Interview with Mario Batkovic.
“Being an Accordionist is something very natural to me, just like my origin or my skin colour. It’s a pure coincidence.”
Words: Mark Carry
The forthcoming debut solo full-length from gifted composer and accordionist Mario Batkovic – released on Geoff Barlow’s prestigious Invada Records later this March – is already destined to be 2017’s crowning sonic treasure. The Bosnian-born and Swiss-based musician has forged an utterly captivating and resolutely unique solo album, which, in turn, ceaselessly expands the possibilities of the accordion instrument.
One of the great hallmarks of Batkovic’s solo accordion music is the sheer intensity that is not only attained but held magnificently across an ocean of shape-shifting pulsating notes, engrossing melodies and deeply affecting human emotion subsequently emitted. Previously, the Bern-based musician has described his underlying creative process as “absolute submission to the sound.” It is precisely this – an artist‘s undying devotion – that lies at the heart of these nine groundbreaking compositions.
Album opener ‘Quatere’ is built upon a mesmerizing melodic pattern, which continually builds as a pulsating energy gradually surfaces like pores of Autumnal sunlight. An awe-inspiring and beautifully uplifting sonic exploration. A gripping intensity is attained on ‘Gravis’ where the depths of darkness is navigated: the range of timbres and textures is a joy to behold from the drone-infused world of repeatedly sprawling, sustained notes. Catharsis. A fitting parallel exists between Batkovic’s singular, captivating accordion-based compositions and fellow luminary Colin Stetson (and his similarly powerful saxophone explorations). A wall of immense, stunningly beautiful and empowering sounds.
The utterly timeless ‘Restrictus’ unleashes an unwavering beauty as several movements unfold an entire spectrum of mood, colour and feeling. The epic, tour-de-force ‘Inuente’ conveys the sheer power and glory of the composer’s capabilities to expand the possibilities of his chosen accordion instrument to its very outer limits. The fragile lament ‘Somnium’ brings this exceptional record to a fitting close. The illuminating horizon is soaked in radiant light. We, the listener need only rejoice in its infinite beauty.
‘Mario Batkovic’ will be released on Invada Records in March 2017.
Interview with Mario Batkovic.
Congratulations Mario on your utterly captivating and wholly unique debut solo album. Your solo accordion music elicits the rawest of human emotion where a striking narrative (and gripping intensity) is masterfully captured throughout this phenomenal solo record. Can you please talk me through the making of the new record and your memories of writing these compositions? It feels as if many of these accordion pieces were gradually blooming in your head for quite some time?
Mario Batkovic: Thank you very much for your questions. They are interesting and reflect many of my own reflections. Many of your questions already express a wonderful picture. I will try to answer your questions as good as possible.
You’re right, it’s not just music that recently came into being. It existed not only in my head, but it was just not ripe for the stage. There were a lot of stumbling blocks. I couldn’t play my music but had to let her flow into my projects by the way. Unbelievable, but there was a kind of censorship. Only when all the requirements would conform, I released my music. Which demanded more of an art of Persuasion than the creating of art itself.
When it comes to recording these tracks, I can imagine were there technical difficulties when recording the solo accordion to tape? One of the great hallmarks of the album is just how intimate these recordings are – it’s as if you’re playing alone in the room with its listener – and your spellbinding performance and all the beautiful imperfections and human artefacts form the vital heart of these songs. Were there certain techniques or processes you feel you have developed that were critical processes to the recording of the album itself?
MB: Beautiful how you put my music into words. Right, there were technical problems to handle. Since the recording of the Accordion is done in a wrong way. That’s why today we see a Musical picture of the Instrument that is only a remnant of how the Accordion really sounds. That’s why this Instrument has been pigeonholed so much it’s hard to take it out of this box. Every sound engineer keeps telling me he knows how the Accordion sounds. But that’s not true. They don’t because they are not Accordionists. My sound engineer and I collaborate in an extremely intense way. It’s a Duet. It took years until him and I realized how the Instrument works and how we can make it sound. Many people may know this but they don’t have the experience. I hope our technique is inspiring other artists and initializing my instrument to new possibilities. I was just not willing to record one single tone until we didn’t solve those technical problems.
The wide range of possibilities you generate from your chosen instrument is staggering, which is reminiscent of Colin Stetson’s saxophone and Lubomyr Melnyk’s piano music, kindred spirits in many ways. I would love for you to discuss your earliest musical memories and your first discovery of the accordion instrument. How soon would you realize just how important your chosen instrument would serve in your life, Mario?
Also, please discuss your musical path thus far – as a virtuoso accordion player – and the ways and approaches to which you have developed your unique, innovative and magnificent solo accordion music? As a debut solo LP, the music represents like a life’s work and so many of your life’s experience and musical journey is dotted all across these glorious nine compositions.
MB: Of course I was influenced by all the moving. That’s how I ended up in the situation of adapting in a new society. At the same time I had to adjust and remain true to myself. That was not always easy. But it finds its way into my music. I love all kinds of music just as I love all kinds of people, no matter which society they belong to. To exclude something would not suit my philosophy of life. Only the music created of greed doesn’t interest me. But after all that’s not true music. This opinion was sometimes hard to get along with.
Every society has its vogue, its trends. So I tried to find a merge of the sweet with the bitter. To listen between the lines and to get an own impression of things. That’s why I don’t like it too much when I’m compared to other musicians. I’m an original, just as you are an original. There’s everyone of us just once on this planet. And my music reflects me. It’s a mix of baroque, contemporary, kitsch, obscure, deep, sweet, sad. Just what life is all made of.
Being an Accordionist is something very natural to me, just like my origin or my skin colour. It’s a pure coincidence. I’m a musician in the first place, and then I am an Accordionist. There could have been a flute or a guitar. Now, for me, there was the Accordion.
‘Gravis’ is one of the album’s defining moments. The range of timbres and textures from the accordion instrument is a joy to behold. Can you talk me through the distinct movements crafted in this stunningly beautiful composition? The rise in this piece forms one of the most heavenly, enchanting sounds; an utterly timeless sound world of vast possibilities. Can you shed some light on your compositional approach, Mario and how it may vary between the various compositions?
MB: Different from my other projects where I can listen to a composition in my head already like a radio song, the music I interpret myself is developing way different. First I have to take regard to the technical possibilities of playing the instrument, because I record it myself, not like when I compose film music and have other musicians playing the sound. The instrument can do a lot but also has its limits. First of all I have to subtract many components like playing techniques, sound techniques, bellows shake and so on, and then I can get started. Then I can start to thing freely. Then it comes to the philosophical part. Gravis is the picture of a huge ship, an animal, a being that fights for its last breath. It doesn’t give up until the very bitter ending. This fight consists of a high and a low C. That’s all. I try to breathe life into these two tones. And not more.
In terms of the arrangements, how does this particular point in the music-making process work for you? For instance, the cathartic, spellbinding ‘Restrictus’ conveys the sheer beauty of angelic tones and the intricate arrangements of the distinct sections contained within this gorgeous song cycle. What are your memories of writing ‘Restrictus’? Endless moments of sublime beauty ascends into one’s heart and mind here.
MB: Restrictus is a kind of friend to me. It’s a perfect match. I don’t think it’s very virtuosic but you need to have a sporty approach here. I feel very comfortable with this piece on stage. I’d say if I didn’t break it in the middle it was limited to a typical minimal composition. But Restrictus didn’t want this. It literally screamed: “Break me!”
Please bring me back to your formal musical education, Mario. Can you describe for me your learning whilst studying under Professor Elspeth Moser and your musical outlook and what musical voices you feel have shaped your music in the most profound way?
MB: I have always been opposition. It was a kind of a guarantee to survive. I could and should never be like the others. Never! So my education was, like many things in my life, just a fight. At school I first had to learn the German language when we moved to Switzerland. At University in Germany then I’ve had a lack of scholastic knowledge because of the language barriers. So I had to develop a strategy. And this was to learn but don’t let yourself be bent. In Hannover I studied classical music, so I missed out the Rock ‘n’ Roll. And with my Rock Bands I missed the classical precision. With folk music I missed the seriousness. I always wanted to develop and connect everything. But that was not always easy.
An artist’s sheer devotion to one’s art and the sacrifice therein becomes the essence of your solo accordion music. What do you feel is your one musical philosophy that remains true for you? What are your hopes and ambitions for your next chapter? What are you most proud of about this triumphant debut record?
MB: I don’t feel pride but gratitude. I’m grateful for all the people who support me with all the passion, patience and a lot of work. At the same time I’m very grateful to be a musician. It is something positive, something with much love to put into the world. That’s also what I see when I look at the world today (so much horrible things), and music is the opposition!
Lastly, the epic tour-de-force ‘Inuente’ reflects the hypnotic quality of your playing. At times, the instrument undergoes various transformations, sounding like an organ and synthesizer at various points. Can you shed some light on your mind – set when it comes to your solo live performance and indeed your mind – set for crafting such a monumental work as ‘Inuente’. I am curious whether improvisation plays a part in the writing/composing stage? I just love how the variations of a theme return throughout ‘Inuente’ and the many places that a single piece of music can take you.
MB: It flatters me that the audience does notice something this beautiful that has it’s origin in an undesirable side noise. With this composition improvisation didn’t matter too much although I have a Master of Arts in improvisation. So to say I’m a professional improvisator. But there also, the improvisation is not awarded so much but is of such an important value for us human beings. Improvisation is getting lost in all our over systemising and structuring. I’m convinced that we should listen more to our intuition and we should act more impulsively. Improvisation can only take place in the actual space and situation I’m in. Every time I play I have to get into it in a new room and a new sound. That’s what my music lives from.
Inuente is a song you can’t play everywhere in the same way, even if the compositional structure stays the same. My magical moment with Ineunte is the break. A precious thing nowadays. There are some long breaks but they are fully packed. Break doesn’t mean relaxation but highest tension! I need to build up for 10 minutes to reach a total break of 5 seconds. I love this magical moment with Ineunte when people can hear themselves or the ventilation or the birds or any other small noises. Ineunte takes them there. It’s a transporter to themselves.
‘Mario Batkovic’ will be released on Invada Records in March 2017.
We are delighted to present to you a special guest mixtape compiled by the world-renowned Boston Massachusetts-based songwriter Marissa Nadler. 2016 saw the release of Nadler’s latest masterpiece, “Strangers”, released via Bella Union (UK) and Sacred Bones Records (USA). “Strangers” finds Marissa Nadler’s sonic palette expanding (synths and drumbeats are at times added to Nadler’s voice and guitar). But despite the added instrumentation and more intricate arrangements, a purity forever remains in the treasured songbook of Nadler’s forever timeless oeuvre. Beautiful subtleties exist within the sonic tapestries while striking imagery such as disintegrating cliffs, towering skyscrapers, darkening woods and deep rivers are offset with characters often feeling at odds with the world they find themselves in (or more accurately find themselves suspended into, all of a sudden). There’s a tangible sense of contrasting dichotomies lying at the heart of “Strangers” (between the familiar and the unfamiliar; safety and danger; darkness and light; life and death) which makes the journey Nadler takes us on all the more real. Tangible. Life-affirming. And like a silent witness we can quietly navigate that darkness with her. For we are not strangers after all.
Marissa Nadler – Fractured Air Mix – January 2017
01. Gene Clark – “Gypsy Rider” (live) (Firefly Entertainment)
02. Scott Walker – “Duchess” (Philips)
03. Black Mountain – “Cemetery Breeding” (Jagjaguwar)
04. Black Mountain – “Space to Bakersfield” (Jagjaguwar)
05. William Bell – “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” (Stax)
06. Sonny Sharrock – “Who Does She Hope To Be?” (Axiom)
07. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Rings of Saturn” (Bad Seed Ltd.)
08. Funkadelic – “Maggot Brain” (Westbound)
09. Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me” (Jagjaguwar)
10. White Lung – “Kiss Me When I Bleed” (Domino)
11. Grouper – “Headache” (Yellow Electric)
12. Grouper – “I’m Clean Now” (Yellow Electric)
‘Strangers’ is out now on Bella Union (UK) & Sacred Bones (USA).
Compiled by Marissa Nadler, 2016. The copyright in these recordings is the property of the individual artists and/or record labels. If you like the music, please support the artist by buying their records.
A selection of limited edition screen prints are now available to purchase online, including Fractured Air’s best albums of 2016 print series, at the following link:
Featured prints include: Peter Broderick; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds; Oliver Coates; Loscil; The Avalanches; Brigid Mae Power; Jessy Lanza; Amiina; Xylouris White; Glen Hansard; Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & more…
Interview with Christopher Tignor.
“But there is another question to be asked for people who want to ask which is ‘What is in the music itself and what is it about how these notes go together that specifically creates this experience or feeling now that another piece of music changes or creates a different experience?”
Words: Mark Carry
Christopher Tignor is a composer, violinist and software engineer. Last year saw the gifted musician’s utterly captivating full-length release ‘Along A Vanishing Plane’ gracefully emerge into the earth’s atmosphere, released on the ever-dependable U.S. label Western Vinyl. In a similarly hypnotic spell as Canadian violinist Sarah Neufeld’s 2016 opus ‘The Ridge’, Tignor’s shape-shifting compositions gradually unfold a rare beauty that is forever embedded deep within the string-based liturgies of deep meaning and truth.
The ambitious scope of Tignor’s latest musical musings represents one of the great hallmarks of ‘Along A Vanishing Plane’. As Tignor has previously explained: “The music is first and foremost about what can be done together, live in a room, to both transcend and reclaim ourselves from the noise of public living.” On the deep catharsis of ‘Shapeshifting’ (featuring tuning forks employed as musical instruments) or the mesmeric ebb and flow of ‘Artefacts of Longing’s three enthralling movements, one feels an awakening or moreover, an epiphany – an insight into the essential meaning of something previously unknown or buried beneath uncertainty – illuminate like burning embers of an everlasting flame. The ten compositions captured on ‘Along A Vanishing Plane’ inhabits a vast space that, in turn, enables the string-based odysseys to transcend the very space – and time – in which the sonic patterns ceaselessly orbit.
‘Along A Vanishing Plane’ is out now on Western Vinyl.
Interview with Christopher Tignor.
Firstly, I’d love for you to discuss the innovative software you have created for the new album ‘Along A Vanishing Plane’?
Christopher Tignor: I’m happy to talk about the software. For me, it’s an important thing to share with the world, just like the music. I give it away and I like other people to use it and it’s an important part of my creative output. So, the idea behind the software is that I need to always be playing instruments with my hands – including the drums and violin – I don’t have time to be touching the computer. The computer is on the floor, I never touch it during the performance during the songs at all and I need to able to control all the sounds and I want to be able to do everything gesturally so I don’t want any pre-recorded material. I want to be able to kick a drum or play the violin or do something physical and control the flow of time through the music by triggering other sounds by playing actual instruments.
So, that’s the underlying idea behind it and so there is several pieces of software that I use that all run inside Abelton, they’re devices that you can use for Abelton. And what they let you do is trigger other sounds, in my case I use a trigger on the kick drum and that allows me to play essentially other sounds when I’m playing the kick drum and I can also take my violin and the software lets me configure very specifically auto tune harmonizers that create harmonies that shift independently with my violin playing. So, it’s all made live out of my playing and the software lets you control very specifically how all your physical gestures translate into the rest of the music.
So, the kick drum acts as a cue for you to progress into the next stage of the music?
CT: That’s a good way to think of it. Essentially there is a score programmed in the computer so each time you kick the drum it’ll essentially play a sound which is taken from that score. So you can control the time and how fast you move and you can pause and wait and can be completely flexible with how you are moving through the score. It takes the ability to be able to create a score and to be able to score out your work to some extent.
I know you already touched on it but I love the extra instrumentation; those extra flourishes to the violin itself – those bells that feel like chimes for instance – are dotted beautifully around the album.
CT: Well those are very important for me because they are artefacts of this process that I think of as creating these different rituals. And the bell-like effects – and there’s lots of different bells that you’re hearing like triangles and metal percussion and a hi hat and a tambourine and I have a pastor bell – those really have a beautiful resonant quality which helps evoke this sort of ritual; it’s like the beginning of a ritual every time you sound them.
‘The Artefacts of Longing’ is a very important piece on the album and particularly love how there are three different parts. I wonder was this composition one long piece in your head first and then afterwards you realized it would be three distinct pieces?
CT: I think it was the former, I mean I had in my head that I wanted to do a long form multi-movement work as part of the album. I had started writing this body of music by creating the shorter works, the first work I wrote was ‘Arrow In The Dark’ and then I wrote ‘Shape Shifting’ for tuning fork and I knew I wanted to push myself making longer multi-movement work – something I’ve done on other albums in the past – but I’ve never tried to do anything like that solo and so I wanted to take on the challenge and to make a multi-movement work that was compelling across three parts but just one man playing it. I had some various ideas, bits of music I often shelve if they don’t fit into a piece that I’m working on – I’ll be writing a piece, some part or act of some melody or section will show up if it doesn’t work I will have to shelve it – and so I had some things on the shelf which I knew would work possibly well together.
And so the process for me began with looking at some of these parts like the very beginning of the third movement where I’m playing this counterpoint, essentially with no percussion that has a very Bachian or Baroque quality to it and I had already written this previously and I could never find a home for it, it’s truly one of my favourite things to play on the record and I knew I had to get it in somewhere. So, I had these departure points like that and then the question for me was how to navigate from one point to the other and that process was of course very challenging. The composition’s very much the art of can I get there from here. I knew I wanted to make a multi-movement work and I had these touchstones, I would say.
I feel there is a lovely parallel between your own work and Sarah Neufeld’s music and Colin Stetson too, there’s very much like a unique voice that speaks very strongly throughout.
CT: Well I mean they are some very strong and compelling artists and it’s nice to be in such great company in your mind, you know.
In a way, ‘Along A Vanishing Plane’ is very much a performance record like you mentioned already, there’s this need to play in real-time? I also loved the idea how you had the album available as a visual or film, which was a lovely idea and another perspective to see the music unfolding.
CT: I’m glad you enjoyed that. For us it became pretty clear early on when I was thinking even of how to make the music that it was going to have to be made all live, I wouldn’t be able to make overdubs for this music even if I wanted to because there is so much free time and space, it would be way too hard to try and catch it at the right time on the second time around, you know what I mean. It became clear even when recording the audio thing, it would have to be really a live performance and so we went as far as we could with that idea and said that if it was going to be more or less live, why not just record it on video and really show the process and really bring people in to that experience.
You have done so much in your own career being involved in so many different projects you’re involved in. In addition, you have a pHD in Composition, I’d be interested to learn what exactly this study involves?
CT: Technically my advisor hasn’t actually finished my dissertation so I actually don’t have my pHD in Composition yet but that’ll be happening very soon [laughs]. I can only speak for my experience at Princeton where I went but typically it involves really trying to understand the nuts and bolts of how music works and we all love to appreciate music and spend a lot of time listening to it and hopefully think deeply about how we feel and our own response to music. But there is another question to be asked for people who want to ask which is ‘What is in the music itself and what is it about how these notes go together that specifically creates this experience or feeling now that another piece of music changes or creates a different experience?’ So, really getting into the nuts and bolts of how music works is a fascinating thing for me, to really understand this and of course it’s valuable from a compositional perspective.
It’s also really fun and exciting to see that it’s not magic; they’re very nuanced and complicated and they’re very subtle and it’s a very beautiful combination of elements that create these feelings that we relish when we hear music. If you spend time looking at the scores of a lot of music and listening to a lot of music and playing to a lot of music and dissecting it like you would any scientific inquiry where you try to take a problem apart into smaller pieces and examine the components and how they work together, you can get a perspective on music which is very rewarding. I think the program as a whole is trying to give you that perspective; that’s a different perspective than the one you have when you just write music and play music. It’s a more analytical perspective, which is a different but beautiful and complimentary way to think about music.
You have done a considerable work with regard to live sound and I’m sure you must have very fond memories of doing live sound for so many great bands?
CT: For a lot of the same reasons that I love to play live and live performance has been so important to me in my work, doing live sound was always appealing to me from an early age. I was lucky enough to hustle my way into some really great situations in my early twenties and seeing really good rock bands and working with some really good sound engineers at CBGBs and places like that and literally understanding the art and craft of being a live sound engineer. The thing about the live sound engineer is there is no music until it passes through his hands, he’s the last one to touch it so it’s really a very useful and critical part of the live experience is this engineering part. I definitely try to remember that in my own work when I’m working with elements of mixing and in this modern world where electronic music is part almost of every music – it’s just another element in almost all forms of music now – I think those sorts of sensibilities are really, really important.
In terms of the recording of the album, you had quite a simple set-up in the sense that there was quite a minimal framework you were working from?
CT: Yeah, it’s pretty old school. We just went into a room which we knew sounded really good, I played violin acoustically when we were checking it out and it sounded really good for the violin and it looked really good because we knew we wanted to film it. It was very old school, setting up mics in the room and putting them in the right spot and then getting three video cameras in there and letting that team do their thing. So, it was really fun because the recording studio process – the normal process – can be very antiseptic: close micing everything and doing one track at a time and collaging everything together and this was really like creating an installation and that process in my mind is much more rewarding than trying to go in and micro-manage all the individual little tracks. The thing about the live recording experience is that it really lives or dies in how prepared you are as a musician because you can’t be doing over-dubs or anything so you really have to do a lot of preparation in advance. I think that can come through the music though, the fact that you are so prepared that the music isn’t just pieced together from little parts, I think that can really come through the music if you let it.
Do you have plans for the live show and will you be trying out new approaches to some of these pieces?
CT: Well all the music came out of playing live, I played it live for quite some time before I went to the recording session in order to prepare for it. I worked on the pieces over a long time by playing them out and seeing what works and tweaking them in the studio and going back and forth. This music was certainly born live and existed live before we recorded for quite a while. I mean the live show sounds very close to the record, it sounds almost identical to what you would hear on the album. There are certainly times live when I make changes – relatively subtle changes – to the performance but they’re mostly in terms of the decay of the room, the reverb in the room, there’s a lot of times where I would play a phrase, like in ‘Arrow In The Dark’ where I would play a melody and let it decay in the room before I move on. Or even the first track ‘We Keep This Flame’, I’ll play this first phrase and I’ll let it linger in the room so the pacing and the flow of it is completely unique because it is live and I have that luxury to do that. But the compositions themselves as a whole are essentially finished as far as I am concerned and I’m really just pushing forward now with writing new music for this set so that may include other elements as well as I push into new compositional territory.
What have you been listening to lately?
CT: This is funny because it’s not too far from your part of the world but the thing I like to listen to often on weekends is Cork Sacred Harp Singers. So, there is a collection of shape-note singers from Cork called The Sacred Harp Singers and they have a youtube channel, which is absolutely brilliant and as far as I’m concerned, I could listen to this all-day long. I consider it as such an amazing way to make music not only is the music really moving and I think listening to a lot of that really seeped in to some of the more liturgical pieces on the record, some of the more choral pieces that I played. It’s just fantastic because it really is like a DIY and in my mind, a real punk way to make music because you’re not a trained singer; this is for people who aren’t trying to be professional virtuoso singers, it’s about music that is rooted in people’s lives and is a real active part of their life. Now I’m certainly not a religious person at all – I’m a staunch agnostic – I can completely identify and respect and relish the inclusion of music in people’s lives in a way where it’s really tied in with core values and you can see that in the way they make music if you look at the way the leader is conducting in tune with his hands, it’s really fantastic and the energy is palpable and it call comes from the unbelievably genuine communal place. It’s inspiring.
‘Along A Vanishing Plane’ is out now on Western Vinyl.
Cheval Sombre (New York-based poet and songwriter Christopher Porpora) has earned his reputation in recent times as one of independent music’s true treasures. Having released two full length albums to date: 2008’s self-titled debut album (Double Feature Records) and 2012’s moving opus ‘Mad Love’ (Sonic Cathedral Recordings); 2017 marks the eagerly awaited third Cheval Sombre LP ‘Time Waits for No One’. We are delighted to premiere the video to the achingly beautiful lament ‘If It’s You’, the record’s illuminating first single.
On “If It’s You”, Porpora’s drone-infused psych hazes infiltrates the human space amidst a windswept beauty of fragile vocals and mesmeric viola passages; navigating lyrical, emotional and spiritual depths. The majestic ballad “If It’s You” conjures up the timeless sound of the early Stones ballads penned by Jagger & Richards interwoven with Robbie Basho’s transcendent flow of lyrical guitar tapestries. A master of intimate mystery. The sparse arrangement of Porpora’s voice and guitar is accompanied by Gillian Rivers’ divine viola playing.
The exclusive vinyl-only release – released via UK independent label Static Caravan Records – are viewmaster reel 7″ records – true pieces of art in and of themselves. The record also features the hauntingly beautiful B-side “Give Me Something”, a haunting instrumental performed as a collaboration by Porpora (guitars) and legendary New Zealand-based artist Alastair Galbraith (elbowed guitars), recorded at the Bhakti Box and Hope St. Studios.
Watch the video for “If It’s You” here:
“If It’s You” is available now (limited vinyl) via Static Caravan Records (purchase online HERE).
The prestigious Fruits De Mer label have also released a split 7″ with Static Caravan, featuring a Cheval Sombre cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, (purchase online HERE).
There is also a recently finished LP with Dean Wareham which is expected in 2017, recorded between Los Angeles & New York, as well as the third Cheval Sombre full-length album, “Time Waits for No One”, destined to be one of 2017’s hidden gems.
“Don’t Look Back” is our look back on the year from the perspective of both musicians as well as various members of the music community at large, who — despite varying geographical locations and backgrounds — all share the following in common: a deep passion and love for music. We’re both honored and delighted to be able to share the words of these special people through their personal accounts of the year that was: 2016.
André de Ridder (Berlin, Germany)
Co-founded by German conductor André de Ridder, s t a r g a z e is the the world-renowned Berlin-based contemporary classical music collective. Established in 2013, s t a r g a z e comprise a network of classically trained European musicians who have performed and collaborated extensively in a wide variety of contexts to date. s t a r g a z e have worked with some of the most accomplished and inspiring musicians working today, including: Boards Of Canada, Nils Frahm, Deerhoof, Julia Holter, A Hawk And A Hacksaw, Poliça and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and have performed at some of the most renowned festivals and venues in the world (BBC Proms at The Royal Albert Hall; The Barbican, London; Rewire Festival and Motel Mozaïque, Netherlands). André de Ridder is also Artistic Director of the 2017 edition of Musical Nova Helsinki (1-12 February 2017) and will curate next year’s East London-based Spitalfields Music Winter Festival 2017.
by André de Ridder
“Whenever we hear sounds we are changed and this is the more the case when we hear organised sounds, organised by another human being. Music.” —Karlheinz Stockhausen
How many tributes can you take… well… make?
As Amanda Palmer, whose joint EP in memory of David Bowie (arr. Jherek Bischoff) ‘Strung Out In Heaven’ started the ball rolling in February, said later this year: “HELLO! You know, I write songs, too”.
Mind you it’s not only about songs of recently deceased iconic artists, the Rolling Stones just released an album of old Blues classics, and Amanda Palmer herself, again, an album of songs her dad used to teach her as a child. The musicians in The National put together a massive and magnificent 11-vinyl tribute album to The Grateful Dead earlier in 2016, inviting a whole army of friends and bands and singers and ensembles to contribute, including stargaze, the orchestral collective I co-founded in 2013.
We revisit Bob Dylan’s catalogue and oeuvre all the time but especially lately via the hassle around his nobel prize, awarded to a songwriter for the first time. And last but not least maybe the greatest of all poet-songwriters of the last half-century, Leonard Cohen, also disappears from the face of the earth. The appreciation of the art of song, and the life-affirming, life-accompanying and -experiencing power of this form of human expression, seems to undergo an intense iteration, and has certainly pervaded my musical 2016.
From a classical musician’s point of view, we of course deal with and revisit and interpret songs of ‘other’ people, and long deceased composers all the time. It’s inherently ‘lit’ to indulge singing and playing other people’s music. The principle of ‘classical music’ reception and performance practice is in fact entirely built on that situation.
Whereas in pop/folk/rock the auteur’s personality is mostly just so connected to the song and it’s subject, most people cannot deal with the abstraction a so-called cover by another artist brings with it. The identification process is fuelled almost more through the artist’s personality than the song itself.
Mind you, in Jazz and Folk music it is also very common to express facets of the material picking traditional or classic songs and tunes, celebrating what riches lay in a given musical text. They therefore build starting points for many a journey beyond one singular manifestation.
The question in how far the written song can transcend and surpass it’s origin and it’s author is one that I asked myself often this year when faced with certain choices.
Why shouldn’t we sing/use/interpret songs of Bowie’s or Prince, in the way we do with a gorgeous and utterly moving Schumann song? What needs to happen in order to justify it? Or do Bowie’s songs lend themselves to this ‘treatment’ more than Prince’s? Whose songs are possibly more timeless or transcend the question of authorship and personality, will either songs survive in books/notation just as much as through original recordings? I will zoom into two occasions this last year, where I found myself in the midst of such situations and experienced certain answers, for that moment anyway, to those questions. One that came with a fair amount of planning/curation, deliberation and even agony (in the case of stargaze’s Bowie tribute concert at the BBC Proms this last July) and one of spontaneous, unexpected and intuitive beauty, performed with Poliça in Minneapolis in November, the city of Prince.
s t a r g a z e rehearsing with John Cale for the 2016 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 29 July 2016.
When we prepared the Bowie concert, and Prince had just died as well, I already anticipated people saying: “Oh are you gonna do Prince next?”. Actually somebody around the Prom asked couldn’t we do a Prince song as an encore. No we couldn’t and wouldn’t. Everyone agreed. I heard myself saying in interviews that the same thing (that we attempted with Bowie) wouldn’t work with Prince (a few reasons, mainly that Prince was kind of always ‘Prince’ whereas Bowie throughout his career was a chameleon himself always slipping from one role into another, himself not being always ‘Bowie’ when writing and performing songs).
This sentiment was crushed to a good extent when I took s t a r g a z e to Minneapolis this November, shortly after the American elections, for a project initiated by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series. It had been planned for more than a year, independent of any current circumstances. It involved creating and playing new music with Poliça, who also stem from the Twin Cities. Their member and producer/composer Ryan Olson had been suggesting the idea of taking on a Prince song from his ‘1999’ album, called ‘Something In The Water’, after I brought up the ultra-short, but beautifully orchestrated ‘I Wonder U’ from my favourite Prince album ‘Parade’, as a possible mini-tribute to playing in their city. The transcription of ‘I Wonder U’ was fairly straightforward, and our dear friend Greg Saunier of Deerhoof helped us with it, once again (and still I wasn’t sure if it made ‘sense’ to play it).
But until the day before the show at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, we didn’t touch (and I maybe didn’t quite believe in, for reasons mentioned above) the other, i.e. another Prince song. However, that morning, before leaving for our last rehearsal I did have a go at penning down a simple orchestration of ‘Something In The Water’, which is originally synth heavy, though maybe suggests a strings-based treatment. The idea was that there was only the drum beat plus stargaze’s harmonies and sparsely orchestrated lines, no electronics or anything else, plus Channy Lenneagh picking up the vocals obviously. We played it through, not especially hopeful as it was so late in the process, literally in the last 5 minutes of our practise and realized we were onto something. Ryan more so than anyone else and he added another, genius tweak: he asked us to play it again, but by about 20bpm slower… It made for an overwhelming poignancy, in which the lonely drum intro sounded even more spacious, the slow drifting harmonies even darker in a viol-consort kind of renaissance-style with our two violas and two violins present, and Channy pitched and harmonized her vocals in an otherwordly effect and manner that made the song into something quite new, but one that Prince seemed to quite literally speak thru from a far away, solitary but soulful place.
Transformed. After we finished that run-through Ryan stumbled backwards a little behind his mute laptop and made a hand gesture that signaled something like: “no words…” and nobody said anything but packed up their instruments letting the hairs stand on no end.
Of course this was all heightened by what just happened, a few days prior to that joint concert, at the polls. When we arrived, the band members and curators of Liquid Music, our hosts, were very visibly and moodily affected by the outcome and the outlook of Trump’s presidential election.
Months ago we had christened the project ‘Music For The Long Emergency’ and we had discussed something of the power of music (and the act making music together) that can unite people, provide hope and respite, but also a certain energy for a way forward, survival, and finding strength in and amongst ourselves.
s t a r g a z e performing at the 2016 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 29 July 2016.
The word ‘People’ had come into focus at another memorable gathering and event in the run-up to the elections, a special, one-of-a-kind (maybe once-in-a-lifetime) music festival facilitated in Berlin by the Michelberger Hotel and it’s community, and which we co-curated at the end of September with stargaze, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Justin Vernon, Ryan Olson and Vincent Moon on the premises of the former central GDR radio station, the ‘Funkhaus Nalepastrasse’, a heritage-listed building loaded with cold-war history. A non-profit, sponsor-less festival bringing together 80+ artists to create new music and collaborate without borders, programmatically mixed and presented in the end without any notions of rankings, standing and rid of ego-centred behaviour that is common in the non-classical scene just as much as it is in classical music. This place had provided us with the opportunity to develop our project with Poliça also, and when looking for a festival name, no name came about or rang true, no ‘branding’ required, but a motto emerged thru the artist Eric Carlson that would just read, inclusive and embracing, ‘People’, displayed on a huge banner/mural in the main hall of the location.
I think most musicians and supporters who have taken part in this felt that it was central to their musical and human experience in 2016, and felt empowered and recharged artistically from it, in that it reclaimed a certain space of a festival as a gathering, back to the roots of this quintessential idea, a kind of 21st century version of “around the campfire” but in lieu of the campfire a certain spirit and special place.
Music made in the moment and created for the ONE moment.
Nevertheless, it was and will be documented bit by bit on a newly created website and also radio station that one can keep up-to-date with on Michelbergermusic.com soon, if anyone is interested.
It seemed app therefore that we came back to a song by Bowie there and then, which we performed once again, this time on the stage of the newly created ‘shed-hall’ in the Funkhaus Nalepastrasse, on the last night of the festival which meanwhile we had dubbed ‘endless, nameless’, and the song was ‘Heroes’. Indeed in Berlin David Bowie had sung this song in front of the Reichstag in 1987, and by the Berlin Wall, where people gathered on both sides, and clearly he addressed ‘the people’ as equal (potential) heroes, and the ones on the other side of the Wall, most and foremost, in his moving rendition. It was a concert I had attended, actually my first open-air rock concert proper as a music-obsessed teen, not having the slightest inkling about what was going to unfurl two years later, a peaceful revolution that was set to overturn the regime and break through that wall, thanks to which we and folks from all over the place were able to be in that place on October 2nd 2016 and reclaim that space.
Brings me back to the 29th of July 2016, the day we performed the Bowie Prom at The Royal Albert Hall in London. Over a period of 3 months I had wondered, and we had wondered, who are we to be in this position, playing Bowie’s music, even attempting to re-imagine some songs in a different format/style, what right, justification etc. etc. was there.
But really, I felt it on that night, by having immersed ourselves so completely in his work, and by sharing this with many artists who had long-lived with his songs and celebrating this passion by putting so much effort in showing what these songs meant to all of us, made us connect with the man and his spirit, it became humblingly palpable on the night, as the ensemble was poised and focusing, breathing in out on stage for a good two minutes while waiting for the green light from the tv people, in the midst of the general anticipation, before launching into Bowie’s Brian Eno collaboration ‘Warszawa’, with a field recording of a train pulling out of Berlin-Schöneberg station which we had recorded two weeks prior. Our ‘audience’ with David Bowie had finally started. And at the end of the show, almost by accident another magic thing happened: Until the very end of rehearsals we had toyed with the idea of after all giving the crowd his arguably biggest hit, ‘Let’s Dance’. To the point where we had no time to ask anyone to sing it, which meant we had rehearsed it instrumentally only and at the end of the show, as all the singers paraded off stage, we launched into it as an encore, and gave it back to the people who roar-sang it back at us thousand-fold from beginning to end, not missing a word or a note.
Other favourite moments of that concert include classical counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky singing David Lang’s recomposition of ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’, epic arrangements of Blackstar and Lady Grinning Soul by Jherek Bischoff, presented with fierce intensity by Amanda Palmer and Anna Calvi, and Laura Mvula’s rendering of ‘Fame’ via Greg Saunier’s orchestration. Last not least rocking out with John Cale on his utterly idiosyncratic rendition of ‘Space Odyssey’, transformed together with the inimitable House Gospel Choir. I think these were all moments where another piece of art had been made, through collaboration, inspired by Bowie’s original song. And there you have it, the ‘justification’, the ‘why did we do it’, if it needed it.
The Flaming Lips performing “The Soft Bulletin” w/ The Colorado Symphony & Chorus, conducted by André de Ridder. Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 26 May 2016.
I don’t want to close the ‘musical year 2016’ lookback without mentioning another highlight, a project that may not have been noticed in Europe so much but I hope will make it here soon.
Something I had worked on and dreamed up for a while: persuading the Flaming Lips to perform their album ‘The Soft Bulletin’ with a symphony orchestra (and choir). This became reality last May with the help of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, at the legendary Red Rocks Theatre.
It had struck me, ever since watching an intriguing Pitchfork documentary about the making of the album, since it had been created with so many orchestral, albeit sampled, layers originally, that it would make so much sense to try and recreate it with an actual orchestra. Which had not been done until now. It came together on a rather stormy night in the most spectacular open-air venue I have ever seen in my life, Red Rocks, the sense of being there in the first place almost overwhelming the occasion. It was also a pleasure and honour working with the band, the Flaming Lips being a wonderful and enthusiastic group of musicians lapping up the opportunity with gusto and passion themselves. Over the years they had perfected playing songs from the Soft Bulletin with keyboards and synths, and during rehearsals they gradually, like archeologists, removed those plasters to reveal the original orchestral sounds behind it.
Amongst the festivals and concerts I attended I need to mention, once again, is Iceland Airwaves, which took place at the beginning of November. In a way, it is another ‘people’ event, where the town of Reykjavík transforms itself into one large venue for 5 days, bands playing literally every other café, barber, petshop, you name it, along it’s main drags up and down town during the day before relocating to the ‘official’ theatres and halls. On those days, you’ll never see more people around with guitars on their backs, instrument cases in one hand and trolleys drawn behind them with the other.
I was conducting part of a sprawling Bedroom Community 10-year anniversary night at Harpa (another already iconic, if very new, concert space) which included great orchestral music by Daníel Bjarnasson, Nico Muhly, Ben Frost and Valgeir Sigurðsson but I caught a wonderful series of gigs when accidentally meeting and hearing the Barr Brothers (just Andrew and Brad, filling in for stranded label colleagues at the 12-Tónar record store), catching Kate Tempest close-up at a hostel, then Warpaint playing much of their new album back at Harpa, first time I saw them live after being a fan for a while. Three acts who couldn’t be more different, and every single one of them so brilliant and original. Which is why going to festivals is such a gratifying experience, and it seems to be an age where new festivals are still being created all the time, other ones going stronger than ever, and with imaginative and inventive features in no short supply. They are worlds created unto themselves, and I cannot wait to discover new ones next year, or return to familiar places which we trust and feel welcomed as both audience and artists. And people.
André de Ridder’s orchestral collective, s t a r g a z e, perform at the Musica Nova Festival Helsinki in February 2017, where they will perform Boards Of Canada’s “HI Scores” EP as well as new compostions written by Dawn Of Midi (Erased Tapes)’s drummer Qasim Naqvi (all info HERE).
Oliver Coates (London, UK)
Several ground-breaking records from 2016 can be attributed to the gifted talents of British cellist and composer Oliver Coates. The London-based composer’s sophomore full-length release ‘Upstepping’ is undoubtedly one of the year’s most accomplished, innovative and compelling musical journeys with its meticulously crafted and sumptuously layered cello-based compositions that carves out techno-fueled waves of pure bliss and transcendence. ‘Upstepping’ is indeed (in the words of Coates) “pumped-up body music”. In addition to ‘Upstepping’, Coates performed on Radiohead’s latest ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ LP and most recently, released a collaborative work with UK’s Mica Levi (Micachu & The Shapes) in the form of ‘Remain Calm’, another crowning jewel of 2016.
Oliver Coates – ‘Don’t Look Back’
In 2016 I came off social media and felt better for it. More time and space for music, love and colouring in. Got a cat, moved into our formerly flooded flat. Got a fresh perspective on London, my birth-town, now living in SE1. Through music I do feel connected to being a Londoner and being from the UK. I went deeper into Autechre’s music, new and old, Aphex’s Cheetah which took me back into the Analord Series and the Caustic Window music.
I met for the first time and made music with these artists: Actress, Elysia Crampton, Catherine Lamb, Dean Blunt, and lastly Pauline Oliveros. I programmed a festival in Westminster in June where Pauline was our featured guest and we heard her acoustic, electronic, instrumental and choral music across three days, alongside music by Ed Finnis, Éliane Radigue, Laurie Spiegel and others. Oliveros spoke to people about a need for unity – it was the weekend after a political vote and there was shell-shock amongst some of the large audience, who had infinite reservoirs for listening to microtonal music. The 15-minute mass tuning meditation took us away. I saw Pauline again in the week before she died – she gave a cleansing coruscating digital accordion set at Le Guess Who and afterwards she was spritely and said to me in the corridor “Let’s do more.”
She had enjoyed our reconstruction of Daphne Oram’s orchestral piece Still Point from the 1940s (by Shiva Feshareki and James Bulley). It sounded like opulent pastoral music and a symphonic tone poem with a smearing of warped electronic sound laid over the top. Oddly English though indebted to Stockhausen’s sounds. Yet Daphne conceived of them first – this was the 1940s. The future in reverse.
“Upstepping” is out now on PRAH Recordings & “Remain Calm” by Mica Levi & Oliver Coates is out now on Slip Discs.
Peter Broderick (Galway, IRE / Portland, Oregon, USA)
Born in Portland, Oregon, Peter Broderick’s name has been firmly established as one of the most singular voices and prolific musicians in the independent music scene for well over a decade now. The multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer has released a plethora of records since his first self-released 4-track recordings from 2005/6, for such labels as Erased Tapes, Bella Union, Type, Kning Disk, Digitalis and Beacon Sound. Collaboration has always been a vital component of Broderick’s artistic output, having performed in both Horse Feathers and Efterklang, and making records (whether as producer or composer) with such artists as: Nils Frahm, Lubomyr Melnyk, Greg Haines, Felicia Atkinson, Laura Gibson, Brigid Mae Power and Corrina Repp. 2016 saw the release of Broderick’s seventh solo LP, the majestic piano-based full-length “Partners” and the EP “Grunewald” (comprising 5 tracks of live piano recordings made at Berlin’s Grunewald Church while Broderick resided in the German capital) via Erased Tapes.
2016 was a wild ride. For starters, I got married! And I moved to Ireland! So now I’m a husband and step-dad living in the beautiful countryside of County Galway. Our address doesn’t even contain any numbers . . . just the name of the house, the name of the area, and the name of the county. And there’s a stray cat whom I’ve named Yin-Yang, who loves to eat the food I put out and even comes into the house for a nap, but still won’t let me pet him. And there’s a couple white horses who roam freely outside our door, and they like eating apples and carrots out of my hand, but also won’t let me pet them. And sometimes there are some cows that graze in nearby field, and once I did manage to pet one of them for a minute, but for the most part they don’t like to come too close.
According to google I am a musician . . . but this year I turned into a full-time plant lover. I have spent so much time reading books about plants and taking walks in the nature, trying to befriend as many green wonders as I can. One of my personal highlights of the year (aside from getting married!) was attending a workshop up in County Leitrim in which we spent the whole day outside learning to identify wild edible and medicinal plants. And though I’m still a complete novice, I can’t deny how fulfilled my soul feels when I spend the day outside gathering plants, honoring them as best I can in the process (which often involves singing them a little song), and later preparing them as food or drying them to make herbal teas.
Of course, I did make plenty of music this year. In February I recorded my first piano-based album in quite some time, which was released in August under the title Partners. And in early December Erased Tapes (lovely record label!) also reissued some older recordings on an EP called Grunewald. This Autumn I played 23 concerts in 8 different countries (including my first trip to Taiwan!) with just my voice and a piano, which was quite refreshing after all the years I’ve spent carrying around heaps of gear, albeit a bit challenging and naked feeling at the start.
We spent the Summer in Oregon, and whilst there for a couple months I got the chance to work on a wonderful project with David Allred, in which he just plays upright bass and sings, and I just play violin and sing. I am looking forward to releasing our duo album in Spring 2017 and playing some concerts together around that time.
I think the biggest musical discovery for me this year was getting into Joni Mitchell. For years whenever I heard that name and even when I heard her music, it would go in one ear and out the other. But something happened this year and I felt something inside go click! It started with her album Clouds, which we listened to countless times on cassette in the car. That record is perhaps the most similar to other music that I already appreciated . . . but then, from there I moved on to her other records, and sometimes I admit it’s a challenge at first, but oh so rewarding if you just take the time to soak it in. What a beautiful and courageous soul!
I can’t say I picked up much new music this year, but I did find four records on the shelf which were released this year and have a special meaning to me:
David Allred – Woods (Oscarson)
– Not only has David been a good friend and frequent collaborator of mine over the last few years, but he’s also been one of my favorite artists to follow. For me his music and creativity feel very unique. Sometimes when you get to know someone well, the mystique of their creativity disappears a bit . . . but with David I have had the complete opposite. My heart is continually warmed by his earnest efforts. He plays a large variety of instruments very beautifully, and his own lyrics have an almost unbelievably honest quality to them, as if he has direct access to some strange and deep thoughts that most of us are only dimly aware of.
Félicia Atkinson + Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Comme Un Seul Narcisse (Shelter Press)
– This is a peculiar and oddly beautiful record by two of my favorite weirdos. I’ve followed Jefre’s work since I was a teenager and he played in the band Tarentel, and Félicia is another artist who continually opens my eyes to the wonders of the Universe. When I heard the two of them had made an album together, I knew immediately that it would be an interesting listen.
Michael Hurley – Bad Mr. Mike (Mississippi Records)
– Seeing that Michael Hurley is well into his 70’s now, I was thrilled when I found out he had released a new album this year. And with a title like Bad Mr. Mike, how could it not be wonderful? His records are always adorned with his unmistakable artwork and made up characters, and his records (especially the later ones) have a way of making you feel like you’re sitting in his living room while he plays to no one in particular in the corner. And what an honor it was for me to go to his home and meet him early in the year! I had heard he was a collector of vintage radios, and I had a beautiful old radio from the 1920’s just sitting in the garage, collecting dust. So I reached out to him and asked if he might like to have it, and sure enough, a few weeks later there I was driving out to his countryside home and delivering the thing. Turns out he’s a member of vintage radio society, consisting most of “old geezers” as he put it. When he first saw the old radio he said, “This is going to cause a wave of excitement!”
Richard Proffitt – Pathways Written In Smoke (Stadt Moers)
I was very fortunate to have an ongoing artist residency at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Ireland, throughout 2016. I went there on three separate occasions to stay and work on music (and did some painting too!). And during one of those stays there was an exhibition in one of the gallery rooms by a guy from Liverpool (who now lives in Dublin) called Richard Proffitt. This collection of artwork/sculpture/installation made quite an impression on me, with it’s ritualistic, not-afraid-of-the-dark kind of feeling, and I really enjoyed meeting Richard himself as well. This record was available as a part of the exhibition in a limited edition of 30 (!), and I’m very happy to say that I have one of those 30 copies. I highly recommend experiencing one of his exhibitions, or even just finding his recordings of music and spoken word on bandcamp.
In addition, there are a number of records released in 2016 which I either recorded at my old studio The Sparkle or had a decent part in the making of in one way or another. These records I am honored to be a part of:
Brigid Mae Power – S/T (Tompkins Square)
MayMay – Mountains Hills Plateaus And Plains (Oscarson)
The Beacon Sound Choir – Sunday Morning Drones (Infinite Greyscale)
Laura Gibson – Empire Builder (Barsuk)
Rauelsson – Ekõ (Beacon Sound)
V/A – Oscarsongs (Oscarson)
“Partners” (LP) and “Grunewald” (EP) by Peter Broderick are available now on Erased Tapes.
Josh Rosenthal (San Francisco, USA)
The Tompkins Square label founder and Grammy-nominated producer Josh Rosenthal published his first book “The Record Store of the Mind” during 2016, a personal musical odyssey documenting Rosenthal’s lifelong passion for music, as both an avid collector and obsessive listener. During 2015, Rosenthal’s world-renowned label Tompkins Square (based in San Francisco, USA) celebrated it’s ten year anniversary, having released records for such artists as William Tyler, Michael Chapman, Ryley Walker, Hiss Golden Messenger and James Blackshaw over the years, as well as re-issuing an extensive range of folk, old-time, gospel and American Primitive Guitar albums, including its ongoing “Imaginational Anthem” records, the acclaimed series focusing on acoustic guitar, particularly in the American Primitive vein.
by Josh Rosenthal – Tompkins Square label
The people in my small universe – musical artists and creatives around them – seem to have values 180 degrees from where our Nation appears headed. What will creative people do in the face of this instability ? If anything, the election energized me. I feel emboldened to do more, put out more records that Drumpf and his kind would hate, or at least not get. And maybe give folks some small respite from the endless barrage of awful news. Kind of an extension of Leonard Bernstein’s quote : “This will be our response to violence : To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before.” Which isn’t to say we can just stop there. I am writing checks to the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, Marine Mammal Center, the Sierra Club, Doctors Without Borders.
2016 saw the loss of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Ralph Stanley, Mose Allison and Merle Haggard. The outpouring of grief for Prince and Bowie was huge, but I didn’t partake viscerally because I never identified with their music that much. Leonard Cohen’s death was heavier for me, as he was the most overtly Jewish rock star we’ve ever had in terms of reflecting the faith in his music, and his first two records are holy texts unto themselves. Leonard felt like extended family. With these musical losses, and inevitably, so many more to come, I reflected on rock star death. It’s irksome when people react to rock death on social media with “Fuck You 2016 !” There must be a more graceful way to express grief. The difference between us mortals and our musical heroes is that they get to live forever. That’s something to celebrate – not something to go cursing the whole Year about…
I spent all of March and April on the road promoting my book, “The Record Store of the Mind”. I did about 40 readings around the USA, with help from some musical guests, at the kind invitation of many independent book and record dealers. I never really expected anything to happen with the book, but folks reacted to it, and as I like to say, if I knew people were gonna care, I would’ve written a better book. But it was good enough to get Robert Plant to offer an effusive endorsement, and UNCUT named it one of the 10 Best Music Books of 2016. My first reading was in Jersey City in October 2015, and I learned a valuable lesson : Never schedule a reading before your book is actually out, because no one will show up. Writer Amanda Petrusich agreed to Q&A me there, and she was such a good sport in front of my four friends who showed up, plus the store manager. A very strange thing happened earlier that day — I walked into a local vinyl store with WFMU’s Joe McGasko and they were playing Ron Davies’ rare LP ‘UFO’. Ron Davies is the subject of Chapter 1 in my book ! I’d never heard Ron Davies in any record store, and I’ve never seen his albums in the wild. How weird is that ? Things got a lot better on the book trail in March and April, highlighted by ace stops in Richmond, VA at Steady Sounds (w/ Mark Fosson & Diane Cluck), Rocket 99 in Kingston, NY (w/Peter Walker), and many others.
v2016 was a crazy year for acquiring records. I was driving up 6th Street in SF and my vinyl radar spotted a box on the sidewalk. I pulled over and started flipping – John Coltrane on Impulse, Wire ‘154’, Indian classical records, rare Contemporary Classical LPs. “OK, take the box and get out of here.” Threw it in the car. Took me about a month to get through that box, it was so deep. Then a friend who was moving house had me over for first dibs on a life-long collection of ambient, prog, Krautrock, experimental, K. Leimer, La Monte Young, Robert Wyatt, Roedelius, Eno, Cluster. Then my friend in LA let me have at her grandfather’s jazz collection. OG Mingus, Coltrane, Ornette, Miles. It was nuts. I found a Baby Huey LP at the flea market for $3 – but it had no record inside. So I went on discogs and sure enough, someone was selling the record without the jacket for $15 ! Not bad.
It was fun to watch my older (15 yo) daughter’s musical horizons expand this year, as she discovered her own favorites on Spotify like Andy Schauf, Joywave and High Highs while happily adding Dad’s suggestions to her playlists ; The Clean, The Smiths, Tia Blake. I took my girls on a wild musical road trip all over the South in June, which I wrote about here.
On the Tompkins Square label front, it was hugely gratifying to reissue two Richie Havens-produced early 70’s solo albums by singer/songwriter Bob Brown; bring out Brigid Mae Power (thanks to Mark Carry and Fractured Air who tipped me to her !) ; ‘Imaginational Anthem vol 8: The Private Press’, compiled by Brooks Rice and former Other Music LP buyer Michael Klausman, turned me on to some fantastic solo guitar I’d never heard ; Harvey Mandel, whose music I have loved for years, holed up in Fantasy Studios with Ryley Walker’s band and made magic. Just some of the highlights and more to come in 2017, when I’m slated to release a record a month, starting in January with Robbie Basho protegé Richard Osborn’s LP, ‘Endless’. Stay up on what I do !
Some of my favorite records from 2016 :
The most important record for me this year was by Daniel Schmidt and the Berkeley Gamelan, “In My Arms, Many Flowers”, on Recital. An American Gamelan composer who teaches at Mills College these days, these recordings are from 1978-1982. A stunning discovery from Sean McCann’s label.
Australians Andras Fox (aka Andrew Wilson) and Eleventeen Eston (aka John Tanner) are Wilson Tanner, and their album ‘69’ came out on the promising Growing Bin label out of Germany.
Another label doing great work is RVNG. I mentioned the dude whose record collection I raided – he had a K. Leimer record, ‘Land of Look Behind’, and I really got into that. I had already purchased RVNG’s Syrinx reissue, ‘Tumblers From The Vault’, and then looked on the RVNG site, only to find that they had released a 2-disc K. Leimer set too ! These are both worth seeking out. Syrinx were a Canadian collective on the True North label run by Bernie Finkelstein, who has managed Bruce Cockburn forever. I know him, so he gave me some great Syrinx insights. Had to go and seek out the original Syrinx vinyl LPs of course.
I dig what Dying For Bad Music has done with their limited-run CDRs, especially the Abraham Chapman solo guitar release, ‘Nothing To Leave Behind’. The reel-to-reel tapes, recorded in 1978, were found at a flea market. No one knows anything about Abraham Chapman. DFBM made a limited run of 82 CDRs and it looks like there are some left :
I really enjoyed Charlie Hilton’s January 2016 release, Palana, via Captured Tracks. I missed her when she played the Warfield in SF. I like her somnambulant, Francoise Hardy vibe. I don’t see a single media outlet picking this record as one of the years’ best. Maybe cuz it came out in January ?
“The Record Store Of The Mind” by Josh Rosenthal, published by Tompkins Square Books is available now.
Benoît Pioulard (Seattle, Washington, USA)
2016 marked the tenth anniversary of Benoît Pioulard’s prized debut LP ‘Précis’, an album that is synonymous with the spirit and wonder of independent music at its very finest. Currently based in Seattle, Washington, Thomas Meluch has quietly amassed a considerable body of work in the intervening years: solo works for the prestigious Chicago-based Kranky label as well as numerous self-released works, music with Canadian composer Kyle Bobby Dunn under the alias PERILS (Desire Path Recordings), Meluch’s collaboration with Rafael Anton Irisarri (The Sight Below) as ORCAS (Morr Music) and “Praveen and Benoît”, the collaborative work with Praveen Sharma (Music Related). October 2016 marked the release of “The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter”, the sixth album by Benoît Pioulard for Kranky.
This year, more than any other in my life, was predicated on a contrast between life and death ; mostly trying to live with fulfillment and peace as a slap to the face of the infinite, something like that. Culturally we lost so many great voices and heroes (John Glenn, Buchla, Pauline Oliveros, Bowie and the other obvious ones) and one could say a lot about the end of truth & reason politically, but on a personal level I was gut-punched by the sudden death of my only brother back in March, three days before I was set to head out on a 5-week North American tour.
My first thought was, “I have to cancel everything and go home,” but after talking with some very close friends & family it occurred to me that the best way to deal with the shock, sadness and confusion might be to push forward in doing the only thing that truly matters to me in this world, and play some dumb songs for people. Surely enough, the ensuing month (minus the weekend of my brother’s memorial service) was just what I had hoped — an escape from familiarity and routine, an extended meditation on the American landscape, and a chance to make some noise for a lot of lovely strangers as a means of catharsis.
My brother had always said he wanted to tag along for a week on the road with me, so I was pleased to get a small parcel of his ashes, which rode the rest of the way from Michigan out to New York, down through the southwest and back to Seattle with me. Now he stays on my desk, near to where I do all my rehearsing and recording, and sometimes I talk to him but so far he hasn’t said anything back. Our mother has been feeling his presence a lot lately though I can’t claim the same ; being from the same parents, though, I reckon that’s because we are each other in so many ways, and there is no difference between us, no “other” to be sensed. I dedicated my new record to him, because it’s about getting over bad habits (we have both had our share) and I finished it the day before he died, the fact of which seems like some kind of cosmic exclamation point to me.
I have typically been pretty down about changing the calendar to a new year, even though I understand entropy, that time is an arrow and we merely impose these measurements — but at least symbolically I have never been more excited to say “farewell” to a year as I am right now. Learn and grow and fight the good fight and so on…
“The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter” is available now on Kranky.
Eluvium (Portland, Oregon, USA)
Eluvium is the alias for the Portland, Oregon-based artist and renowned experimental composer Matthew Cooper. Born in Tennessee and raised in Louisville, KY, Matthew Cooper relocated to Portland, OR several years back and has since been amassing a soul-stirring body of work under his “Eluvium” guise. 2016 saw the release of his latest opus “False Readings On” (released via the Temporary Residence label), the album’s genesis was originally inspired by themes of cognitive dissonance in modern society. Cooper also makes music as Inventions, a collaborative project which features Cooper and Mark T. Smith of Texas-based post-rock band Explosions In The Sky.
I did not like this year. I had a great many issues with this year, quite honestly. BUT ! – there were a surprising number of wonderful musics and books that happened… more than i am able to remember at this moment of making this list. I’m probably forgetting many of them because of how distracted I am by how much I otherwise did not like this year.
Aside from finding constant salvation in the arts, I also enjoyed a lot of hikes and walks with my wife and dogs and those days were probably my favourite. I’ve also found myself composing a LOT more work than usual. So there were, indeed, good things,..and there are more good things to come.
Listening ( no particular order ):
– The Caretaker – Everywhere at the End of Time
– Explosions In The Sky – The Wilderness
– Biosphere – Departed Glories
– Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language
– Roberto Musci – Tower of Silence
– Kjartan Sveinsson – Der Klang der Offenbarung Des Gottlichen
– Bethan Kellough – Aven
– Christopher Tignor – Along a Vanishing Plane
– Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – In Summer
– Benoit Pioulard – The Benoit Pioulard Listening Matter
– Odd Nosdam – Music for Raising / Sisters
– Tangents – Stateless
– Fernando Sor / Narciso Yepes – 24 Etudes — ( a late discovery but worth mentioning )
– Hildur Gudnadottir – Saman — (another late discovery but also worth mentioning)
– Rachel’s – Systems/Layers vinyl reissue
Reading ( no particular order / no particular year release ):
– John Wray – The Lost Time Accidents
– Patrick Dewitt – Undermajordomo Minor
– Jonathan Lethem – Gambler’s Anatomy
– John Muir – Wilderness Essays (reissue)
– Ethan Canin – A Doubter’s Almanac
– Haruki Murakami – Hear the Wind Sing/Pinball 1973 (reissue)
“False Readings On” is available now on Temporary Residence.
Brigid Mae Power (Galway, Ireland)
Having been a firmly established and longtime admired songwriter in her native Irish shores, the breathtaking Irish songwriter Brigid Mae Power released her extraordinary self-titled LP “Brigid Mae Power” via US label Tompkins Square earlier this year to widespread critical acclaim. The album was recorded with U.S. composer and producer Peter Broderick at his hometown studio “The Sparkle” in Portland, Oregon and features eight tracks of fragile beauty in her own inimitable and wholly unique approach as a songwriter (as anyone who has witnessed Power’s incendiary live shows will testify). Such is the album’s timeless brilliance, the nearest parallels that can be drawn to Power’s quietly unassuming, divine artistry are those blessed folk spirits of bygone times such as Sibylle Baier, Tia Blake or Margaret Barry.
I’m sitting on a Ryanair plane right now on my way back from Glasgow, where last night I played my final gig of the year. I played at The Glad Café with Mike Heron and The Trembling Bells.
I’m not great at doing my research or homework with who I am playing with, partly because I just seem to be in a scattered daze a lot of the time, but mostly because I can’t find much time to listen to new and old music. But I don’t mind because it means I can be really surprised out of the blue as I have no expectations. Mike Heron and the Trembling Bells were so warm, odd, brilliant and heartfelt. I wanted to hug them all while they were playing. The lyrics were so bizarre also. Mike Heron was in The Incredible String band who I know virtually nothing about, but will now try and get some of their records.
2016 was a great year for me. I released my self-titled album with Tompkins Square Records and I also got to experience playing shows in countries I had never previously visited. I went to Japan in September, played in an old school, a Buddhist temple and an old jazz club. I got to eat the most amazing food I had ever tasted. I came home feeling sick at the sight of cheese and bread and made myself noodle soups for the first few weeks when I got home.
I played at Le Guess Who Festival in Utrecht and got to see how pretty that place is and play my favourite bill ever with my husband and my sister-in-law..
I got to spend most of the summer in Portland, Oregon, and also by the coast in Oregon. I got to spend time around beautiful tall trees, see vultures circling around my head and lie down in the sun for days and days. I literally just let my body warm up as much as it could and dry up all that Irish damp that had been in my bones for years. Whilst lying down I drew a lot, I did read too but I can’t really remember what I was reading.
Right now I am reading ‘M Train’ by Patti Smith, which I love. I love her daily routine of sitting in cafés drinking coffee and writing. I used to do the same except with drawing mostly instead of writing, when I was in my early twenties. But when I returned to Galway I no longer felt anonymous in cafés, everyone would ask “ooh what are ya drawing?” or “Oh right, that looks a little strange!” and it just made me too self-conscious so I would draw at home instead. But there’s something about working in an atmosphere where life is going on around you, but not paying attention to you, that I love.
Musically 2016 saw a bit of a Joni Mitchell binge for me. Especially in most recent months. ‘Clouds’, ‘Miles of Aisles’, ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’, ‘Court and Spark’, ‘For the Roses’ and ‘Night Ride Home’. I devoured all of them! And I still am. I knew bits of all of them before but I had never listened to them in such depth. I also listened a lot to Andy Irvine and Paul Brady’s album.. I started running a few weeks ago and started to listening to some old jazz albums to get me to moving…Art Blakey’s ‘Witch Doctor’ to be exact.
I finished Elena Ferrante’s fourth Neapolitan novel in 2016 I think…or it might’ve still been 2015. Oh! Twin Peaks! I was first introduced to Twin Peaks just this year.. I loved everything about the first season, the second season creeped me out and scared me too much but I still managed to watch it and love it.
Anyway 2016 has been an exciting year and I think I have missed out on a lot of things and events etc. but maybe it’s because I’m still experiencing them and haven’t had time to reflect..
Ok I have to go now as I am juggling writing this and watching a 6-year-old run crazy around an indoor play place, which really does sum up what I’ve done mostly this year. Crazy-mother-music-juggle.
—Brigid Mae Power
“Brigid Mae Power” is available now on Tompkins Square.
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (Dublin, Ireland)
2016 was another busy year for the ever-prolific Irish composer and fiddle player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. As well as releasing the second album by The Gloaming (“2” via Real World Records), the world-renowned quintet also toured extensively throughout 2016 to sell-out audiences at both home and abroad. Ó Raghallaigh also toured and performed across Ireland with the Dingle-based concertina player Cormac Begley (bass, baritone, treble and piccolo concertinas). As well as performing with The Gloaming (alongside Iarla Ó Lionáird, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill and Thomas Bartlett), Ó Raghallaigh also performs with This Is How We Fly, another inspired contemporary supergroup, consisting of Ó Raghallaigh on hardanger fiddle, Seán Mac Erlaine on clarinets and electronics, Nic Gareiss on percussive dance and Petter Berndalen on drums. This Is How We Fly’s second album is due to be recorded in January 2017.
I didn’t buy many records in 2016, hardly read a book, and barely set foot in a cinema all year. But it was a great year of making things for me. It started out with DIY, actually, putting in a new kitchen, tiling, plumbing and the whole lot. Thanks, Google, you saved my life!
We had a great writing week at the Tyrone Guthrie with This is How we Fly early in the year. What a magical place that is, a retreat centre beside a lake in Monaghan, dedicated to giving space to artists for them to do their thing. Then there was The Gloaming run at the NCH, and the release of the new album. I came to see a lot of the NCH over the first half of the year – I was artist-in-residence in their new Kevin Barry Recital Room, which was a lovely opportunity to work with some remarkable musicians.
In terms of listening to music, Seán Mac Erlaine’s Duo Series of concerts was immensely enjoyable – two of them stood out for me: his duo with Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset in which they created glorious landscapes of sound; and his duo with Norwegian musician Jan Bang, a properly marvellous live-sampling dance that stands out as my favourite gig of the year.
Watched some amazing stuff on Netflix this year: Black Mirror and Stranger Things were two of my favourites. Future Islands. Found an amazing new tuning for the 10-string fiddle that is deeply satisfying!
For 2017, I think I’d like to focus on some solo stuff a bit more, especially with the live-processing coding up and running now. Do a few more courses, continue to learn and expand. And maybe think about making a solo record of it all.
We’ll be recording the new This is How we Fly album in January, thanks to our recently completed and successful FundIt campaign. Plus there are a few more albums already up the sleeve, so it could be a busy year for the releases!
—Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh
“2” by The Gloaming is available now on Real World Records.
George Xylouris (Crete, Greece)
Legendary lute player George Xylouris released his second album with duo Xylouris White this year – the inspired, earth-shattering collaboration with world-renowned Brooklyn-based drummer Jim White of Melbourne’s mythical trio Dirty Three – entitled “Black Peak” (Bella Union), the follow-up to the duo’s equally sublime 2014 debut “Goats” (Other Music Recording Co.). Xylouris hails from Anogeia, a mountain shepherding village set into the hills of Crete, down the hill from the Cave of Zeus (“Black Peak” itself is named after a mountaintop in Crete). George Xylouris, a true master of the Cretan lute, also performs with The Xylouris Ensemble (which also features his three Greek-Australian children). Xylouris White toured extensively throughout the globe this year, with extensive shows throughout Europe, USA and Australia.
I don’t know how to start this but to me the highlight of this what I’m doing now with Xylouris White is exactly that: to be with Jim White and play around the world.
I’m playing wonderful places and venues with beautiful audiences and that’s the most enjoyable stuff which I had all this time. I play my instrument almost 40 years now.
Highlight is to meet all these nice people. Musicians or not musicians and work with these people.
Here are some photos from our 2016 tours:
Xylouris White at Fox Theatre Oakland, San Francisco a few hours before the show with Godspeed you! Black Emperor. One of the most beautiful theatres I ever played. February 4th 2016.
A Beautiful Day in LA.
The Cathedral Sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian. Hung out in the little cafes around the venue and the tour bus waiting for show time.
The Cathedral in LA. Beautiful sound.
From California, Arizona Colorado, by bus, what a journey….
Union Pool, Brooklyn. “Sweet Home Stage” Launch of second album “Black Peak”.
Melbourne, March 11 2016. On the way to National Gallery to play at exhibition of Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol.
Big Ears Festival in Knoxville TN April ’16. I met the big master Marshall Allen, great honour.
Car broke down, the band kept going. Pennsylvania, see you in Boston.
west coast, Portland Oregon, after show at Mississippi Studios, cold night, warm team, w Emmett Kelly, Sabrina Rush, west coast team.
Back to Europe from west coast USA: Krakow, Poland. Unsound Festival.
Changing trains, heading to Birmingham.
4-day break back home. Crete. Before Tawain.
Taipei. Dumplings. Delicious. Love Love Rock Festival. On an old tea farm in the woods up in the hills, you see the villages around the hills. Magic.
Back in the USA east coast team: marisa anderson, eliot, george, jim. Break on the road. Enjoyable to spend time with these people.
Portsmouth NH. Breakfast time and singing after last night’s show together with Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins, one of my favorite shows ever.
thank you guys and see you soon again.
‘Black Peak’ in Crete.
“Black Peak” by Xylouris White is available now on Bella Union.
Loscil (Vancouver, Canada)
Loscil’s Scott Morgan has been responsible for some of the most captivating and stunningly beautiful ambient creations over the past fifteen years. Across a compelling body of work (beginning with the 2001 classic ‘Triple Point’) – the majority of which has been released on the immense Chicago-based imprint Kranky – Vancouver-based Morgan has developed his own unique style of textural rhythms that ceaselessly blur the lines of ambient, techno, drone and modern-classical. The recently released ‘Monument Builders’ – one of 2016’s finest gems – marks the latest chapter in Loscil’s explorations through sound that lies at the intersect between nature and humanity. Next March will see the release of Loscil’s highly anticipated debut collaboration with American cellist Mark Bridges under the name High Plains.
rugged Wyoming mountaintops
frostbitten and sprawling
frozen streams, lingering cello and chopped piano notes
a winter journey, listening on the precipice in a snowstorm
dotted with horses, High Plains
to the suns
horns After Life
dancer inked and scratched on film
pretty good homecoming
square improvisation with Red
Paul at St Paul’s
french horn rehearsals
Barbican Wild Birds
a humble face
filled with fear
but a survivor
a true Victor
the other London
borders after elections, nightmares
Chicago is too warm
travelling companion Benoît
Detroit storms of many kinds
New York Cuban cigars
flurries through the Adirondacks
Cohen shrines in a second home
Toronto warmth despite the cold
a quiet end
despite near Terror
so many farewells
“Monument Builders” is available now on Kranky.
With special thanks to all our readers and listeners for their support over the last twelve months. Wishing everyone a very happy and peaceful new year & best wishes for 2017.
Presented here is a list of our favourite albums from 2016. As difficult a task as this proved, we decided ultimately to choose the albums that we found ourselves turning back to time and again over the last twelve months. The exercise also reminded me of memories when growing up of reading interviews featuring our favourite musicians, what used to strike me so much was the number of times they would describe their favourite albums as being like “friends” to them. These albums were anything but material possessions, these wax and cardboard sculptures were simply part of their lives: their very identity, even. The following is a selection of sixteen albums released during 2016 which we feel fortunate to now call friends of our own.
Artwork: Craig Carry
Words: Mark Carry
(i). Oliver Coates – “Upstepping” (PRAH Recordings)
Several ground-breaking records from 2016 can be attributed to the gifted talents of British cellist and composer Oliver Coates. The London-based composer’s sophomore full-length release ‘Upstepping’ is undoubtedly the year’s most accomplished, innovative and compelling musical journeys with its meticulously crafted and sumptuously layered cello-based compositions that carves out techno-fueled waves of pure bliss and transcendence. ‘Upstepping’ is indeed (in the words of Coates) “pumped-up body music”. From album opener ‘Innocent Love’, which immediately evokes the sound of Four Tet’s ‘There Is Love In You’ with its hypnotic female vocal line to the deep house groove of ‘Perfect Love’ (think Autechre, Aphex Twin), a world of shimmering cello-based sound-worlds are being channeled from the cosmos. Coates’s current activity of “distorted cello play over sequenced dance music” (Coates wrote for his exclusive Guest Mixtape) remains the most ground-breaking and original sounds to have surfaced in 2016.
“Upstepping” is out now on PRAH Recordings.
(ii). Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – “EARS” (Western Vinyl)
Last Spring during a conversation with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, she described her primary objective for her latest full-length ‘EARS’: “I wanted to create a sense that the listener was on a 3-D motion ride through a futuristic jungle and I had to create an arc from start to finish that took the listener on a journey”. These eight otherworldly compositions created by the L.A. based composer and producer were immediately noted for their extraordinary colours, textures and striking multi-dimensional forms. The rich instrumentation encompasses a myriad of organic and synthesized sounds as Smith’s utterly hypnotic voice melds with her trusted Buchla synthesizer and an intricate array of woodwind and brass arrangements. Cosmic bliss appears at each and every turn: the dazzling mantra of ‘Rare Things Grow’ is steeped in African music traditions; ‘Envelop’s meditative melodic pulses and the epic closing transcendence of ‘Existence In The Unfurling’. Later in 2016 came the equally exceptional ‘Sunergy’ LP – a collaboration between Smith and electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani – as part of the RVNG Intl label’s FRKWYS series.
“EARS” is out now on Western Vinyl.
(iii). Jóhann Jóhannsson – “Orphée” (Deutsche Grammophon)
This year saw the eagerly awaited new studio album – and first in six years – from the renowned Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Incorporating music for solo cello, organ, string quartet, string orchestra and unaccompanied voices, ‘Orphée’ represents Jóhannsson’s finest hour, whose fifteen divine compositions captured here feels like a distillation of the master composer’s life’s work. The utterly captivating ‘A Song For Europa’ belongs in the same stratosphere as Gavin Bryars’ ‘Jesus Blood’ such is its cinematic brilliance: a spoken word sample becomes embedded deep in the music, speaking so profoundly. ‘A Sparrow Alighted Upon Our Shoulder’ is steeped in unwavering beauty as rejoice and hope flicker onto the horizon amidst a soaring string section (performed by Air Lyndhurst String Orchestra). A lost companion to George Delerue’s ‘Camille’.
In the words of Jóhannsson: “Orphée is for me about changes: about moving to a new city, leaving behind an old life in Copenhagen and building a new one in Berlin – about the death of old relationships and the birth of new ones”. As ever, the Icelandic master composer has crafted a challenging, utterly breathtaking and shape-shifting experience. A piece such as ‘Good Night, Day’ (featuring Jóhannsson’s close musical collaborator Hildur Guðnadóttir) paints life’s fleeting, transient nature onto a vast canvas of enchanting sound, before ‘Theatre of Voices’ (conducted by Paul Hillier) brings ‘Orphée’ to an astounding climax.
“Orphée” is out now on Deutsche Grammophon.
(iv). Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Skeleton Tree” (Bad Seed Ltd.)
On lead single – and album opener – ‘Jesus Alone’, a devastating apocalyptic world descends upon us amidst sparse arrangements of piano and brooding synthesizer drones: “You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field/Near the river Adur.” On Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ sixteenth studio album, a captivating, harrowing and deeply moving experience is forged as Cave’s songs navigates the heart of darkness.
The achingly beautiful gospel lament ‘Rings of Saturn’ exudes a healing power, which could belong on ‘The Boatman’s Call’ alongside ‘Brompton Oratory’. Scenes from John Hillocat’s ‘The Road’ (one of the many breathtaking scores Cave & Ellis have penned) is etched across the heartbreaking, tear-stained canvas of ‘Girl In Amber’. On a later verse, Cave mourns: “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber til your crumble were absorbed into the earth.” A brooding darkness seeps into your bones on ‘Magneto’ – the album’s most gripping and intense moments – where buzzes of electric guitar drifts beneath Cave’s whisper-like pleas. The hypnotic mantra of “In love, in love, I love, you love” shares the cosmic spirit of Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ ventures in the slipstream. A catharsis permeates the “heaven bound sea” of ‘Anthrocene’ with surreal, near-mythical dimensions somehow attained, which could depict Herzog’s ‘Aguirre, The Wrath of God’s haunting, doomed expedition. The sublime ecstasy of ‘I Need You’ is wrapped in impossible beauty; an empowering ballad that could belong to the ‘Lyre Of Orpheus’ sessions.
‘Skeleton Tree’ is a lament from the depths of darkness and despair: “With my voice, I am calling you.”
“Skeleton Tree” is out now on Bad Seed Ltd.
(v). Jessy Lanza – “Oh No” (Hyperdub)
The Canadian songwriter and producer’s sublime sophomore full-length ‘Oh No’ (Hyperdub) showcases an artist at the peak of her powers, crafting some of the most beguiling synth pop creations of 2016 (and beyond). Made in her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, with production partner Jeremy Greenspan from Junior Boys, the seductive pop hooks and R&B gems crafts a joyously uplifting haven of euphoric sounds. As Lanza says “I want to make people feel good and I want to make myself feel good”. Infectious energy permeates ‘VV Violence’ and ‘Never Enough’ (reminiscent of classic Junior Boys and Caribou) whilst elsewhere the stunning ballads ‘I Talk BB’ (Lanza’s voice ascends to the forefront of the mix) and ethereal haze of closing cut ‘Could B U’. The infectious groove and affecting vocal delivery of ‘It Means I Love You’ crafts one of the record’s defining moments, soaked in reverb and compelling drum machines. Most recently, ‘Oh No No No’ remix EP has surfaced, with gorgeous reworks by DVA (‘Going Somewhere’), DJ Taye x DJ Spinn’s remix of ‘Could B U’ and Morgan Geist’s rework of ‘I Talk BB’.
“Oh No” is out now on Hyperdub.
(vi). Peter Broderick – “Partners” (Erased Tapes)
The gifted American composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist has crafted his most captivating, emotive and transporting works to date on his latest masterwork ‘Partners’. This collection of solo piano music not only sees the beloved sound sculptor come full-circle in many ways but also delving deeper and further into music’s boundless orbit and life’s great mystery than ever before. In essence, the artist has effectively removed himself from the activities of the sounds he makes, in turn, creating piano music so pure, mysterious and far-reaching, evoking the timeless sounds of older generation masters such as John Cage and Lubomyr Melnyk. Hugely inspired by John Cage’s chance techniques and visionary spirit, Cage’s own composition ‘In A Landscape’ serves the vital pulse to ‘Partners’s aching canvas (having fallen in love with the piano once again during the process of transcribing this seminal piece, note-by-painstaking-note). Compositions such as the utterly transcendent ‘Carried’ unleashes a haven of heart-wrenching emotion as celestial harmonies meld effortlessly with mesmeric piano patterns, and ‘Up Niek Mountain’s drifting cosmic reverb-laden piano tapestries become interwoven deep inside the listener’s thoughts and dreams. The closing ‘Sometimes’ is a cover version of Brigid Mae Power’s divine ballad, the record for which is dedicated to Brigid. A freedom abounds on ‘Partners’ as the sacred piano notes become transcribed from the very composer’s subconscious mind.
“Partners” is out now on Erased Tapes.
(vii). Xylouris White – “Black Peak” (Bella Union)
Xylouris White is the inspired collaboration between Greek lute player George Xylouris and the Australian, Brooklyn-based drummer Jim White. Both composers are legends in their own right, the former through his Cretan lute-led sounds of the Xylouris Ensemble, the latter through his membership of mythical Australian trio Dirty Three and myriad of collaborations over the years. The sheer expanses covered on the band’s sophomore full-length ‘Black Peak’ is staggering. The opening rock opus ‘Black Peak’ and ‘Forging’s momentous rock’n’roll rhythms are followed by the poignant parable of ‘Hey, Musicians!’ and divine epic love song, ‘Erotokritos’. Ancient traditions are interwoven with contemporary, avant-garde musical structures, forever embedded deep inside a mysterious, enchanting and cosmic space. ‘Black Peak’ invites the listener to inhabit the far-reaching plains of life’s mysterious and kaleidoscopic landscape. As depicted on the striking narrative of ‘Hey, Musicians!’, music indeed never ends.
“Black Peak” is out now on Bella Union.
(viii). Loscil – “Monument Builders” (Kranky)
The Canadian ambient artist Scott Morgan’s latest masterwork unleashes a cathartic, hypnotic spell throughout; belonging to a dichotomy of worlds where an engulfing cloud of prevailing darkness prevails in tandem with the radiant light of hope and survival. Delicately beautiful ambient soundscapes drift majestically in the ether alongside the more intense, pulsating sound worlds. Take for example, how the fragile pulses of ‘Deceiver’ flows effortlessly into the glorious crescendo of ‘Straw Dogs’ or how the stunningly beautiful album opener ‘Drained Lake’ is gradually followed with the techno-infused ‘Red Tide’. A wall of intense moods, colour and textures flood these sonic creations, creating one of Morgan’s most accomplished and concise records to date. The addition of horn arrangements (recalling Philip Glass) immediately casts an ethereal quality; harmonies meld beautifully with a collection of old synths, warm textures of drone soundscapes.
“Monument Builders” is out now on Kranky.
(ix). The Avalanches – “Wildflower” (XL)
2016 saw the return of The Avalanches after sixteen years with their long-awaited second album. The pertinent question for the duo was how could a band follow-up a seminal classic like ‘Since I Left You’ but the duo have managed to create a kaleidoscope of rejuvenated, cosmic sounds. An endless array of samples, hip-hop rhymes, lucid beats, celestial harmonies and pop-laden hooks fill ‘Wildflower’s exhilarating voyage where cameo appearances from Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis, Father John Misty and Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick all stop by. ‘Wildflower’ is one of those perfect summer records: the Laurel Canyon-era sunshine pop of ‘If I Was a Folkstar’ and ‘Because I’m Me’s funky soulful strut and seductive Ariel Pink-esque ‘Subways’ are just some highlights. The heart-stopping ‘Saturday Night Inside Out’s dreamy haze and poignant epicentre serves the perfect closer to ‘Wildflower’s glorious psychedelic pop oeuvre.
“Wildflower” is out now on XL Recordings.
(x). Amiina – “Fantômas” (Mengi)
Icelandic outfit Amiina’s latest adventure, ‘Fantômas’, was originally composed as a live score to a silent masterpiece from 1913 (‘Fantômas’ was a French silent crime film serial directed by Louis Feuillade, based on the novel of the same name). Importantly the music stands on its own, independent of the visual narrative that, in turn, marks a brave new chapter in Amiina’s cherished songbook. The band’s Fantômas score is menacing, dark and brooding as it is steeped in delicate beauty and vivid hope. The cinematic opening title-track begins with a slow rhythmic pulse before haunting strings cast an eerie disquiet. The main theme’s melodic motif is masterfully revisited on the sublime ‘Lady Beltham’ before vivid dappling of light ascend on ‘Crocodile’. The closing electronic-oriented ‘L’Homme Du Noir’ explores adventurous new horizons. As ever, immaculate instrumentation of violin, cello, drums, percussion, metallophone, table harp, ukulele, and electronics graces the listener akin to the gradual fading light at dusk or a bird’s majestic flight across vast skies.
The score Fantômas premiered in Paris in 2013 at the prestigious, Théâtre du Châtelet, where Amiina, together with musicians James Blackshaw, Tim Hecker, Loney Dear, and Yann Tiersen, took part in a special Halloween event (curated by Tiersen), celebrating the centenary of the Fantômas series, directed by the French film director Louis Feuillade in 1913-1914.
“Fantômas” is out now on Mengi.
(xi). Carla dal Forno – “You Know What It’s Like” (Blackest Ever Black)
The Australian singer-songwriter’s masterful debut solo album ‘You Know What It’s Like’ marked undoubtedly the year’s most dazzling and exciting debuts. Released on the prestigious Blackest Ever Black imprint, lead singles ‘Fast Moving Cars’ and ‘What You Gonna Do Now?’ revealed adventurous avant pop song structures to get beautifully lost in. Forno asks “Did you want this to last a long time?” over a gorgeous haze of meditative bassline grooves and drumbeat on the luminous ‘Fast Moving Cars’. Forno’s voice – a truly formidable instrument – melts and dissolves in the other-worldly pop spheres, conjuring up the timeless sound of ‘Tragedy’-era Julia Holter and Brian Eno’s visionary early 70’s pop gems. A striking emotional depth resides throughout, reflecting on failed relationships, love, loss and the impermanence of it all. Loneliness is etched across the canvas of the album’s title-track, sharing the colours and shades of Miles Davis’s ‘Kind Of Blue’ and Nico’s celestial voice with its yearning, searching feel: “What you gonna do now that the night’s come and it’s around you?” Elements of dub, post-punk, psychedelic folk and avant pop sounds shimmer majestically throughout: from the late 60’s psych folk of ‘Drying In The Rain’ to the dub-infused odyssey ‘DB Rip’s wave of synthesizers. The stripped-back closer ‘The Same Reply’ serves the record’s most breath-taking moments; distilled in lost love.
“You Know What It’s Like” is out now on Blackest Ever Black.
(xii). Andy Stott – “Too Many Voices” (Modern Love)
The renowned UK producer Andy Stott delivered his highly anticipated follow-up to 2014 classic ‘Faith In Strangers’ in the form of ‘Too Many Voices’ last Spring via the peerless Manchester-based imprint Modern Love. The gifted producer continued to explore new sonic terrain and tap into new emotional depths with gorgeous dub step, electronic, grime and 80’s synth pop flourishes. On Stott’s fourth studio album, breathtaking synth washes of ‘New Romantic’ (with nods to This Mortal Coil) and soulful seduction of ‘Butterflies’ (the record’s lead single) are interwoven with utterly compelling dubstep techno for the dancefloor (‘First Night’) and crystalline ambient chill-wave bliss (‘On My Mind’). The title-track and album closer perhaps serves the record’s glorious climax with masterfully arranged choral harmonies (supplied by longtime vocal contributor Alison Skidmore who appears on half of the record) and euphoric production (think Holly Herndon crossed with the Yellow Magic Orchestra), providing one of the tracks of 2016 in the process.
“Too Many Voices” is out now on Modern Love.
(xiii). Katie Kim – “Salt” (Art For Blind)
‘Salt’ sees the revered Irish musician explore deeper into the ethereal dimension, for which she has long ago established. The hypnotic guitar drone of ‘Day Is Coming’ envelops the deepest of fears and anguish, culminating in a swirling symphonic haze of heavenly harmonies and brooding strings. ‘Someday’ is a delicately beautiful piano lament and searching prayer for hope. The striking intimacy and hypnotic spell cast by the gifted songwriter throughout ‘Salt’ unleashes the most deeply affecting batch of songs to have been unearthed for quite some time. Sonically, the latest record is a partnership between O’ Sullivan and producer John Murphy, whose expansive, guttural soundscapes of album opener ‘Ghosts’ and centerpiece ‘I Make Sparks’ are masterfully contrasted with the closing fragile piano ballads ‘Thieves’ and ‘Wide Hand’. One of the album’s defining moments arrives with the pulsating ‘Life Or Living’; a euphoric exploration into the depths of darkness. An image depicted on the second verse becomes the engulfing embodiment of ‘Salt’s realm of raw emotion and blissful transcendence: “Holding my hand now the tides incoming/Make us a shield so the light won’t get in.”
“Salt” is out now on Art For Blind.
(xiv). Marissa Nadler – “Strangers” (Bella Union, Sacred Bones)
“Strangers” finds Marissa Nadler’s sonic palette expanding (synths and drumbeats are at times added to Nadler’s voice and guitar). But despite the added instrumentation and more intricate arrangements, a purity forever remains in the treasured songbook of Nadler’s forever timeless oeuvre. Beautiful subtleties exist within the sonic tapestries while striking imagery such as disintegrating cliffs, towering skyscrapers, darkening woods and deep rivers are offset with characters often feeling at odds with the world they find themselves in (or more accurately find themselves suspended into, all of a sudden). There’s a tangible sense of contrasting dichotomies lying at the heart of “Strangers” (between the familiar and the unfamiliar; safety and danger; darkness and light; life and death) which makes the journey Nadler takes us on all the more real. Tangible. Life-affirming. And like a silent witness we can quietly navigate that darkness with her. For we are not strangers after all.
“Strangers” is out now on Bella Union (UK) / Sacred Bones (USA).
(xv). Brigid Mae Power – “S/T” (Tompkins Square)
Brigid Mae Power’s stunningly beautiful latest solo full-length – and Tompkins Square debut – is an album drenched in reverb-soaked emotion and lament. Enchantingly performed and produced, the record showcases a songwriter of immense talent in a soundscape that naturally merges itself to Brigid Power’s engulfing sound. The magic lies in the songwriter’s expression of raw emotion, in all its delicate beauty. Themes include transformation, change, motherhood, acceptance, strength, courage and trust. In the words of Power, the album is about “trusting if you lose yourself or your way — you can come back.”
Such is the album’s timeless brilliance, the nearest parallels that can be drawn to Power’s quietly unassuming, divine artistry are those blessed folk spirits of bygone times such as Sibylle Baier, Tia Blake or Margaret Barry. As reflected in the lyrics of closing heartfelt lament of ‘How You Feel’, this deeply personal and intimate set of songs become a place of hope and solace where the path laid out in front you is filled with the light of day and sea of love.
“Brigid Mae Power” is out now on Tompkins Square.
(xvi). Syrinx – “Tumblers from the Vault (1970–1972)” (RVNG Intl)
A collection of experimental synth music culled from the early 70’s Toronto music scene is beautifully celebrated by the ever-indispensable Brooklyn-based RVNG Intl label on the shape-shifting, genre defying musical document, ‘Tumblers From The Vault (1970-1972)’. The band in question are the avant-garde three-piece Syrinx whose wholly unique hybrid of chamber pop and electronic experimentation crafts an utterly timeless journey into the limitless possibilities of music. The dreamy, lo-fi gem ‘Hollywood Dream Trip’ remains as vital and fresh as the day it was recorded. The sprawling epic ‘December Angel’ dumbfounds the listener in its sheer beauty and compelling sound: a piece of music from some future age, unknown and mysterious all at once. Psychedelic flourishes are etched across the more electronic-oriented ‘Ibistix’; the amalgamation of distorted voices and cosmic strings creates a symphony of rapture and transcendence.
Syrinx consisted of composer and keyboardist John Mills-Cockell, saxophonist Doug Pringle, and percussionist Alan Wells. Syrinx’s self-titled debut arrived in 1970, followed in 1971 by ‘Long Lost Relatives’, which is highlighted as the first album on Tumblers From The Vault. Re-issue of the year, hands down.
“Tumblers From The Vault (1970-1972)” is out now on RVNG Intl.
Designs for the first ten albums are by Craig Carry, a limited edition series of screen prints (each edition is limited to 25 copies) have been created to coincide with Fractured Air’s favourite albums of 2016. Prints will be available to purchase online from January 2017.
With very special thanks to each and every one of our readers. Wishing you all a peaceful and happy new year.