Arcana’s best of 2020

written by Ben Hogwood

Before finishing for Christmas and New Year celebrations, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the musical year that has been 2020. And what a year. I doubt we will experience its like again, that’s for sure – and those of you reading this will no doubt have had some incredible challenges to overcome, or have been instrumental in helping other with their challenges. Everything is firmly in perspective, that is for sure.

In the year of a global pandemic, as in all times of strife, music has been there offering a consoling shoulder to lean on. Much of my listening this year has been of the ambient kind, a place of retreat when all has been too frenetic / inhuman / scary. Music has really shown us its true colours again this year, offering the required escape route along with some real inspiration.

Live music, of course, has suffered greatly, and my thoughts are with all those musicians and people working behind the scenes in the arts, their lives irrevocably affected by COVID. As listeners we thank them for their remarkable resilience and inventiveness, bringing live-streamed concerts of such quality they have been the best possible substitute for the real thing. Wigmore Hall set the scene in June, and many others have followed. The orchestras and choirs should be held in the highest regard for their efforts.

Needless to say I did not attend many concerts in 2020, but two of great note were from soprano Louise Alder (above) and pianist Joseph Middleton, showcasing their exceptional album Lines written during a sleepless night at Wigmore Hall in January, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Iván Fischer performing the last three Mozart symphonies at the Royal Festival Hall in February.

I wanted to share with you my favourite music on record this year. It was of course Beethoven 250, and my aim was to listen to the composer’s entire works. That aim continues, but the deadline has been extended massively! It is proving a thoroughly enjoyable experience but circumstances mean it has taken much longer than expected. To enjoy the listening project to its full potential, I look forward to reconvening with the first Sonatas for cello and piano in 2021, and taking it over the finishing line later in the year.

This year’s new releases have been extremely fine – and I have eight to share with you here, beginning with Steven Osborne’s remarkable disc of three Prokofiev piano sonatas on Hyperion. This appeared at the same time as the Coronavirus and felt like a direct response to it. Prokofiev was writing these works during the Second World War, in part a reaction to intense world and personal strife, and what a performance they get from the Hyperion pianist. You can read about them here

On the orchestral front, John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London came out with a simply outstanding program of French music. Escales did the wonderful job of blending seasoned favourites such as Chabrier’s España with gems that benefited from a dusting off – Duruflé’s Trois Danses and Ibert’s Escales among them. My thoughts on the disc are here

One of the most striking contemporary releases this year capped a fine showing from Kenneth Woods, both with the English Symphony Orchestra and as here with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Philip Sawyers’ Symphony no.4 and Hommage to Kandinsky are captured by Richard Whitehouse in this review of two exceptional pieces of new music, given great performances under conductor Kenneth Woods.

Of the electronica that I mentioned, there are some rather special examples. First among them is Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Mosaic Of Transformation, an enchanting journey of vividly coloured musical motifs. I attempted to describe them and their impact here

For something closer to home, Erland Cooper’s Hether Blether signed off his Orcadian trilogy with deeply emotive recollections and portraits of home. Complementing the previous instalments Solan Goose and Sule Skerry, it was a life affirming, communal piece of work uniting thoughts at just the right time. You can read Arcana’s interview with Erland here

Meanwhile Bruce Brubaker & Max Cooper took a minimalist composer as their inspiration for Glassforms, a set of electronic reworkings of the music of Philip Glass. Rather than simply dress up the originals, it is an imaginative and very well thought-out set of recastings, detailed here

Also taking inspiration from similarly minimal sources were New York’s Bing & Ruth, through the excellent Species long player. You can read about it here – and the background to the album in an emotive interview with leader David Moore here

On the other end of the scale sit Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble. After a series of stripped back piano albums this is Wakeman at his progressive best, in the company of some exceptional musicians, creating some dramatic and involving music. You can read Arcana’s review here – and an extensive interview with the keyboard wizard here

For music of great verve and positivity, drummer Tony Allen’s collaboration with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, posthumously published, took some beating. The recordings were made in 2010, but were unfinished at the time of Masekela’s death. The passing of Allen himself this year lent their completion extra poignancy. It was the closest I could find to pure musical joy in 2020, as documented here!

Meanwhile, returning after a long break was Charles Webster, making Decision Time – an album of very fine, futuristic soul and deep house. Much has changed since we last heard from Webster in this way, but his musical values remain the same, as reported here

It is not too much of a stylistic shift from Webster to Róisín Murphy, where we find my personal album of the year. Róisín Machine is a brilliant combination of Murphy’s effervescent, spiky personality and some really fine future disco, created with the help of Crooked Man (aka Richard Barratt). As noted here, it has the resilience and strength in the face of adversity we all needed in 2020, but crucially the sense of fun we will still need – and will surely get back – in 2021. Happy Christmas!

Switched on – Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The Mosaic Of Transformation (Ghostly International)

What’s the story?

It is tempting to put forward the idea that what the musical world needs right now is a new album from t Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. That is because the music she has made up until now is not just a comfort for anxious times but it offers real, meaningful positivity from within. Recognising that potential, Ghostly International have proceeded with the album release rather than defer it, meaning that while Smith’s tour with Caribou may be cancelled the album she would be promoting is still with us.

Her previous release, Tides, was free of beats, and much of the rhythmic profile of The Mosaic Of Transformation is constructed without explicit use of bass drums. Yet it is an album of movement, exploring the relationship between sound and colour, and our own physical beings. She has a great wealth of knowledge and experience in this area, making music specifically designed to ‘fit’ our life experiences in a way that enhances them.

What’s the music like?

The Mosaic Of Transformation is light on its feet much of the time, but that does not make it insubstantial. Quite the opposite, for in tracks like Expanding Electricity, the ten and a half minute closing track on the album, Smith has put together sound collages of a deep and lasting beauty and also of a surprising density. If music were colour – which it often is of course – there would be deep blues and purples in this track especially, beginning with sonorous low register strings but curving upwards through the spectrum. When her multitracked voice proclaims, ‘I feel it, can you feel it expanding?’, the celebration of electrical power is wholeheartedly complete.

This love of electricity – without which very little of our music could be heard! – is felt throughout the album, where brighter pastel shades make themselves known. Carrying Gravity is another substantial track that develops instinctively and with a keen structural command. It has a luminous glow, especially as the textures thin out towards the end.

Some of the harmonic language Smith uses has an Oriental feel, which is either implied or more directly referenced – and the busy exchanges of The Steady Heart bring this through to the front. It is subtly apparent as the album gurgles into life through Unbraiding Boundless Energy Within Boundaries, while Remembering uses block chords and Smith’s distinctive layered vocals. After the initial relative stillness Understanding Body Messages stays true to its title with snippets of musical code passing along the line, conveying positive energy.

The beats are more gainfully employed in The Steady Heart, which has multi-layered vocals at its core – but everything is inevitably pointed to the closing, epic ode to electrical power.

Does it all work?

Yes – and the more you listen to The Mosaic Of Transformation, the more it has to offer. Smith’s layering technique is a sonic delight, because each visit to the music reveals previously hidden workings, subtle melodic touches and crossrhythms, all done with a light craftswoman’s touch. As the last sounds of Expanding Electricity subside, a lasting warmth is left behind.

Is it recommended?

Yes – and the more you listen to The Mosaic Of Transformation, the more it has to offer. Smith’s layering technique is a sonic delight, and each visit to the music reveals previously hidden workings, subtle melodic touches and crossrhythms, all done with a light craftswoman’s touch. As the last sounds of Expanding Electricity subside, a lasting warmth is left behind.

Listen and Buy

Sound of Mind 10 – May Blossoms

As we move halfway through the eighth week of lockdown here in the UK, I thought it a good time to round up some of the best sounds I’ve been enjoying in the last week or two.

The arrival of spring is hopefully in full swing, and there are good signs of creativity throughout the electronic music community.

This playlist begins with the first track of the Conference Of Trees album from Pantha du Prince, before enjoying some rather wonderful pictures brought to us by Peter Broderick, Erland Cooper, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and brothers Brian and Roger Eno.

There is brand new music from Bibio, one of the standout tracks from Nathan Fake‘s Blizzards album and to wrap things up a remix of Philip Glass‘s Two Pages by none other than Max Cooper.

Enjoy an hour of escapism!

Ben Hogwood