In a year when the borders between art and everything else continued to grow ever more porous and open to potentiality, followers of art-adjacent music (and vice-versa) had much to appreciate. Historical examples lived on to show that the past was in many ways even more open and adventurous than the present, and then some contemporary happenings suggested we have a lot to look forward to in the future still. Herewith, some of 2021’s most treasured offerings in the realm of artful music (and musicful art).
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes’s impressionistic documentary about the multimedia incubation station that was the Velvet Underground did a dutiful job of showing how the band was more than just a band. The music they made still boggles the mind for how singular it was and, in many ways, continues to be. But Haynes also panned back in impressive fashion to show the group’s prismatic practice in an expanded field. Concerts with light shows that were as inventive as the music they conjured and live soundtracks to spazz-outs of different kinds at Andy Warhol’s Factory were all part the Velvet Underground’s world—and what a world it was.
Don + Moki Cherry at Blank Forms
The formidable life-and-art partnership between Don and Moki Cherry was the subject of a jewel-box gallery show in Brooklyn as well as a 500-page book full of research and interpretation of an intermedia practice that included Don’s expansive jazz and Moki’s visions in paintings, textiles, and more. Both were the work of Blank Forms, a roaming curatorial platform that opened both a gallery and a performance space this year—promising much more to come.
Fred Moten at Vision Festival
The first concert I saw after more than a year of pining for live-music experiences was a special night at the long-running Vision Festival, which this year took over Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. All Vision Festival nights are special, but this night, celebrating the festival’s 25th year, included especially great group interplay by Fly or Die and the David Murray Octet Revival—plus a choice trio featuring bassist Brendon Lopez, drummer Gerald Cleaver, and the great Fred Moten. Many in the art world know Moten for his field-expanding writing in catalogues and publications of different kinds, but his on-stage incarnation tapped his far-ranging spirit as a poet by reading verses that seemed to be a mix of improvisations and invocations of words that had been waiting around to be spoken/sung for far too long.
Jónsi at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
As the lead singer and sometimes guitar-bower for the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, Jónsi has made a wealth of otherworldly music since breaking out in the late 1990s. But he made a big move as an artist of different kind this year with a gallery show in New York at Tanya Bonakdar, a gallery that first showed his work in Los Angeles in 2019. Sculptures communed with sound, as did wall works that could be called paintings (with speakers hidden beneath their surfaces). And most of it was suffused with scents of Jónsi’s own devising—making for a multi-sensory experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
Sun Ra poetry books from Corbett vs. Dempsey
Few cultural figures of any kind are worthy of as much sustained attention as has been paid to the interstellar jazz visionary Sun Ra, who still deserves to be known more fully to all of us. The Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey helped in the service of that by mounting an exhibition and publishing four books of Ra’s poetry (Jazz By Sun Ra, Jazz In Silhouette, The Immeasurable Equation, and Extensions Out: The Immeasurable Equation Vol. II) in facsimile editions that preserved the homegrown, homespun manner in which he issued some of the most far-out ideas of his—or any other—time.
La Monte Young re-release bonanza
The number of certified and accessible (read: not bootlegged or long out-of-print) La Monte Young recordings available to the minimalism-inclined public went up by many percent this year, beginning with several landmarks works put up on digital form on Bandcamp and, then, earlier this month, with a 4-LP vinyl box set released by the Dia Art Foundation in tribute to Young’s 1958 composition Trio for Strings. The opportunity to hear music of Young’s—especially his monumental The Well-Tuned Piano in the Magenta Lights “87 V 10 6:43:00 PM — 87 V 11 1:07:45 AM NYC”—in hi-fi form is a real blessing.
We lost many a fertile musical mind this year—too many to pay suitable tribute. But among the toughest of the tough news came early, in January, when word came down that the electronic-music maker and muse Sophie died in an accident in Greece, at the young age of 34. Milford Graves passed in February, at the age of 79—and in the midst of some much-deserved art-world attention around exhibitions of his work at ICA Philadelphia and Artists Space in New York. And December has been particularly dark, as the avant-garde composer Alvin Lucier died at 90 (anybody who has yet to hear his tape/text piece I Am Sitting in a Room should do so ASAP), and Greg Tate passed at 64 (the editors of ARTnews were lucky to get to publish Tate on occasion in recent years). Here’s to lives well-lived—and all the kinds of influence that remain to be made manifest.