On the night of December 31, 2019, I was seated next to two delightful elderly women who were telling me that they’ve been spending their days taking Russian language classes together. The three of us had plopped ourselves onto a squishy leather couch facing a muted TV that showed Post Malone gyrating in the freezing cold of Times Square; they were singing arias from La Bohème and I was staring blankly at the screen, waiting for the ball to drop so I could go watch the fireworks in Central Park.
I remember the details of that night so clearly: the black velvet jumpsuit and red lipstick I was wearing, the bubbling champagne I was drinking, the garlicky scent of the hors d’oeuvres in the other room, the couch I was sitting on. The next morning, I bought myself a bouquet of pale orange tulips. Everything felt so full of hope. It’s funny how clear those scenes play out in my head, how at that time I could have never predicted where I’d be right now.
Too much has happened since then, and nothing has happened since then. Yet here I am, preparing to bake a chocolate pudding cake to ring in 2021. Maybe I’ll remember this New Year’s Eve just the same. My more reliable constant than my memory is music, the music I return to even as the ground beneath me slowly crumbles. If I can become engulfed by the sound of a thousand swarming cellos and shimmering electric guitars, I’m content.
Here’s some of the (broadly speaking) experimental music I loved this year, in alphabetical order. I do not intend for this to be “canon” or “best of,” rather, it’s a list for reflection and enjoyment. This music is how I hope to remember 2020.
Galya Bisengalieva, Aralkum (One Little Independent Records)
Violinist and London Contemporary Orchestra leader Galya Bisengalieva has been releasing superb solo recordings since 2018, but Aralkum marks her official full-length solo debut. Her music weaves together her deft skills as a violinist with lush drones and layers of electronics; Aralkum unites found sounds from her homeland of Kazakhstan with a swirling mass of sweet violin sound to tell the heartbreaking story of the now dried-up Aral Sea. The music is arid but enveloping, a soundtrack for desolation that offers fleeting glimmers of hope in its final moments of luminescence.
Anna Clyne, Mythologies (AVIE Records)
Mythologies brings together a decade of composer Anna Clyne’s whimsical compositions for orchestra. The pieces each find inspiration in different themes; Clyne’s deep appreciation for folk stories and melodies is a regular source of inspiration on the album, giving it a light and often dance-like touch. The beauty of the album comes from its blend of the contemporary and the traditional, revamping orchestral music for the 21st century.
Oliver Coates, skins n slime (RVNG Intl.)
It’s difficult to define Oliver Coates as a cellist — his practice is more an exploration of the engulfing sounds he can make with the instrument. skins n slime is an amorphous mass that shifts and gurgles between its sentiments. But no matter where it goes, it remains consuming in each moment. From the grainy, shoegazey howls of “Reunification 2018” to the sweet, yearning melodies of the “Caregiver” suite, every sound is placed right where it needs to be to swallow you whole.
Charles Curtis, Performances & Recordings 1998-2018 (Saltern)
Charles Curtis has worked with a slew of the most important figures in contemporary music, such as regular collaborator and minimalist pioneer La Monte Young. Performances & Recordings 1998-2018 is an anthology of this history, highlighting Curtis’ command of the modern repertoire, with some surprises thrown in (14th Century ars nova composer Guillaume de Machaut’s “Helas! Et Comment!,” for example). This album is a wonderful glimpse into the repertoire for cello, performed with delicate, encapsulating precision.
Jennifer Curtis & Tyshawn Sorey, Invisible Ritual (New Focus Recordings)
Violinist Jennifer Curtis and Composer/percussionist/MacArthur Fellow Tyshawn Sorey come together on Invisible Ritual for a series of dexterous improvisations. The album unites crashing drums with classic fiddling, finding a new ritual in its bold conglomeration of styles. It’s a real treat to hear these two musicians come together, simultaneously embodying their own stylistic realms and melding together with a near-perfect synergy.
Wendy Eisenberg, Auto (Ba Da Bing Records)
Wendy Eisenberg’s Auto has, deservedly, gotten a great amount of press this year. Many things have been written about it, but my personal favorite aspect of the album is its surprising twists and turns. You may think it’s post-punk, or spoken word, or dissonant experimentation, but just when you do, it morphs into something else entirely.
Matt Evans, New Topographics (Whatever’s Clever)
Percussionist and composer Matt Evans, known for his collaborative work with groups like Tigue and Bearthoven, released his debut solo full-length earlier this year, and it was one to remember. New Topographics, named after the 20th century landscape photography movement, funnels Evans’ interests in visual arts and philosophy into watery, wavelike music that strikes an irresistible groove. The atmosphere he creates is at times bubbly, other times eerie, always mesmerizing.
Ellen Fullman & Theresa Wong, Harbors (Room40)
On Harbors, Ellen Fullman’s 70-foot, 40-stringed Long Instrument is paired with Theresa Wong’s iridescent cello, creating a windswept and eerie series of winding drones. The Long Instrument is, in itself, a feat: To play it, Fullmer walks between the strings, which are pulled taught between the walls of a room, rubbing them with rosined fingers to create a nasally sound. In-person, this contraption allows the whole room to resonate as if the audience, too, is part of the instrument. On recording, it transports us to the abandoned docks of a misty lake instead, while Wong’s cello cuts through the dense fog like a piercing yellow light blaring from the top of a lighthouse.
Ash Fure, Something to Hunt (Sound American)
Composer Ash Fure has, most recently, become known for her massive sound installations that defy the typical boundaries of form. She writes operas without words, crafts sounds from styrofoam. There’s no limit to her creativity in the pursuit of writing music just the way her mind sees it. Something to Hunt is her first retrospective album; instead of those engulfing live productions, the album presents a series of older concert works. Each funnels a story into the seams of the unusual sounds — her grandmother’s Parkinson’s Disease, a tiger stalking its prey, climate change. Her storytelling is abstract, making itself known through the drama of tension and release rather than the overt lyrics of a song.
Judith Hamann, Peaks (Black Truffle)
Peaks is cellist Judith Hamann’s debut album, released this past fall alongside two other recordings on Blank Forms. For years, her work has been centered on live performance; she’s toured all over the world playing a vast range of repertoire with collaborators like her mentor Charles Curtis (see above). But Peaks is all her own, recorded from a solitary stint at an artist residency program. Her music is in its prime here, floating through a series of gauzy drones to envelope you in a filmy atmosphere of resonant sound.
Sarah Hennies, The Reinvention of Romance (Astral Spirits)
The Reinvention of Romance represents the pinnacle of concept-meets-style and leaves no stone unturned in its execution. Commissioned by Two Way Street — cellist Ashlee Booth and percussionist Adam Lion — the 86-minute piece follows the contours of a long-term relationship. Hennies’ music is based in gradual exploration, rhythms that gently fall out of place, consonant pitches that gracefully fall into dissonance. The Reinvention of Romance is a climactic matching of the delicate ruptures of the stasis of cohabitation and the subtle pulsation of Hennies’ music; the rings of bowed glockenspiel fall into the grit of solemn cello pitches. Not much happens, but at the same time, everything happens. As long as you’re listening.
Eiko Ishibashi, Hyakki Yagyō (Black Truffle)
Musical shapeshifter Eiko Ishibashi creates a haunting sonic landscape on Hyakki Yagyō. The album’s many sounds are meant to evoke the mystical chaos of an event in Japanese folklore, where spirits enter the town one evening and cause mayhem. Created in collaboration with longtime musical partner and fellow musical chameleon Jim O’Rourke, Hyakki Yagyō is a collage of buzzing insects and billowy string instruments; its commitment to painting a detailed picture of this magical event is what makes it so entrancing.
Horse Lords, The Common Task (Northern Spy)
The Common Task is the fourth album by experimental rock mainstays Horse Lords, and their unruly sound is as polished as ever. It’s an irresistible mix of loud guitars and toe-tapping rhythms, and the band’s penchant for microtonality and unusual tunings gives the music its eccentric flair. Hints of political utopia bubble up here and there in the song titles (and album title, for that matter), but the most promising utopia Horse Lords provides is an eternal good time.
Irreversible Entanglements, Who Sent You? (International Anthem)
On Who Sent You?, free jazz ensemble Irreversible Entanglements makes revolutionary music for a new century. Moor Mother’s biting whispers hover between layers of rumbling improvisation; the group builds on free jazz futurist traditions to imagine a better time ahead. The result is fiery and empowering, music that feels like a protest in its formidable sound.
Molly Joyce, Breaking and Entering (New Amsterdam Records)
Composer Molly Joyce finds inspiration in the washed out sounds of the Cocteau Twins and her lived experiences as a person with left hand impairment. Breaking and Entering features the enveloping sound of her beloved vintage toy organ paired with reverberant electronics; each song weaves the narrative of her life and her music. It’s a quietly explosive album.
Kaki King, Modern Yesterdays (Cantaloupe Music)
Modern Yesterdays is guitarist Kaki King’s first album in five years, and it does not disappoint. Her yearning instrumentals fit well with the ups and downs of 2020, telling its story by wavering between arid, desolate sonic landscapes and fluid, full-bodied resonance. King’s playing is crisp and precise; her world is easy to get consumed in.
John Kolodij, First Fire · At Dawn (Astral Editions)
John Kolodij, more commonly known for his work as High Aura’d, steps out under his own name for the first time on First Fire · At Dawn, to great success — the album’s engrossing drones feel almost like portraits, illustrating the grit of sunset and the gentle light of daybreak. Combining Americana, blues, and powerful electronics, it’s enticing in its relentless ability to conjure images through pure sound, bringing to life the natural everyday with drone vibrations, the beats of a banjo, and the strokes of a fiddle.
Okkyung Lee, Yeo-Neun (Shelter Press)
Cellist Okkyung Lee trades her usual brand of raucous, adventurous experimentation for a more staid, formulaic sound on Yeo-Neun. The quartet she writes for — comprising Lee on cello, Maeve Gilchrist on harp, Elvind Osvik on bass, and Jacob Sacks on piano — is distant from standard instrumentation, but Lee composes music that delicately highlights and unites each instrument. The album is lush and romantic, cinematic in scope and finely detailed in texture as each instrument performs sweet melodies and intricate extended techniques. There are no hard edges in the music, only rich atmospheres to swirl amongst.
George Lewis, Rainbow Family (Carrier Records)
Rainbow Family is a remarkable piece of history — a newly released recording from 1984 at IRCAM, a central location for electronic exploration in the 20th century. George Lewis looms large in this history; his experimentations with his “virtual orchestra” have been groundbreaking. Much has been written about Lewis and Lewis himself describes this album best, so I’ll leave you to the Bandcamp program notes. My personal favorite part of experiencing this music, though, is knowing that I’m listening to the first moments of something that has since served to influence many, and blossomed into so many new ideologies.
Kali Malone, Studies for Organ (self-released)
Studies for Organ is the behind-the-scenes of organist Kali Malone’s sprawling 2019 album, The Sacrificial Code. It offers a glimpse into her practice, showing the steps she took to create her full-bodied, poignant music. Her organ playing here is as slow-moving and tender as ever, an exploration of affecting chord progressions and gradually shifting waves of sound. Listening is like stopping time.
Bill Nace, Both (Drag City)
Guitarist Bill Nace collaborates with seemingly every artist on the experimental and rock stage (most notably, Kim Gordon and Graham Lambkin). But here, he steps out on his own, making improvisational music with his dark electric guitar that flows between spaced-out psych rock and sparse, abstract melodies. It’s an album with a wide range of sonic landscapes, pieced together by Nace’s deft guitar playing.
ONO, Red Summer (American Dreams Records)
On Red Summer, Chicago-based jazz-funk-experimental collective ONO uses their uninhibited sound to tell the story of the race-driven violence of 1919’s Red Summer, with a particular eye to the history of their hometown. The band, which formed in 1980, is a mainstay of Chicago’s underground avant-garde; their choice of centering Chicago’s history, then, is no surprise. This is an album that confronts our hateful past with fearless vigor, pairing their unencumbered music with plainspoken truths.
Powers/Rolin Duo, St (Feeding Tube Records)
St beams with gently flaring light. It’s the debut full-length from Powers/Rolin Duo (Jen Powers on hammered dulcimer and Matthew Rolin on 12-string guitar), and on it, the duo’s sprawling, folk-inspired ruminations brim with radiance. The longform instrumentals provide just enough space to become absorbed in, like being bathed in a warm pool of light streaming from a window on a lazy afternoon. This is the kind of music to listen to when you need to forget about your thoughts for a while and just feel something.
Brendon Randall-Myers, dynamics of vanishing bodies (New Focus Recordings)
On dynamics of vanishing bodies, guitarist and composer Brendon Randall-Myers bridges a plethora of his interests and experiences: psychoacoustics, long-distance relationships, endurance. The piece cycles through different electric guitar extended techniques to play with the ideas of perception and to illustrate the ways that people and places may leave yet always remain. Some of it flat-out rocks (see the chaotic groove of “trem chorale/harmonic melody”). Written for his long-time collaborators, Dither, dynamics of vanishing bodies paints a picture of Randall-Myers’ music at its fullest, and most obliterating.
Julia Reidy, Vanish (Editions Mego)
Julia Reidy blends gurgling, Auto Tune vocals with vivid, expansive guitar to make music that feels like it’s tangible. Vanish builds on past styles found in earlier records like 2019’s In Real Life, representing an ever further polished form of her ideology. This music is, for lack of a better word, a vibe — her engrossing strums emerge like rays of sun, radiating energy in every dramatic pulsation.
Spektral Quartet, Experiments in Living (New Focus Recordings)
The string quartet has long been one of my personal favorite instrumentations, and Experiments in Living provides a fantastic survey of modern composition for the setup. Chicago-based ensemble Spektral Quartet give a formidable overview of the repertoire on this album, from Johannes Brahms to Charmaine Lee. Sounds range from angst-laden, harmony-driven romanticism to whispering, sparse dissonances, presenting the wide range of possibilities for modern string quartet music.
Luke Stewart, Luke Stewart Exposure Quintet (Astral Spirits)
On Exposure Quartet, Stewart celebrates the power of communal music making by giving each member of his ensemble the space to tell their story within each meandering piece. The result is music that feels truly collaborative — every musician brings his or her own personality to the improvisation, yet they never lose sight of cohesion. Stewart’s pummeling bass is a persistent driver of the action, which unfolds through its roundtable style, unbridled solo improvisations. Only these artists could have made this album, and that’s why it feels like such a special gift.
Tasting Menu, Mueller Tunnel (Full Spectrum Recordings)
Tasting Menu, a trio of musicians and sound artists from southern California, pay homage to the mountainous and deserted landscape of their home on Mueller Tunnel. Recorded inside Mueller Tunnel, once-fireroad inside the Angeles mountains, the album creates a sense of place, from the sound of gravelly footsteps to the faint hum of a viola. It’s a subdued celebration of nature, illuminated by the group’s fine sonic details.
Michi Wiancko, Planetary Candidate (New Amsterdam Records)
Planetary Candidate slides between styles and sounds with ease, highlighting both violinist Michi Wiancko’s virtuosity and the versatility of the violin in general. The album unites a group of Wiancko’s composer friends, who each wrote solo violin pieces for her, to reimagine solo violin repertoire for the modern era. There are many peaks on the album, but the most enticing moments come with its explosive combinations of roaring electronics and sweet violin.
Eli Winter, Unbecoming (American Dreams Records)
“Either I Would Become Ash,” the opening track on Chicago-based guitarist Eli Winter’s Unbecoming, is 22 minutes of hypnotic, thought-provoking strums; Winter quietly shifts between emphatic themes, from delicate rolled chords to intricate, repeating melodies. From there, the music twists and turns in other directions, including the scattered, lo-fi experimentations of “Dark Light.” It’s Winter’s second album, and its poignant lucidity is what makes it shine.
Ning Yu, Of Being (New Focus Recordings)
Pianist Ning Yu premieres three new works by composers Wang Liu, Misato Mochizuki, and Emily Praetorius on Of Being. Her playing is sharp and plucky, highlighting the plain, twinkling delicacies of each of the pieces. Each of the three pieces explore a different facet of time and living, transforming the music of the piano into a means of illustrating the constant push and pull of existence. The album is Yu’s debut solo recording, and her meticulous performance is unforgettable.