As is typical in the field of meditative and modern classical music, the albums that we have listened this year ranged through extremely heterogeneous genres and approaches: electronic ambient music, sophisticated chamber ensembles, ballet scores, minimal piano pieces. In all these works, however, we have found the same dedication and attention for the perfect sounds, the most suggestive melodies and the most exciting soundscapes.
This chart provides a personal suggestion of the best works that were released this year and I tried to cover all the sub-genres of this vast sector of modern music. Interestingly, you’ll find here both established figures in modern classical music and new artists that managed to find their own way to distinguish themselves from the existing mass of low quality atmospheric and minimalistic albums.
To better represent the current status of meditative and modern classical music, I’ve also prepared a special compilation, in the form of a mixtape, which collects the best songs released this year by the artists that have been included in the Top Ten chart.
ASYNC by Ryuichi Sakamoto
Async, the latest release by legendary Japanese pianist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, was one of the most awaited albums of the year as the artist’s first original album since 2009’s Out Of Noise and also his first since after recovering from throat cancer.
According to the release notes which were anticipated before the publication of the album, this new work represents a score for a non existing movie by soviet filmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, while at the same time taking inspiration from “everyday objects, sculpture, and nature”.
The 14 tracks of this album result quite heterogeneous in their structure, with the common element that holds them together being a sense of instability that perhaps derives from the experiences lived by the artist during the conception of this work. Personally I have appreciated the few melodic moments of the album more than the atmospheric / conceptual ones, and probably a greater balance between these two sides of Sakamoto’s music would have guaranteed a greater level of enjoyability to the whole work.
ENDLESS by Tale of Us
Endless is a dark and minimalistic album released on last May for Deutsche Grammophon by the Italian duo Tales of Us . The record marks a steady turn in the career of these two electronic artists, who actually gained interest and popularity as techno-house DJs. Their new work, on the contrary, is based on relaxing ambient soundscapes, slow beats and sweeping strings.
Taken in its entirety, this disc reveals some missteps that highlight the need of the duo to acquire a greater level of confidence with this genre. Some pieces sof the album, just to make an example, appear more as a display of electronic skills than the genuine expression of musical emotions. Other songs, on the contrary, are decidedly more challenging and exciting, and elevate the music of these young musicians to the peaks of meditative music.
As a side note, the album has been also used for the production of a second disc of remixes curated by other artists of electronic music. As often happens in these cases, however, the level of the remix album is much lower than the original album.
THE IMPERFECT SEA by Penguin Cafe
The Imperfect Sea is the third and latest work by Penguin Cafe, which is the musical ensemble created by English composer Arthur Jeffes as an ideal continuation of his father’s project, i.e. Simon Jeffe’s avant-pop band Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Arthur Jeffes’ new group today comprises more than 10 musicians, they play delicate and expressive tracks that combine multiple influences, from flok to minimalism, but always supported by beautiful and sophisticated melodies.
One of the most interesting features of the album is the ability of these artists to generate a constant feeling of restlessness that remains suspended in the air without ever exploding in drama, like a big black cloud that appears on the horizon but remains distant, a threat that doesn’t turn into a storm but that traces gloomy shadows in a clear day. This is particulary evident in two of the best songs of the LP: Wheels Within Wheels, which is an incredible cover of a Simian Mobile Disco’s song where beats are beautifully replaced with gentle layers of strings and delicate piano cycles, and Cantorum, which is probably one of the best modern classical songs of the year, with droney strings and a yearning melody on top.
CLEAR LANGUAGE by Balmorhea
The most interesting aspect about Clear Language, which is the new work by Balmorhea, is how each one of the songs in the album seems to tell a different story. The ten tracks of the album are in fact characterized by an incredible variety of sounds and atmospheres, and to some extent this is the result of the five years that have passed since the previous album that was released by American ensemble. For sure this work was not completed in a rush. On the contrary, the record seems to sum up, one after the other, many different moments of inspiration that the various artists have experienced in the last years.
The music of Balmorhea is placed in the ideal point of intersection between the post-rock of the last phase of Mogwai and the ambient and meditative sounds of Ólafur Arnalds. We find in fact the delicate melodies and rarefied sounds that are typical of meditative music but with the nice and intriguing insertion of bass and guitar. The resulting mix is really enjoyable and also quite original, and the way the songs are structured bring your attention to the beauty of the sounds which are produced by the individual instruments more than the harmonies resulting from the work of the ensemble. And in fact, although Balmorhea consists of a sextet of musicians, it is quite rare to have more than two or three instruments playing together in the same part of the song.
In summary, Clear Language is an extremely interesting work from an ensemble that has already produced valuable albums since their formation twelve years ago. And year after year, the range of sounds and atmospheres created by the group has further increased in scope and depth.
NUIT BLANCHE by Tarkovsky Quartet
Tarkovsky Quartet is a modern classical and chamber music ensemble featuring pianist François Couturier (who actually created the quartet), cellist Anja Lecher, saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier. All the music composed by Courtiers and his fellow musicians is inspired by the great Soviet filmmaker, who gave the name to the ensemble; Nuit Blanche, in particular, is the fourth chapter of a conceptual and Tarkovsky’s related quadrilogy which commenced in 2010 with Couturier’s solo piano session Un jour si blanc.
Among the albums that were included in this Top Ten chart, Nuit Blanche is definitely the one closer to the world of classical music. And it is also one of the more complex to be fully appreciated due to the fact that melodic and thus more accessible songs are alternated with expressive but more dissonant pieces.
Taken as a whole, Nuit Blanche remains in any case one of the most beautiful and expressive albums we heard this year, never ordinary and also played very well by these skilled musicians. The four instruments seem to chase each other throughout the entire album, sometimes they merge into a single melodic line but very often they travel on parallel roads.
IN THE DARK WOODS by Akira Kosemura
Japanese composer Akira Koseumura has recently reached the important milestone of 10 years of well-regarded career in modern classical music. In such time he has achieved a respected position in the music scene because of his ability to mesh together minimal tunes played on the piano with field recordings, other acoustic instruments and also electronic soundscapes. Kosemura’s music has always been extremely delicate, some call it “sparse”, and according to many more suitable for a musical background rather than made for deep and concentrated listening. Personally, I’ve always appreciated his style, which represents for me a magical way to flee into a serene world, free from all those complications and problems of our everyday life
Kosemura’s last album, In The Dark Woods, maintains all the typical features of his music and it contains a beautiful collection of intimate and delicate pieces, most of them playing aroung a few simple piano tunes. The LP is focused on the concept of finding comfort in the darkness and it is maybe one of the most introspective works the Japanes arthist made so far.
ALL TOGETHER AGAIN by Peter Broderick
All Together Again is the new solo record from American composer Peter Broderick. The LP collects in a single place all the works he was commissioned to write during his first decade of career. The interesting thing about this album is that despite being a collection of pieces conceived for different purposes and in different moments, they all manifest the same musical sensibility and the charm that have become distinctive features of the style of Broderick’s production. From a musical point of view, his music belongs to that category of compositions where nothing is excessive: every note, every chord every beat, every layer of music is there because the song couldn’t stand without. This is music stripped of any redundancy. Soundscapes and delicate melodies that are perfect to accompany the movements of your thoughts.
One of the most particular pieces of the LP is A Ride On The Bosphorus, an epic 17-minutes long piece that was commissioned for an art project.
ICHIRU by Daigo Hanada
Daigo Hanada is a young and talented Japanese pianist and composer, born in Tokyo but based in Berlin. Hanada released on last February a little masterpiece, named Ichiru, where he plays delicate and minimalistic melodies on a simple upright piano. The album contains a collection of relatively short but deeply captivating piano moments (intimate vignettes), which collectively show how sometimes the simplicity of arrangement and the immediacy of the melodies may generate an immediate connection between the author and the listener.
This is definitely one of the most lovely albums we heard in 2017.
PREHENSION by Joep Beving
The story of Joep Beving testifies the impact that social media and modern streaming services may have on the success (and sometimes the failure) of a new artists. This Dutch musician recorded some of the original piano tunes that he used to play for his family, distributed them online, and eventually sparked a stratospheric interest from hundreds of thousands of Spotify subscribers. At that point, contended by a number of record companies, he released this year a second record, Prehension, which confirmed the class and talent of the artist.
The style of Joep Beving follows the successful stream of modern classical and contemplative piano music, but just because of the fact that this genres begins to be definitely inflated, to emerge from the mass becomes even more difficult. The short compositions collected in Prehension reach the magical point of equilibrium where accessibility of the melodies matches with class and style. All the musical attributes of Bevings’ compositions float in that delicate balance between minimalism and delicacy where every additional element would make the sounds redudant, but anything less than that would compromise pleasure and smoothness of the songs.
THREE WORLDS, MUSIC FROM WOOLF WORKS by Max Richter
Three Worlds Music From Woolf Works is Max Richter’s eightheth album and it’s mostly consisting of the music score that the British musician composed for the ballet Woolf Works in collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor. Compared to the major works from Richter, this album somehow abandons the post-minimalist of his last releases to embrace a neoclassical style which is much closer to Richter’s early works. Interspersed with the larger orchestral moments we still find, however, a few synthetic inserts which give the music an estranged and pleasantly artificial atmosphere.
Following the same structure of the original ballet, the album is divided into three main sections, each one corresponding to a different work from Virgina Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. Every section has its own atmosphere and Richter adopted a different style for each one of these musical acts. The first section of the album is the more conventional with respect to Richter’s past production, while we assist to a relatively greater experimentation in the second and third acts, where there is also an increased presence of contaminations with other musical genres.
This is a must-have disc for all Richter’s fan but, more in general, for all music lovers. It represents a perfect fusion between creativity, depth of sound and enjoyability.