Photo illustration: Jackie Lay/NPR / Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images
As many Americans step out and reconnect to a version of what their musical lives were before the pandemic, I remain, stubbornly, at home. No, I don’t have “cave syndrome,” but I’ve not had COVID and I want to keep it that way. My last concert was March 8, 2020, when I gleefully let the sounds of Third Coast Percussion wash over me as the band performed music by the electronic artist Jlin in an old church. With live music verboten, my exploration has come largely through recordings — and the albums that touched me most deeply this year are the 10 below, in which I’ve found a pervasive theme of connection.
Soprano Julia Bullock’s affecting solo debut, with its breathtaking spin on a deep cut by the enigmatic Connie Converse and a sublime rendition of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, traces the tenuous connections individuals share with one another and their own senses of purpose on earth. There’s a ghost in the machine that reconnects the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson to his own luminous Drone Mass, while his fellow Icelander, pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, makes a life-altering connection to a nonagenarian composer, resulting in the introspective From Afar. Classical guitarist Sean Shibe stitches unlikely connections between disparate composers by way of a Mexican Stratocaster. The new music outfit Wild Up once again wields the music of the late Julius Eastman, empowering listeners to fearlessly connect to their most authentic selves. And, as luck would have it, Third Coast Percussion released an album containing that mesmerizing Jlin composition, connecting me to a now-distant but no less thrilling memory of witnessing new music in the wild.
These albums not only kept me company at home this year, but helped me realize how important our connections are to each other — perhaps more so now than ever. I hope they do the same for you.
A Far Cry / Shara Nova
The Blue Hour
For Those Who Like: My Brightest Diamond, song cycles, compulsive sequencing
The Story: Few multi-composer collaborations are memorable. However, The Blue Hour, an engrossing cycle of songs by Caroline Shaw, Angelica Negrón, Sara Kirkland Snider, Rachel Grimes and Shara Nova — who sings and narrates its 40 sections — is unforgettable. The five women have inspired each other for years, and Snider calls the communal result “an embodiment and celebration of a musical sisterhood.” The texts were plucked from Carolyn Forché’s expansive poem “On Earth,” which traces ruminations on life and death in vivid, alphabetically organized vignettes.
The Music: A Far Cry, the Boston-based chamber orchestra that commissioned the piece, gives the music its buoyancy and broad color palette. In songs such as Negrón’s “A black map,” strings caress and thread around Nova’s vocals, commenting almost like an additional character in this hallucinatory journey. Nova has rarely sounded so all-encompassing — from intimate, unguarded communications to full-throated operatic splendor. It’s best to hear The Blue Hour in its entirety, but I’m hoping some of these finely built songs will be embraced by others and make their way into the world on their own.
Walking in the Dark
For Those Who Like: Connie Converse, Nina Simone, velvety voices
The Story: With a singularly expressive voice and a career on the upswing, you’d think the 35-year-old soprano from St. Louis would stuff her debut album with show-stopping opera arias. But nothing is conventional about Bullock — who lives in Munich and has applied a careful craft to her career reminiscent of the late Jessye Norman — and so Walking in the Dark instead offers songs associated with the likes of Nina Simone and Sandy Denny. A keen curator, Bullock has drawn praise for assembling programs that balance fun with intellectual rigor — like staging a tribute to Josephine Baker on the grand staircase of the Met museum in New York, or mixing songs developed by enslaved people with new music by Black women composers.
The Music: While there is no opera here, there is drama. Bullock’s fiery side emerges in a scene from El Niño, John Adams’ gripping retelling of the nativity story, and she communicates tenderly, with elegant phrasing, in Samuel Barber’s ruminative Knoxville: Summer of 1915. She even unveils the interior tension in “One by One,” a deceptive little song by Connie Converse, the pioneering 1950s singer-songwriter who never cut an album and disappeared mysteriously. “Brown Baby” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” point to Bullock’s sense of social justice, while her completely reharmonized version of Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” closes the album on a breathtaking note of nostalgia.
For Those Who Like: Arvo Pärt, noise, Nordic noir
The Story: Even if the name is unfamiliar, you know Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music if you’ve seen Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners or The Theory of Everything. Acclaimed for his award-winning movie scores, the Icelandic composer spent years writing music at the intersections of classical, electronic, ambient and indie rock. Just as he was gaining international recognition, Jóhannsson died suddenly in Berlin in early 2018. Just 48, Jóhannsson was a restless artist, lost way too soon, who would have continued to search and amaze.
The Music: Three years before his death, Jóhannsson completed Drone Mass, arguably his magnum opus. Neither particularly drony nor set as traditional liturgy, the 45-minute piece unfolds as a crepuscular ritual, and along the way blurs distinctions between acoustic instruments, electronics and voices. Strains of Renaissance choral riffs somehow sound at home in washes of jet-engine distortion, while calmer tracks invoke the God-squad serenity of composers Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. And in an unlikely gift from the afterlife, a savvy engineer located audio files of Jóhannsson’s own electronic performance of the piece and incorporated them into the recordings, allowing him to play alongside the fine musicians on this release.
Lost & Found
For Those Who Like: Guitar Hero, William Blake, transcendent duality
The Story: The mild-mannered, conservatory-educated classical guitarist from Scotland possesses an untamed imagination, a sharp ear for curation and an extraordinary technique. That he’s clad in a pink tulle dress on the album cover might be a wink at William Blake, whose metaphysical poetry and painting play loosely with disguise, and whom Shibe describes in the album booklet as “a radical looking for the revelatory.”
The Music: What’s “lost” here is Shibe’s traditional nylon-string classical guitar; what’s found is the black Mexican Stratocaster on which he plays most of the diverse music on this recording. Repertoire-wise, strange bedfellows have rarely sounded so good together: Shibe sets music by Moondog against Bill Evans (a heavenly version of “Peace Piece”), while Olivier Messiaen and Meredith Monk lie down with Julius Eastman and the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Shibe can shred, but more often he makes the instrument as featherlight as an angel’s wing.
Third Coast Percussion
For Those Who Like: Jlin, Bang on a Can, banging on cans
The Story: These four Grammy-winning gents from Chicago, who pound on anything from vibraphones to steel pipes, found a surprisingly simpatico collaborator in Jlin, whose suite Perspective is this album’s centerpiece. The electronic music artist and Gary, Ind. native has transformed the hyperbeat footwork style of music and dance from the clubs and house parties of Chicago into a realm wholly her own. She crafted a 30-minute suite for Third Coast Percussion, which the band transcribed to its unconventional arsenal of instruments.
The Music: At upwards of 160 beats per minute, Jlin’s suite is far more than just a toe tapper. Metal bowls filled with water give the third section, “Derivative,” a woozy swagger. Elsewhere, the album offers more traditional fare from some familiar names. Danny Elfman’s Percussion Quartet weaves colorful threads in a transparent way, while a laid-back arrangement of Philip Glass’ Metamorphosis No. 1 will appeal to the glockenspiel-obsessed. Another successful collaboration features the duo Flutronix in a three-paneled suite that begins with jitters in flutes and ends in breathy tranquility.
Caroline Shaw & Attacca Quartet
For Those Who Like: string quartets, puzzles, hugging trees
The Story: Shaw is a triple threat: a gifted violinist, superb vocalist and Pulitzer-winning composer. Along with her orchestral and choral compositions, she has been writing some of the finest string quartet music of recent times. Evergreen, named after the composition Shaw wrote for a specific tree in Canada, is the Attacca Quartet’s second album devoted to her music, and the group plays it with an irresistible blend of precision, wit and color.
The Music: Slotted between three major pieces written for the quartet alone, Shaw sings three of her own songs in her trademark crystalline sheen. Her text for “And So” reveals her knack for the stylishly meta: “Would scansion cease to mark the beats / if I went away?” Similar trap doors abound in the music for quartet. First Essay (Nimrod) introduces a lilting theme that soon gets twisted and tossed down a rabbit hole of surprising deconstructions. A solitary moment where strings, in extremely high register, dovetail in a chromatic haze, is alone worth the price of admission to this musical funhouse.
For Those Who Like: Ólafur Arnalds, upright pianos, miniatures
The Story: By his own admission, From Afar is the Icelandic pianist’s most personal album, inspired by a lengthy visit with the nonagenarian Hungarian composer György Kurtág. After their meeting, Ólafsson wanted to write the composer a thank-you letter, but sat at the piano instead, creating this double album for Kurtág. As a bonus, he recorded the music twice — once on a grand piano and again on an upright, like one from his childhood, with the damper pedal engaged to create what Ólafsson calls a “whispering intimacy.”
The Music: Kurtág was a master of the miniature, compressing color and expression into mere seconds. Ólafsson sprinkles pieces from the composer’s series Játékok (Games) throughout the album. Some are jaunty (“Harmonica”) while others hang spaciously in air (“A Voice in the Distance”). In between are pieces from Ólafsson’s past — Brahms intermezzi, Bach arrangements, lovely Hungarian folk songs by his beloved Bartók and the sparkling cascade of intertwining notes that make up Schumann’s Study in Canonic Form. From Afar is a quiet album, the perfect pairing for morning coffee on a winter Sunday or a late-night glass of whiskey.
Julius Eastman Vol. 2: Joy Boy
For Those Who Like: Albert Ayler, Steve Reich, ecstatic excursions
The Story: If only Julius Eastman were alive to enjoy the recent, richly deserved resuscitation of his uncompromising music, which during his short career put him in collaboration with Pierre Boulez, Meredith Monk and other important experimentalists. Boldly gay and proudly Black, Eastman gained precarious acclaim in the 1970s for his provocative pieces and performances, then withdrew and crashed too early, dying alone and unknown in a Buffalo hospital in 1990. He was only 49.
The Music: In its second volume of Eastman’s work, the Los Angeles-based outfit Wild Up once again gives astonishingly committed performances. The music, unlike the first volume’s frenetically joyous Femenine, doesn’t always land comfortably on the ear, but dig in deep and you’ll find the rewards are manifold. Touch Him When, in two separate guitar arrangements (“Light” and “Heavy”), plumbs deep ambient spaces and shreds with scorched-earth élan. Joy Boy offers a caucus of fidgety saxophones and flutes amid chaotic chatter, while the album’s final track, Stay On It, for voices and ensemble, returns to the funky spasms of ecstasy so warmly welcomed in Femenine. If you’re interested in art that prizes connection with one’s “authentic self,” this album is the sound of freedom.
Runner / Music for Ensemble and Orchestra
For Those Who Like: John Adams, African bell patterns, sativa
The Story: If you’ve ever been hesitant to dip your toe into the pulsating music of Steve Reich, now is the time to take the full plunge. The 86-year-old composer has released his 26th album on the Nonesuch label, and it contains a pair of ebullient pieces that might just be Reich’s most accessible since Music for 18 Musicians in the mid-’70s.
The Music: The two works teem with all that is vibrant and mesmerizing in Reich’s music. Runner, for 19 musicians, opens with a piano pulse of toggling 16th notes, while strings, winds and percussion file in separately to create a whirligig of interlocking layers. A passage where two chirping oboes chase each other as vibraphones chime like clocks is among the sunniest, most joyous stretches in Reich’s catalog. Music for Ensemble and Orchestra is set up in the same five-movement structure (ABCBA), but actually embeds the smaller group of Runner‘s musicians into a full orchestra. Hats off to conductor Susanna Mälkki, who leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a vigorous, transparent performance.
(A version of this review originally appeared on NPR Music’s #NowPlaying blog.)
For Those Who Like: Jonas Kaufmann, muscular tenors, high B-flats
The Story: While his name is still somewhat off the radar, Jonathan Tetelman has hit it big. The tenor, born in Chile, raised in central New Jersey and educated at New York’s Mannes School of Music, has signed a multi-record deal with the venerable Deutsche Grammophon and is making starring debuts this season at the Vienna State Opera, San Francisco Opera and Houston Grand Opera.
The Music: Opera geeks routinely complain about “park and bark” syndrome, where singers stand motionless, in mid-drama, belting out music at a single earsplitting volume. Tetelman, with a voice of bronze and velvet, embodies an opposite approach. His physical acting is often praised, but it’s the sensitivity of his dynamic control that marks him as a truly great singer. In the aria “Pourquoi me réveiller” (from Massenet’s Werther), which finds its character is near meltdown mode, Tetelman, in a single line, shows us stentorian frustration, then pares the loudness down to a golden ribbon of grief, perfectly supported by the breath.
10 More Terrific Albums:
Johnny Gandelsman, This Is America: An Anthology 2020-2021
Klaus Mäkelä / Oslo Philharmonic, Sibelius
Carlos Simon, Requiem for the Enslaved
Steven Beck, George Walker Piano Sonatas
Tania León, Teclas de mi Piano (Adam Kent)
Marc-André Hamelin, C.P.E. Bach: Sonatas & Rondos
Jason Vieaux: Bach, Violin Works, Vol. 2
Jakub Józef Orkinski, Farewells
Micah Frank & Chet Doxas, The Music of Hildegard von Bingen Part One
Evgueni Galperine, Theory of Becoming
Hear some of the year’s best classical recordings.