Classical Music

Editor’s Picks: 2022 New Music Albums


For me, 2022 was a paradoxical year filled with confusing contradictions. I attended significantly more live performances, but despite this, I feel like I listened to less music. I traveled and saw more people, but I became more acutely aware of feeling isolated. Engaging with new music was sometimes refreshing, but often felt difficult. Maybe in light of returning to some semblance of “normalcy,” our pandemic years were thrown into sharp relief. Maybe reaching a point of tenuous stability is allowing us to finally start processing everything we have collectively experienced.

In a year of admittedly reduced listening, it felt appropriate to shrink this list from the usual ten albums down to eight — but hopefully this underscores just how extraordinary these eight projects are. The albums listed below are deeply affecting and commanded my attention, even in moments where I struggled to find creative inspiration. These are the projects that encouraged me to put everything down and enjoy the act of listening, and I hope they’ll do the same for you.

The Blue Hour (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch) – Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova, Caroline Shaw, and A Far Cry

I have personally been anticipating a recording of The Blue Hour since it premiered in 2017. Collaboratively composed by Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova, and Caroline Shaw, the evening-length song cycle for voice and chamber orchestra sets excerpts from Carolyn Forché’s abecedarian poem “On Earth.” Through an alphabetical listing of images, the piece shares the fleeting thoughts of the last hour of a person’s life.

The narrator’s scattered memories unfold in a beautifully tender journey unified by an emotionally direct, luminously consonant, and melodically expressive aesthetic. From the blossoming opening to the haunting canonic finale, the 40 short vignettes lilt, reflect, whisper, shimmer, and resonate. Personal favorites include Snider’s lush and expansive “Early Summer’s Green Plums” and Shaw’s mechanically unfolding and Brandenburg-tinged “Firmament,” though one of the most impressive aspects is the seamless handoff between movements that were written by different composers.

The New Amsterdam/Nonesuch recording features the commissioning ensemble, A Far Cry, with Shara Nova as soloist (replacing Luciana Souza from the world premiere tour). Nova’s chameleon-like ability to oscillate between indie pop and contemporary classical styles brings a new depth to the performance, and it’s an absolute treat to be able to share and revisit this stunning work.

Chaotic Neutral (self-release) – Elizabeth A. Baker

Art can be an incredible vehicle for processing trauma and bringing attention to social justice issues, but regularly engaging with trauma-based art can be a depleting experience. After the heaviness of past three years, it feels especially restorative to encounter an explicitly non-narrative collection of sounds. Enter The Honourable Elizabeth A. Baker’s Chaotic Neutral, a self-released album awash with synths, samples, a Speak-and-Spell, and a double-sided harmonics guitar custom designed by John Jansen.

Part of the magic of Baker’s work is watching her extract and shape sound in real-time, gradually building layered atmospheres that kaleidoscopically rotate and transform. But the purely audio experience of Chaotic Neutral instead offers an opportunity for deep listening, a chance to simply appreciate the sounds from her “evolving spaceship” of gear. However, the album is certainly not defined by the absence of narrative and live interaction. It’s somewhat like the practice of meditation, where the goal isn’t to create a space devoid of thoughts, but to learn how to observe our bodies and minds. Chaotic Neutral encourages a similarly intentional approach, drawing our attention to the careful construction of each soundscape. In the same way that I find minimalist music comforting, Baker establishes foundational textures in which small changes feel like tiny treasures, both pleasantly surprising and well-earned. By not forcing a narrative onto the six tracks, Baker allows us to sit in her curated sonic space and see what arises in each of us.

field anatomies (Carrier Records) – Laura Cocks

As a founding member of TAK Ensemble, flutist Laura Cocks is no stranger to the demands of experimental music. Cocks has an extensive discography as an ensemble member, but field anatomies (Carrier Records) is their explosive solo debut. Featuring “blisteringly physical” works for flute and piccolo by David Bird, Bethany Younge, Jessie Cox, DM R, and Joan Arnau Pàmies, the album pushes the limitations of the human body and largely eschews standard sound production methods on the flute and piccolo. In fact, if you went into this album cold, you might not be able to guess the instrumentation until several minutes into the first track, when a tiny wisp of recognizable piccolo tone emerges from labored breathing, percussive bursts, and key clicks.

The breath control and sheer amount of air required to create these pitched air effects, rapid oscillations between singing and playing, and audible inhalations and exhalations through the body of the flute/piccolo is astounding, uncomfortable, and physically exhausting. But creating successful performances of experimental music-theater requires an all-in commitment, and Cocks’ dedication never waivers for a second. You can see them action in the video for Bethany Younge’s Oxygen and Reality for piccolo, balloons, electronics, and hardware.

Though steadily growing, the experimental music community in the United States is still a relatively small facet of the larger new music scene — but we are lucky to have fearless and innovative artists like Laura Cocks and their collaborators leading the way.

FINAL SKIN (Cantaloupe Music) – BAKUDI SCREAM

I get a lot of albums pitched to me each year… more than I could ever possibly hope to listen to, even if my only job was to listen to music all day. I try to sample as much as I can, but it’s rare for an album to draw me in so intensely that I close all of my browser tabs, throw on a pair of headphones, and listen to the whole thing all the way through with no interruptions.

One of the few albums that hooked me this way in 2022 was FINAL SKIN (Cantaloupe Music), the debut album from BAKUDI SCREAM (a.k.a. musician/composer Rohan Chander) with guest performances by Vicky Chow, Yaz Lancaster, Dorothy Carlos, and Dani Strigi. Merging influences from hyperpop to video game music, FINAL SKIN is an immersive, character-driven journey that explores young shut-ins in Japan, ancient relics, body dysmorphia, and identity. In this story of heroes, hackers, warriors, and angels, Chander’s synthesized textures hint at familiar musical sequences and touch the shadows of sonic memories without fully revealing them. We might recognize the intoxicating energy of arcade platformers; that iconic moment of transcendent metamorphosis; and the epic finale where our hero dies in the arms of love. But ultimately, these musical tropes are cast in an experimental and unexpected new light. The taut 30-minute album compels you to keep diving deeper into Chander’s world and reveals new secrets with each time you hit play.

In Our Softening (self-released) – Sophia Subbayya Vastek

Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s self-released In Our Softening is a tender and revelatory balm for the collective trauma we have all lived through over the past three years. Much like a site-specific composition, In Our Softening is an instrument-specific album. Vastek had recently inherited an upright piano that stood forgotten in the corner of a desecrated church occupied by a hate group, but unlike most pianos that harden with age, this instrument had inexplicably softened despite years of neglect.

Composed and performed by Vastek, the works written for the eccentricities of this piano are an ode to vulnerability, gentleness, and self-compassion. Diffuse undulating waves of sound are softly outlined by the gentle mechanical tapping of wooden hammers against felt. Some passages are more texture than tone, capturing the nuance of every creak, scrape, and clack of the piano’s interior. The sounds of this piano are completely mesmerizing and unlike anything I have ever heard before; its pale and translucent timbres show us that it’s possible to survive devastating events and still have the capacity to create something of beauty, albeit in perhaps a different way than before.

Julius Eastman Vol. 2: Joy Boy (New Amsterdam) – Wild Up

Making this list for the second year in a row is Wild Up’s Julius Eastman Anthology Project, which launched in 2021 with Julius Eastman Vol. 1: Femenine. Released June 17, 2022 on New Amsterdam, Julius Eastman Vol. 2: Joy Boy includes performances of Stay On It, Touch Him When, and the never-before-recorded Joy Boy and Buddha.

Wild Up’s performance of the titular work does not concern itself with rigid musicianship, instead favoring joyfully unrefined outbursts from instruments and voices alike. Two different recordings of Buddha interpret the one-page instruction-less score vertically (the foreboding, monolithic “Field”) and horizontally (the sparse, meditative “Path”). Guitarist and bandleader JIJI also offers two versions of Touch Him When: “Light” is a faithful transcription of the only existing recording of the work featuring Eastman at the piano, while “Heavy” is a distorted, Frippertronics-laden reimagining. Concluding the album is the relentlessly euphoric Stay On It — a performance that ebulliently hurtles forward, and earned Wild Up a 2023 GRAMMY nomination for Best Orchestral Performance.

May We Know Our Own Strength (Gold Bolus Recordings) – Sugar Vendil

Composer, pianist, and interdisciplinary artist Sugar Vendil is a force of nature, and May We Know Our Own Strength (Gold Bolus Recordings) marks her emotionally raw and cathartic debut album. Featuring Vendil on vocals, piano, keyboards, and electronics, the album also includes guest performances by violinist Hajnal Pivnick and The Nouveau Classical Project. Despite its ultimate bent toward acceptance and healing, May We Know Our Own Strength is a heavy listening experience at times. But every anxious moment is ultimately soothed and brought to a place of calm inner fortitude.

The title track was written for a short film by Jih-E Peng based on Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya’s installation of the same name, which gave space to stories of sexual assault and gender-based violence in AAPI communities. It took me at least 10 tries to get past the first 30 seconds, which sound like you are being dropped in the middle of a panic attack. But eventually, Vendil’s choked gasps exhale into a major triad, a soothing hush, and the ringing of a Tibetan singing bowl. Every time the opening anxiety attempts to bubble back up to the surface, it is gently quieted — a reminder that we can learn to find peace and bloom anew after trauma.

“ooh wo ah oo wa o” bids farewell to The Nouveau Classical Project and Vendil’s beloved cat Coco through shimmery, fluttering undulations and pulsating syllabic vocalizations. And “coursing forth” concludes the album with deep vibrations, swooping vocals, pointillistic electronics, and spoken words of affirmation. The powerful final minutes leave the listener with Vendil’s ethereal voice flossing between their ears over deep drones (definitely grab a pair of headphones for this one!) — any sense of turmoil and unrest melting away.

What is American (Bright Shiny Things) – PUBLIQuartet

PUBLIQuartet‘s GRAMMY-nominated 2022 release, What is American (Bright Shiny Things), offers incisive commentary on our nation’s history through a celebration and interrogation of American musical traditions. The album employs what has become a tried and true programming approach for the quartet: combining newly composed works with their trademark MIND|THE|GAP project, which forges connections between thoughtfully-curated and stylistically-diverse pieces through improvisation.

What is American includes compositions by Rhiannon Giddens, Vijay Iyer, and Roscoe Mitchell, but digs deeper into the MIND|THE|GAP offerings than previous albums with reimaginings of Fats Waller, Ornette Coleman, Tina Turner, Betty Davis, Alice Coltrane, Ida Cox, and Antonin Dvorak — because honestly, why present yet another recording of Dvorak’s “American” quartet when you can recast the finale with chorale singing against a backdrop of swishing, pitchless bowing?

PUBLIQuartet’s multi-layered approach shows up on tracks like “Pavement Pounding Rose,” a dedication to Black entrepreneur Madam C. J.  Walker featuring narration from her great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles. There is so much to unpack in this three-minute offering, which juxtaposes improvisation, spoken word about Walker’s desire to serve her community, and bouncy, care-free licks from Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose.” For those who enjoy falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes, What is American will have you Googling the Civil War-era fifth verse of our National Anthem alongside archived performances from Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, uncovering new ideas on each subsequent listen.

 

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.



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