August 2020 in Experimental Music

Birthdays are always strange days for me. I don’t think that’s uncommon. There’s something odd about making an entire day about yourself, about dedicating an entire day to the aging process, about a day that’s both a retrospective and a means of stepping into the unknown future. I cried on my tenth birthday because a bunch of adults told me now that I was in the double digits, I’d never go back.

My birthday is at the end of August, the beginning of “virgo season,” though I don’t know or care about what that means. In March, I confidently declared that COVID would be over by my birthday. COVID is not over, but my birthday has come and gone. It’s funny, how we think we can predict the future. 

Isn’t it surreal to think about all the time that has passed this year under the pandemic’s watch? Of how much our lives have changed? Being alive in 2020 has shown me over and over again how the ability to be present in the moment, in your body, is the only way to stay sane when chaos is the loudest tendency. Resilience is a difficult skill to learn, and an even harder one to maintain.

Two years ago, I cried all day on my birthday. But I really enjoyed my birthday this year. My mom made me a funfetti cake and gave me a sunflower adorned necklace. I ate chicken parm and watched Kiki’s Delivery Service by a fire with my slippers on and I looked at the sky and saw all the stars glimmering from millions of lightyears away. For once on my birthday, I was present. I forgot about my past and let go of my future; all I felt was the warm, gentle embrace of love, a radiant beam that shines through every inch of your body. 

It’s enough.


Here’s a list of new experimental releases I enjoyed in August 2020. Today is Bandcamp Day — the day in which they waive their revenue share, so all proceeds go directly to artists and labels. If you so choose to purchase music today, Bandcamp is the place to be. As always, I’ve included ample context for this list for your reading and listening pleasure. 

Alan Braufman, The Fire Still Burns (Valley of Search)

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Alan Braufman returns from a 45 year hiatus to bring us an unabashedly celebratory, melodramatic, and fun new record of catchy jazz. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to dance. Read my full blurb alongside a bunch of other brilliant writers in Tone Glow.

Chris Cerrone & Tim Munro, Liminal Highway EP (New Focus Recordings)

Liminal Highway EP opens with Tim Munro’s piercing flute, performed with a wavering flutter-tongue. It’s still, and there’s an uncertainty of where the music will go. As the album progresses, there isn’t much more clarity; the music echoes and haunts, gliding between extended techniques and willowy atmospheres. It’s textural and understated, yet pulsation always ripples in the background. A 2016 commission by Miller Theatre, Liminal Highway was premiered with an accompanying movie that illuminates the shadowy aspects of the music. The centering of timbral experimentation is a continued inspiration for Rome Prize winning-composer Chris Cerrone, and here, that expertise is on full display.

Exotic Sin, Customer’s Copy (Blank Forms)

Exotic Sin — comprising Naima Karlsson and Kenichi Iwasa — makes dark, contemplative jazz that’s laden with contrasting ideas. The acoustic and electronic, melancholy and cheerful, organic and supernatural, blend together with ease to form the music of their debut LP, Customer’s Copy. The LP flows between sparse dissonance and lush atmospheres, ebbing and flowing between textures to create a consistently shifting sonic environment. The duo formed at an event celebrating Karlsson’s grandparents, Moki and Don Cherry, and Customer’s Copy pays hommage to their artistic legacy by incorporating some of Don Cherry’s musical instruments. The result is a dusting-off of jazz-electronic music for the 21st century that forms a fresh and compelling collection of immersive music.

Sarah Frisof, Beauty Crying Forth (New Focus Recordings)

I always love to see a classical music compilation that features music by artists who are not white men, and flutist Sarah Frisof packs a punch with Beauty Crying Forth. We get music ranging from the peppy virtuosity of Tania Léon’s Alma, to the characteristic romanticism of Clara Schumann’s Three Romances, to the punchy rhythm of Amy Williams’ First Lines, to the textural, agitated dissonance of Kaija Saariaho’s Cendres. This is a great place to discover just a smidgen of flute works written by a variety of women, each bringing a different musical perspective to the table.

Ellen Fullman & Theresa Wong, Harbors (Room40)

Ellen Fullman’s mind-boggling and massive long instrument gets its fair due alongside the ethereal cello of Theresa Wong. You can read my full blurb alongside a bunch of brilliant writers in Tone Glow.

Hub New Music, Soul House (New Amsterdam Records)

Soul House is Boston-based ensemble Hub New Music’s debut album, featuring composer Robert Honstein’s beaming nine-movement work of the same name. Honstein writes this music for his childhood home; it shimmers with vivid nostalgia. Hub New Music brings the music to life with a flair for its intimacy, exuding the warmth and radiance that it requires. Listening to this music is like stepping into the lens flare of a camera in a coming of age film, or resuscitating the poignant memories that live in the recesses of the mind.

Nathalie Joachim & Special Music School, Transformation (Kaufman Music Center)

During quarantine, Grammy-nominated composer and flutist Nathalie Joachim worked with students of Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School to create an album from far apart. The result is Transformation, a record made of catchy tunes, glitchy electronics, and lush harmony. Flowing between crashing ambient and sparse melody, Transformation has moments of music for everyone. The collective nature of its creation brings a joyful pulse to the music, too, and it’s exciting to see music education live on in new ways.

JOBS, endless birthdays (Ramp Local)

JOBS, an eccentric band comprising guitarist/vocalist Dave Scanlon, drummer Max Jaffe, violist Jessica Pavone, and Rob Lundberg, makes music that mashes tidbits from genres like techno, contemporary classical, and electro-pop together to make unapologetically brash music. endless birthdays opens with a robotic voice repeating surreal lyrics, and crunching beats swaying in the background. It’s a surreal world, a world that unites the familiar with the unusual. This is their third album, but they’re still carving their own niche from tools that aren’t usually juxtaposed.  

Llama/Llama, Knurled::Nuts (Belts and Whistles)

Knurled::Nuts is a concentrated dosage of modular synth noise. It opens with an immersive drone that explodes into grating crunches and long-held tones. Llama/Llama, the duo behind the record, comprises Quinn Collins and Paul Schuette, both on synthesizer. On each side of the album, they move through styles and sounds almost at hyper-speed, taking us on a roller coaster exploration of the possibilities of the modular synth that both gives a nod to history and explores new territories through unconventional sounds.

Bill Nace & Graham Lambkin, The Dishwashers (Open Mouth)

So…this one isn’t available on Bandcamp, but it might just be my favorite of August 2020. It’s a nonchalant, yet immediately mesmerizing, collage of field recordings and acoustic guitar. You can read my full blurb on Tone Glow, alongside a bunch of other brilliant writers.

Spektral Quartet, Experiments in Living (New Focus Recordings)

Experiments in Living is another somewhat retrospective album, traversing the classic sound of Johannes Brahms and the always surprising vocal improvisations of Charmaine Lee alike. Spektral Quartet shows off their chops on this album — they’re equally adroit at performing Ruth Crawford Seeger’s biting early 20th-century modernism as they are George Lewis’ wild experimentations. There’s a current of energy that runs through each piece that ties the different sonic worlds together, creating the monolithic package of modern string quartet music that Experiments in Living represents.

Gabi Vanek & Will Yager, Ghost Actions (self-released)

Bassoonist Gabi Vanek and bassist Will Yager team up for the four wild improvisations of Ghost Actions. They contort their instruments and electronics in so many sputtering, crackling, and loud directions that it’s hard to even place what techniques and sounds you’re hearing. But I think that’s the fun of it — it’s unafraid to be anything at all.

Eli Winter, Unbecoming (American Dreams Records)

With Unbecoming, Chicago-based guitarist Eli Winter melds folk influences with ruminative acoustic guitar to form a series of gently captivating longform pieces. The music winds through gripping melodies and touching poignancy; it’s the sort of thoughtful performance that grabs you and takes you along on the journey rather than standing idly by.