11 min read

A year unlike any other.

Some thoughts at the end of a year we spent alone together, and some recognition for the individuals, organizations, and events – terrestrial and virtual and back again – that made a lasting impact.
A year unlike any other.

Putting it back together.

Jennifer Koh performing Tyshawn Sorey’s For Marcos Balter with Xian Zhang and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Nov. 6, 2020. (Screenshot)

Facing the end of the most forcibly introvert year in memory, I find I’m little inclined toward further navel gazing. We’ve all spent what I’d imagine for most of us has been an uncommon amount of time alone since March or thereabouts, a condition for which Zoom and other virtual villages have provided modest respite. Last Sunday evening, I participated in a “Secret Santa Song Swap” gathering organized by a friend, spent two hours engaged in conversation with some folks I knew well, others barely or not at all, and at the end wondered how I’d gone so long without that kind of warm, wise, and unscripted human interface with people not a part of my immediate family.

I’ve read often in various places that some friend, acquaintance, or colleague hasn’t warmed to watching concerts streaming online, or perhaps watched for a while but then dropped out for some perfectly valid reason. As for me, I cannot imagine what it would have been like to endure this year without some opportunity to watch musicians making music, using whatever means and tools were at their disposal.

I’ve found deep satisfaction in scrappy single-cam live streams with modest sound and zero production values. I’ve enjoyed watching artists and institutions learn on the fly, in some instances envisioning and pointing the way toward art forms that didn’t exist before. I’ve exulted in the notion that the playing field is open to all, while at the same time grappling with the fact that access and resources still denote privilege.

To Conrad Tao, Adam Tendler, Kamala Sankaram, thingNY, Bang on a Can, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Houston Symphony, and Seattle Symphony, the Village Vanguard, and far too many more I’m forgetting right now: thank you for providing ecstatic moments in a static year. (To the International Contemporary Ensemble, Tri-Centric Foundation, and Matthew Levy: thank you for inviting me into your ventures.)

To Joshua Minsoo Kim and Vanessa Ague: thank you for lighting the way, raising the bar, and setting the tone for music journalism and criticism in the 21st century. Last week I tweet-stormed a big list of illuminating Substack newsletters I’m following nowadays—you’ll find it here. And I can think of few more exciting prospects as we head into 2021 than the return of Foxy Digitalis, which materialized while I was typing away at this essay late Wednesday night.

To my editors at The New Yorker: thank you for sustaining the Goings On About Town section during a time when essentially nothing was going on about town. Instead of shutting down, we cast the net wider than ever. Among my latest contributions is a brief, fond plug for an event coming up next Tuesday:

(R.S.V.P. for Alex Weiser’s premiere here.)

To my editors at The New York Times, thanks for having me back and keeping me busy, even if most of the articles I wrote this year marked sad occasions, including a year-ending obituary trifecta of Noah Creshevsky, Harold Budd, and “Blue” Gene Tyranny. Alongside those labors of respectful service came instances of real joy. My profile of  Sarah Hennies is one of the gladdest things I’ve ever done, and my article about Xian Zhang turned attention toward a well-deserving artist, while also providing me with an opportunity to feel wrecked by hearing an orchestra play Mozart in person, for the first time in too many months.

To my friends at National Sawdust: thank you for the camaraderie. We gave it our best, and can be proud of what we made.

To Lara and The Girl: thank you, period.

Now for the buried lede: On January 4, I’ll start a new job I can’t talk about just yet. It will make use of essentially all the skills I’ve honed during the last two decades, and more besides. It’ll be a sharp, steep learning curve. And it absolutely will have an impact on what happens in this newsletter, in ways I can’t assess from a distance.

Night After Night is not going away, but it must evolve—details TK. Meanwhile, a list of what were for me the most noteworthy recordings of 2020 lands tomorrow, after which For the Record will resume its course. For now, time to look back on some events that provided entertainment, enrichment, and/or solace during a year on the edge.

But first…

A pause, to remember.

Garlands, the father-and-son duo of David Garland and Kenji Garland, have been creating and recording what they term musical vulneraries since 2018, when Anne Garland – an activist, graphic designer, and photographer, David’s wife and Kenji’s mother – began treatments for the cancer that claimed her life in July 2019. They’ve continued their offerings occasionally ever since, and posted “Glimmering” just this morning. I’m sharing it here as a space to reflect on all that we’ve loved and lost in this year of tragedy upon tragedy, resilience, and hope.

Noteworthy Musical Events of 2020

Tania León (center) receives an ovation after the premiere of Stride by the New York Philharmonic in February. (Photograph: Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic)

New York Philharmonic: Project 19
Lincoln Center; Feb. 8, 10, 18, 22

It felt almost unfathomably cruel to see the New York Philharmonic embark upon what almost certainly is its most progressive initiative, ever – Project 19, featuring 19 commissioned premieres by as many prominent women composers, marking the centenary of the 19th Amendment – only to have it stopped short by a global health crisis. But the new orchestral works by Nina C. Young, Tania León, and Ellen Reid presented before the shut-down provided an exhilarating start to the series, as this review by Rebecca Lentjes conveys—and, if you’re reading this promptly on Dec. 31, today is the last day you can watch a video presentation of all three premieres on YouTube, free of charge. An additional Sound ON program of works for smaller forces, by Joan La Barbara, Nicole Lizée, and Paola Prestini, underscored a refreshing versatility the Philharmonic has pursued to its advantage in recent seasons.

Lex Korten, Morgan Guerin, Nathan Reising, Sasha Berliner, Nick Dunston, and Tyshawn Sorey at the Jazz Gallery, March 6, 2020. (Photograph: Steve Smith)

Tyshawn Sorey
The Jazz Gallery; March 6

I couldn’t know when I attended a generous set by Tyshawn Sorey with his sextet at The Jazz Gallery in March that it would be the last live music I’d hear for half a year… but even if I had, it’s hard to imagine savoring the concert more than I did. I’d heard Sorey and his talented, attentive colleagues play the music that would become his 2020 digital-only release, Unfiltered, in 2018, during a three-night festival at The Kitchen. There, the music had been identified as “seven pieces for sextet composed during a Rauschenberg Foundation residency,” and perhaps that’s still true in the recorded version, which subdivides the two-hour epic into three king-size portions. As in the previous encounter, I was struck by a sensation of a late-’60s Blue Note vocabulary used to spin a yarn of uncompromising monumentality, like a Bach passion or Mahler symphony. On this, the day McCoy Tyner died, that impression was reinforced when Sorey & Co. slipped seamlessly into Tyner’s “Search for Peace” to close.

AMPLIFY2020: quarantine
Bandcamp; March 20-Sept. 21

It felt both paradoxical and fitting, somehow, that the year’s most extraordinary act of generosity came from artists whose work inhabits the farthest fringes of commercial culture, many of them well accustomed to working in isolation. Jon Abbey, founder and proprietor of the invaluable Erstwhile Records label, had curated numerous groundbreaking concert series before 2020 hit. This year, while the state of the world prevented artists from playing in front of audiences, Abbey and two artists associated with his label, Matthew Revert and Vanessa Rossetto, along with a small parade of contributing guest curators, assembled an online series like no other: a festival of creators in lockdown, making new work that evoked estrangement, bemusement, ennui, and hope, at times also engaging non-musical currents engulfing the world outside. The assignment prompted extraordinary work from veterans, coaxed dormant creators back into action, and introduced promising new voices. However recondite the components, what AMPLIFY2020 produced is a testament to ineffable resilience, resourcefulness, and resolve.

Jennifer Koh: Alone Together
Instagram; April 4-June 20

Violinist Jennifer Koh has been among the most nimble, thoughtful artists builders of bridges and communities for a long time now, so it came as no surprise to see her taking the lead during the present crisis. For Alone Together, Koh requested new 30-second micro-compositions from 20 prominent composers whose salaried positions or institutional support afforded them financial security, and then had each of those composers select a deserving freelance colleague to receive a commission from arco collaborative, her nonprofit organization. Koh unveiled the pieces live in her living room, sharing them with unassuming Instagram Live streams—and in October incorporated them into a concert she played live outdoors at Lincoln Center.

The Quarantine Concerts
Experimental Sound Studios; April 6, 2020 (and many times thereafter…)

The way I remember it, a last-minute posting by composer, guitarist, writer, and scholar David Grubbs introduced me to Experimental Sound Studios, a Chicago recording studio, archive, and community center that had shifted its focus toward helping artists play live (and get paid for doing so) online with The Quarantine Concerts, a stylistically omnivorous performing-arts series. I devoured every set during that initial visit – the first “Sequesterfest” program curated by Chicago gallery/label Corbett vs. Dempsey – and visited ESS.org regularly thereafter, watching as new paradigms and platforms came into their own at pandemic-accelerated speed. (I chatted with the series organizers here in May.) What’s more, you can relive nearly all of these fleeting encounters any time you like: as of today, close to 600 Quarantine Concerts performances remain available to stream on YouTube.

All Decisions Will Be Made By Consensus, live on April 24, 2020. (Screenshot)
subtracTTTTTTTTT, live on April 24, 2020. (Screenshot)

Kamala Sankaram: All Decisions Will Be Made by Consensus
Here Arts Center; April 24-26
thingNY: subtracTTTTTTTTT
YouTube; April 24-26

The idea of producing new operas at a time when performers can’t share the same air supply evidently didn’t seem insurmountable for very long to the creative teams behind these two fantastically resourceful, joyously anarchic shows, both of which had their world-premiere runs on the same weekend. Composer and performer Kamala Sankaram, working with librettist Rob Handel, director Kristin Marting, and an eclectic cast, spun a conspiratorial yarn within the confines of a Zoom conference, while the performance-art troupe thingNY played fast and loose with latency, audiovisual distortion, and virtual-background dramaturgy. I watched all three performances of both shows, savoring the variety and unpredictability in each. Both teams went on to craft more savvy, nuanced works – thingNY with the dreamlike A Series of Landscapes in July; Sankaram, Handel, and Marting with the fabulously animated Only You Will Recognize the Signal, presented sequentially from October to December – but there’s something magical about the raw glee in their first offerings.

Nasheet Waits Trio
Central Park; Sept. 26

More and more as the year went on, musicians found ways to play live again in safe, thoughtful ways. Even if you couldn’t make it to a Detroit parking garage for Richard Wagner or a New Jersey rooftop for John Zorn, you still might stumble upon a quality performance, if you were lucky. A video of Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan, and Rudy Royston playing for a rapt and respectably distanced throng in a Brooklyn front yard racked up more than 100,000 views on YouTube. I know the feeling: I can’t describe adequately my elation in hearing drummer Nasheet Waits lead a trio with saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Rashaan Carter in John Coltrane’s “Central Park West” at the base of the Literary Walk in Central Park on a crisp fall afternoon—the first music I’d heard in person since March. Their set was part of Walk With the Wind, a series presented by Giant Step Arts to honor the late, great U.S. Representative John Lewis, which is expected to resume in spring.

Steve Roach: Live from the Timeroom
YouTube; Sept. 26

Forced to cancel public performances, including a long-overdue New York City debut, space-music pioneer Steve Roach eventually found his way to playing live on the web. His first foray into cyberspace, on August 22, was a relatively modest half-hour affair, though it also included a generous post-concert chat. But when Roach returned for his second Live from the Timeroom presentation on Sept. 26, he soared for two-and-a-half consistently inspired hours, interpolating vintage pieces like Structures from Silence and selections from Dreamtime Return among fresh inspirations. The video was a vintage gear geek’s dream come to life; the music, a blissful dreamscape of nacreous clouds, luminous nebulae, and buzzing ley line currents. (The performance holds up as an audio-only experience, too.)

Seth Parker Woods performing Tyshawn Sorey’s For Roscoe Mitchell with David Robertson and the Seattle Symphony, Nov. 19, 2020. (Screenshot)

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
dso.org; Nov. 6
Seattle Symphony
live.seattlesymphony.org; Nov. 19

Any year involving two major orchestral premieres by Tyshawn Sorey is a cause for celebration; that both concerts went on under quarantine restrictions, and were shared with the entire world through livestreaming, felt little short of miraculous. Violinist Jennifer Koh joined the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the world-premiere webcast of For Marcos Balter, a somber chiaroscuro meditation originally meant to debut in Newark, Sorey’s birthplace; fittingly, Xian Zhang, who would have conducted the New Jersey performance, was tapped as a last-minute substitute after another conductor couldn’t reach Detroit. Just a few weeks later, cellist Seth Parker Woods and the Seattle Symphony, led by David Robertson, gave the world-premiere webcast of For Roscoe Mitchell, a more robust companion. (In an exciting development, Woods already has filmed a second performance of the work with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, to be streamed January 14.) In both instances, Sorey termed his pieces “non-certos,” abandoning the individual-versus-society paradigm dominant through the ages in favor of a primus inter pares vision of communal engagement, which suited a year when isolation and interdependence fused in critical ways.

Long Beach Opera: 2020 Songbook
longbeachopera.org; Nov. 15

Seeking to keep opera alive and viable at an impossible time, Kamala Sankaram and thingNY (cited above) seized on the potential for live collaboration via technology; later in the year, Beth Morrison Projects integrated audience members into the action directly with their ingenious immersive pssst… events. Taking a different approach, Long Beach Opera embraced the notion of recasting opera as a cinematic experience with 2020 Songbook, an evening of 20 succinct world-premiere vocal works, prepared by an exceptionally diverse assemblage of composers and performers. Some creators hewed to standard conventions of writing for voice and instruments; others took dramatically divergent routes. In sum, the event augured well for a robust future for opera, onscreen and elsewhere. (Five striking examples are included in the video embedded above, and you’ll find still more on YouTube.)

Onward to 2021.

Thank you for reading Night After Night… and for reading and supporting journalism and criticism, period. Here’s wishing you all a happy, healthy New Year.