Life, death and cosmic jazz
Jóhann Jóhannsson was proving himself to be Hollywood’s most fascinating and effective soundtrack writer when he died this year, aged only 48. There have already been three very different posthumous soundtrack releases. Mary Magdalene is a respectful, stately score, written with Hildur Guðnadóttir; The Mercy is more strident and more highly textured; while his soundtrack to Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic horror movie Mandy is perhaps the most interesting. It’s a piece of dark orchestral gothic that harks back to the post-punk and electronica world from which Jóhannsson emerged.
His death came in a year when many pioneers of contemporary music were making superb, groundbreaking albums as senior citizens. Lonnie
Holley’s MITH saw the 68-year-old Afrofuturist forging links between plantation chants and space-age electronica. Landfall saw Laurie Anderson, aged 71, narrating the effects of Hurricane Sandy in her quizzical, meditative voice, while the Kronos Quartet’s shivery, ominous string arrangements brought her nightmarish visions to life. Listening to Pictures saw sound sculptor
Jon Hassell still pushing at musical boundaries at the age of 81, burying his FX-laden trumpet under layers of African drums, distorted choirs and ambient drones.
Meanwhile the new album by the 70-year-old Ukrainian-born pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, Fallen Trees, is filled with what he calls “continuous music” – his rattling, rolling, RSI-inducing piano arpeggios, which sound like a high-speed typist rattling through the same sentence over and over again.
Melnyk’s labelmate Nils Frahm sold out huge arenas globally this year, while his LP All Melody saw him welding string sections, glitchy electronic burps and filtered disco beats to his muted piano solos. Some of the most interesting music this year explored similar fusions. Bristol outfit Mesadorm are fronted by Blythe Pepino, and their LP Heterogaster saw her soulful electronic and piano-led miniatures given grand and ethereal orchestrations by a band featuring cellist Jo Silverston, drummer Daisy Palmer and producer Aaron Zahl. A similarly spooky orchestral fusion came from Minneapolis quintet Poliça, fronted by singer Channy Leaneagh. Their album Music for the Long Emergency saw them collaborate with Berlin-based chamber orchestra Stargaze, whose icy, shivery strings added emotional heft.