2011 Was a Great Year (not quite a “best of” list)

detail from the inside of Asva's Presences of Absences CD release

Musically and personally, 2011 was a phenomenal year. From The Field to AMM and Radu Malfatti, I listened to a tremendous amount of music and a tremendous variety of music; much more than I could keep up with. If I had to summarize it, this was the year of the composer and the improviser: Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman, and Michael Pisaro, along with musicians like John Tilbury, Keith Rowe, Eddie Prévost, Jason Lescalleet, Garahm Lambkin, Smegma, and Æthenor dominated my listening habits. They also led me to new musical territory, which was overwhelming in its own way.

There were a lot of great albums released this year and it wasn’t until the last month or so that I discovered just how much I’d missed. Reading other people’s lists, I realized that I hadn’t given more than one or two Mego titles my attention this year, and that labels like Edition Wandelweiser, Mikroton, Senufo, Line, and Copy For Your Records had all released exciting records I’ve yet to hear, including music from Eliane Radigue and Anne Guthrie.

Then there are all the Erstwhile discs on my “to buy” list (despite the fact that I spent the last three months neck deep in that label’s music), the new Feldman piece on Mode, and the Rowe/Tilbury collaboration that manifested right at the end of December. Keeping up with all my interests has become increasingly difficult, in part because my interests have expanded, but also because the best music is coming out smaller labels, which aren’t always easy to find.

The following list collects the music that I loved most this year, for one reason or another, but this isn’t a “best of” list, because I don’t even know what that means anymore. Besides the Asva record, which I put at number one for a reason, all the following records are ordered randomly. A few thoughts and some excerpts from reviews I’ve written follow, along with some other musings about 2011. Thanks for reading this year, and here’s to an even better 2012.

2011 Was a Great Year

My favorite music released in 2011 was:

01. Asva, Presences of Absences (Important)
This is my favorite record of the year. Everything about it is perfect, except for the fact that Important hasn’t released the LP version, yet. Apparently, an extra song from these sessions exists, and it’s just waiting for me to hear it. Hurry up, Important!

” Inside the hum of Asva’s music time slows down a little, small details emerge, and a Creek Indian lullaby tells me something about music being made years later. Presences of Absences highlights the importance of context—as well as time and patience—and, using that as a basis, teases out the intricacy hidden in even the most elemental of music’s building blocks. The outcome is a sensational album, and easily the best thing Dahlquist has recorded with any group.”

02. Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
03. Glenn Jones, The Wanting (Thrill Jockey)
04. Æthenor, En Form for Blå (VHF)
Steve Noble’s drumming on this record is remarkable, probably the best percussive performance all year. Daniel O’Sullivan and Kristoffer Rygg should just forget Ulver and concentrate on making more with this unit instead.

“Without a doubt, Noble’s work is the star of this show, but the restraint and collaborative ability that Stephen, Daniel, and Kristoffer demonstrate is equally essential. I would love to see this incarnation of Æthenor in concert for myself because I find it hard to believe a record as coherent as En Form For Blå could be the product of a live engagement. If all of their live performances are of as high a quality as this album suggests, then Æthenor should be counted as one of the best live bands around.”

05. Low, C’mon (Sub Pop)
Some fans reacted negatively to C’mon, but I warmed up to it right away. Seeing them play live as a quartet in Boston made the songs sound even better, though, something that was true of Drums and Guns, as well. But, whether listening to them live or on CD, “You See Everything” and “Nothing But Heart” are two of my favorites songs from last year.

06. John Fahey, Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You (Dust to Digital)
This thing had been rumored for a long time, and when I heard it was finally coming out, I got very excited. Glenn Jones shed more sweat putting this thing together than most people realize (I think it’s 10 years in the making), and all the effort was worth it. Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You is a fantastic collection that does everything just right. Of course, John’s best music isn’t featured here, but that’s not what makes the box set great. It’s the combination of insightful liner notes, revealing stories, and careful presentation that send it over the top. If you want to know how to put a box set together the right way, just talk to Glenn. There’d be no shame in following a master’s example.

07. Radu Malfatti / Keith Rowe, Φ (Erstwhile)
I don’t even know where to begin with this one. It’s not on my list because it’s something I’ve connected with, or because I’ve somehow made sense of it. On the contrary, it’s one of the most difficult, confounding, and totally upsetting records in my collection. Actually, it contains some of the most upsetting music I’ve ever heard. But don’t let that deter you from hearing it, I mean that as a compliment. This year, I finally found my way to AMM, Cornelius Cardew, John Tilbury, Eddie Prévost, and Keith Rowe. Their music, along with Morton Feldman, Michael Pisaro, and a couple of related books, basically changed the way I look at music by expanding my horizons. But, Φ is a triple-disc monster that challenges me in even my most open-minded moments. More than any noise piece I’ve ever heard, even more than Cage at his most outrageous, the silences and miniature sounds on “Exact Dimension without Insistence” and “Nariyamu” confront and baffle me, leaving me more than a little uncomfortable. Despite that, I feel compelled to keep listening to Radu and Keith’s world of small sounds. With every replay I hear them speaking more clearly than before. Their careful, totally restrained playing hasn’t settled with me just yet, but nothing else released this year has as much gravity and mystery as this album.

08. Lego Feet, SKA001 (Skam)
I’m so glad that I don’t have to pay $300 to finally hear this. After twenty years, Rob Brown and Sean Booth’s debut EP still sounds phenomenal. Surprisingly, I hear a lot of Autechre’s later music in these early songs. Records like Confield and Draft 7.30 came as a surprise to me when they were released, but maybe they shouldn’t have. Many of the same cut-up rhythms and jerky movements that typify those albums are present here, though their penchant for melody and funkiness is equally present. SKA001 is definitely a welcome reissue, and a great reminder of why everyone fell in love with Autechre in the first place.

09. Rehberg / Schmickler, USA (PAN)
10. Smegma & Jozef van Wissem, Suite the Hen’s Teeth (Incunabulum)

“Ju Suk Reet Meate is perhaps the best partner Jozef has yet engaged. In fact, Meate is more a foil than a collaborator, challenging van Wissem’s palette rather than bending to his baroque will.”

11. Various Artists, SMM: Context (Ghostly International)
An excellent compilation of loosely connected artists flying under the flag of a non-existent genre. Ghostly should concentrate on releasing more albums by the artists on this collection and less on whatever else it is they do.

“Ghostly International might have just gotten lucky with SMM: Context; it has eleven very good songs made by eleven very talented people, and all of them share enough of the same spirit to fit comfortably on the same record. In this case, so much of the music is just so beautiful and direct that I don’t care if it’s called classical, symphonic, minimal, or something even more abstract and unhelpful, like SMM.”

12. The Field, Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)
The feel-good album of 2011. It reminded me of all the reasons I started listening to electronic music in the first place and brought back some great memories of listening to Orbital in my basement. Of the innumerable dance-oriented records I heard this year, this was the only one that made me want to move my feet.

13. Arbouretum, The Gathering (Thrill Jockey)
After hearing their cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” I fell in love with The Gathering. David Heumann is an impressive songwriter and an even more impressive guitarist. His group deserves way more attention than it gets.

“Oddly, losing one guitarist resulted in a thicker, more layered sound for Arbouretum. Capable of absolutely massive, buzz-drenched squalor, the band also produces eerily atmospheric music, which sometimes supports and sometimes mimics Dave’s vocal melodies. No matter how chaotic that confluence becomes, Carey holds the band together, demonstrating once again just how important the drummer is to Arbouretum’s music. He and Allender manage to make Heumann and Pierce’s efferent noises coalesce, so that The Gathering has a chunky, sometimes pulsing quality about it. Together they open up an inner space, which can be as personal or objective as it needs to be.”

14. Michael Pisaro, Hearing Metal 2 (Gravity Wave)
This only just found its way into my hands, but I’m already enamored with it. After hearing Pisaro’s 2010 collaboration with Taku Sugimoto on Erstwhile, I went searching for whatever information I could find about this California-based composer. His writing and his music had a profound effect on me in 2011, and I hope to devote some time to writing about him and his music in 2012.

photo of Michael Pisaro playing music

15. Rick Reed, The Way Things Go (Elevator Bath)

Four Memorable Shows from 2011:

Borbetomagus at O’Brien’s Pub – June 13th
“Total riot music”

live photo of Keith Rowe, Rick Reed, and Michael HaletaKeith Rowe, Rick Reed, and Michael Haleta as the Voltage Spooks
at the Eisenberg Loft – September 16th

Just as I find myself listening to lots of AMM, Keith Rowe pulls into town and puts on a killer solo set, then performs with Rick Reed and Michael Haleta in a bizarre trio featuring advertisements for furniture sets and diamonds. Rick Reed tells me a great story about seeing a Hermann Nitsch installation with more cow guts and tortured penis than anyone needs to see.

saturated image of Low playing at the ParamountLow at the Paramount Theater – April 29th

Low performs just before my birthday and ends up playing the best show of theirs that I’ve seen. Something screws up and “Breaker” ends up sounding broken, but then they get it together with awesome versions of “Silver Rider” and “Nothing But Heart.” I crossed my fingers and hoped for a birthday rendition of “Don’t Understand,” but it was not to be. Damnit.

photo of Crippled Symmetry played at the New England Conservatory

The Ludovico Ensemble performing Morton Feldman’s Crippled Symmetry
at the New England Conservatory – December 31st 

Morton Feldman’s been bending my brain in half since I read about him in The Rest is Noise. This was my first chance to see one of his pieces live, and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, it convinced me that much of this music needs to be heard in person, rather than through a recording. Listening to the way the pianos and vibes interacted, I wondered how much detail would be lost in the recording process. Watching a piece like this go down is more fun, too, because even when I could see what the performers were doing, I couldn’t always make out how they were doing it. Was that a piano I just heard, or was that the vibraphone sounding off?

The following albums weren’t released in 2011, but I listened to them a ton:

Michael Pisaro / Taku Sugimoto, 2 Seconds/B Minor/Wave (Erstwhile)
Graham Lambkin / Jason Lescalleet, The Breadwinner (Erstwhile)
Christoph Heemann, The Rings of Saturn (Robot)
John Tilbury / Michael Duch / Rhodri Davies, Cornelius Cardew, Works 1960-70 (+3dB)
Apartment House, Cornelius Cardew, Chamber Music 1955-1964 (Matchless)
Oren Ambarchi / Keith Rowe, Cornelius Cardew, Treatise (Planam)
Keith Rowe, The Room (Erstwhile)
AMM, AMMusic 1966 (ReR/Matchless)
AMM, The Crypt – 12th June 1968 (Matchless)
AMM, Newfoundland (Matchless)
Steffen Schleiermacher, Morton Feldman, The Late Piano Works Vol. 2: For Bunita Marcus (MDG)
The Barton Workshop, Morton Feldman, Composing By Numbers: The Graphic Scores 1950-67 (Mode)
The California Ear Unit, Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel / Why Patterns? (New Albion)
Alvin Curran, Solo Works: The 70’s (New World Records)
Tod Dockstader, Aerial #1, 2, 3 (Sub Rosa)
Catherine Christer Hennix, The Electric Harpsichord (Die Schachtel)
Loren Connors, Hell’s Kitchen Park (Enabling Works)
Trevor Wishart, Fanfare And Contrapunctus / Imago (PAN)

Next to hearing Feldman, AMM probably had the single biggest effect on me in 2011. Their music, along with Prévost’s writing, helped me to see music in a new light. Now, I think about why people make music differently, and I approach the way I listen differently, too. It was an oddly comforting thing to realize that music can be made, and listened to, even if the participants don’t know why they’re doing what they do. The idea of music as an experiment in itself helped draw together a lot of ideas that I’d had myself, but never synthesized successfully. I can’t recommend their music enough.

As if that weren’t enough, I enjoyed all of these records from 2011, as well:

Gruppo NPS, Nuove Proposte Sonore 1965-1972 (Die Schachtel)
Franca Sacchi, En (Die Schachtel)
Taj Mahal Travellers, August 1974 (Phoenix Records)
Hildur Gudnadottir, Without Sinking (Touch)
Throbbing Gristle, Heathen Earth (Industrial)
Throbbing Gristle, 20 Jazz Funk Greats (Industrial)
Christina Carter, Texas Blues Working (Blackest Rainbow)
Autechre, EPs 1991-2002 (Warp)
Moniek Darge, Sounds of Sacred Places (Kye)
Nathan Wooley, The Almond (Pogus)
Gaiser Presents Void, No Sudden Movements (Minus)
Humcrush with Sidsel Endresen, Ha! (Rune Grammafon)
Roedelius / Schneider, Stunden (Bureau B)
Ellen Fullman, Through Glass Panes (Important)
Eliane Radigue, Transamorem-Transmortem (Important)
Leyland Kirby, Intrigue & Stuff Vol. 1 (History Always Favours the Winners)
Loscil, Coast / Range / Arc (Glacial Movements)
Pete Swanson, Man With Potential (Type)
Jacaszek, Glimmer (Ghostly International)
Michael Chapman, The Revenge and Resurrection of the Clayton Peacock (Ecstatic Peace)
Julianna Barwick & Ikue Mori, FRKWYS Vol. 6 (RVNG Intl.)
Jim O’Rourke & Christoph Heemann, Plastic Palace People Vol. 1 & 2 (Streamline)
Taku Unami / Takahiro Kawaguchi, Teatro Assente (Erstwhile)

I didn’t see many movies made in 2011, but I’m not sure that anything could top The Tree of Life, even with it’s flaws. Comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey have been made, but I think Malick goes way deeper than Kubrick in trying to suss out man’s place in the universe. The creation sequence alone, a portion of which is featured above, is a masterpiece, and it had me choking up a little bit in the theater. Using Zbigniew Preisner’s lovely “Lacrimosa” (from Requiem for My Friend) as the soundtrack only made it better, and that’s just a small portion of the film. His handling of the religious, philosophical, and scientific themes was as subtle and as balanced as I think is possible, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Seeing something that treated religion so sensitively was relieving and reassuring, even if Malick never answers the question he sets out at the beginning of the film: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

If there is an answer, or if Malick has an opinion, he keeps it mostly to himself, preferring his images to his words.

Now that I’ve graduated from school, reading books that aren’t philosophy texts is possible! And the first one I jumped on, besides a couple of excellent books about Joan of Arc, was Give My Regards to Eighth Street. If Feldman doesn’t challenge the way you think about music, then you aren’t reading closely enough, or you just don’t care. Besides all the insight into the texture, color, history, and structure of music, Feldman’s essays opened up a world of painting that had never quite clicked with me. Combined with portions of Jung’s Man and His Symbols, I finally took my first baby steps onto the modern avenues of painting and sculpture. If you like music at all, or are even a little interested in music theory and history, then Feldman’s essays are must read.

Suddenly, toward the end of his life, Kierkegaard began to worry what his answer might be if he were asked in heaven: “Did you make things clear?” He realized that in order to make things clear, he must make it known that of all those serving the Church of Denmark, not one had any feeling for God. And ourselves? What if we were faced with the same question? Being that music is our life, in that it has given us a life — did we make things clear? That is, do we love Music, and not the systems, the rituals, the symbols — the worldly, greedy gymnastics we substitute for it? That is do we give everything — a total commitment to our own uniqueness? — Feldman, from In Memorian: Edgard Varèse

What composer has ever complained about music? The composer is always euphoric, smug. He’s married to a perfect Muse, a perfect bore, a bluestocking! Today especially, when science and mathematics enjoy such prestige, he wants his music to be with the times. In America he reads Max Planck. In England… I don’t know what he reads in England, but I’m sure there, too, he would like to feel that if something can’t be measured it doesn’t exist. — Feldman, from Conversations with Stravinsky

Shortly after finishing that book, I started Eddie Prévost’s No Sound Is Innocent, which I’m near the end of now. It’s had a similar effect on me, though Prévost’s subject is more limited than Feldman’s. His arguments about musical content are hard to swallow at times (especially his diatribes against repetition), but his comparison of commodity music to meta-music raises a lot of important questions, ones that I think Feldman asks (and maybe answers) in his own way. Whatever their connection, Prévost’s perspective on how and why people make music is enlightening and encouraging. Enlightening because it explains and describes improvisation so well, encouraging because it suggests that music is more about exploration and discovery than perfection.

Last year was a momentous year for many personal reasons, as well, not the least of which was finding a decent job. Adjusting from an academic life to a professional one wasn’t easy, and it meant less time spent writing about music. It also meant a full year away from WZBC, which was the principle reason I started this blog.

As a result, I didn’t post much in 2011, though my hastily composed retort to David Keenan’s Collateral Damage article in Wire magazine received way more attention than it deserved. What was meant to be a sketch ended up an article with well over 3,000 hits in one day. It was exciting to see that people still visit the site and find it useful, no matter how poor my writing sometimes gets. But, as a result of that article’s quick dissemination, I’ve taken to writing in a journal before posting anything to the Internet. It’s helped me organize my thoughts tremendously, and improved the clarity of my writing, too. Or, at least I hope it has.

Parallel to my lack of writing was a lack of Laughtrack updates. I started the year strongly, with monthly mixes posted to this site, and reactions were mostly positive. Downloads were frequent enough to warrant further updates, but sometime around August I lost the will and ability to keep up. Converting files to MP3s is time-consuming, especially when my only copy of something is on vinyl, and editing everything doubly so. WZBC’s studio made it easy for me to provide mixes, and without it, the enthusiasm for mixing and matching songs on my computer faded.

My desire to keep writing about music persevered, however, and in late August I began writing for Other Music in New York City. Working with their weekly newsletter format made it possible for me to write more and, consequently, it forced me to sharpen my prose and explanatory powers. Describing music in three or four paragraphs isn’t always easy, but wordiness is an easy refuge when you’re not sure what to say. Reviewing something in just a brief paragraph or two is much more difficult, but it’s done wonders for my thinking process and changed the way I approach writing longer pieces.

If you’re at all interested in that writing, which is admittedly geared toward selling records, you can check out the following links:

My hope is to write much more in 2012, even if all I write are brief reviews of music that deserves much more thought and concentration than I can give it. Much of the battle with art is getting the message out, that this music exists, that it’s worth your time, and that it’s often about so much more than entertainment. That’s one of my resolutions for the new year, to get the message out. Hopefully, I’ll keep it.

“What is talkativeness? It is the result of doing away with the vital distinction between talking and keeping silent. Only some one who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk – and act essentially. Silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life.”

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