In classical-music terms, "New Music" is always complicated to define. Yes, it's the current manifestation of the classical tradition, but these days, the edges of so-called New Music tend to bleed into the realms of ambient music, indie rock, jazz and even folk. Criteria for determining what constitutes newness in classical music are similarly slippery.
Therefore, in creating a list of the top new classical-music releases of 2009, I've decided that egregious cheating regarding style and time period is allowed; let’s leave it at that. Simply put, these are the records from the past year that I cannot stop playing.
Nadia Sirota is a violist, as well as a blogger and Artist in Residence for Q2 in New York. Click here for more entries in our Best Music of 2009 series.
1. The JACK Quartet/Iannis Xenakis
- Song: Tetras
- from String Quartets: Jack Quartet
The JACK Quartet provides the first complete compilation of these stochastically composed works. They’re witty, eccentric, challenging and worth it.
For Love Is Strong, for chorus
2. David Lang
- Song: For Love Is Strong, for chorus
- from David Lang: The Little Match Girl Passion
David Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winning work is flanked by several additional choral contributions; a standout is "For Love Is Strong," his modification and adaptation of the Song of Songs.
Last Nights on Eagle Street
3. Christopher Tignor
- Song: Last Nights on Eagle Street
- from Core Memory Unwound
The first solo album by composer and Slow Six bandleader Christopher Tignor, Core Memory Unwound features beautiful, at times fragile tracks for acoustic instruments and electronics.
Come nave in mezzo all'onde
4. Cecilia Bartoli
- Song: Come nave in mezzo all'onde
- from Sacrificium [Deluxe Edition]
I'll admit that there's literally no way to justify this record's status as New Music, but it's too good not to bring up. Sacrificium is vibrantly performed and sung, with a truly eccentric premise: Cecilia Bartoli performs works originally composed for castrati. The album art is intensely bizarre -- a sort of draw in itself. The record truly shines, though, in its vital performances.
John the Revelator, a mass for 6 voices, string quartet & organ [The Man Who Knows Misery]
5. Phil Kline
- Song: John the Revelator, a mass for 6 voices, string quartet & organ [The Man Who Knows Misery]
- from John the Revelator
- by Phil Kline
A moving and appealing take on a Latin mass setting that's been injected with Phil Kline's surprising selection of bonus texts. The piece and performance (including the string quartet known as Ethel and the vocal group Lionheart) navigate a wide emotional range successfully and satisfyingly.
At the still point, soundscape
6. John Luther Adams
- Song: At the still point, soundscape
- from John Luther Adams: The place we began
John Luther Adams creates sound environments based on his own readdressed 1970s-era electronic compositions, evoking almost visual landscapes in a meditative and dark album. The textures are stunningly restrained.
Symphony No. 9 (unfinished) [[Andante]]
7. Dresdner Philharmonie & Dennis Russell Davies
- Song: Symphony No. 9 (unfinished) [[Andante]]
- from Alfred Schnittke: Symphony No. 9; Alexander Raskatov: Nunc dimittis
Alfred Schnittke died in 1998, leaving behind three completed movements of his 9th Symphony, scrawled by his left hand (the right was then paralyzed). This work was lovingly and fascinatingly realized by Schnittke protégé Alexander Rastakov, who also provides an accompanying work on this beautiful and powerful record.
8. Meredith Monk
- Song: Greensleeves
- from Meredith Monk: Beginnings
Beginnings features exciting archival recordings of Meredith Monk's early days, dated from 1966 to 1980. The album kicks off with a surprising 1966 recording of "Greensleeves," with Monk accompanying herself on guitar. What follows is a fascinating depiction of an artistic voice in development.
9. Alarm Will Sound
- Song: Camouflage Des Agrements
- from a/rythmia
Alarm Will Sound's latest album explores rhythmic complexity -- particularly in the form of stratified pulses -- from the 14th century up to now. The idea sounds complex, but the group makes its crystal-clear point joyfully through engaging programming and performances. (Full disclosure: I've had the pleasure of performing with Alarm Will Sound in the past.)
String Quartet No. 3 in A major, Op. 41/3 [Assai agitato - Un poco adagio - Tempo risoluto]
10. Takacs Quartet with Marc-Andre Hamelin
- Song: String Quartet No. 3 in A major, Op. 41/3 [Assai agitato - Un poco adagio - Tempo risoluto]
- from Schumann: String Quartet, Op. 41/3; Piano Quintet, Op. 44
Here's another album that doesn't belong in this category, but that I can't resist mentioning. This record features a stylish reading of some immensely appealing chamber works. The Takacs Quartet projects real depth and scope without overplaying. I have a huge crush on this group.