It feels impossible to sum up a whole year in one article, especially one as tumultuous as 2021. There’s so much music out there and I don’t even listen to most of it, which is humbling and scary all at the same time. All that’s to say: For my 2021 reflection I’ve decided to split up my lists in order to better serve every album and piece of artwork that I’m choosing to write about.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to get to know many of the artists I write about on a personal level while living in New York. It’s made living in such a cold city a little bit warmer: A huge reason why I love writing about arts and culture is because I like to observe and think and feel things with other people. For this second 2021 in review list I’ll be highlighting 8 works that I’ve been involved with in some capacity, either as a friend or as a publicity person. If you missed Part One, you can check it out here.
Matt Evans, touchless (Whatever’s Clever)
In 2020, percussionist and composer Matt Evans released a solo album, New Topographics, which was made of neon-colored textures that illuminated his philosophical interests. Touchless, his 2021 solo record, takes a more subdued approach to similar sounds, and brings philosophy back to the personal (the album was developed after Evans lost his partner in 2019). I helped Evans edit his album bio for this record, which was an honor. But beyond that, I really enjoy just listening to this weightless, interior music. Throughout, Evans is toying with the idea of touch—whether we can touch what is or isn’t there, and what it means for touch to be there in the first place. His music here is subtle in the truest sense, unfurling in layers of just-tinted hues, just there, yet just out of reach.
Tristan Kasten-Krause, Potential Landscapes (Whatever’s Clever)
One of my first projects in 2021 was to write the press bio for Tristan Kasten-Krause’s solo debut Potential Landscapes, which is a celebration of friendship and musical collaborations that unites a bunch of different genres and voices into four tracks that explore Éliane Radigue-inspired drones. Kasten-Krause has long been a bass player in the New York scene, working on anything from contemporary classical premieres to Broadway shows to avant-rock bands. Here, he distills those experiences into dreamy tracks that question what’s imaginary and what’s real, taking us on a wafting journey through the places we know and the places we’ve yet to discover.
Jessica Pavone, Lull (Chaikin Records)
I wrote the press bio for this release, which was an utter joy. Lull is a culmination of much of Jessica Pavone’s interests and career as a violist and composer who’s worked in a variety of spheres within the experimental music world—classical composition, jazz improvisation (famously with Mary Halvorson and Anthony Braxton), deep listening-inspired drone music. It’s her first string octet and it foregrounds the performers’ experience of playing the music as much as the music’s intricacy and sound. Pavone’s writing is loosely structured and centers the performer’s expertise. What I personally like most about Lull is how it perfectly balances a sense of forward-moving time with spontaneity, and how it lets the process of listening to the music, and to each other, shine brightest.
Phong Tran, The Computer Room (New Amsterdam Records)
I’ve been following composer and electronic artist since 2019, when we met at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival for an interview. We’ve since become friends. At that first interview, Tran shared his story with me: How he found worlds online growing up, how he started making electronic music alongside his passion for video games, how he ended up pursuing a life as a composer. The Computer Room synthesizes all of that personal history and musical interest into one package, and it’s exciting to see someone’s vision come to life in the way that Tran’s has on The Computer Room. A little about the album’s fully engrossing sound: Tran explores a wide variety of synth sounds throughout, forming intertwining layers of sound that venture from crashing walls to sparse dissonances, reveling in both the drama of reverb and haunted wisps of sound. It’s music born out of the past and into the future.
Phong Tran/Neil Beckmann, Collective Endurance (Self-released)
Collective Endurance is a collaboration between my friends Phong Tran and Neil Beckmann. It’s also one of my favorite tracks from 2021: It’s a pummeling electric guitar piece, built off a backbone of repeating, fuzzed-out electric guitar that occasionally explodes into colorful, dramatic melodies, but always returns to that central, structured sound. The inspiration for the music is the pandemic’s stasis, the sense of stilted motion we’ve all felt over the past couple of years. It’s a scream but it’s contained in static harmony and melody, driven by an uncanny steadiness.
Various Artists, All Semantics (I) (cmntx records)
Two of my former coworkers/friends started a label with a couple of their friends this past fall, called cmntx records, which I’ve been enjoying. All Semantics (I) was their first release and it highlights their wide-ranging artist roster. It’s a solid introduction to what this label is about: The album spotlights the drone-side of contemporary classical composition, moving in immense bubbles of sound that grow and decay, consume and fade away. This is music to get lost (and found) in.
Various Artists, HUM (cmntx records)
This is another cmntx records release. This one’s a 30-minute drone excursion, recorded in 2019, that’s a collaborative release between composers and friends Marc Giguere, Alex Ring Gray, and Vicki Leona Nguyen. The three artists used an array of different scavenged and built instruments to make the piece. Each different texture can be heard, shrouded in resonance, throughout the track—from metallic rings to plucky strings. This is a meditative work with an ominous trajectory, always shifting into more cavernous, haunted corners until it finally finds warm resolution.
Wombat, Befriend the Giant (self-released)
I’ve been following the free improvisation trio Wombat since bassist Will Yager and I met at Bang on a Can in 2019. Every release of theirs is an uninhibited rumble, made of frenetic bass scrapes, bursts of electronics and random objects, and surprising saxophone pulses. Befriend the Giant provides another peak into that vision, made of a low grumble that’s ready to explode at any moment. This is music that’s urgent, haunted, eclectic, fiery, and calm all at once.