elwha 8I’ve moved away from trying to hear everything released in a given year and to dramatically reduce the purchasing of objects in general. Instead I pay close attention to what people who have similar tastes are really liking and strategically buy that.  Thus this year I’ve bought less than I have in years but really liked most of what I’ve gotten (not 100% of course).  Alastair Wilson’s excellent radio programme Admirable Restraint has been a major help in winnowing down the field without resorting to downloads (of which I’ve gotten very few this year).  I haven’t made a list of favorites in a while since I’ve felt I’ve not been that informed, but while I was reading the various one’s published this year I made notes of the ones that I had and did like and I ended up with a surprising amount.  I’d felt that this was a pretty weak year for improvisation in particular but even so there was a a bunch I did like a lot and listen to a lot. It is not with some reluctance I admit, but here’s what I really liked from what I managed to hear this year.

I’ve put these into two categories: those that are structured through compositional strategies (including live electronics) and those that are of a more improvisational structure.  In between is a set that straddles the two. Each list is organized by release date as I remember it with no other implied ordering.  I say a few (very few for me) words about each in a paragraph per section.


Christian Wolff at NEC Day 2: Keith Rowe & Christian Wolff 4

Keith Rowe & Christian Wolff perform at NEC
More Composed/Live Electronics
V/A Music for Merce (1952-2009) (New World Records)
Group Ongaku Music of Group Ongaku (Seer Sound Archive) [reissue]
Michael Pisaro Close constellations and drum on the ground (Gravity Wave)
Eliane Radigue Transamorem-Transmortem (Important)
Michael Johnsen/Pascal Battus Bitche Session ( Organized Music from Thessaloniki)
Michael Shannon Sensa Atmospheres (Autumn Records)
Morton Feldman Orchestra (Mode)
Christian Wolff Kompositionen 1950-1972 (Edition RZ)
Eliane Radigue Geelriandre/Arthesis (Senufo)


The release of the year was without a doubt Music for Merce, and the lack of seeing it mentioned out and about is a sign that releases that arrive at the end of the previous year/beginning of the next often get overlooked. This epic box set was technically put out in the last week of December 2010 (a December 26th release date IIRC) but, perhaps barring some NYC critics, no-one had it in hand until closer to mid January 2011. While certainly mixed in content (I covered it at length in these posts) the David Tudor material alone would have made this the release of the year for me. Add in all the vital historical performances of Cage, Wolff, Feldman not to mention a number of new to me pieces and its significance is inarguable. Released at the beginning of the last tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company it is an amazing tribute.  Close on in January was an LP edition of the very hard to find (though easy to download) Music of Group Ongaku which I’d wanted a real copy of for ages.  Group Ongaku can be argued to be a free improvisation outfit like AMM but I think they can be more accurately described as following certain ideas of experimental composition to a logical conclusion. Absolutely essential music though for those interested in either of those areas.  This was another big year for Michael Pisaro, who beyond having numerous releases on various labels began his own label, Gravity Wave, in conjunction with Jon Abbey and Yuko Zama of Erstwhile fame.  Six releases this year was a bit too much for me to keep up with, but late in the year I picked up Close constellations and drum on the ground which, even on only a few listens, I’d rate as top tier Pisaro (my all time favorite Hearing Metal has been followed up by two more discs which I have yet to hear, but do have high hopes for). This piece has some of the density that pieces like July Mountain come to, but I find it a lot less ponderous and seems to come from a place of different diversity.  A nice slice of fresh live electronics from Michael Johnsen and Pascal Battus was quite welcome as a cassette/digital release that has quite an interesting texture as Johnsen’s Tudor-esque live electronics are often restrained into sputters and bleats while hums, momentary washes and the like arise from Battus’ (a new name to me) use of electromagnetic pickups. There were  two archival Eliane Radigue releases from this year (three actually; there was a vinyl only one I didn’t get) both of interest, with Transamorem-Transmortem being the standout.  I found this to be a completely uncompromising and challenging and absolutely worth hearing. Perhaps not top three Radigue, but up there and essential for those who appreciate her work.

Christian Wolff Kompositionen 1950 - 1972

Christian Wolff Kompositionen 1950 - 1972 (Edition RZ)
The end of the year brought two top draw releases of New York School composers – Christian Wolff Kompositionen 1950-1972 and Morton Feldman Orchestra. The Wolff, from the ever excellent Edition RZ with it’s mix of essential recordings of archival, historical unreleased and new performances of his pieces would rate as one of my three favorite releases from this year.  It includes absolute vital performances from David Tudor of early Wolff compositions as well as a clean digital version of his excellent solo take on For 1,2 or 3 people, on multi-tracked baroque organ.  A new recording of Edges, from Keith Rowe sounding as if he’d just come from his session with Radu Malfatti contrasts with the historically interesting and fascinating version from Gentle Fire. Mode’s eleventh volume of it’s Morton Feldman series, Orchestra,  with three heretofore unreleased pieces (and a rather unfortunate orchestral arrangement of Intersection I), including the sublime Voice and Instruments. I have never been much of a fan of Feldman’s vocal orientated work and was surprised by how taken I was by this. This piece with its restrained and simple vocal lines floating above a very Feldman-ish orchestration is how I’d always imagined his vocal pieces would be, but never seem to be.  Orchestra, the last and longest piece on this disc from 1976 feels like a shorter version of the longer pieces he was beginning to compose at this time. The way the instruments come in and out, layering at times but few playing at any given time, makes one wish he had explored a larger ensemble like this at greater length. Geelriandre/Arthesis I’ve only had for a few days, and initially wasn’t too taken with it. But as I keep listening it has grown on me enough that I know I’ll keep playing it. The first tracks features prepared piano above a fairly static tone from Radigue’s Arp. This added a degree of tonality that I’m just not really expecting from Radigue, acoustics like that layered over electronics is something I do love and have worked with myself. The second track is more typical Radigue from this time, though played on a Moog Modular. Not the most memorable of tracks and not as unusual as the first track, it is still vintage Radigue.


amann studios (1st day)
Keith Rowe, Jon Abbey and Radu Malfatti (photo by Yuko Zama)
Comp, Comp, Improv
Radu Malfatti/Keith Rowe Φ (Erstwhile)


Stradding the divide between composed and improvised is Î¦ from Keith Rowe and Radu Malfatti released on Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile Records.  This is certainly the premier release of music of music recorded in 2011 (at least that I heard). An ambitious three disc set that contains two discs of compositions from Keith Rowe, Radu Malfatti, Cornelius Cardew and Jurg Frey with a third disc of improvisations. The concept of this album was a disc of compositions selected by the performers – Cardew from Rowe and Frey from Malfatti, a disc of the performers own compositions, concluding with a disc of improvisations. This was all beautifully recorded in Amann Studios in Vienna over several days. Conceptually I think this really works, though personally I’ve never much cared for Jurg Frey’s compositions and alas this one hasn’t changed my mind too much. It is more interesting sonically as Rowe cares about sound and Malfatti tends toward an interest in structure and considers the sounds secondary.  This aspect of his work in many ways makes his own compositions somewhat interchangeable which makes his composition on this set, nariyamu, rather more interesting due to Rowe’s participation and choice of sound.  Cornelius Cardew’s Solo with Accompanist is quite nice though I feel that Malfatti somewhat gives the score somewhat short shift.  Keith Rowe’s Pollock ’82 which he made a special version for Malfatti is I think the gem of the composed section. The limited material for Malfatti is ideal for how he is going to play anyway and Rowe’s (somewhat) more busy material contrasts nicely.  The third disc of improvisations though is the highlight of the set.  If just this disc had been released it’d have been among the best improv I’d heard this year (again not saying much) but as it would have to be informed by the previous days of recording getting to hear the whole development is really a tour de force and in my mind justifies the triple set. Even in this improvisation the sound world is Malfatti’s world with Rowe, while more active, rarely breaking out of that mode with even his (unusually spare) radio usage being unobtrusive. In this collaboration it was clear that Malfatti wasn’t going to move at all and thus it was Rowe that had to do so.  I’ve always thought of Rowe as an uncompromising musician and while the results here are fantastic I can’t help but wonder what would have transpired had he not acquiesced quite so much to Malfatti’s intransigence. That being said this is a fascinating bit of improv, tentative seeming but utterly assured, fragile at times but always with a core of strength that comes from two musicians who are absolutely at the top of their game. Rowe may have moved toward Malfatti, but it isn’t really an unfamiliar area for him, not really to any experimentalist (of which I wouldn’t categorize Malfatti) and to these ears even in moving toward another’s position he owned it.
Takuji Kawai
Takuji Kawai, piano
More Improvised
Kevin parks + Alice Hui-Sheng Chang Confessions of a middle school guidance counselor (homophoni)
MIMEO Wigry (Bolt/Monotone)
Taku Unami/Takahiro Kawaguchi Teatro Assente (Erstwhile)
Tetuzi Akiyama/Takuji Kawai Transition (Ftarri/Improvised Music From Japan)
Toshimaru Nakamura Maruto (Erstwhile)
Keith Rowe Concentration of the Stare (bottrop boy)
Graham Stephenson Defiantly Not (Pilgrim Talk)
Jérôme Noetinger/Will Guthrie Face Off (Erstwhile)
Keith Rowe/John Tilbury E.E. Tension and Circumstance (Potlatch)


As for music of a more improvised nature from this year there was a surprising amount that appealed to me beyond the third disc of the Malfatti/Rowe collaboration of which I’ve already written. The duo of Kevin Parks and new to me Alice Hui-Sheng Chang released by the ever vital Homophoni net label was an early favorite. Parks, familiar from his collaborations with Joe Foster works with guitar and electronics here, utilizing thrumming tones and on the guitar some gentle eBowing and simple melodic lines whilst Hui-Sheng Chang uses her voice in an abstract and often guttural way. I’m even more picky w/r/t vocal work in improv than I am on composed work and have only really been able to get behind the abstract work of Ami Yoshida. Hui-Sheng Chang works in a similar vein but sets herself apart from other imitators by restricting her vocalizations to narrow range and not falling into camp as so many others do. A piece of this length tends to have its ups and downs and there are certainly moments in this piece that skirts the edge (and probably could have been slightly shorter), but to me it is exciting to hear new voices in this area and it is quite strong overall. MIMEO is reliably hit or miss but this double LP recorded in a church in Poland is an unexpected case of the former. Avoiding the mud that often arises from such a large group without relying on super restrictive conceptualism it displays a restraint that is often missing from MIMEO recordings. Teatro Assente deserves an essay written about it but I have to say that while I find it intriguing and like it well enough to list it here I never really wanted to listen to it much. I sort of think that what Taku Unami is up to now requires constant movement and I don’t think this album moved quite fast enough for me.  His duo with Annette Krebs from last year, also on Erstwhile was a top favorite and it really has held up. This, while certainly it’s own thing, just doesn’t feel like it moved far enough for me though it is definitely of interest and well worth hearing. The most interesting parts are completely confounded and engaging and really can one ask for more than that? Tetuzki Akiyama’s work I’ve found mixed – when he works with angular little constructions with acoustic or electric guitars I’m completely captivated. When he plays his aggressive boogie stuff, much less so.  Transition, a duo with the pianist Takuji Kawai fortunately has him playing in the former mode and even better with piano that works almost as a continuation of his sound. Though sometimes that sound comes from the piano and it is Akiyama who fits right in with it, even when he contrasts with it. Exciting to hear another pianist working in this area, especially one with fantastic touch that doesn’t immediately evoke John Tilbury. His use of preparations add a bit of a percussive element at times and pushes the sound world into a alien territory in others. In a way it reminds me of my favorite chamber Feldman piece, Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello in which the strings evoke preparations on the melodic lines. Here an actual prepared piano resonates Akiyama’s figures and broken melodies.


Toshimaru Nakamura Maruto (ErstSolo)

Toshimaru Nakamura is one of the most interesting musicians working today and yet he has rarely shined outside of collaborations.  This is not for lack of trying, his discography on IMJ lists eight solo albums and many more solo pieces have appeared on compilations.  But under the pressure of being the second only artist as part of Erstwhile Records ErstSolo series Nakamura recorded Maruto that fits well with the best of his solo work (Side Guitar [2003], Dance Music [2008]) and shows a steady direction of development. Varied without falling into the cul-de-sacs that mark the lesser works,  a part of his body work yet seeming to have a restless pushing past it, it is a striking work and a fitting addition to the ErstSolo series. Concentration of the Stare documents a solo performance that Keith Rowe did in the Rothko Chapel in Houston Texas in 2007. Rothko has been a huge influence on Rowe and I can’t think of a better performer to put in this space.  The performance is of course four years old and does feel like Keith’s work from that period but it is an excellent performance that captures much of the overbearing, overwhelming nature of Rothko’s work.  I’ve long thought that Graham Stephenson was the most promising musician among his generation but this has primarily been based on short works for comps and his duo work with David Barnes. Defiantly Not pretty much confirms my impressions as far as I’m concerned and it’s a real pleasure to finally have a full album of his to really delve into.  Graham has to my mind really found a voice and has used his influences as a springboard instead of being weighted down by them. Using his trumpet and simple amplification (perhaps some objects or mutes) he gets varied sounds that can seem to evoke some of the other modern trumpeters but always goes somewhere different. The intensity at times is all enveloping and hints toward a wider focus than perhaps other solo trumpeters. By the end of the album it feels that he has thrown off any influences and is exploring a sound world of his own. There is a sense of structure that a lot of improvisors lack that you can detect most readily in solo work and which here I find fascinating. Definitely looking forward to hearing continuing work from one clearly just getting started.  Face Off, a late release from Erstwhile, is definitely the best piece of music I’ve heard yet from Will Guthrie.  His percussion work is all over the place from pure working with sound to bursts of energy that evoke EFI to some moments that are unique to him. All of this along with the dense tape machinations of Noetinger makes for a constantly engaging disc. This requires more listens for me to really say much more (again a late release and I’ve gotten a bunch of releases late) but what’s important to me is that I want those additional listens.

 E.E. Tension and Circumstance (

John Tilbury & Keith Rowe E.E. Tension and Circumstance (Potlatch)

I only just got  E.E. Tension and Circumstance and I have to say it is all I hoped for and more. I rate their duo on Erstwhile, Duos for Doris, as one of my all time favorite piece of music and felt that the likelihood that they wouldn’t be playing together again after the fallout of the AMM breakup was perhaps the greatest tragedy of that sad event. So the fact that they were playing together at all I thought a triumph and for it to be so strong miraculous. Keith has really moved a long way from where he was in 2003 and Tilbury I think rises to this challenge admirably.  There are these dense parts in this that Tilbury seems to provide a floor for with muted keystrokes, or thumps on the piano body. Keith here seems to use the more spare language that he has been investigating of late as simply another tool in the kit as opposed to an end in itself and reaches deep into his bag to pull out continuous sounds that nod toward past work but seem light years away from it.  Too me this release underscores what I felt was lacking in Keith’s duo with Malfatti – both musicians move and stand firm are uncompromising but toward the music not toward any sort of personal preference.  I probably haven’t quite heard this enough yet but in the end I’d say this is my favorite improv of the year.

2010 releases I only heard this year, that are favorites
Bill Taylor Musica (Cornelyn)
Michael Pisaro A Wave and Waves (Cathnor)
Javier Sáinz Silva Calendonia (Siubhal)