Archive for December, 2009

It was a strong enough year that there was pretty easily twenty things that I felt were well worth hearing, and I could probaly find another ten without too much trouble. Things do start to become uneven though, even toward the bottom of this list there are things that are worth hearing part of, or that may not fully sustain multiple listens but are still worth hearing.  So yeah, this is the bottom half of my top twenty which is still ordered, though beyond the first 5 or so, it gets a little meaningless. Several of these I simply didn’t have enough time to fully absorb due to getting them late, a couple others are mostly great with perhaps one dud track but all are strong in their own way and I’d wholeheartedly recommend them  all .

Releases of Note 2009 (part 1/2)


Keith Rowe/Toshumaru Nakamura Erstlive 008 (Erstwhile Records)
With this release the quartet of shows that Keith Rowe played at the AMPLIFY 2008: Light festival in Tokyo is complete. As an attendee of said festival, who was blown away by all of Keith’s performances it is a real treat to have high quality recordings of all of these shows as a memento. This is the fourth recording of this duo (Weather Sky, Amplify 2002 and Between all on Erstwhile) and that was the second time I’d seen them perform live. They are one of the strongest and constantly engaging duos in improvised music; always pushing each other to new places and ever greater heights. The performance as captured on this disc was the stronger of the two I’ve experienced and right up there with much of the material on Between. The piece begins aggressively and while it contains many periods of relative calm, the piece is mostly dense and rich with sound.  If Keith’s duos with Sachiko and Unami were exploratory, both in the sense of working with new partners and in pushing away from his previous works, this duo is sure in it’s footing but no less exploratory in its desire to bring these two into a new place.  Toshi, always at his best in this type of situation, fully responded in kind and stood toe to toe with Keith the entire time, pushing him in turn. In the context of Keith’s four Tokyo performances it was an incredible finally, encapsulating the festival, the city and his relationship with Toshi all in a dramatic and gripping performance. Get all four of the Tokyo Rowes and experience the highlights of AMPLIFY 2008: Light.

BuoyPhil Durrant/Lee Patterson/Paul Vogel Buoy (Cathnor Recordings)
This album was my first favorite album for the year – it was released right at the start of the year and has sustained my interest through countless listens right to the end. In a way this was a pretty surprising release to me as I can’t say I really expected this trio to actually work. It’s seems like it had been so long since we had heard much from Durrant that I didn’t really know what to expect from his laptoppery at this point, though he has done so much good work I did have high hopes. I’ve been loving Vogel’s collaborations mainly within the Irish scene and of the ones I’d heard that I didn’t think worked so well his playing was always rock solid. Patterson though, well honestly, his music to date has done little for me; while it is always impeccably recorded and contains interesting sounds there just seems to be something missing. There is a certain knack for field recording, I think, that recognizes a certain narrative arc without imposing too much of the recordist that I just don’t find in his work. Furthermore in collaboration, especially when one is interjecting pre-recorded material, it is the rare hand that possesses a sensitive enough touch to not undermine the proceedings. Thus I was surprised, even blown away by how well everything works here and how well it holds up over multiple listens. For this is usually the failing that arises from most improv that uses prerecorded material: it can seem great at first, but over time it loses its charm (as an aside I think in many ways it is the fact that placement  is the only parameter that Rowe fully controls in his radio grabs that makes them work so well, but that is another post). There are a couple of moments in this disc where elements from all of the participants teeters right on the edge of losing this listener – a cheesy bit of laptop, a buried vocal sample, an overly in your face clarinet line – but it always ends up resolved by what follows as if it was a dissonance made good by a later consonance. This album to me seems like the fledgling Cathnor label really finding its footing, putting out music that fully works and reflects Richard’s taste and passions so well (disregarding Sight, which remains the labels strongest release but which Richard was more a participant in then a curator).  It also contains my favorite of his, err Olaf’s, sleeve designs to date.

ï¿¢ + : *Noid, Taku Unami ï¿¢ + : * (The Manual)
There was quite a few releases this year featuring rhythmic tocking sounds (numerous Ryu Hankil related releases in particular) with this one I think being the best. Made with Taku Unami’s laptop driven motors, beaters and effectors on Noid’s cello with interventions by Noid it is a particularly resonant and complicated extension of Unami’s more typical soundworld.  Possibly the final statement from Unami in this general area as well, as performance art and extra-musical activities have come to dominate his performances throughout this year. Noid’s contributions are harder to place though you can definitely hear string manipulations in a dry, scraping vein as well as what sounds like moving Unami’s devices around. Rich and endlessly fascinating this album is well worth hearing, though it does become a bit tiring over the duration.

Filament with Musikelectronic Geithain 4 Speakers (2-:+/Studio Parabolica)
Apparently Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide set up sound installations at Parabolica Bis in Tokyo this summer, both of which were recorded and released as little 3″ discs by the 2-:+ label (which appears to be associated with Parabolica in some, not immediately transparent, way). Musikelectronic Geithain seems to be a speaker company and the installation seems to be a four channel setup of their speakers playing Filament.  The disc sounds like Filament, which is something that Sachiko and Otomo seem to be able to just turn on and off as neither of them are making music exactly like this these days. Sachiko does spend more of her time here in the twittery mode and working with the noise that comes from the switches on her oscillators as she turns them on and off then in the very high pitched continuous sounds that she favored in Filaments heyday, though they do make an appearance here.  Otomo, taking a break from jazz and his more droney/noise focused pieces of late falls right back into the microsounds and whispers with occasional outbursts. And frankly I love it and am glad to hear more of it.  This would certainly be one of those releases that I would say fall into the “mature” category, though there is I think a slight incremental development (which lets face it, fits Filament perfectly: it would seem against the whole project to make sudden radical leaps) especially from Sachiko though I think Otomo drops in hints of his more recent work.  Interestingly enough it is Sachiko’s solo I’m Here ..Departures.. that really feels regressive and while it is a nice slab of music and well worth listening to, didn’t grab me enough.

Sculptures Musicales, Fifty-Five, Eighty-Three, EightyJohn Cage Sculptures Musicales, Fifty-Five, Eighty-Three, Eighty (OgreOgress) dvd
Anyone who follows this blog knows how much I love John Cage’s music, from the early percussion works to the etherial Number Pieces. I do indeed love it all and were I to compile a list of my favorite Cage pieces it would certainly span that entire arc. That being said I do have a particular fondness for the anarchic, noisy electronic pieces from the 60’s where Cage, Tudor, Mumma et al would abuse contact mic, primitive electronics and the like to seemingly tap right into the broiling quantum foam that makes up our unseen universe. Thus it was with a lot of pleasure that on getting this dvd of unrecorded large scale pieces from the Cage discography to hear that OgreOgress brought the noise.  The later Number Pieces create their primal roar from the large ensembles involved (the numbers that form the titles of these pieces are the size of the ensemble) but Sculptures Musicales is its own unique beast. Composed in the late eighties, the height of his composition of the Number Pieces, it is for four performers using electronics originally performed to Merce Cunningham’s Inventions. They are to work with blocks of sound seperated by silences of a random length (up to three minutes) the sounds themselves to be heavy dense to form the structure of the sculpture.  In this performance there are blistering walls of sound, recorded sounds of trains and train yards, what sounds like vacuums, percussion both standard and bespoke and many more. There are numerious long gaps of silence which give the sculpture its form (and incidentally display that Cage also worked with longer silences then many people seem to think).  The number pieces on this disc are equally great, dense drones separated by spaces with Eighty never having been performed before (perhaps due to its conductorless nature and the size of the ensemble).  The DVD format allows for these pieces to be stretched out at length and nicely collected together as a unit. They are more of a pain to play, forcing one to listen at home, but I think the format serves the material well.

Oscillation VacillationJoe Foster/Hong Chulki/Takahiro Kawaguchi/Ryu Hankil Oscillation Vacillation (Balloon & Needle)
This isn’t the rawest of the releases from the consistently fascinating South Korea scene to make it to CD this year, but it is one of the most perfectly balanced, always flirting with chaos. It never settles down too much in the oppressive rythmics that Ryu Hankil’s clockworks can sometimes fall into, nor does it become dominated by the blistering electronics that Hong Chulki cartridgeles turnable can generate.  Joe Foster is almost always a moderating element in his collaboration with his sometimes noisier compatriots. His sensitive and always angular contributions can bring it just as intensily but he rarely (and I can’t really think of a recorded example) allows to fall into excess. I’m not as familiar with Takahiro Kawaguchi but here he is credited with “remodeled counters, selfmade objects, tuning fork” which I think adds some of the subtle pure tones (tuning forks), percussive elements (self-made objects) as well as contributing to some of the wild electronics (remodeled counters). This is one of those releases that I’ve gotten late and really haven’t spent enough time but it has immediately captured my attention and I’ve listened to it more over the last couple of weeks then I would have thought (its one of those that compliments airplane roar quite well). This has been a strong year from those involved in the South Korea scene, which I think is unquestionably the most exciting region for this type of music today. They are constantly pushing, on the edge, raw and melding in material from other contemporary musics.  Much of it at this point doesn’t work, but that’s experimental music for you: it can, in fact must have the potential to fail.  It is the lack of failure as an option that has brought on some of that stagnation that I’ve spoken of before and that I think marks much of the other scenes right now (along with moves toward performance art, nostalgia, fusion with past forms and empty conceptualism). The music on this disc constantly flirts with failure, keeping it tense and and consistently engaging working at times with an extreme low end that disappears on headphones and lesser stereos as well as with almost empty flutterings that some to be mixed with people just moving around. I’m just getting started with this one, but it already has excited more then most of what I’ve heard this year. It has the elements to remain engaging over many listens, which I for one will be testing in the months to come.

TrypichEliane Radigue Triptych (Important)
Important Records may have the most pretentious name of any label in existence but from time to time they really do put out releases that can be considered of at least historical importance. This year they put out two cds of early material from the fantastic and under recognized minimalist composer Eliane Radigue. Utilizing analog synthesizers and drifting drones as a kind of meditation she has created music that in a way is the inverse of the equally great and under-appreciated Phill Niblock (whose imposing two disc set Touch Strings I have alas not managed to hear this year). While his vast walls of finely pitched drones obliterate your consciousness, Radigue’s drifting tones work their way right into your very being and as they slowly drift apart so does your sense of self. There is no doubt that Radigue definitely got better at what she does and that in these early days she was still experimenting. Of these two discs that Important put out this year, one (Vice Versa, etc…) is clearly just experimentations released as multiple discs that you are supposed to simultaneously play. Tryptch on the other hand completely works as a piece of music on its own and while it is certainly much more slight then her later pieces is satisfying and well worth hearing.

Vanishing PointJason Kahn Vanishing Point (23five)
I had the pleasure of seeing Jason Kahn live multiple times in 2008 & 2009, several time solo and several times in various collaborations. I’ve always found his recorded output to be mostly hit or miss (mostly miss if I’m honest) but I really was taken by his live presence. The way he fills a room, the details that hide beneath his sonic washes, the texture that make up his drones, none of these have seemed to have made the transition to record in an even remotely quite as powerful a way. This release, which I got pretty late and have really only just begun to explore, is easily the best recording of this live presence that I’ve heard to date. Played on a stereo that can capture its full dynamic range and at a volume that he would use live (which gets loud but never oppressively so) it almost feels as if his snare drum and synth are in in my living room with Jason crouched behind it. I like the uncomfortableness of his drones, the way that they don’t really allow themselves to fall into the background, that the elements that make them up keep slipping and ultimately don’t really drone. The arc of the disc is great, beginning with an uncomfortable static washes, working through various levels of density and then slowly evaporating.

This album has been quite well reviewed, but for all the wrong reasons as far as I can tell. There seems to be a focus on externalities, a personal tragedy that people try to read into the music. I knew this long before I bought it (perhaps why I held off so long) and it is because of this that I wanted to stress how normal this sounds to the live solo performances of Kahn’s that I’ve seen. Those they think they hear loss, or despair or whatever are projecting onto the music, this is as I’ve said how Kahn sounds live and this cd is noteworthy for capturing it so powerfully.  People seem to be such suckers for any sort of personal connection that they can attach to this music, a tendency that has definitely led to several quite overrated discs. I don’t doubt for a moment that emotional events have pushed performers of abstract music to new heights but I am always skeptical of those that put albums on such a pedestalal once the cause has been made public. How many albums have been generated by similarly powerful emotions that this aspect has gone unremarked due to the artists not revealing this information? Frankly I’m a bit surprised that some of the more agent provocateur types have yet to capitalize on this fetish with a faux bit of emotional porn. Buy this album for the great solo performance captured brilliantly; don’t worry about the externalities.

Pocket Size IsolationismTomas Korber/Utah Kawasaki Pocket Size Isolationism (Esquilo)
This is another album that captured my attention early in the year and managed to hold it until the end. Like Buoy, it also was a bit of a surprise given that I’ve always had rather mixed reactions to Korber and Kawaski’s previous work and hadn’t really heard much from either of them in a while. Both of them have produced albums I’ve quite liked though so while I didn’t really have any expectations w/r/t this album I found the collaboration interesting and certainly hoped for great music to result. The music herein seems uncertain, not so much in a feeling each other out sort of way, but perhaps in some sort of overarching away. This seeming lack of surety which you’d expect to lead to lackluster music instead creates a tension and keeps one guessing the whole way through. Bursts of noise come in and out, soft sustained tones, low-volume white noise, and domestic sounding percussive elements combine with restrained feedback and mangled synthesizers and even a very natural bit of the neighborhood sounds work their way in. Recorded in Kawasaki’s apartment it also has that sort of hothouse feel that living room music often has – sheared of the pressure of an audience, it can have a looseness, but at the same time your fellow musician provides a much more demanding audience, the only one there, with no escape. Of course there’s also the neighbors… Ultimately I think this album is a nice document of two musicians working together. This was their first collaboration and it was successful but, perhaps because of that isolation, it doesn’t quite have the deep structure that I find makes things hold up in the long term. I’m still enjoying it, but its definitely a more slight affair then those that have preceded it on this page.

Semi-ImpressionismTetuzi Akiyama + Toshimaru Nakamura Semi-Impressionism (Spekk)
This would easily be the most deeply flawed release on this list, but one whose charms keep bringing me back. The first two tracks on this disc could have been recorded in 2002 and are one of the most obvious examples of nostalgia I’ve heard in this area. I would have loved those tracks in 2002 and I enjoy hearing them now. Bluesy plucked acoustic guitar and broken chords from Akiyama and Nakamura firmly in textural accompaniment mode make for a highly enjoyable, if completely comfortable listening experience. Nothing new here, no pushing just nicely colliding sounds from perfectly restrained feedback and unhurried guitar. The third track on the other hand is a disaster.  Toshi is in the forefront here and frankly that utterly fails. Akiyama seems more in the accompaniment role on this track and that never seems to work for Toshi. Compare it to his duo with Rowe at the top of this list and you can see what I mean. When pushed hard by his collaborator he can be just as far out front, co-leading the production and absolutely spectacular. Given free reign like this and perhaps also trying to escape from the easy nostalgia of their other performances, his worsts tendencies come to the fore.  Feedback in this style has some really recognizable tropes and Toshi is among the best at slipping away from them. But sometimes, most obviously in the NIMB series, he lets those aspect reign and they have always marred the music. Overtly rhythmical at times coming across as incompetent techno, or cheesily melodic (this aspect is particularly egregious on this track) this element of the NIMB is best fought against. Akiyama likewise works some of his worst excesses into this track with banal strumming and ineffective random outbursts.  But those first two tracks, they bring me right back to what got me into this music (well at least in part) and they are beautiful and tasteful and well worth hearing. Plus this is definitely the packaging of the year.

Tomorrow is the final entry in my End of Year wrap up. Stay tuned!

Variations VII2009 of course wasn’t only about new releases, I spent plenty of time listening to music released earlier, sometimes much earlier. Of course I also caught up on some releases I missed from the previous year, several of which should have made my list that year.  Most egregiously missing was this amazing DVD of John Cage’s Variations VII from the 9 Evenings: Theatre & Enginnering program. This disc was released mid 2008 and I had been eagerly awaiting it’s release for weeks. I wrote an entry on this as well as the other 9 Evenings release to date Robert Rauschenberg’s Open Score in this post. As of this disc coming out, this seminal performance of this Cage piece had never been released and had remained unheard since the performance. The DVD contains a documentary made up of the color and black and white film that they shot (alas not the entire performance) as well as a audio only track of one of the two performances.  The music is raucous, filled with the noises of the city from numerous open phones, plus tables filled with Tudor and Cage’s electronics as well as contact mic’d everyday objects (such as blenders) triggered by movement, optical sensors and the like.  For around eighty minutes layers of sound, cacophonous at times, haunting at others fully occupies the soundworld. It is one of those rare historical moments that is not just significant but is excellent music. The video is fascinating, a chance to see the tables of equipment and Cage and Tudor working them along with other assistants and musicians.  The tangles of wires, the Bell Labs engineers striving to keep the lines open and the experimental electronics working and way behind the lights a packed house to see this radical music. The series will eventually contain all of the pieces that were performed at the seminal 9 Evenings with David Tudor’s Bandoneon ! up next. This one of very few unavailable Tudor compositions (and an early important one), were I to do a list next year, would be sure to feature on it, if not top it.

Music for PianoI’d been aware of the Neos label for awhile, but it wasn’t until the first part of 2009 that I actually picked up a couple of their releases that had been on my “to buy” list for a long time. These were two albums of works by American experimental composers with Munich based Sabine Liebner playing piano. I’d heard a few pieces previously by Liebner and have been long impressed with her touch at the piano. Her recording of John Cage’s Music for Piano 1-84 is easily the album I listened to the most this year. I am of course quite familiar with numerous of these pieces from David Tudor’s excellent recordings (beautifully collected on the essential Edition RZ release David Tudor: Music for Piano) but there doesn’t seem to be a complete recording of the entire set of Music for Piano by Tudor. Additionally Liebner performs these pieces in a dramatically different way then Tudor: many of these pieces allow for the tempo and dynamics to be left to the performer and Liebner choses a soft, spacious, almost Feldman like approach. The notes were worked out with systems utilizing the imperfections in paper and there are various other instructions (especially in the later pieces) that allow for longer silences, overlapping pieces and use of extended techniques and preparations. This makes this album for me one of those perfect ones to listen to in various contexts: intently on my primary stereo, as background while reading or, and this most often, put on as I’d go to sleep. It rewards close attention with its pauses, variety of sounds, controlled randomness and presence, but also can meld with the background allowing one to engage in other tasks or drift off to sleep.  One of the things that makes Cage’s compositions so wonderful is that they provide and endless amount of variety inside an always recognizably Cagean framework. This recording of these pieces complements the Tudor’s versions perfectly and aptly demonstrates the veracity of this statement.

Piano PiecesThe second of the Sabine Liebner Neos albums I acquired was Christian Wolff Piano Pieces which was originally released May of 2008.  I have long loved Wolff’s music, especially his piano pieces, but I’d heard few recordings of these beyond a few early pieces recorded by Tudor (again see the Edition RZ David Tudor: Music for Piano), the fantastic John Tilbury recording, Christian Wolff Early piano music 1951-1961 on Matchless and a Mode recording of the Tilbury Pieces. Wolff’s music does not lend itself to glib assessments and I’ve often resisted writing much about it for this very reason. The pieces on this disc are a series of pieces that Wolff had dedicated to John Tilbury and are appropriately enough titled Tilbury 1-III along with Snowdrop and 15 very short pieces under the heading Keyboard Miscellany. Now I was familiar with Tilbury I-III and Snowdrop from the very fine Mode recording of the Tilbury Pieces (complete) (which contains two additional Tilbury pieces, Tilbury IV and V that aren’t solo piano and thus not on this recording) and again this performance is a beautiful compliment to that recording. The Tilbury Pieces and Snowdrop are composed using chance techniques but there doesn’t seem to be much (if any) indeterminacy of performance beyond that found in performance of all composed music: differences from the instruments, the room, the recording techniques and of course the performer. These are wonderful pieces that seem to capture Tilbury’s unrivaled patience and touch at the piano, distilled into gentle yet powerful music.  The Keyboard Miscellany are quite interesting with greater diversity of dynamics, tempos and sounds then the Tilbury Pieces. They seem to be little sketches, ideas that Wolff was playing with that  he felt were interesting enough to jot down, if not expand into an entire piece.  But buried amongst the miscellany is the sublime Variations on Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952 a ten minute piece that takes Feldman’s composition to place that only Wolff would have. A wonderful little congruence of these two composers and friends of the New York School.

There were of course many more albums I caught up on in 2009 but these three, considering how much plays they got and how much I love them I felt deserved to be highlighted. If they slipped beneath your radar as well, consider it well worth rectifying.

The Royal TenenbaumsI certainly am not such a cinephile that I see all, or even a significant percentage of, the films released in a given year. But thanks to Netflix as well as a desire to see many of the leading directors of our times films on a big screen I do end up managing to see quite a large number of each years films though perhaps well after they are made. While I’ve enjoyed film on a more serious level for the last couple of decades I have really devoted a lot more of my time watching new and historical films as well as collecting them for more in depth study in the last ten years. So here I present my favorite films that were shown in this last decade.  Almost all of these films are ones that I love, own the DVD of and watch over and over again.  However there are several films that I simply recognize as an amazing achievement which still moved me in some way, even if I don’t feel much compulsion to own and re-watch it.   This list of course is a snapshot of my preferences at this time, as I catch up on even more films from the past decade I’d surely edit this list.  Also I’m not going to write an essay for each of these films (though they certainly all deserve it) but I can definitely explain what is great about each of these films and in what way they moved me. They are ordered by year with no hierarchy implied and all films link to their IMDB page.

Favorite Films of the Aughts

Fa yeung nin wa (In the Mood for Love) (Kar Wai Wong, 2000)
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Requiem for a Dream (Darran Aronofsky, 2000)
Untitled (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
Werckmeister harmóniák (Béla Tarr, 2000)
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Stephen Spielberg, 2001)
Monsters Inc. (Pete Doctor, 2001)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
Nekojiru-so (Cat Soup) (Tatsuo Sato, 2001)
Royal Tennenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away) (Hayao Miyaaki, 2001)
Rivers & Tides (Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2002)
Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring) (Ki-duk Kim, 2003)
Cidade de Deus (City of God) (Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund ,2003)
Five Dedicated to Ozu (Abbas Kiarostami, 2003)
The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004)
The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson,2004)
Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, 2004)
Tideland (Terry Gilliam, 2005)
The New World (Terrance Malick, 2005)
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006)
Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century) (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
No Country for Old Men (Coen Bros., 2007)
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon ,2007)
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)
A Serious Man (The Coen Brothers, 2009)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)
Trimpin: The Sound of Invention (Peter Esmonde, 2009)

2009 of course is a bit incomplete as like I said in the intro I tend to spend much of the following year catching up on a given year,  yet it already has four that I placed on the above list and thus I’d say it was a pretty strong year.  My full list of favorites (in order) from 2009 so far:

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)
A Serious Man (The Coen Brothers, 2009)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)
Gake no ue no Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2009)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
Trimpin: The Sound of Invention (Peter Esmonde, 2009)
Up (Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, 2009)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)

Reflections

Frankly my interest in end of year lists is at an all time low. Last year I tried to counter the vacuousness of it all by writing an actual review of each of my favorites in which I’d attempt some actual criticism or at least some contextualization. As I’ve indicated of late, that type of activity isn’t really blowing my skirt up so much anymore so I’m not going to undertake the vast amount of effort required for what I still do think is an appropriate way to attempt to assess ones response to the music that one finds noteworthy. So what I’m I doing here with this post? Well I’ve been pretty much consumed by music for the last ten years and while I don’t see that changing much in some ways, in other ways my relationship to music has changed. Of course said relationship was pretty much always in flux in some way or another as I worked through numerous genres, interests and obsessions. As I outlined in a previous post there has also been some sort of compulsion to put my opinion out there regarding what I’ve been listening to and what I’ve found interesting. That impulse is more or less gone and yet I still feel compelled to do one last list: I’ve made a list, of varying levels of detail every year for the last ten and a list this year would complete the series, close out the aughts as it were. Of course I can’t just type in a bare list so I’ve tried to put together at least a few words for the top ten with perhaps a few “runners up” as it were to follow. But first a few thoughts on the year in general.

In the subset of improvised music that has captivated my interests over the last decade 2009 was I felt an overall solid year. There was plenty of releases that captivated my interest, that I enjoyed on many different levels.  That being said, there was little that I heard that I really found exciting. Now obviously that is a subjective experience, someone just discovering this music would probably by default be a lot more excited then someone who has been steeped in it for the last decade. There are of course those who can perhaps find (or generate) excitement more easily then myself perhaps taking into account varying externalities. Ultimately though all I can do is speak for myself and say that while I enjoyed a lot of music in 2009 there were only a few pieces in the general improvised area that I follow that really intrigued me.  The music in general seems more mature and some of it deeper in way, but a lot of it seems safe, covering well trodden ground, overly familiar. I’m certainly not one that demands constant novelty, endless innovation wanting only constant momentum.  On the contrary I enjoy the natural process of innovation breeding deeper exploration that leads to further innovation and so on. No part of this cycle though demands that risk taking be abandoned, that tropes be developed and then relied upon, that the easy way be taken. So while I do think that there have been those that are doing some deeper exploration I think there has been an increase in those that are taking the easy way, doing what has worked in the past, what the audience wants and while perhaps producing some nice sounding albums just aren’t generating much excitement. At least for me.

This year has been also seen an increase in what I think of as “third wave” musicians.  Big shifts in overarching tendencies can occur in numerous different ways but once they have occurred they tend to follow a familiar pattern: the first wave were those that were pushing away from an existing system and tend to find some of it inescapable (an entirely clean break is exceedingly rare, at least initially) and their “new”  language will be a hybrid of the existing structures and the new directions they are pushing toward.  Of course there has to be breaks with the existing system in numerous quarters and it is the sum toto of all of the changes that eventually seem different enough to distinguish it as a distinct entity.  The second wave then are those that are influenced by the first wave and take more or less as their starting point the hybrid language that had been developed. This is the point where the new system usually really hits its stride. The second wave will often winnow out the innovations of the first wave, add to that and then you have a much cleaner break from the previous system.  There will be those from the first wave who move right along with that, shedding the hybrid language, continuing to push and so on, but then again there will be those that seem to “fall behind”.  The third wave then are those that are influenced primarily by this period of peak activity. They begin with the fully developed language and can be completely free from the vestiges of the previous system.  However this wave is typically the new system in decline: it has all the trappings of genre with its own tropes, its defined limits and dogma.  It is at some point in this stage that the process will repeat, though the third wave can last a long time, becoming increasingly insular, pedagogical and ever narrower. But eventually there will be those who have innovated all along and won’t stop for long, or a new person will come to the scene struggling against what they can only perceive as unacceptable constraints, or innumerable other  circumstances and a new break will be made.  Great music can be made during the third wave, but it does tend more toward the solid and mature on one end and to the superficial and shallow on the other end. The constant innovators will of course still do their thing, but it will seem to be within ever narrowing options and with fewer and fewer collaborators willing to take the same kind of risks.

There were though a couple of improvised records that got me pretty excited which I’ll talk about once I get to the list itself and there were several in that mature and solid category that are great music well worth listening to.  Half of my list though is composed pieces, which really is where I’ve found a lot of my interests and excitement these days. A lot of it older music, that was recorded this year as well as some brand new pieces.  Luckily for me there is such a wealth of composed music out there both old and new that completely does it for me, that I’m still overwhelmed by wonderful music.  As the excitement has left the improvised music I listen to, I have been able to turn more and more to this music and this is part of the change I intimated in the first ‘graph; I’m moving away from what has become more of a consumption based relationship with the aforementioned improvised music toward a more discriminating one. Thus the more reliable music, the composed music I love, with be given more of my time and I’ll maintain more of a distance from the improvised music scene, holding fire on things until they have piqued my interests. Of course there are some old reliables out there and a few up and coming things that I will follow as intently as ever. Anyway look for my reports on the recordings that I really loved this year over the next couple of days.