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 – Bruce Brubaker & Max Cooper – Glassforms (Infiné Music)

What’s the story?

The music of the so-called ‘minimalists’, led by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, has always provided a strong link between classical and electronic music, and has naturally inspired a number of artists positioned at that junction.

Reinterpretations of Glass and Reich have varied considerably though, from those who like to perform the music straight with no added frills to those who have added drum tracks and remixed them beyond almost all recognition. In that sense the music has been an inspiration, but it has on occasion proved difficult to get the balance right.

Pianist Bruce Brubaker and scientist / electronic music producer Max Cooper have teamed up for their own reinterpretation of the music of Philip Glass, approaching it with a view to adding subtle enhancements rather than radically changing its essence. Cooper has developed his own system for musical expression with Alexander Randon, taking live feeds from the piano to drive his own systems.

What’s the music like?

Brubaker performs well-known Glass piano pieces such as Mad Rush, Two Pages and Metamorphosis 2 with great sensitivity, to which Cooper adds the expressive studio touches and atmospherics. That may seem like straightforward solution, but both performers have to be careful to avoid over-egging what Glass has already done.

The pair link the originals with improvised music of their own. This is through a series of five preludes where Brubaker channels the spirit of Glass but brings in external influences from the likes of Liszt and Bach to galvanizing effect.

There are so many notes in the busy keyboard pieces such as Mad Rush that to do too much would not work – but here the judgement of both performers is right on the money. The piano parts are essentially the same, but Cooper cleverly highlights elements of the busy lines with his own spotlit textures, putting shards of white noise on the top of the likes of Mad Rush and opening out the sound with long bass notes, taking us from intimate beginnings to cinematic, big-venue textures. He does this without compromising the solitary world of a piece like Metamorphosis 2, and each one makes an unexpectedly weighty emotional impact.

While the reinterpretations of pieces like Tirol Concerto are excellent, Brubaker and Cooper’s interpretation of Two Pages is outstanding. It is ideally paced, the tracer lights of the keyboard operating over great waves of synthesizer pads, the chords shifting simply but with a devastatingly effective emotional payoff. So far each listen to this particular track has left a tear in the eye!

Does it all work?

Yes. It is immediately clear that Brubaker and Cooper hold the music of Glass in the utmost respect, but also that they know how to bring it forward and point it towards a slightly more club-orientated audience. There are no beats at any point, but the electronic sounds and textures bring them much closer – and Glass’s own rhythmic impetus is enough in any case. Each track is carefully woven and lovingly produced, and sounds great on headphones.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Glass and Reich have had some excellent remix treatment in the last 25 years or so, but Bruce Brubaker and Max Cooper have really raised the game with this album, which is both wholly complimentary to Glass but offers something new in its own right. It is a really fine  achievement.

Listen

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

Switched On – Max Cooper: Yearning For The Infinite (Mesh)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

For anyone who attended his sellout Barbican show, the release of Max Cooper‘s second album will be big news indeed. As Arcana reported, this was a rare occasion where a gig lived up to its ambitious title, and since this is the music behind that gig attendees will need little encouragement.

For those new to the story, Max Cooper is a progressive artist and bioscientist looking to explore music through algorithms and pre set patterns in a way that doesn’t dilute its emotional impact. In other words, music that makes you think and feel while pushing the boundaries of composition. “We are rats in the wheel”, he says, “imprisoned by our nature to endlessly pursue. But the view of the essence of this process as a whole, is a beautiful thing.”

What’s the music like?

Cooper’s music is flexible in a way that rewards lovers of ambient music as much as those who love wide, sweeping vistas rich in percussion.

Yearning For The Infinite is a through composed work able to be enjoyed as an hour long stretch or in its constituent parts. Let There Be establishes the wide scope of the ambient sound, seguing into the pulses of Repetition where the extent of the emotion becomes clear. Parting Ways presses forward with a deliberate beat but Perpetual Motion hits a more natural, syncopated groove. After a brief repose Aleph2‘s thick textures are capped by rolling percussion, then Scalar fires rallies of drum and bass around processed vocals from Alison Moyet. Busy beats ricochet through Penrose Tiling while Morphosis has dazzling beauty.

Does it all work?

Yes. On occasion you may find some of the beats too busy for your mood, but that should not be a problem. As Cooper progresses through his voyage the listener is drawn right in to the action, and will find it easy to stay to the end.

Is it recommended?

Yes, without reservation to Cooper devotees, but also to lovers of Jon Hopkins, Nils Frahm or Floating Points. The music here forges a deeply individual path that makes it one of the electronica albums of the year.

Stream

Buy