2016 began January 10, the day David Bowie died, and concluded October 13, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In retrospect, Bowie seems a kind of genie, or benign demon, capturing so much of the craziness of culture and transforming it into performance and entertainment, a shamanistic role that goes back to the origins of the very first modern humans. The Nobel announcement (not least because it came coincidentally with the deadline for this writing) put the cap back on the bottle. Between that and November 8, there’s still a too-long, appalling, slow-motion denouement, but it made Dylan appear like a beacon shining in the sky, glowing with all the complex and bittersweet warmth of humanity. Last night, the Nobel saved my life, so don’t think twice, it’s alright.
Music saves the day, it always saves the day. What works might seem to be unpredictable, and I’m sensitive to that in my capacity as a music critic. A lot of quality music comes in, more than I could possibly cover (as of this writing I’ve listened at least once through 342 new releases for 2016), and there’s so much solid stuff that just works, is interesting, and goes down with satisfaction.
But then there is my favorite music, the stuff that saves the day. This is music that, in one way or another, both surprises me and fulfills the expectations it sets up, music that is far more than an affirmation of values, self-image, or an escape from the everyday; it’s music that uses the everyday as a step towards an elevation and transformation of that experience. I didn’t hear Patricia Kopatchinskaja play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (paired with Stravinsky’s Les Noces on a Sony CD from Teodor Currentzis and Musica Aeterna, an amazing recording that is my single best pick for the year and one that makes the entire enterprise of recording classical music worthwhile) as entertainment to be consumed after a long day, palatable and soporific as a rerun; I heard it as a realization of the possibilities of music as a social activity. Kopatchinskaja teases at this old, predictable warhorse like she’s improvising it on the spot, playing around insinuatingly and seductively with the melody, while Currentzis and the orchestra respond to and encourage her. I’ve never heard anything like it, and now I want everything to be like it.
Whatever the genre or style, the best music of the year mixed familiar foundations, which could be as simple as a rhythm or a chord, into new and wonderful structures. Some of them were improvised, others were tightly composed (and centuries old); more were a mix of the two.
Along with Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky, the other classical recordings that took something old and made it seem completely new, urgent, and human, were the Bach St. John Passion, led by René Jacobs with the Akademie fur Alte Musik and RIAS Kammerchor (Harmonia Mundi), and Jeroen van Veen playing the twenty-four hours of Satie: Complete Vexations 1-840 on Brilliant Classics.
I listen to a lot of ambient music, and Vexations could be fairly tagged as such. And along with beautiful ambient albums from Chihei Hatakeyama—Requiem for black night and earth spiders (White Paddy Mountain)—and Federico Durand—A Través del Espejo (12k)—the best ambient music of the year came through two more gorgeous, haunting records of piano music: R. Andrew Lee playing Adrian Knight’s Obsessions on Irritable Hedgehog, and Reinier van Houdt’s performance of Walter Marchetti’s Concerto per pianoforte per la mano sinistra—in un solo movimento (Alga Marghen).
While Kris Davis’s Duopoly (Pyroclastic) is my favorite jazz record (have not yet had the chance to listen to Mary Halvorson’s latest), with Brian Charette’s Once & Future on Posi-Tone coming just behind, the best “jazz” of the year has been the not-quite-jazz, groove-oriented music from nonkeen—the gamble on R&S Records—Psychic Temple’s Plays Music for Airports (schlarb.bandcamp.com), the cosmopolitan toughness of Steve Lehman and Sélébéyone—Sélébéyone (Pi Recordings)—and the quiet slowness of Atmosphères from Tigran Hamasyan and collaborators on ECM.
On the heavily, or even fully, improvised side, ECM put out two superb records: Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith’s duet A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, and The Bell fromChes Smith. There was the stunning début from the Sirius String Quartet, Paths Become Lines (autentico music), and from 5049 Records came Sheen, from Bloodmist, a spacious, gripping recording of improvised doom metal, kind of a Holy Grail for me.
In music that commonly uses electric stringed instruments and voices (commonly found under popular styles), there were records that were exciting and involving from the first note, songs that hit the body and mind with equal force: You Don’t Have to Be a House to Be Haunted by Sister Grotto (sistergrotto.bandcamp.com); Jeremy Flower’s The Real Me (jeremyflower.bandcamp.com); Maya Beiser’s TranceClassical (Innova); and The Body’s No One Deserves Happiness on Thrill Jockey. And then there was Devil is Fine, put out by Zeal and Ardor (zealandardor.bandcamp.com), an astonishing collage of black gospel and blues, black metal, electronica, and Goblin’s soundtracks for Dario Argento movies, sprinkled with a touch of Tom Waits—some of the most original music I’ve ever heard.
Finally, Bowie’s Blackstar (ISO/RCA/Columbia/Sony) is a masterpiece, deep, mysterious, and moving. And in other great music from old farts and squares, the new self-released Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree, and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool on XL are wonderful. That that is easy to say makes it no less true.
There is but little space left to recommend three books on music that exemplify why good music criticism is important: It clears away the fog of jargon, buzzwords, and vague impressions, and—agree with it or not—sets out clear statements about styles and ideas that give you a new perspective from which to hear.
The Library of America has published their second volume collecting the writing of composer and critic Virgil Thomson, The State of Music and Other Writings, and it should be part of any music lover’s library. This is the internal view of music, how it works, how it is made, how musicians survive their social and economic circumstances, and where they belong in the flow of changing traditions. This volume covers the Great Depression through the 1970s, and it is packed with the clarity of honesty and truth.
Jennie Gottschalk’s Experimental Music Since 1970 (Bloomsbury) is not just an important survey, but a book that defines both the meaning and practice of experimentalism in music, an invaluable contribution.
Bob Gluck has followed up his fascinating look at the Mwandishi band and Herbie Hancock, You’ll Know When You Get There, with The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles (Chicago University Press), a look at the profoundly influential but hazily remembered period in the 1970s, after Miles went electric, when pretty much everything was possible, and pretty much everything happened.
Good reading to you all, but especially, to paraphrase Dalachinsky, good listening.