Chicago is in the midst of a revolution in contemporary classical music, with young artists taking matters into their own hands and forming bold, forward-looking groups rather than waiting for that elusive symphony job. Northwestern, DePaul, and the University of Chicago have been producing a dazzling number of fearless composers and hungry, open-minded musicians. The following five albums, presented in no particular order, feature some of the greatest talents.
Spektral Quartet, Chambers (Parlour Tapes)
The members of the Spektral Quartet have remarkable technique and keen imaginations, but their marketing savvy contributes just as much to their success—they organize programs that intelligently collide classics by the likes of Britten, Ravel, and Haydn with starkly modern contemporary work (with a focus on locals). The group sticks exclusively to Chicago-based composers on its fantastic debut album; it features fine work by Eliza Brown and Chris Fisher-Lochhead, among others, and it's named after a three-movement piece by Marcos Balter. I'm especially fond of Liza White's "Zin Zin Zin Zin," inspired by a spontaneous phrase Mos Def dropped on "Double Trouble" (a track he made with the Roots), but everything here is fantastic—including the thorny moodiness in Hans Thomalla's "Albumblatt" and the ferocious constellations of tempo-shifting sawing and strummed double stops in Ben Hjertmann's String Quartet no. 2 Etude.
Ryan Muncy, Hot (New Focus)
Ryan Muncy, executive director of fearless new-music group Ensemble dal Niente and member of the all-saxophone Anubis Quartet, has been a party to the performance or commissioning of more than 100 new works for saxophone—an instrument that remains on the periphery of new music. On his dazzling solo debut, Hot, he continues to fight the good fight: with only one exception, its diverse saxophone pieces were composed in the current century. A series of bracing duets shows off the instrument's versatility and freakish extended range as well as its delicacy and refinement. The album includes compositions by Georges Aperghis, Chaya Czernowin, and Marcos Balter; Muncy duets with violist Nadia Sirota, harpist Ben Melsky, and flutist Claire Chase, and on the Franco Donatoni title piece he's accompanied by Ensemble dal Niente.
Chicago's premier percussion ensemble tackles a commission from Augusta Read Thomas, formerly a Mead Composer-in-Residence with the CSO and now a professor at the University of Chicago. The four-movement Resounding Earth is built around the ringing, tinkling, and clanging of bells (though lots of other metal percussion turns up as well), with tones both terse and sustained. The CD comes with a DVD shot while the group recorded the work, which gives you a look at the meticulous integration required by the score—all four Third Coast members stay feverishly busy weaving together the music's layers of rude impacts and serene resonances.
Olivia Block, Karren (Sedimental)
Much of Olivia Block's finest work has combined field recordings, electronics, and live instrumentation, but recently she's been veering toward composed work—at a concert this fall, she presented several impressive pieces for strings. On her landmark album Karren, though, she favors the older approach. The dynamically wide-ranging electroacoustic piece "Foramen Magnum" sets sounds lifted from rehearsals by the Chicago Composers Orchestra within turbulent, unidentifiable field recordings made at the San Diego Zoo and Portugal's Serralves Contemporary Art Museum. "Opening Night" prominently features the CCO playing long tones and huge swells in kaleidoscopic harmony, clouding the sound field so thickly it's hard to know what's going on. Disorientation is rarely so delicious.
Janice Misurell-Mitchell, Vanishing Points (Southport)
Composer and flutist Janice Misurell-Mitchell, codirector of long-running ensemble CUBE, represents the old guard of Chicago's new-music community. But her latest portrait album proves that there's nothing outdated or musty about her work. On the aptly titled Agitacion, vibraphone and drum kit alternately intersect and propel Winston Choi and Abraham Stokman's jagged piano lines, and "Dark Was the Night," performed by guitarist Maria Vittoria Jedlowski, takes inspiration from the Blind Willie Johnson classic referenced in its title, and its bracing, splintery gestures owe as much to Derek Bailey as to the blues.