between NY and Mexico) is as grand and subtle a musical statement about climate change as you could possibly hope for. As more than one critic has noted, the piece comes at you in waves – three grand, arcing waves, structured as a palindrome. The orchestra seethes and boils, only to crest and fall back into a kind of reflective calm. You can certainly listen to it as pure music, and enjoy the immersive sound. But the title gives the game away: if we don’t act soon, and with enough force, we may end up back in the ocean from which we came.
Jonny Greenwood / Bryce Dessner: St. Carolyn by the Sea / Suite From There Will Be Blood
From the world’s most prestigious classical music label, Deutsche Grammophon, comes this collection of orchestral works by two rock musicians. Bryce Dessner of the National wrote St. Carolyn by the Sea for two electric guitars and orchestra. It was premiered by Bryce and Aaron Dessner with the American Composers Orchestra at a New Sounds Live concert two years ago, and like most scores, it has taken a little time to become what it was meant to be. Andre De Ridder’s reading of the piece, with the Copenhagen Phil, makes every change in the work seem inevitable. And Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is represented by a new recording of a suite of cues from the movie There Will Be Blood, which reminds us just how crucial his score was to setting the mood of that film.
Tristan Perich/Vicky Chow: Surface Image
This remarkable hourlong work combines Bang On A Can pianist Vicky Chow with a wall of small speakers emitting the so-called 1-bit electronics that have become Perich’s signature sound. This is electronic music at its most elemental, and bare, and therefore should be really difficult to make music with. And who knows, maybe it IS difficult. But you’d never know it from the constantly shifting web of musical threads that Perich spins. At times it’s hard to distinguish the piano from the electronics. And the ending, with its clearing texture and almost Romantic piano, is exquisite.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Aerial
A collection of works for various ensembles, from piano and electronics to full orchestra, from one of Iceland’s most distinctive musical voices – and if you know anything about the new music scene in Iceland, you know that’s saying a lot. Anna’s music tends toward the ambient and textural; many use live electronics or live processing of the sound; all of them, even the completely acoustic orchestral work, show the deep impact of electronic music on her writing.
Kronos Quartet: A Thousand Thoughts
A globe-trotting, genre-spanning effort from the group that has been doing this for 40 years now. Hard-charging Balkan rhythms, a floating melody from Sweden, a classic bit of nocturnal American Delta blues, the dancing exotica of Ethiopian pop – this is such a fun collection that I’ll even forgive the inclusion of “Danny Boy.” (Sample "Sim Sholom")
Cellar and Point: Ambit
This oddly-named New York band is part of that fertile scene where contemporary classical music and indie rock meet. As I wrote in a review for Wondering Sound, “Chamber music, rock, jazz, post-rock and electronic all rub elbows, and the sparks fly.”