These Five Albums Show That Contemporary Classical is Thriving


Devonté Hynes, of Blood Orange fame, collaborated with Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion (shown here) on Fields.

(Photo: Saverio Truglia)

Berlin-based composer Joanna Bailie delivers work that masterfully collides field recordings, spoken word and old music recordings on Artificial Environments (NMC 252; 61:47 ****), a thoroughly beguiling collection of pieces performed by Plus-Minus Ensemble, a chamber group she co-founded. The tripartite “Symphony-Street-Souvenir” moves through the gradually slowing opening section of Brahms’ C minor symphony, gaining heft as its meticulous piano lines decelerate; blends distant-sounding carillon melodies from Copenhagen with sparse piano and strings; and complements a mix of music-box melodies and sine-wave tones with plummeting strings. The relationships within each section are wonderfully ambiguous, leading one to wonder, what’s pulling what?

New York electric guitar quartet Dither mixes pieces by its members and outside composers on Potential Differences (New Focus 235; 71:24 ***1/2), unveiling a panoply of possibilities for their instruments. “The Wah One” arranges damped yet lacerating chords using the titular effect to sound like a chugging engine, while “The Warped One” directs the players to detune strings through the piece, basking in queasy movement. Elsewhere, the ensemble plays frenetic rounds on the intensely pulsing “The Garden Of Cyrus,” forming dense thickets of shifting counterpoint that accelerate until the piece hydroplanes into sustained tones, while Ted Hearne’s “Candy” passes around simple phrases of interlocking melodies, increasingly interrupted by tension and noise.

Devonté Hynes, of Blood Orange fame, wrote the music on Fields (Cedille 192; 60:47 ***1/2) as a score for choreographer Emma Portner, collaborating closely with Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion, which orchestrated his works. While known for alternative pop and r&b, Hynes started out playing classical music, and the influence of minimalist Philip Glass shines through. At the same time, a penchant for woozy melodies and lush synth textures exerts itself, blending seamlessly with percussion that rings and gurgles seductively and establishes pulsing rhythms evoking the wide-open spaces evinced by the work’s title.

London-based composer Ryoko Akama typically deals in sonic abstraction, with installations and scores that explore gesture, time and space. But for Dial 45-21-95 (Another Timbre 146; 73:47 ****) she was commissioned to create a set of pieces using defined pitches, something rare in her music. She took advantage of a residency at the archive of the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski to inspire and develop these boundless pieces—many titled after objects or things she found there—which are beautifully realized by the superb ensemble Apartment House. Delicately and quietly voiced lines on clarinet, strings, vibraphone, flute, piano and guitar coalesce in gorgeously measured harmonies that hang in the air ambiguously, each melodic fragment steeped in mystery and provoking rumination.

England’s Tim Parkinson has toggled nonchalantly between experimental performance pieces and scored music, all of it investigating the meaning of sound. Mark Knoop sensitively explores that latter material on Tim Parkinson: Piano Music 2015–2016 (All That Dust 6; 63:29 ****), a set of often-austere solo works arriving as discrete studies that still feel obliquely connected. The elusiveness of the ultra quiet “Piano Piece 2015” stands in stark contrast to the exuberant jazz-like refractions of “2016 Last Piece,” while the compositions in between somehow chart movement in Parkinson’s thinking, as if cogitating aloud. DB

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September 2023
Kris Davis
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