Ed Bennett's top 10 contemporary classical recordings

Ed Bennett
Friday, June 3, 2011

Recordings have always been a hugely important part of my listening experience and musical education. Growing up in Northern Ireland in the later half of the 20th century it was virtually impossible to hear live performances of much of the non-commercial music I was beginning to get in to. There was no South Bank, no Vortex Jazz Club and no BMIC Cutting Edge Series (to name but a few of the venues I began to frequent when I moved to London as a student).

It wasn’t all bad though, we were (and still are) fortunate enough to have in Belfast a forward looking organisation called Moving On Music who consistently manage to bring interesting music to the city. There was also the once a year Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music where I still remember being blown away by seeing groups like the Arditti Quartet and Icebreaker perform for the first time as an 18 year old. I found a strange similarity in the sounds these people were making and much of the alternative and experimental rock and jazz music I was interested in. I wanted to hear more but alas opportunities were few and far between.

The only way I could explore my new fascination was to accumulate CD recordings of weird and wonderful music from my nearest Virgin Megastore (no internet yet!). I would save up money from my various jobs as a gigging musician with lounge Jazz groups, Country and Western bands and Elvis impersonators and spend it at the weekend on expensive US and Japanese imports of whatever I could get my hands on. I would come away with recordings by Steve Reich, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Zorn, Louis Andriessen and others, often not even knowing what I was buying was going to sound like. This was of course a hit and miss process and I didn’t always like what I ended up with, but it was a good contrast to my Sonic Youth albums and I did enjoy the thrill of discovering something new.

While it’s true that most of the time the experience of a live performance is hard to beat, the reality is that many people simply won’t get a chance to hear a lot of avant garde or experimental contemporary music in a live context due to their geographical location. For me the access to good quality recordings was a real blessing, a chance to escape to another exotic world outside of my politically charged and often parochial environment. This access was a lifeline for my musical curiosity.

The release of my new recording ‘My Broken Machines’ on NMC sparked this reflection on the importance of good quality recordings (both in terms of sound quality and performance). It’s a chance for me to get more of my music out there and hopefully for others to discover it in some far-flung region of the world in the way that I did as a teenager back in N Ireland.

When you undertake a recording project like this it heightens your awareness of just how much work goes in to these things, not just in terms of composing, but in terms of organisation, rehearsal, performance, recording, editing, producing, mastering, artwork etc. I still buy recordings as regularly as I did then, both in CD format and as downloads. I’m sure I could probably search online for dodgy free version but at the end of the day these things cost time and money to produce and if we want this curious and wonderful music to keep coming we have to keep supporting it by buying it.

There are so many amazing recordings of contemporary classical music available that it is impossible for me to make a definitive list, but what I have listed are some fantastic recent recordings I have been listening to by these amazing and explorative composers and performers.

Ed Bennett's top 10 contemporary classical recordings

1. Alarm Will Sound A/Rhythmia
Alarm Will Sound / Alan Pierson (Nonesuch 467708-2) Amazon

2. Richard Ayres NONcertos
Asko Ensemble/ Roland Kluttig (NMC D162) NMC

3. Oscar Bettison O Death
Ensemble Klang (Klang) Amazon - download

4. Laurence Crane 20th Century Music
Michael Finnissy (MSV28506) Amazon - download

5. Joe Cutler Music for Cello and Strings
Robin Michael, BBC Concert Orchestra (NMC D134) NMC

6. Donnacha Dennehy Elastic Harmonic
NSOI, Darragh Morgan etc (NMC D133) NMC

7. Annie Gosfield Lost Signals and Drifting Satelites
Flux Quartet etc (Tzadik TZ8007) Amazon

8. Yannis Kyriakides Antichamber
Various (Unsounds U21) Amazon - download

9. Barbara Lueneburg Weapon of Choice
Works for violin, electronics and visual media (DVD - Ahornfelder AH21)
Released on July 15 (find out more)

10. Noszferatu Drempel
Noszferatu (NMC D166) NMC

This is the third in Gramophone's series of blogs by guest NMC artists - read blogs by Colin Matthews and Mark Simpson

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