Editor’s Picks: 2020 Contemporary Classical Albums

If this year has delivered any sort of message about our field, it’s that artists will inevitably find a way. Creative people will always find new ways to innovate and stay connected. This year was an absolute dumpster fire–and yet, the albums highlighted below are a reminder of the importance of art-making through dark and challenging times.

I never set out to create these lists with any sort of preconceived theme or through-line, but the albums I’ve selected this year can be categorized as celebrations of Black artistry, pandemic projects, and socially-conscious art that speaks to our present moment. With I CARE IF YOU LISTEN’s move to join American Composers Forum this year, our commitment to historically underrepresented and marginalized artists has really crystallized into a primary focus on racial equity. All of the projects listed below embody these editorial priorities and are highly deserving of your attention. 

Burn / Build (National Sawdust Tracks) – Miyamoto is Black Enough

Miyamoto is Black Enough Burn / Build

Burn / Build (National Sawdust Tracks) is the debut album of the eclectic quartet Miyamoto is Black Enough, comprised of Andy Akiho (composer, steel pan), Roger Bonair-Agard (lyrics, vocals), Sean Dixon (drums, bass, and synths), and Jeffrey Zeigler (cello). The album explores themes of gentrification, displacement, changing landscapes, colonialism, and memory, creating endless layers of history to peel back—from music history to cultural, geographic, and architectural history.

Bonair-Agard’s Trinidadian-inflected oral history of Brooklyn’s gentrification (“Nina”) musically nods to the hard-hitting beats of 90s East Coast hip hop and excavates the city of Biggie and Spike Lee. An invocation of Bob Marley through languid reggae beats (“Revolver”) celebrates the richness of Black culture while simultaneously mourning Black boys killed by the police. An ode to Indo-Caribbean musician Jit Samaroo (“21 for Jit”) leads down a path of unpacking the system of British colonial indentured servitude that brought his ancestors to a foreign land. With many historical, cultural, and musical threads to detangle, Burn / Build demands repeat listenings in order to absorb truths like, “The most American thing we have learned is how to plunder and pretend our robbery was our victim’s salvation.”

A Cockroach’s Tarantella (Modern Sky) – Du Yun & JACK Quartet

Du Yun and JACK Quartet A Cockroach's Tarantella

Recorded in June 2020 with special attention to health protocols, A Cockroach’s Tarantella (Modern Sky) brings together superstars Du Yun and JACK Quartet for performances of Tattooed in Snow for string quartet (2017) and A Cockroach’s Tarantella for string quartet and narrator (English version, 2006; Chinese version, 2019), bookended by two short improvisations (“Epilogue” and “Prologue”).

The eponymous work is certainly the showstopper, utilizing cerebral experimental high art as the vehicle for telling the story of a lowly cockroach seeking socialization and love. While this “tarantella” subverts the expected lively musical connotation, JACK Quartet still captures the erratic, make-your-skin-crawl scurrying of these undesirable multi-legged creatures through tinkling col legno battuto, creaking bow overpressure, and hocketed bursts of short, rapid note clusters. The presentation of A Cockroach’s Tarantella in both English and Chinese provides a fascinating case study in the inherent characteristics of language. Du Yun’s narration in the English version is measured, careful, and pragmatic, while the Chinese version brings a different intensity and urgency of storytelling that is more animated, quickly articulated, and tonally contoured.

Darkness is a Myth EP (self-released) – Joy Guidry

Clifton Joey Guidry III Darkness is a Myth

“Radical self-love, compassion, laughter, and the drive to promote and amplify Black art-makers and noise-makers are at the core of Joy Guidry’s work.” If one were to take this first sentence of Guidry’s bio, spin each element into a skein of yarn, then knit them together into a complex, colorful musical tapestry, the result would be Darkness is a Myth–which is arguably the most significant release of experimental bassoon music since his mentor Rebekah Heller’s 2017 album MEGAFAGOTE.

A celebration of noise and extended bassoon techniques, Darkness is a Myth traverses screaming distorted multiphonics (“and then they ran to the end of the earth and there was nothing”), melismatic sentimental odes to loved ones who have come before us (“Maudry Richard Davis”), and layers of strident tenor juxtaposed with rasping bass (“Shut the fuck up and listen”). Concluding the album is a mosaic of field recordings of Guidry’s family that call up feelings of community and togetherness, things many of us have been missing in isolation this year. The result is a brilliant debut EP, and we can expect great things from this artist in the years to come.

Forward Music Project 1.0 (Bright Shiny Things) – Amanda Gookin

Amanda Gookin Forward Music Project 1.0

Currently in its third cycle, Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project is a commissioning initiative for new multimedia solo cello works that “elevates stories of feminine empowerment through socially-conscious commissioning, raw performances, and educational initiatives.” Forward Music Project 1.0 (Bright Shiny Things) features the world premiere recordings of works by Nathalie Joachim, Allison Loggins-Hull, Angélica Negrón, Morgan Krauss, Amanda Feery, Leila Adu-Gilmore, and Jessica Meyer from the first cycle of FMP, which debuted in 2017.

The works on Forward Music Project 1.0 bravely and vulnerably confront social issues such as human trafficking, arranged marriages, and child loss/abortion while also celebrating women’s resilience, joy, and power. Whether she’s accompanying the radiant voice of Nathalie Joachim (Dam mwen yo), bushwhacking through woody col legnos (Stolen), plucking along to jagged, iridescent, robotic soundscapes (Las Desaparecidas), or absolutely shredding in perpetual motion to the finish (Swerve), Gookin’s technical facility and dedication to this repertoire is inspiring. By equitably commissioning a diverse roster of composers to contribute their perspectives, this is a premier example of feminist advocacy done right.

The Grey Land (New Amsterdam Records) – Numinous

Numinous The Grey Land

Coming on the heels of other recent works about Black motherhood (Roberta Gumbel and Susan Kander’s dwb; Allison Loggins-Hull and Toshi Reagon’s Love Always), The Grey Land (New Amsterdam Records) is the latest release from composer Joseph C. Phillips and his ensemble, Numinous. Featuring soprano Rebecca L. Hargrove and narrator Kenneth Browning, The Grey Land explores hope, violence, the American dream, and survival through arias, instrumental interludes, and spoken word.

The arias give us a glimpse of what Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 (a bucolic reflection on growing up swaddled in the relative comfort and safety of white America) would look like in The Upside Down—where things are uncannily familiar, yet cold and distorted with horrors lurking in the darkness. When compared to the more fleshed out arias, some of the movements with forthcoming visual elements (film, dance, etc.) leave something to be desired in their current audio-only state. However, the overall arc of the work is well-conceived and promises to be a stunning and complex multimedia portrait of Black America when it is able to be fully realized.

Hildegard Competition Winners Vol. 1 (National Sawdust Tracks)

Hildegard Competition Winners Vol. 1

Launched in 2018, National Sawdust’s Hildegard Competition is a pathway to mentorship and artistic support for early career female, trans, and nonbinary composers. Along with a cash prize, the winners receive a live performance, a professional recording, and one-on-one mentorship.

Hildegard Competition Winners Vol. 1 (National Sawdust Tracks) features recordings of the winning pieces from 2018 and 2019 by Emma O’Halloran, inti figgis-vizueta, Niloufar NourbakhshBergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, X. Lee, and Kayla Cashetta. The stylistically-diverse album includes radiant percolating expanses peppered with Spice Girls samples (Constellations); the gentle unfolding of delicate soundscapes (Openwork, knotted object; Trellis in bloom; lightning ache); foreboding militaristic chaos (Aid for Sex); complex, textural, glacial blocks of sound (Tail, Lathed); trippy, clangy fragmentation (Casual Champagne + Cocaine); and shimmery, buzzy electroacoustics (Anima).

Invisible Ritual (TUNDRA) – Jennifer Curtis & Tyshawn Sorey

Invisible Ritual

It’s difficult to replicate the magic that happens when you bring together a group of brilliant improvisors who have a long history of collaboration and creative trust in one another. Such divination is at the heart of Invisible Ritual (released on New Focus Recordings’ TUNDRA imprint), the ecstatic timbral playground of violinist/composer Jennifer Curtis and multi-instrumentalist/composer Tyshawn Sorey.

Comprised of eight freely improvised tracks, Invisible Ritual is a whirlwind of virtuosity–it’s bebop meets new complexity with swirls of fiddle tunes incisively slicing through. Through years of working together, Curtis and Sorey have both the patience and the willingness to let things develop slowly, organically. The resulting album is a deeply satisfying journey of process without destination, a gradual unfurling that begs the listener to let go and float wherever the tide takes them.

Mass for the Endangered (New Amsterdam Records) – Sarah Kirkland Snider & Gallicantus

Sarah Kirkland Snider Mass for the Endangered

In any normal year, we would probably still be talking about the massive Australian bushfires that devastated millions of acres of land and displaced or killed billions of animals. Lest we forget the dire ongoing environmental crisis, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered (New Amsterdam Records) is a requiem for our planet that “embodies a prayer for endangered animals and the imperiled environments in which they live.”

Though the hallmark piercing countertenor of Medieval and Renaissance polyphony is prominent throughout, Snider’s Mass benefits from the inclusion of women’s voices that expand the range of the ensemble (the exceptional Gallicantus conducted by Gabriel Crouch). Moving through the libretto by poet/writer Nathaniel Bellows that combines the traditional Latin texts with new material, harmonies tinged with dissonance turn celebratory, while reverent prayers break down into fraught, desperate pleading. The unifying thread is Snider’s radiant, consonant, beautiful writing, which serves as a reaffirmation that musical characteristics typically defined as “feminine” are not a sign of weakness in composition.

The Nail House EP (New Amsterdam Records) – iT Boy

iT Boy The Nail House EP

First of all, thanks to ICIYL contributor Gemma Peacocke for putting iT Boy, the solo electronic project of Theo Baer, on my radar. The Nail House, a tight 20-minute EP released on New Amsterdam Records, derives its name from the Chinese term for properties that resist the pressures of gentrification–a predatory process that claimed Baer’s home and work studio during the creation of this project. In addition to Baer’s contributions on synths, keyboards, trumpet, drum machine, and tape loops, he is joined by Zachary Paul (violin), Ed Bear (baritone saxophone, electronics), Trevor Hamilton (vocals), and Alex Weston (saxophone).

The Nail House exudes a lo-fi DIY ethos that feels meticulously constructed, yet stripped down and authentic at the same time. Transcendent glistening electronics swirl with trumpet, violin, and saxophone, while dreamy prismatic synth aquariums are punctuated by splashy cymbals. Throughout the three tracks on this EP, iT Boy creates reverberant, meditative, intimate spaces awash with cosmic energy that bring much-needed healing vibes to this tumultuous year.

To Be Surrounded By Beautiful, Curious, Breathing, Laughing Flesh Is Enough (Joyful Noise Recordings) – Deerhoof & Wadada Leo Smith

Deerhoof and Wadada Leo Smith To Be Surrounded By Beautiful, Curious, Breathing, Laughing Flesh Is Enough

The heady, experimental, indie noise rock group Deerhoof might seem like an odd choice for this list, but as a band with a history of defying genre labels, their collaboration with legendary experimental trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith deserves recognition. In fact, Deerhoof’s work has frequently intersected with the new music scene by way of past appearances at Big Ears Festival and their 2016 album with Ensemble Dal Niente and composer Marcos Balter.

Released in July, To Be Surrounded By Beautiful, Curious, Breathing, Laughing Flesh Is Enough (Joyful Noise Recordings) is a live album that includes a five-song set with Wadada Leo Smith from New York City’s Winter Jazzfest at Le Poisson Rouge, and 100% of the album proceeds benefitted Black Lives Matter. To Be Surrounded features Satomi Matsuzaki’s trademark vocals that combine unpretentious whimsy and deceptive coyness that belie her razor sharp intonation and command over her instrument. And while the quality of Deerhoof’s live performance is outstanding, hearing the interaction with the audience is also an added bonus. Humor can go a long way in experimental music, so chuckles from audience that pucntuate pointillistic improv–in addition to enthusiastic whoops of appreciation–enhance the experience.


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