This isn’t exactly a top ten as they’re in no particular order after the first one, and the albums I chose to write about are just the ones I wanted to comment on. Everything else I liked is in list form, alphabetical by last/group/band name. The only other division I’ve made is between the albums that were released or reissued in 2012 and those that were not.
Part two will be for the movies and books I enjoyed and for remembering various events, like visiting the Museum of Modern Art in NYC for the first time and seeing Bela Tarr’s Satantango at the Harvard Film Archive.
Album of the Year: Christian Wolff/Keith Rowe, ErstLive 010 (Erstwhile)
This was a pivotal recording for me in 2012 and the best album I heard all year. It’s a quiet, delicate, and completely engrossing recording filled with thoughtful, restrained, and gorgeous, tiny sounds.
I could have picked another Erstwhile release—Pisaro and Tsunoda’s Crosshatches—to fill this spot, but ErstLive 010 won me over first. It hit me immediately and only got deeper with repeated plays. Rowe and Wolff dominated my listening habits for the second half of 2012 and they’re both still getting weekly play from me. Whether you’re familiar with the conventions and ideas behind it or not, this is an absolutely essential recording for anyone interested in experimental music.
What I said in my review: “The album ends unexpectedly, to the tune of humming amplifiers. I failed to notice it ending the first time. And the second. And even the third. In fact, I always fail to notice when the album ends unless I pay attention to the track time. Eventually the performance stops, but the sounds continue. They just happen, the way that many environmental sounds seem to. It’s as if Rowe and Wolff are disappearing into the music as they go, using it to get past or away from themselves. By the end, it’s as if they’re not there at all.”
Steve Noble & Stephen O’Malley, St. Francis Duo (Bo’Weavil)
St. Francis Duo is the unexpected continuation of Stephen O’Malley and Steve Noble’s musical collaboration, which I first heard on Æthenor’s En Form for Blå. It’s unexpected because I figured they’d make another Æthenor record. Instead, I got this muscular guitar and percussion duet much different from anything by Æthenor, SunnO))), or KTL. Working with Noble one on one pushed O’Malley to try something new with his guitar and he sounded great doing it. I never would have guessed these two could work so well together without a band to help hide the seams. What I said in my review: “This is improvised music, but with a heavy metal feel that comes almost entirely from the drummer, who is probably best known for playing with musicians like Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, John Edwards, and Alex Ward. Hearing him work with O’Malley in this style is awesome, and it further convinces me that he’s one of the best percussionists going.”
Morton Feldman, Crippled Symmetry: at June in Buffalo (Frozen Reeds)
When I first read about this album, I was surprised to see that it was coming out on two discs. I’d heard Crippled Symmetry once before, when The Ludovico Ensemble played it at the New England Conservatory in Boston as part of the First Night New Year’s Eve celebrations in 2011. Their performance lasted approximately an hour. This 2000 performance from flutist Eberhard Blum, percussionist Jan Williams, and pianist Nils Vigeland is roughly 90 minutes long and, with all due respect to the Ludovico Ensemble, played with far more sensitivity and acuity.
Frozen Reeds’ debut release is by most accounts the best recording of Crippled Symmetry available and it’s not hard to understand why. It comes gorgeously packaged with helpful liner notes, the recording is excellent, capturing the placement of the instruments on the stage extremely well, and the performance itself is remarkable. Despite the slow pace and tottering symmetries, it sounds tight, precise, and totally focused. A cough here and there does little to abate the hypnotic quality of Feldman’s twirling melodic fragments, which slip in and out of earshot as though they were playing hide and seek on stage.
Ricardo Villalobos, Dependent and Happy (Perlon)
A totally unexpected favorite from one of Resident Advisor’s most-loved musicians and one of the world’s most popular and well-paid DJs. Judging by some reactions, I wasn’t the only one surprised to find themselves listening to it on a regular basis.
Over at Dusted Magazine, Brandon Bussolini wrote, “Frankly, this may be the first time Villalobos makes sense to a lot of listeners who have been reading about how he’s some kind of guru for years… Maybe people with better audio equipment or a more jaded approach to electronic music have been enjoying him this much all along, but the remaining 47 percent are in for a surprise.” Even on my relatively inexpensive stereo, Dependent and Happy sounds superb. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to dance to it, but it delivers intricate rhythms, bizarre sounds, solid grooves, audio sleights of hand, and weightless, almost surreal atmospheres throughout all of its 78 minutes.
I’m happy with my abbreviated, mixed CD version, but for anyone wanting more there’s a complete 5LP version out there, which features longer mixes and three additional songs for a total of two hours of music. If the word “techno” is keeping you from buying this record, let it go. Dependent and Happy doesn’t fit nicely into any category.
John Cage, John Cage Shock (Em Records/Edition Omego Point)
Celebrating his 100th birthday in 2012, Edition Omego Point and Em Records released a trio of CDs (and one LP collecting Cage’s pieces plus a bonus from George Brecht) documenting John Cage’s October 1962 visit to Japan with David Tudor. Along with artists like Yoko Ono and Toshi Ichiyanagi, they performed music by Christian Wolff, Tore Takemitsu, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and others. Called the “John Cage Shock” by music and literary critic Hidekazu Yoshida, these pieces were unavailable to the public until last year, but even after 40 years there’s still some shock left in them.
As the liner notes from the LP edition point out, “… This is no cozy trip down memory lane. As the musical revolution represented by this collection unfurls, the attentive listener will come to experience what can only be described as an unmistakable feeling of tension.” Tense is a great word for it. Unnerving and brutal are also appropriate, especially when listening to Tudor’s bracing performance of “Variations II,” which is nearly as masterful and impressive as his 1961 performance of the same piece, originally released on CBS records in 1967 and collected on Edition RZ’s David Tudor 2CD compilation. “Zero Minutes, Zero Seconds” (0’00”, also known as “4’33” No. 2″) is a similarly outstanding and revelatory piece; the much quieter, more inclusive cousin to “Variations II.”
I bought a lot of John Cage’s music this year and listened to it almost endlessly. I watched videos of him on Youtube numerous times, tracked down records by musicians just because he inspired them, and attended a concert of Atlas Eclipticalis to get a feel for how different his music felt live. I read Silence for the first time and, after years of throwing my ideas away or letting them atrophy, wrote a few poems using some of the techniques recommended there. I don’t love everything of his I’ve heard and I don’t agree with everything he had to say about music—though he is a blast to read and an excellent storyteller, as likely to make you think as he is to make you laugh—but running headlong into Cage this year was exhilarating and inspiring every step of the way.
Michael Pisaro/Toshiya Tsunoda, Crosshatches (Erstwhile)
Crosshatches got through to me late in the year, even though it was released in June and I first heard it in July. In all likelihood, I just wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. By November I was listening to it weekly, and in December something finally clicked. I started hearing between the lines as it were. Suddenly all the little details congealed and the music, filled with field recordings, sine waves, instrumental bursts, and radio-like interference, opened up.
Over the course of the album, Pisaro and Tsunoda somehow harmonize their elements to the point that distinguishing them becomes impossible. Questions like “is that a field recording or a produced sound?” pop up; sharply drawn lines get smudged; a storm turns into a field of distorted static; form, structure, and material blend together. In general, your perceptions get mixed up and you start listening differently. By the time the album is over, storms get rhythm and sine tones sing harmony. So the music is engaging, but it’s also beautiful.
What I said in my review: “There’s some fun in trying to guess which sounds come from which sources and I enjoy the way the music draws connections between cricket sounds and the crack of water on the ground, or between plucked guitar strings and the sound of far off voices. But that says only a little about why the album is beautiful. The way the sounds are combined and folded into each other is pleasing in its own right, as are the moments of near silence and melody that dot the album under different guises.”
Laurie Spiegel, The Expanding Universe (Unseen Worlds)
Another contender for album of the year; I don’t care if the music is more than 30 years old. Fun, ebullient, melodious, and catchy, The Expanding Universe is probably the prettiest and most immediately enjoyable album on this list. But it is as complex and thoughtful as any other album on this list too.
Laurie’s interests in traditional music, improvisation, composition, technology, and perception are all perfectly integrated on these 19 songs, and well-documented in the excellent booklet that accompanies both the CD and LP editions. Reading her self-interview and the liner notes makes clear just how insightful and imaginative Spiegel was as a composer and thinker. Many followers have either borrowed or imitated her sound, but none of them have come close to matching her in terms of depth, originality, or fun.
Speaking about the title track in her liner notes, Spiegel says, “…With continuity and gentleness, the ear becomes increasingly re-sensitized to more and more subtle auditory phenomena within the sound that immerses us. Instead of being swept along, as with cascades of many running notes in suddenly-changing blocks of time, such as ‘minimalist’ music so often consists of, we open up our ears more and more to the more minute phenomena that envelops us. This is also not ‘ambient music,’ a term that came into use some years later. This is music for concentrated attention, a through-composed musical experience, thought of course it also can be background.” That idea about opening up the ears and appreciating finer details is one she shares with the likes of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, LaMonte Young, and other luminaries of the avant garde world. Laurie’s music just also happens to be a lot more accessible, which is why I think almost anyone could pick up The Expanding Universe and fall in love.
Keith Rowe, September (Erstwhile)
The hardest record for me to talk about. I’d say Keith Rowe became one of my favorite guitarists over the last year if it weren’t such a reductive thing to say. Rowe’s a guitarist, but I rarely think of the guitar when I hear or see him play and he rarely uses it to make guitar-like sounds.
Recorded in New York City on September the 11th, 2011, this album comes loaded with heavy associations, which ring out loud and clear before a single note is sounded. Rowe’s music is correspondingly fraught with imposing, physical noises and a full spectrum of moods and colors. It’s all held together by Antonín Dvořák’s “Piano Quintet No. 2,” which appears as a lyrical contrast to the rough, chiseled sounds Rowe produces. Mixed with the noises from his guitar and the various radio fragments that appear—including a section of EMF’s “You’re Unbelievable”—it exudes a calm and sentimental quality.
And that just makes the sketched noises and piercing tones Keith draws from his equipment feel that much more intense; intense enough that it had me reaching for the volume control on my stereo out of concern for my ears and my speakers. On top of that, the structure of the entire set is rough and craggy, filled with sudden outcroppings and unexpected crevices. Brian Olewnick called it a “rough-hewn, brutalist structure… like a Twombly carved from basalt with a jackhammer.” That’s a far more accurate and descriptive summary than I could muster. When trying to write a review of it months ago, I noticed some repeated features that suggested Keith was both improvising and working from a preconceived idea, but I was never able to satisfactorily connect the dots. The music always stayed just out of my reach and continued to surprise me even during consecutive playbacks. But I kept listening because it sounds amazing and because it penetrates deep into some secret compartment in my head, where all these sounds make some kind of sense together.
Eliane Radigue, Feedback Works 1969-1970 (Alga Marghen)
Marred by a quiet and murky pressing and overpriced regardless of the frills, Alga Marghen’s 2LP collection of Radigue’s early feedback music is still one of the best reissues of the year. “Feedback” is descriptive of the process used to make this music, but it does nothing to convey how it sounds. Low, rumbling tones and room-enveloping waves are the name of the game here. They come as pulses, little intimations of rhythm, and as long, barely-perceptible drones with nary a trace of screeching noise or ear-piercing frequencies interrupting their flow. It’s tempting to call the music meditative, but I think it’s better to call it focusing music. Paying close attention has its benefits.
The records are housed in a gorgeous gatefold sleeve and are accompanied by a 16-page book with an essay and interview conducted by Emmanuel Holterbach. Holterbach is also responsible for the two mixes of “Vice Versa, Etc…” on the second LP, which are performed versions of the music found on Important Record’s two disc edition of the same piece. The interview provides great biographical and technical information about each of the songs, including a story about Eliane using her apartment’s bathroom to simulate how her music would sound in a gallery space. The photographs of Eliane alone in her studio and with Yves Klein, Arman, and Pierre Schaeffer are the icing on the cake.
Jakob Ullmann, Fremde Zeit Addendum (Edition RZ)
The liner notes for this triple disc collection contain the following notice: “We would like to point out that these pieces are extremely quiet. Due to the different recording situations and locations, the volume must be adjusted separately for each CD and each piece. Please choose, for each piece, the volume settings of your sound system so as to just barely mask the ambient sounds in the room.” Such advice is likely to scare many listeners off, but it’s their loss. The four pieces on Fremde Zeit Addendum are teeming with diverse sounds inspired by sources as diverse as the Sefer Yetzirah and Bach’s Musical Offering. Even at its quitest, Ullmann’s music is powerful and haunting stuff. The experience of tinkering with the volume and searching for the sounds can be confusing at first, but those patient enough to try will find that it pays off.
I’d been listening to Ullmann’s A Catalogue of Sounds (also on Edition RZ) before I decided to try this set though. It served as a good primer to Jakob’s work and helped these three very intense and intimidating discs feel a bit more approachable. Adjusting your ears to Ullmann’s dynamics and pacing play a big part in making his music accessible, and it does become accessible. Drones, ghostly little melodies, and environmental rhythms all make the music very inviting. But the unfamiliar bits are what keep me coming back—the strange extended techniques, unidentified groans, and bustling textures make pieces like “Disappearing Musics” sound as if they have a mind of their own. Once you hear the sounds this way, their quiet dynamics cease to be an obstacle.
The List / Released or reissued in 2012
John Cage, Sonatas & Interludes (Decca) – reissue, performed by John Tilbury
Kevin Drumm, Relief (Editions Mego)
Kyle Bobby Dunn, Bring Me the Head of Kyle Bobby Dunn (Low Point)
Morton Feldman, Music for Piano and Strings Volume 2 (Matchless Recordings)
Robert Hampson, Signaux & Suspended Cadences (Editions Mego)
Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music (Williams Street/Grand Hustle/Adult Swim)
Jason Lescalleet, Songs About Nothing (Erstwhile)
Michael Pisaro, Fields Have Ears (6) (Gravity Wave)
Folke Rabe, What?? (Important Records) – reissue
Strategy, Strategy (Peak Oil)
Scott Walker, Bish Bosch (4AD)
Bernd Alois Zimmerman, Concerto pour violoncelle et orchestre/Photoptosis/Tratto II (Wergo) – reissue
Various, Fukushima! (Presqu’île Records)
Various, Wandelweiser und so weiter… (Another Timbre)
The List / Other things I listened to a lot, not released in 2012
Peter Brötzmann Octet, Machine Gun (Atavistic)
Peter Brötzmann/Han Bennink, Schwarzwaldfahrt (Atavistic)
John Cage, The 25 Year Retrospective Concert of John Cage (Wergo)
John Cage, The Complete String Quartets Vol. 2 (Mode)
John Coltrane, Interstellar Space (Impulse!)
Bill Dixon, The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note (Black Saint/Soul Note/CAM)
Eric Dolphy, Jitterbug Waltz (Douglas)
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch (Blue Note)
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (Virgin/Astralwerks)
Morton Feldman, Piano & String Quartet (Bridge)
Michael Pisaro, July Mountain (Three Versions) (Gravity Wave)
Eliane Radigue, Trilogie de la Mort (Xi)
Horaţiu Rădulescu, Clepsydra/Astray (Edition RZ)
Keith Rowe/Burkhard Beins, ErstLive 001 (Erstwhile)
Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure (WB/Atco/Reprise)
David Tudor, Music for Piano (Edition RZ)
Christian Wolff, Kompositionen 1950-1972 (Edition RZ)
Christian Wolff, Early Piano Music (1951-1961) (Matchless Recordings)
Christian Wolff, Exercise 15 (Edition Wandelweiser) – performed by Post No Bills