Perhaps too distracted by political hearings and debates, the 2020’s have snuck up on us. Still, it’s worth taking the time to take stock of what’s happened within contemporary music in this decade. This is the decade that saw the Pulitzer Prize in music go to hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar for his album “Damn.” In the coming decade we may see the prize handed to a ska or deep house artist. At the end of the 2020’s, composers like Anna Clyne and Caroline Shaw will have been integrated into the canon. Anything can happen, and so it should be if our artistic medium hopes to move forward.
On Dec. 8, the collective I manage, Density512, hosted an immersive house concert at the home of art collectors Deborah Green and Clayton Aynesworth. I made a 30-minute playlist for the event, something I thought would be appropriate for the time leading up to our main performance throughout the home — and something that reflected this past decade.
This playlist is very much a party mix. Some excellent, dissonant music by composers like Andrew Norman, Sky Macklay, and Pamela Z was left out in the interest of keeping things more or less on the short and lighter side of things.
1) Synesthesia Suite: Ki Iro (Yellow) | Andy Akiho | Various Artists | 2011 | 5’
Kicking off the decade was Andy Akiho’s Synesthesia Suite. This movement of the suite, Ki Iro, is an excellent example of Akiho’s fascination with rhythm and rhythmic displacement. The Synesthesia Suite was recorded for Akiho’s album, No One to Know One, titled after one of the pieces on the album. Synesthesia is a neurological condition that can cause someone to see colors when they hear music. Akiho uses this ability to musically depict Beige, Yellow, Purple, Red, Crimson, and Orange over six movements all principally titled with their Japanese names. A virtuosic steel pannist himself, Akiho peppers his suite with pan sounds. Ki Irouniquely does not utilize the pan, instead using woodwinds, melodic percussion, string quartet, and a contemporary fusion quintet.
2) Omie Wise from “Murder Ballades” | Bryce Dessner | eighth blackbird | 2013 | 3’15”
eighth blackbird, a pierrot ensemble, continues to shine as one of the great contemporary classical ensembles. In 2013, they, along with Lunapark, commissioned Bryce Dessner, of the rock band the National, to write Murder Ballades. In this substantial work, Dessner was inspired by the murder ballad subgenre of American folk songs. The end result is an evocative and atmospheric revision of Americana which the sextet interprets beautifully. Other excellent composers on this album include Nico Muhly, Philip Glass, and Son Lux.
3) Meltdown Upshot: IV. True/False | Marcos Balter | Ensemble Dal Niente and Deerhoof | 2016 | 2’
Marcos Balter has become a leading voice in the American new music scene, frequently collaborating with the International Contemporary Ensemble and in this album, Chicago-based new music ensemble, Ensemble Dal Niente. But Ensemble Dal Niente is not the only group featured on this album. San Francisco’s avant-rock group Deerhoof partnered with Ensemble Dal Niente to bring Balter’s diverse suite to life. With an ensemble of saxophone, horn, piano, harp, electric guitars, electric bass, mandolin, strings, and three female singers, each movement of Meltdown Upshot evokes a different genre, birthing his own indie classical sound. Second Inversion describes this movement as “organized mania” and “a fast-paced, string-plucking homage to Philip Glass-style repetition.”
4) History of Touches | Björk | Björk | 2015 | 3’
If any classical musicians who are reading this don’t know about Björk, get to it! Her heart-rending album, Vulnicura, serves as a sonic documentation of Björk’s breakup with American contemporary artist, Matthew Barney. The subtitle for the song on this playlist, History of Touches, is Three Months Before leading one to believe this is about the enjoyable moments before the breakup. In the song, Björk sings her poetry above an ethereal electronic valley.
5) Study No. 2a | Conlon Nancarrow arr. by Evan Ziporyn | Bang on a Can All-Stars | 2012 | 4’
The late Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) is most famous for his player piano studies. Why write something for player piano when we have real people who can play piano? Well, these works are exceedingly rhythmic and most often do something that humans find impossible to perform, like have two independent tempi being played simultaneously. Several musicians have been succeeding lately at arranging Nancarrow’s player piano studies for adventurous human performers, including Gavin Chuck for Alarm Will Sound and Thomas Adès for himself. In this work, Boston-based composer, clarinetist, and conductor Evan Ziporyn arranged one of Nancarrow’s studies for the Bang on a Can All-Stars who are comprised of a clarinet, cello, double bass, electric guitar, percussion, and piano. If you like what you hear, check out this work by Nancarrow where the “left hand” starts at a relatively relaxed tempo and speeds up throughout the work, while the “right hand” starts at a fast tempo and slows throughout the movement. Likely an impossible feat for any human pianist.
6) RIPEFG: I. | Yevgeniy Sharlat | Aizuri Quartet | 2018 | 4.5’
An Austin-based composer teaching at our very own University of Texas, Yevgeniy Sharlat has garnered national recognition for string quartets. RIPEFG is Sharlat’s third string quartet written in memory of former UT student and friend to Sharlat, Ethan Frederick Greene. Sharlat says Greene would insist on bringing a melodica to lessons, and so the melodica is a major feature in the work played for nearly the entire first movement by the violist. Sharlat often uses other objects and instruments in his works, such as kazoos, harmonicas, and even pencils like in Pencil Sketch which he wrote for the Kronos Quartet. RIPEFG can be heard on Aizuri Quartet’s Grammy-nominated album, Blueprinting. If you’re looking for more, other composers on the album include Gabriella Smith, Caroline Shaw, who also have excellent works.
7) From the Invisible to the Visible | Shara Worden | Nadia Sirota | 2013 | 4’
Nadia Sirota is a seriously connected musician. To say she is a violist does not do her work justice. She is the New York Philharmonic’s Creative Partner, where she created and hosts Nightcap and Sound ON. She’s a member of Alarm Will Sound and yMusic. She hosts the podcasts Meet the Composer and Living Music with Nadia Sirota. She has friends in all places, high and low. For this album, titled Baroque, she decided to commission from her impressive roster of connections. Listed here is From the Invisible to the Visible by Shara Worden (Shara Nova) for viola and electronics. Worden may be better known to some as My Brightest Diamond, which she formed in 2006. In Worden’s piece, you will hear something of a retro synthesizer while Sirota glides overtop. Other composers on this album include Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli, and others.
8) Plan & Elevation: IV. The Orangery | Caroline Shaw | Attacca Quartet | 2019 | 2’
The real gems on this album, Orange, are the longer works Entracté and Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a, but if you’re looking for a shorter track for your new music holiday party, I recommend a track from Caroline Shaw’s suite for string quartet called Plan and Elevation. Attacca Quartet dedicates this entire album to works of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Shaw, and their interpretation of her output is unmatched. If you like hip, icy new music with no indulgent vibrato and phrases that ebb, flow, rise, and sink, this is the string quartet album for you. And then listen to this recently released video of Shaw singing her own song, And So, with Attacca.
9) Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities: Torched and Wrecked | David Skidmore | Third Coast Percussion | 2019 | 4.5’
Much of the repertoire that percussion quartet Third Coast Percussion performs is meant only for them to perform. Composer David Skidmore is not only their Executive Director, he also is a founding member of the group. Skidmore has written a series of works in a collection he calls Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities. Torched and Wrecked is about an unfortunate event that happened to Third Coast Percussion member Sean Connors’s car. NPR called this piece “a butt-kicking ride.” Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities can be found on TCP’s album Perpetulum, named after the Philip Glass work on the album which TCP commissioned.
And and honorable mention from the early 21st century…
10) Fingerbib | Aphex Twin arr. by Jonathan Newman | Alarm Will Sound | 2005 | 4’
This work opened the playlist for Density512’s event, but after doing a little research for this article I realized this collaboration was done in 2005. Nevertheless, the album in which this piece comes from is personally one of my favorites. The album is titled Acoustica, and is performed by Alarm Will Sound, perhaps THE American sinfonietta of our time. For this album they did the seemingly impossible, and commissioned ten composers to create acoustic versions of fifteen works by electronic music artist Richard David James, better known by his stage name, Aphex Twin. Making a replica of this music acoustically is no small feat, and the composers had to get creative with their orchestration. If you want to nerd out, listen to the original songs by Aphex Twin side-by-side the Alarm Will Sound commissions.
Don’t forget: Music like this is played in Austin year round. Check out the programming of ensembles like invoke (multi-string quartet), Line Upon Line Percussion, Kraken Quartet (percussion, original music), the Tetractys New Music series and our contemporary collective/chamber orchestra Density512.
Density512 upcoming shows
- “Conduction: Bridging the Divide,” 4 p.m. Feb. 16, Big Medium Gallery
- “What Status Quo?” 4 p.m. March 15, Big Medium Gallery
- “Eva and the Angel of Death,” 8 p.m. April 18 & 2 p.m. April 19, Austin Central Library