March 2020 in Experimental Music

March 2020 experimental music

How do I begin to reflect on March 2020? At the end of the month, I started a quest to revisit every Studio Ghibli film, which led me to watching the epic masterpiece, Spirited Away. It’s a film I’m coming back to after some time, and one that really captured my imagination when I was about 14. Spirited Away tells the story of a young girl, Chihiro, who is swept into a secret world of mysterious spirits when her parents decide to venture off-road to explore an abandoned market. From the first moments, it’s evident that greed is the undercurrent running throughout the film: in an early scene, Chihiro’s parents inhale food and morph into gluttonous pigs. Later on, we see the creepy spirit No Face offer gold only to eat those who accept it and the bathhouse leader Yubaba steal her workers’ names. You can draw larger parallels to broader societal issues, like the insidiousness of a capitalist system and the destructive nature of western imperialism. But what underlies each wide-swathed critique is the hidden-in-plain-sight motivational force that is greed.

We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, which is something I never imagined I’d experience in my lifetime. Its magnitude is nearly incomprehensible, but its repercussions are inevitable outcomes of a governance system that has reached a point of collapse. A foundation built on greed was never stable to begin with. With the world shut down and spiraling ever further, it’s no longer possible to ignore the fact that systems built on the climb for power without factoring in the cost of what’s left behind were faulty from their very beginnings. In a general sense, economic modeling completely, often solely, depends on societal “growth,” which is code-word for the obtainment of money through production. I wonder: how can you have growth when this very idea of “growth” doesn’t remember basic human rights and won’t forgo burning our planet to the ground?

Through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic, this all becomes even clearer, as we experience a free fall to the bottom. It’s quite surreal to watch, even though we have repeatedly warned and have been repeatedly warned about this. But it’s even more surreal to see how deeply all of this hurts industries that fulfill my own life, especially live music. I’ve truly missed the action of attending a show nearly every night, something I took for granted until now. I’ve been heartbroken to see my friends’ careers disappear for an ever-increasing amount of time.

Although we aren’t going to shows, music lives on, digitally. I’m highlighting here, as I do every month, some of the releases I’ve enjoyed in March, despite our bleak circumstances. Each provides a different perspective on what it means to create “experimental” music. The genre is so vast, so indefinable; each record under its purview implements sound in different ways. I’ve also included a few places that are providing emergency support to artists — if you can, please consider donating.

Within all of this pain, I want to find some hope. I need to find some hope. Greed will always be a part of the complex nature of living. We can’t ignore evil just as we can’t ignore good. But I hope we can come to new conclusions that empower us towards a framework that uplifts us rather than diminishes us.*


Horse Lords, The Common Task (Northern Spy Records)

The Common Task is Horse Lords at their most aligned. The Baltimore-based four-piece ensemble makes raucous music that provides a balanced combination of striking rhythm and loud guitars. With The Common Task, their fourth album, the sound is refined, but never dull. It’s danceable, off-kilter, funky, and precise all at once. It’s easy to miss that they’re aiming to call for collectivism and utopia, but it’s still incredibly fun to listen to. After all, when it’s purely instrumental, assigning meaning is an individual pursuit. For me, this one is simply infectious.


Irreversible Entanglements, Who Sent You? (International Anthem/Don Giovanni)

With their second album, Who Sent You?, Irreversible Entanglements are as tight as ever in their defiant call for revolution through the storied lens of free jazz. You can read my full review here.


LEYA, Flood Dream (NNA Tapes)

LEYA is a Harp-Voice/Violin duo comprising Marilu Donovan and Adam Markiewicz. Their music defies conventionality by blending unusual tonality and eerie vocalizations, forgoing standard methods of tuning and form in favor of creating their own universe. Dissonant tonality meets scrappy DIY aesthetics in their practice, and Flood Dream is a pinnacle of that ideology. Each song is encapsulating, spinning sounds whose chilling vibrations are unforgettable.


Meredith Monk/Bang on a Can All-Stars, Memory Game (Cantaloupe Music)

Memory Game is a look back on the collaboration between Meredith Monk and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, but its reminiscence feels new, not stale. The sound is as impeccable as ever, melding the ensemble’s unique instrumentation with Monk’s penchant for exploration, particularly with regards to her interest in a wide variety of vocalizations. On Memory Game, repetition feels as captivating as ever, as detailed layers of voices and instruments intertwine in a polished, but uncanny way.


The Necks, Three (Northern Spy Records)

Three is Australian jazz trio The Necks’ 21st record, but it’s a fresh drive down a familiar, immersive post-rock lane. The three songs that comprise the album are winding and explosive fever dreams. A picture of the desert fittingly adorns the album cover, and listening to the record feels like a burning road trip into desolate nature. As a rule, mesmerizing sound is easy to get lost in, and Three’s twisting paths are ripe for adventuring.


OTHER THOUGHTS: I’m *so lucky* to be friends with many wonderful musicians who share their work and thoughts with me. I can’t write about them as an unbiased listener, but I wanted to share their work anyways in case it speaks to you, the reader. So, here’s just a few of the releases of theirs that I really enjoyed from the last month.


New Village Tapes

Percussionist Evan Miller brought his label, New Village Tapes, back to life with two new recordings by himself and percussionist Jackson Graham. The two tapes are complementary, creating their own hypnotic ambient worlds.


Phong Tran, journal entries

Composer and synthesizer player Phong Tran released two new poignant and ruminative pieces in response to our current socially distant circumstances.


Cassie Wieland, heart

Composer Cassie Wieland released a mesmerizing and melancholy new piece for hammered dulcimer, performed by percussionist and sound artist Adam Holmes.


And, if you’re able, you can support artists in this trying time by donating to these funds: New Music USA — New Music Solidarity Fund; Equal Sound — Corona Relief Fund


Listen to the new releases mentioned here (and a couple of others) on the playlist below:


*All opinions expressed in this essay are my own.

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