My Year in Music

Every year, I feel fortunate to realize that there is such a consistent stream of interesting, worthwhile, and enduring music being made. The combination of new music and new thinking about older music is a testament to the inherent musicality of human existence: music defines our souls and our civilizations.

Debra Voigt and Thomas Hampson in Wozzeck, courtesy Metropolitan Opera

Every year too, it seems nowadays, there are also stories about how music is in trouble, but what those stories are about is the business of music, not the form of expression and thought. But in American culture, nothing really exists unless it’s a commodity that can be bought and sold, and that turns aesthetics and critical thinking into the practice of counting units and dollars.

When it comes to money, the fundamental issue is that musicians and composers should get paid. The problem with streaming services and digital music is that a lot of musicians and composers are either not getting paid, or not getting paid anything more than an infinitesimal sum. There is the concurrent problem of live musicians being replaced by DJ culture, which is founded on the manufacture of preconfigured fragments of music to be assembled as a kit—an inhuman industrialization that has me singing Blake’s “Jerusalem.” This is a business-of-music problem, of course, but also a consumer problem.

Being a music fan—and who isn’t one?—means buying tickets and, hopefully, recordings. Being an American means, far too often, creating one’s self-image and sense of self-worth by buying things, and the rise of hipster culture has created a generation that has surpassed the classic bourgeoisie in this regard. While subscribing to the symphony or opera and sleeping through the performances is harmless philistinism, dipping into and disposing of trends, while keeping the economic cost to a minimum, is as exploitative and harmful as the actions of administrators who, while keeping their own salaries, lock out musicians. It is also philistinism.

People who pay for art, books, good meals, pay a lawyer, a mechanic, or a therapist, have no second thoughts about that exchange. If only the same number of them felt that music was worth something in terms of money, that the musician deserved to be paid.

The best way to pay for music is to buy that ticket and go to that show. I’m in the fortunate position of experiencing a lot of live music, and even mediocre performances reinforce how the live experience is the best, one that only a rare few recordings can emulate. For me, the best moments in music this past year were all live ones.

Greatest of all has been the return of pianist Gilbert Kalish to the concert scene. Kalish recently endured personal tragedy and seems to be playing his way back to equilibrium, and his playing has been extraordinary. At the American Academy of Arts and Letters dedication of the Charles Ives’s studio installation in April, he played Ives’s Concord Sonata with such depth of thought and feeling, such care and expression in every note, that he seemed to be having an ongoing conversation with the composer. Everyone who was at the concert will remember it for as long as they live.

Kalish also played with amazing beauty and power at Brooklyn Academy of Music in September, accompanying Dawn Upshaw in works by Ives and George Crumb. He will appear in several more Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concerts this season, including one featuring the Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), a great and
mysterious masterpiece.

Despite the loss of New York City Opera and labor troubles at the Metropolitan Opera, the opera scene in New York is healthy, with burgeoning small groups and events like the Prototype Festival and the tiny, peripatetic, and talented company the Secret Opera. I had the unusual and remarkable experience in late winter of witnessing three performances of Berg’s Wozzeck (1914 – 22) in the same week, each one superior to the last. The first was the concert performance for Carnegie Hall’s Vienna: City of Dreams festival, with Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Matthias Goerne in the lead.

Goerne is almost the prototypical Wozzeck, a haunted performer with the voice of a disillusioned angel. So it was an exciting surprise when he took the stage at the Metropolitan Opera for opening night of their Wozzeck production. Goerne was filling in for Thomas Hampson, who was ill, and with little more than a run-through he was astonishing. Hampson himself was even more surprising, cast against type, and even more spectacular when he was well enough to fill the role. His Wozzeck was human and heart-breaking, and the details of this detail-laden score were, under James Levine and the MET Orchestra, mind-bogglingly fine.

Another satisfying surprise has been the appearance and rise of the non-profit jazz label, Resonance Records. This year, they’ve released two important archival records: John Coltrane, Offering: Live at Temple University (reviewed by Kurt Gottschalk in our September issue), and Charles Lloyd, Manhattan Stories, two fascinating, superb live sets from the 1960s. They also have a strong new disc, Sentimentale, from virtuoso accordionist Richard Galliano. Everything they publish is worth your time and money.

This has also been an unexpected and fulfilling year for music of extended duration. I heard Flux Quartet play Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 at the Armory (5 hours 45 minutes), Either/Or play Feldman’s For Philip Guston at ISSUE Project Room (four and a half hours), and, also at ISSUE, Harley Gaber’s obscure and astonishing The Winds Rise in the North (two hours). The length of these pieces is the least notable thing about them, each is music that takes precisely as long as it needs to reveal its form and aesthetics. That the results were baffling and upsetting to the mainstream reviewers and editors was proof that the greatest music cannot be commodified.


The 2014 Chart:

  • Two exceptional new releases of music from Jürg Frey: More or Less from (New Focus Recordings), and Pianist, Alone, played by R. Andrew Lee (Irritable Hedgehog).
  • Important discs from Pi Recordings: Steve Lehman’s Mise en Abîme; Hafez Modirzadeh’s In Convergence Liberation; and Tyshawn Sorey’s new and incredible Alloy.
  • Pianist Sarah Cahill produced a double-disc set of music from Mamoru Fujieda’s singular and beautiful Patterns of Plants (Pinna Records).
  • Our first year of podcasts and the pleasure of hearing great musicians talk about music and their stories, especially Lenny Pickett, one of my personal heroes, and the priceless Steve Dalachinsky.
  • Intuitively, my favorite music is that which I can’t define by genre: Doug Wieselman’s From Water (88 Records); Douglas Detrick’s The Bright and Rushing World (Navona Records); and Air Cushion Finish’s Spree (Bandcamp).
  • Best grooves: SONAR, Static Motion, and Ambit from the Cellar and Point (Cuneiform)
  • Best electronic music: Negative Space by No Lands (New Amsterdam), and ~60 Hz by Dave Seidel (Bandcamp).
  • Best noise: Thurston Moore (Clean Feed and Cuneiform); Richard Pinhas (Cuneiform); Mary Halvorson (Rare Noise and Telegraph Harp); Matt Nelson (New Amsterdam and Tubapede Records); and Travis Just + Object Collection (khalija).
  • Best music in the classical tradition: Dan Becker, Fade (Innova); Tre Voci (ECM);Jonas Kaufman, Winterreise (Sony); Camerata Pacifica, John Harbison: String Trio (Harmonia Mundi); Heinz Holliger, Aschenmusik (ECM); Peter Søderberg, On the Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon (Alice Musik); Orli Shaham, American Grace (Naxos); Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich, Surface Image (New Amsterdam); Claudio Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (Deutsche Gramaphon); Theodor Currentzis, Musicaeterna, Le Nozze di Figaro (Sony).
  • Musicians of the year: Wadada Leo Smith, Dave Liebman, Mark Turner, Quarteto Casals, Max Johnson, Vijay Iyer.
  • Thank you, Marshall, for introducing me to Ava Luna.


George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.