winter 2021

arb, Ben Roidl-Ward and Zachary Good (February 19, Carrier) 

Then roommates, Roidl-Ward (bassoon) and Good (clarinet) recorded arb in isolation in their Edgewater apartment, their dense, pulsing drones shifting as slowly and methodically as the tides. It’s hard to imagine a more fraught time than the period the Chicago new music stalwarts recorded this album, early last June. Appropriately, their multiphonic meditation accesses a state beyond words; the recalcitrant woodiness of the apartment acoustic and arb’s palindromic structure, with its intimations of cyclicality, say more than enough on their own. In arb, isolation is both subject and means, but it sounds overly glib to Roidl-Ward, Good, and everyone just trying to make it out of the COVID-19 era alive to reduce the album as such. Instead, when Roidl-Ward and Good bellow through their instruments in “Rege,” I hear an inconsolable lament for what we’ve lost. May we never forget it.

Live at Pro Musica, Quin Kirchner, Greg Ward, Paul Bedal, and Matt Ulery (March 5, self-released by Quin Kirchner)

It was supposed to be a celebration, not a bookend. That’s what I keep coming back to when I hear this decadent live set by first-time quartet Ward (alto sax), Bedal (piano), Ulery (upright bass) and Kirchner (drums). Almost exactly a year before the album release, their performance in Pro Musica’s listening room capped off the fourth annual Chopin in the City Festival, during which musicians across genre offered up perspectives on the nineteenth-century Polish composer. 

Little did the quartet know their concert would become a solemn milestone. The contemplative “Flowers for Albert” opens the album, flavored by Greg Ward’s smoky saxophone figurations. I’m particularly drawn to the sparse aloofness of “Abacas,” which brings Ulery’s bass choreography to the fore. Kirchner penned two Nocturne arrangements—of a giddily uptempo No. 1 in F minor and elegiac No. 20 in C-sharp minor—to go along with the amber-hued set. They transform Chopin’s enigmatic utterances into something more earnest, even forthcoming. 

Anticipation, Cameron Knowler and Eli Winter (March 12, American Dreams)

Last weekend, I drove from Chicago to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It’s my third time making that journey, so I knew what I was in for. Tellingly, I sought out these Houstonians’ unforgettable guitar duets as a soundtrack to that route before any other record. Anticipation is folklorically and aesthetically inspired by a very different route: In 2018, Eli and Cameron wove through the Trans-Pecos together, playing solo and duo sets in smalltown and DIY venues. Anticipation sprung from that initial collaboration, and, in some cases, literally immortalizes it. (They toured versions of “Strawberry Milk,” “And So I Did,” and “Cumberland Application”; the last track is their 2018 “Southern Fillibuster,” recorded live in Houston.) As geographically incongruent as my listen-through might have been, relistening to this album on my road trip revealed layers of meaning hitherto unplumbed—more on that later. 

I use first names in this writeup somewhat self-consciously. I haven’t met Cameron, but Eli and I are friends, despite drifting past one another at our shared alma mater. I’m awed by his boundless musical creativity and generous mind. (He is also a beautiful writer about music, with just one example being this Mute Duo primer I edited for Chicago magazine.) Cameron is a newer discovery for me, but no less entrancing. After another runthrough of Anticipation, I queued up Knowler’s Five Cowboy Meditations, arrangements of Western traditionals that unite the dense precision of miniature work with pointillistic abstraction. It’s music for the heart, from the heart.

Cameron steeps in bluegrass and folk traditions, Eli in Chicago’s venturesome experimental scene. As the eloquent fingerwork off Anticipation reveals, however, the two guitarists branch from the same spiritual roots. Listening to Anticipation on the road, for the first time, the transition from Midwestern flatlands to Appalachian foothills—where the Edgars are from—evoked a similar, deeply personal collision of heritage and here-and-now. When tumbling Indiana pastures turned into Ohio bluffs, coal miner forebears and urbanite Chicagoan briefly communed at the same table. 

Cameron and Eli know where they come from, and delight in not knowing where they are going. Would that we were all so blissfully adrift. 

Archetypes, Clarice Assad, Sérgio Assad, and Third Coast Percussion (March 14, Cedille Records)

This album is just as delicious as it sounds. Father–daughter musical motors Sérgio and Clarice Assad team up with the Third Coast Percussion foursome for this brand-new suite, whose twelve varied movements represent character types found in literature around the world (e.g. The Orphan, The Innocent, The Sage). The Third Coast lads wrote one movement each, with all the rest penned by the Assads. 

For a collaboratively composed work, Archetypes, lush with color and curiosity, is as seamless as could be on a start-to-finish hearing. It doesn’t surprise me at all that some of the more audacious tracks were Clarice’s doing: “Rebel” hurtles headlong into its many stylistic volte-faces, and “Jester” piles on irreverent percussion gimmicks—slide whistles, mouth harps, and flexatones, oh my!—to create something driving and fresh. (The insistent kazoo solo at its climax called to mind Shakespeare’s Fools, those perennially underestimated truth-tellers.) 

Yes, Archetypes is eclectic—and eccentric—but it’s not without its austere moments. My favorite was Sean Connors’s “Creator,” which radiates around a theme that sounds something like a benevolent Dies Irae. The Assads’ subsequent “Hero” and “Explorer” echo its contours, ending the album in the same high-energy place it began. Sérgio’s guitar is often understated, but his presence is deeply felt throughout, most especially in the expansive solo–cum–duet which opens “Ruler.”

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2, London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle (March 19, LSO Live)

When I was a high school freshman, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” for the first time. (If you haven’t read it, allow me to be your SparkNotes: Imagine a dystopian future in which the American government achieves total “equality” by physically and mentally handicapping its citizens.) In the story’s climactic moment, the eponymous character bursts from his 300-pound shackles and pas de deuxes with a ballerina, also free from her weights at last.

Years on, the image of Bergeron dancing lands with more grace than the rest of Vonnegut’s short story, deliciously sarcastic though it may be. It’s also the first image I thought of when I heard this recording. My ideal take on this uncanny symphony labors without sounding laborious; it soars in spite of—perhaps, like Bergeron, because of—its hindrances, including briar-like orchestration and an unwieldy run time. The London Symphony and Simon Rattle, here conducting from memory, manage just that. This interpretation won’t raise eyebrows, and they can’t quite crack that very repetitive third movement (who could?), but my God, does it breathe. Each orchestral line is distinct yet balanced, sensitively braided by the LSO musicians. Extremes from the podium are in service to the arc, rather than disrupting it. It joins my comparatively short list of essential recordings of the Second, and happily so.

CAN’T MISS: The New County Choruses, Ethan Parcell (February 5, self-released)

Where the semantics of opera are concerned, traditionalist kvetching is sure to follow. To be sure, “opera” is a challenging distinction—simultaneously too broad and too narrow, either too exalted or too self-consciously subversive. At the end of the day, my final line on this amounts to a shrug. Who the hell am I to say what is and isn’t an opera? 

Even as someone with an intentionally borderless conception of opera, there’s something almost paradigmatic, capital-O Operatic about The New County Choruses. Is it its quiet grandiosity? Its aspiration towards timelessness, no matter how humble? I’m not sure, but this eight-part collage for narrator and chamber band absolutely entranced me from beginning to end. 

The New County Choruses is the latest in a series of conceptual operas by composer Ethan T. Parcell (formerly of Iverson, currently in-residence at the Elgin Youth Symphony) and realized by his ensemble, the drolly named Focus Group Solutions. Parcell is usually the one to deliver his stream-of-consciousness texts; this time, local storyteller–actor Errol McLendon steps into that bardic role, knotting Chicago’s fertile storefront theater and DIY music spheres. Sometimes his narration self-reflects, voice sweetened by a slight twang; sometimes it provides metacommentary on the music. Always, it offers an essential counterpoint to the music unfolding underneath. (If spoken word isn’t your cup of tea, the latter half of the album offers up non-narrated takes.) Parcell’s vocals tinge the instrumental firmament: guitar, violin, cello, piano, and banjo. Focus Group musicians recorded separately throughout 2020, and Parcell stitched together the parts post-hoc—though you wouldn’t guess it, so closely woven are the parts here.

It’s folk Dada, it’s a Robert Ashley regular in a Stetson, it’s an absurdist fantasia on A Prairie Home Companion. All these metaphors have a sliver of truth in them, but ultimately, they are far too reductive. Don’t let my jangling words drown out the fine-veined beauty of New County Choruses. Just hear it for yourself.

ALSO CAN’T MISS: Virga/Recrudescence, Oui Ennui (March 5, self-released)

It’s an unspoken law: By the time I get around to writing about a Oui Ennui record, he’s released another. As of writing, Character Sketches (April 2) has joined his 18-album output, then, in an upcoming blurb for Tone Glow, I’m paying homage to the Oui release that first made me an adherent.

Angel Bat Dawid gassed up the synthist/DJ a couple months ago on her socials, and every release I’ve heard so far has been a revelation. Virga/Recrudescence sees the ultra-cerebral Oui Ennui (the alias of Chicagoan Jonn Wallen) at his most ambitious to date, spinning out two longform electronic forays: “Virga” pokes and prods at acoustic principles like the overtone series and timbre, while the wet, earthy “Recrudescence”  frolics in the space between samples.

Oui’s prolificacy is striking, and not without impetus. As Oui tells it, a COVID-19 diagnosis in the early months of the virus forced him to prematurely grapple with his mortality. Some of the releases are years old, having not seen the light of day until now.

History enshrines the Hallmarky narrative of “geniuses on the brink”—creatives whose output nearly moldered in proverbial drawers. I cite it here with arched brow; we only remember the artists tastemakers chose to preserve, after all. Even so, the trope comes to mind every month, when, like clockwork, Oui Ennui drops a sprawling new album for Bandcamp Friday—nearly unheard, always surprising.