PRINT December 2009

Music: Best of 2009

Stephen Prina

Publicity photograph for Damon & Naomi for their album The Sub Pop Years, New York City, 1997. Photo: David Corio.


1 Louis Andriessen, Workers Union (Ojai Music Festival at the Libbey Bowl, Ojai, CA) Beneath a canopy of stars, a small mixed ensemble begins a propulsive melody of fixed rhythm and approximate pitch. Gradually, more and more musicians come forward, until nearly everyone who’s taken the stage all weekend joins in a thunderous culmination of the festival, forcefully drifting off into the moist California deep.

2 Scott Benzel, Blak Bloc for String Quartet and Feedback (Numero Deux) A pulse, the product of emphatic bowing, is the field across which small differences play out and weave about extended tones. When something like melody appears, an ascension counters an act of grounding in the bass to cleave a space down the center of this tenuous but ravishing body, making way for a wash of—a concerto for—feedback.

3 Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) (Wilbur Theatre, Boston) Oldham delivers the most captivating rock show I’ve cared to witness in, like, forever. Yes, his stadium-size gestures translate all the way to the back of the house, but he never jeopardizes the tender nuances by which he and his cohorts give shape to the rude indelicacies and circumspection of modern lives.

4 Damon & Naomi, The Sub Pop Years (20/20/20) Intimacy: These liltingly guileless tracks are a testament to the rapport that two people may achieve over time with their audience. Manufactured intimacy: A “studio” version of the album Live in San Sebastian, overlaid with applause lifted from a live-show bootleg, does nothing to mitigate this aforementioned affect. Miraculous.

5 David Grubbs, An Optimist Notes the Dusk (Drag City) Tracing an arc from through-composed folk song to guitar-trio rave-up to the whisper of a drone, a clear, simple device effectively serves not only as a structure for this album but also as a parallel, a reminder, of a singularly focused career in music.

6 Carmen Linares, Raíces y Alas (Salobre) After a lengthy absence, Carmen Linares, a magisterial voice of flamenco, returns to sing the poetry of Juan Ramón Jiménez to the riveting compositions and guitar of Juan Carlos Romero. That such staggering innovation might be achieved while being so thoroughly rooted in tradition could serve as an example to many.

7 Sharon Lockhart, LUNCH BREAK (Assembly Hall, Bath Iron Works, November 5, 2007, Bath, Maine) At stake in this film from 2008 is the way the sound track is coupled with the image. Footage of an interminably long hallway in a Maine shipyard has been digitally slowed to one-eighth its original speed. Composer Ernst Karel recorded sound on location and likewise extended the duration by a multiple of eight. Then Becky Allen and James Benning designed a sound track, augmenting Karel’s basic material with samples from Led Zeppelin along with electronically generated sound—is that the factory I hear, or a synth?—to exert a pressure at once suspenseful and deferred.

8 Olivier Messiaen, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Symphony Hall, Boston) When the battery of gongs unites in a massive crescendo, the sheer visceral power summoned live in a concert hall throws down the gauntlet before any tower of electrified amplification.

The Wooster Group, La Didone, 2008. Performance view, St. Ann’s Warehouse, New York, April 17, 2009. Photo: Paula Court.

9 Dmitri Shostakovich, The Nose, performed by Opera Boston (Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston) For those who missed the taut, acerbic New England premiere of this speak-truth-to-power production—an “anarchist grenade”—you can catch a version this season at the Met.

10 The Wooster Group, La Didone (St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, and REDCAT, Los Angeles) Although some would beg to differ, the Wooster Group produces today’s classical art. Elizabeth LeCompte has led her company to align La Didone, the 1641 opera, with Mario Bava’s 1965 film known to English-speaking audiences as Planet of the Vampires; what results is not a collision of worlds but a techno fabric built on reciprocity, arriving at a how-could-it-be-otherwise resolve. The video camera has, indeed and finally, become a pencil in their hands.

Stephen Prina is a visual artist and musician who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles. He will stage solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in 2010 and at Fondazione Galleria Civica-Centro di Ricerca Sulla Contemporaneità di Trento and Kölnischer Kunstverein in 2011.