Editor’s Picks: 2019 Contemporary Classical Albums

With the year and the decade coming to a close, it’s time for everyone’s “Best of” lists. Recognizing that this practice is highly subjective, I’ve once again opted to call my list of 2019 contemporary classical albums “Editor’s Picks” instead of the “best” of anything. This is not to diminish the quality of the projects highlighted below, but rather to acknowledge that my personal feelings of course influence the process of boiling a year’s worth of releases down to a highlight reel.

When I took the editorial helm of I CARE IF YOU LISTEN in 2017, I made a conscious decision to use this space to advocate for racial and gender equity and to create a platform for those who have been historically marginalized in classical music. This guides all of my editorial decision-making, and the albums I am singling out this year reflect these editorial priorities.

I released my first end of the year “Editor’s Picks” list in 2018, and it’s fascinating to see the differences that naturally occurred in my 2019 picks. Last year, multi-composer projects stole my heart and remained in my ears, but this year, solo albums largely reigned supreme. In no particular order, here are the 2019 contemporary classical albums that I believe are deserving of your time and your attention.

Because Patterns – Isaac Schankler

Isaac Schankler Because Patterns

Because Patterns (Aerocade Music) is dedicated to the electroacoustic works of L.A.-based composer Isaac Schankler performed by the Ray-Kallay Duo (pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay), bassist Scott Worthington, violinist Sakura Tsai, and pianist Nadia Shpachenko. Schankler is Assistant Professor of Music at Cal Poly Pomona in addition to their practice as a composer, accordionist, and electronic musician.

Schankler’s voice on Because Patterns proves to be highly episodic, allowing the listener to live in each distinct sound world for just the right amount of time before gently ushering us into the next unique sonic space (Because Patterns/Deep State). Featuring electronics that begin as a mere foil for acoustic sound, yet eventually rise to the role of equal partner (Mobile I) alongside lush, nostalgic piano writing (Future Feelings), this album displays Schankler’s versatility in electroacoustic composition.

Eleanor Alberga String Quartets 1, 2, & 3

Eleanor Alberga String Quartets

Eleanor Alberga – String Quartets 1, 2, & 3 (Navona Records) features Ensemble Arcadiana (Thomas Bowes, Jacqueline Shave, Oscar Perks, Andres Kaljuste, and Jonathan Swensen) performing the complete collection of string quartets by British-Jamaican composer Eleanor Alberga. With large commissions from the BBC Proms and The Royal Opera under her belt, this album brings us into the more intimate world of Alberga’s chamber music output.

Alberga’s String Quartet No. 1 (1993) and String Quartet No. 2 (1994) sizzle with rhythmic vitality and meander with serene lyricism. While an infectious energetic angularity permeates the first two quartets, her String Quartet No. 3 (2001) exhibits a more restrained and complex character, though flecks of the vivacity from her earlier quartets occasionally glimmer through. Ensemble Arcadiana gives committed performances throughout and makes a strong case for Alberga’s permanent inclusion in the string quartet canon.

Elegies for Theremin & Voice – Carolina Eyck

Carolina Eyck Elegies for Theremin & Voice

Released in the centennial year of the invention of the theremin, German-Sorbian performer-composer Carolina Eyck’s Elegies for Theremin & Voice (Butterscotch Records) includes 10 newly-composed works specifically for the LP format. Dedicated to her friend Wiebke and her uncle Mercin, the album explores themes of mortality and loss while demonstrating Eyck’s unmatched theremin technique and keen compositional ear.

While some of Eyck’s Elegies exhibit the expected somber and reflective character of the genre, others are almost celebratory in nature. Throughout the album, the voice and the theremin are brilliantly set in both harmonious polyphonic counterpoint (“Uncle”) and stark, direct opposition (Duet I & II). Eyck’s savvy use of wordless vocalizations and mastery of the theremin allow the haunting, voice-like instrument to seamlessly weave between blending into the acoustic vocal textures and shining forth as a worthy solo instrument.

Fanm d’Ayiti – Nathalie Joachim

Nathalie Joachim Fanm d'Ayiti

Fanm d’Ayiti (New Amsterdam) is the debut solo album from Haitian-American flutist, composer, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim. Performing on vocals, flute, and electronics, Joachim is joined by the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet (Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Doyle Armbrust, and Russell Rolen). Translating to “Women of Haiti” in English, Fanm d’Ayiti features arrangements of traditional Haitian songs and songs from famed Haitian vocalist Emerante de Pradines alongside original music by Joachim and recorded interviews.

Nominated for a GRAMMY award in the Best World Music Album category, Fanm d’Ayiti is one of the most personal and genuine albums released this year. The album ranges from delightfully off-kilter ostinati accompanying the girl’s choir from her family’s village of Dantan (“Alléluia” from Suite pour Dantan) to stripped down unaccompanied vocals (Lamizè Pa Dous) to the voices of influential women professing, “Have faith in yourself and keep going…don’t ever feel inferior.” Part ethnomusicological exploration and part personal discovery, Fanm d’Ayiti is an absolute triumph.

in the garden – Anaïs Maviel

Anaïs Maviel in the garden

in the garden (Gold Bolus Recordings) is a recorded live performance by New York-based vocalist, percussionist, composer, writer, and community facilitator Anaïs Maviel from the 2018 OBEY Convention in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her work operates at the intersection of music, visual art, dance, theater, and performance art, and she is a 2019 Van Lier Fellow.

Featuring Maviel on voice, kamele n’goni, lyra, surdo, singing bowl, and piano, in the garden demonstrates an incredible array of instrumental and vocal timbres. The often minimalist accompaniment highlights Maviel’s text declaration, which is microtonal yet direct, strained yet uninhibited, stuttering and fried yet assured (“i am you” and “in the garden”). On the tracks with no text, Maviel creates evocative landscapes that reward deep and repeated listening (including the aptly titled “listening”). As a live recording, in the garden draws us closer to Maviel’s practice and provides an intimacy that is difficult to replicate in the recording studio.

Oor – TAK Ensemble

TAK Ensemble Oor

With the release of their third album Oor, the New York-based TAK Ensemble (Laura Cocks, flute; Carlos Cordeiro, clarinet; Charlotte Mundy, voice; Marina Kifferstein, violin; and Ellery Trafford, percussion) marked the launch of their new label TAK editions. While TAK’s first two releases were portrait albums of works by a single composer (Taylor Brook and Mario Diaz de Leon), Oor takes a multi-composer approach, featuring six works written primarily for the ensemble by Tyshawn Sorey, Erin Gee, Natacha Diels, David Bird, Ann Cleare, and Ashkan Behzadi.

As one of the most prominent ensembles in the United States practicing truly experimental music, TAK’s command of the performance theatrics necessary in this genre shines even on a recording. Jam-packed with wild instrumental pyrotechnics (Sorey’s Ornations) alongside clever moments of vocal fry imitating bow overpressure (Gee’s Mouthpiece 28), a violin harmonic gliss tailing the accelerated whoosh of a whispered crescendo (Behzadi’s Az Hoosh mi..), and letter names of notes sung on the incorrect pitches (Diels’ The Colors Don’t Match), TAK and their composer collaborators have developed one of the most distinct and eclectic releases of the year.

Pleasure Island – Tim Parkinson

Tim Parkinson Pleasure Island

Pleasure Island marks British experimental composer Tim Parkinson’s debut on the Slip imprint. Featuring Parkinson on keyboards, stylophones, drums, percussion, midi, electronics, sounds, and vocals, he is joined by Dawn Bothwell, Suze Whaites, Laurie Tompkins, and Francesca Fargion on additional vocals to create a choir of the absurd at the mercy of dangerously catchy minimalist electronics.

The beauty of Pleasure Island is Parkinson’s ability to transform crude and discarded objects into something magical. Layered vocal lines render text incomprehensible over frenetic drumming and Atari-like interjections that transform into Christmas carols (“Beginning Middle End”), innocuously sinister elevator music accompanies unenthused and approximate vocal groans until stabs of lo-fi electronics break down the door (“Skip”), and hypnotic glitchy loops take us for a ride on a broken down carousel of junky sounds. 

South of the Circle – Siggi String Quartet

South of the Circle

South of the Circle is the debut album from Siggi String Quartet (Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, violin; Helga Þóra Björgvinsdóttir, violin; Þórunn Ósk Marínósdóttir, viola; and Sigurður Bjarki Gunnarsson, cello). On this Sono Luminus release, the Reykjavik-based quartet presents five works by Icelandic composers Daníel BjarnasonValgeir SigurðssonMamiko Dís RagnarsdóttirHaukur Tómasson, and Siggi’s own Una Sveinbjarnardóttir.

The works on South of the Circle range from expansive landscapes (Stillshot) to jubilant minimalism (Nebraska) to miniatures that capture the idiosyncrasies of each instrument (Opacity). When putting together a multi-composer project such as South of the Circle, credit often goes to the ensemble for commissioning an album’s worth of new music. However, while not all of the pieces on this album were written explicitly for them, Siggi String Quartet proves here that the art of curation is just as important as the act of commissioning.

Tachitipo – Zosha Di Castri

Zosha Di Castri Tachitipo

Tachitipo (New Focus Recordings) marks the debut release from Canadian composer, pianist, and sound artist Zosha Di Castri, featuring chamber and solo works performed by EkmelesTalea EnsembleJACK Quartet, the International Contemporary EnsembleYarn/Wire, and pianist Julia Den Boer. The album also includes a special bonus video track of percussionist Diego Espinosa Cruz Gonzalez performing how many bodies have we to pass through, a work he co-composed with Di Castri.

Tachitipo has a little bit of everything—vocal ensemble music that is at once contemporary and reminiscent of the past (The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named), the sounds of a manual typewriter realized through piano and percussion (Tachitipo), and a constantly shifting string quartet that pushes the synchrony capabilities of a chamber ensemble (Quartet No. 1). Tachitipo is not easy listening, but those up for the challenge will find satisfaction in venturing outside of conventional formal boundaries to uncover the motivic and timbral through-lines that unify each work.

Teenages – Qasim Naqvi

Qasim Naqvi Teenages

Teenages is the most recent release from Pakistani-American composer and drummer Qasim Naqvi on the experimental Erased Tapes label. Dedicated entirely to works written for an analog modular synthesizer that he built over the span of two years, Teenages is Naqvi’s first non-soundtrack solo album, with previous releases spanning music for film, dance, and theatre in addition to several releases with his trio Dawn of Midi.

To me, the most captivating thing about modular synth is the patient, kaleidoscopic transformations that take their time in revealing themselves. On Teenages, this is apparent in the gentle unfurling of the overtone series from a single fundamental pitch (“Intermission”), the additive process of layering complex polyrhythms (“Palace Workers”), and the throbbing drones that blossom into complete harmonies (“Artilect”). The album culminates in the eponymous “Teenages,” an almost symphonic work of 18 minutes that builds on the concepts from the significantly shorter previous tracks and explores the full capabilities of this custom-built instrument. Teenages is a highly succesful solo album and a welcome addition to Naqvi’s discography.