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Trying to tally the year's "best" recordings is a thankless task, not least because there's no realistic chance anyone has heard everything.… every listener's taste is individual, and focus can be contingent upon situation. All of which said, the following lists comprise the new recordings and archival projects that impressed and moved me most in 2016, with an appendix of still more albums that brightened this year.
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For anyone expecting a painstakingly winnowed-down, tightly focused tabulation of the most significant events to take place in the musical world circa 2016: I apologize, but you'll have to look elsewhere. Even so, it's not at all difficult to name 10 meaningful and affecting musical performances I witnessed this year.
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For all the manifold benefits that come with being a music journalist and critic embedded at a performing-arts incubator and presenter – and they are substantial – one meaningful constraint is that it feels inappropriate now to include my employer's projects and products among my year-end best-of listings. What follows is a concise tally of NS-related events and releases that under other circumstances absolutely would have figured into my own personal summaries of the year's most vital art.
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Presenting something meaningful and beautiful that has enough immediacy to address and express peoples’ hopes, fears, anxieties, etc, is always a good thing. It’s nothing less than a measured, subversive counterbalance to the outside world’s sinister forces. Does it do much to change things on a grand scale? Probably not. But as I said to a fellow musician the other day, shoemakers make shoes. We do what we do.
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I am on my way to see a workshop of a "new performing edition" of Handel’s four-hour opera Ariodante, the vision of director R. B. Schlather and musical director Geoffrey McDonald. I am nervous and slightly cynical about what “new” means to an opera composed in 1734, and how contemporary rhetoric keeps sending the message that opera is dead and everyone needs to bring it back to life. Am I going to another post-modern memorial service?
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“No why. Just here.” I first came across the Cage quote shortly before I started meditating, a practice that I’d adopted initially out of the need to give myself some space from my work in the music industry. When I started practicing at MNDFL, a Greenwich Village studio that offers classes based around different branches of mindfulness, an offering of sound-based practice seemed counterintuitive to someone whose livelihood depended on sound.
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When Jacqueline Woodson, a writer of beautiful and arresting works, agreed to host and curate a National Sawdust+ program – quickly tapping her “dream team” Toshi Reagon and Carl Hancock Rux to join her – I knew we were in for a powerful evening. But I had no idea it would prove so provocative an experience, eliciting reactions from the audience that ranged from deep sadness to tremendous inspiration on that cold December night.
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A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, released on ECM in March 2016, is the rare improvisational piece with a title that clues the listener into its inner workings. In this series of journeying duets, pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith seek out and magnify aspects of cosmic rhythm, one phrase (and, often, one patient single note) at a time.
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Particularly for those of us who deeply care about the fate of the world, being an artist can feel like a retreat, a cop-out, a failure to “really help.” An accomplished musician friend of mine said: “I’ve been spending a lot of time asking myself: why the hell am I doing this?” As musicians, we may ask ourselves that question constantly. We’re often forced to defend—whether to others, or to ourselves—the decision to devote our lives to art.