Music critics often get mistaken for interior decorators of the intangible, or sommeliers of sound — able to set the scene or select the perfect accompaniment for any occasion. And sure, there is no doubt, it’s a thing we do.
In that spirit — and since we’re feeling all inaugural — please find below the first-ever class of 21 for ’21.
Some of these composers and performers are just launching their careers; others are well along in their work. But each has found some sort of special resonance in the right-now (i.e. my headphones), and I’ll be following their lead in the year to come.
These 21 (as well as the many composers and performers linked throughout this list) represent an array of approaches, identities, experiences and, most of all, exciting ways of imagining what our future together sounds like.
Stuck at home, Brooklyn-based Andres, 35, did what many did in 2020: set up a tripod. Nine months later, his YouTube channel is stocked with lucidly realized performances of works by Ned Rorem, Ann Southam and Igor Stravinsky (an impressive piano transcription of his “Symphonies of Wind Instruments”). I keep returning to Andres’s own “House Work,” a clarinet quintet composed for the Pogossian Family and charged with all of the tension and ease of a living room quarantine. On March 21, the Phillips Collection will present Andres with violinist Rachel Lee Priday in a live-streamed program that includes a new violin sonata by Christopher Cerrone (see below). andres.com.
After seven studio albums, the multi-instrumentalist duo of Michael A. Muller, 41, and Rob Lowe, 36, makes its Deutsche Grammophon debut in April with “The Wind.” A set of arid, expansive, Americana-tinted meditations on the natural world, it’s also a proper showcase of the duo’s skill in treating distance and intimacy like timbres and textures. The recording is vast and open, yet private — a big Texas sunrise caught in the sway of some curtains. balmorheamusic.com.
Cerrone, 36, struck back at the pandemic with percussive wit: “Don’t Look Down,” composed for pianist Conor Hanick and Sandbox Percussion, was partly inspired by Wile E. Coyote. But he also reached for poetry: “The Pieces That Fall to Earth” enlisted soprano Lindsay Kesselman and L.A. ensemble Wild Up for luminous settings of poems by Kay Ryan, James Wright and Bill Knott. This month, Hub New Music premiered “New Addresses,” Cerrone’s setting of poems by New York School underdog Kenneth Koch. And “Beaufort Scales” — a forthcoming collaboration with Lorelei Ensemble — incorporates lines from Melville, Teju Cole and Anne Carson. christophercerrone.com.
Cuong, 30, says he loves “centering pieces around unexpected or whimsical elements, like honky oboe multiphonics, clinking wine glasses, or scraping plastic combs.” But the Atlanta-based composer — a former early-career musician-in-residence at Dumbarton Oaks — constructs swirling worlds around these winks (see: “RE(NEW)AL,” a percussion concerto on clean energy that he wrote for Sandbox Pecussion). In 2021, Cuong will premiere “Next Week’s Trees,” the first work to come from his three-year residency with the California Symphony, and later in the year, Eighth Blackbird and the U.S. Navy Band will premiere his concerto “Vital Sines.” vietcuongmusic.com.
The Philadelphia-based composer, 29, has employed facial mapping and tracking to turn an ensemble of laptops into a voiceless choir. She’s also turned pianos into ersatz printers that plot out new scores across long scrolls of fabric. But Cunningham’s indulgence in technology never dulls the humanity of her music. If anything, it heightens it, as in “We are the same as we have always been,” a silken solo work for bass clarinet and electronics. Or “ska jag också bli gammal?,” a 2019 chamber work “inspired by watching a young boy on the Stockholm metro realize that he would one day grow old.” flannerycunningham.com.
The L.A.-based pianist and composer, 37, creates music that doesn’t so much blur the line between Indian and Western traditions but allows them to naturally reflect and refract each other. Her “Piano Trio” — with raagas uncoiling through each movement — makes a particularly alluring example, while “Zeher (Poison),” from Brooklyn Rider’s most recent album, “Healing Modes,” an instantly arresting one. In March, the Seattle Symphony will debut her “Sitar Concerto.” reenaesmail.com.
“As I am visually-impaired, sounds show me my environment,” writes composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Faizullina, 32, in the program notes to “Bolghar” — a shimmering orchestral work centered on the quray (a Tatar folk instrument akin to a penny whistle). This musical environment, it turns out, is vast and varied, encompassing memory and imagination — as showcased in “Drops and Ripples,” her elastic and evocative contribution to Tesla Quartet’s Alternating Currents series, or her own four-movement suite of “Tatar Folk Tales.” “We have to take care of our heritage for the future,” Faizullina writes. “We never know what’s going to happen.” adeliiacomposer.com.
Originally from Washington and now based in New York City, Figgis-Vizueta, 27, knocked my comfiest socks off during the quarantine with “Music for Transitions,” a raw, scraping yet soaring solo piece commissioned and premiered by cellist Andrew Yee. Since then, I’ve been hooked: The Julius Eastman-inspired “Openwork, Knotted Object”; the haunting “No Words” for clarinet and electronics; the “reaching sap-slow toward sky” thriller of “Placemaking” — her music feels sprouted between structures, liberated from certainty and wrought from a language we’d do well to learn. Coming in 2021 are commissions for the JACK quartet and North Carolina-based ensemble earspace. inticomposes.com.
The fierce 24-year-old New York-based violinist — a protege of Itzhak Perlman — is a big reason I’m so eager for live music to return (fingers crossed) in 2021. Listen to his recent run through Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 for Violin and Piano (often referred to as the “Kreutzer,” though originally dedicated to Black violinist George Bridgetower) and you’ll hear why. This spring he’ll release his Decca debut, a selection from more than a century of violin works by Black composers, including William Grant Still and Florence Price, as well as new work by Xavier Foley, a fellow Sphinx artist (where Goosby was the youngest winner of the junior division). Goosby will appear with pianist Zhu Wang as part of a Young Concert Artist recital on April 7. randallgoosby.com.
The 28-year-old guitarist (and Wild Up member) from Tempe, Ariz., is not interested in easy. Her forthcoming album, “UNBOUND!,” recruits eight composers from Australia, Brazil, Iceland, Latvia and the United States to create “virtuosic” solo guitar works for her to hammer through — and she delivers. A pair of mesmerizing performances — of “Cor” by Krists Auznieks (with whom she’s working to premiere an electric guitar piece at Sinfonietta Riga this spring) and Gulli Bjornsson’s “Dynjandi” — are among the available teasers. And if difficulty isn’t your thing, you’ll find it easy to fall into a Jiji YouTube wormhole; start with her leading the ASU Symphony Orchestra in a stirring account of Hilary Purrington’s “Harp of Nerves.” jijiguitar.com.
I’m admittedly late to the Pekka party. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I picked up on Kuusisto, 44, as one of the players in Nico Muhly’s “Throughline” (commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony). Since then, I’ve been playing a delightful game of catch-up, listening to him play everyone from, of course, Sibelius (he was the first Fin to win the Sibelius violin competition in 1995) to Bach to Bryce Dessner. This month, Sono Luminus will release “Occurrence,” a recording by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra featuring Kuusisto leading the violin concerto that Daniel Bjarnason wrote for him. And in May, he’ll lead the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in the U.K. premiere of Muhly’s “Shrink.” harrisonparrott.com/artists/pekka-kuusisto.
Last year the 24-year-old nonbinary composer and multi-instrumentalist wrote a stunner of a quartet — “Neutral Objects” — for National Sawdust’s ongoing Digital Discovery Festival. And “Firn,” their kinetic entry to Sawdust’s 2019 Hildegard Competition, earned an instant bookmark in my browser. But lately I’ve been more obsessed with their experiments in smuggling vaporwave vibes into a double-bass solo and trap tropes into vocal music. Lancaster seems to have multiple idioms at their disposal, ready to drag and drop them together into new forms (and the occasional Fleet Foxes cover). yaz-lancaster.com.
The Puerto Rican native and Brooklyn-based composer and multi-instrumentalist, 39, works with field recordings, found sounds, robots, vegetables and [insert anything here]. “Marejada,” a piece commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and composed specifically for video conferencing software, incorporates the imperfect synchronicity of Zoom into an escapist meditation on contemporary togetherness. “Estela” channels the electrical biorhythms of a humble houseplant to trigger chattering samples of pots and pans. There’s not a limit Negrón can’t limn into music. Premieres are in the works with the LA Philharmonic, Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra. angelicanegron.com.
The 29-year-old pianist and composer (and Ensemble Decipher member) first popped up on my desktop as a contributor to the Library of Congress’s pandemic-response Boccaccio Project. Her entry, “A Shared Solitary” — a searing solo work for violin and electronics, performed by Jannina Norpoth of the PUBLIQuartet — felt like a line drawing of a far more complex musical universe. Sure enough, Nourbakhsh’s fascination with electroacoustic and virtual space is matched by her sensitivity to history and identity. “We the Innumerable,” her forthcoming one-act opera with librettist Lisa Flanagan, is directly inspired by real events from Iran’s Green movement. niloufarnourbakhsh.com.
Little birds in my inbox informed me that the Minneapolis pianist and composer and performance artist, 39, is “as approachable and unassuming as she seems to be fiercely focused on creating new, uncompromising work — regardless of who’s listening.” The little birds were right. “Tida,” for instance, is a masterfully envisioned interdisciplinary work combining dance, music, text and even a recipe for her mom’s Thai rice soup into a captivating investigation of Prescott’s maternal heritage and our American life. And a haunting aria from “Alma” — the working title of an opera in development — feels like a bright light cast forward, regardless of who’s looking. mary-prescott.com.
A few weeks before the pandemic shut everything down, Shore, 45, finally saw the premiere — nine years in the making — of his opera “Freedom Ride,” directed by Tazewell Thompson and conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya, at the Chicago Opera Theatre. No full recording exists online yet, but you can find Dara Rahming, Chauncey Packer, Ivan Griffin and the New Orleans Black Chorale performing excerpts with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería, as well as selected scenes performed by MassOpera. Shore is now working on arranging field recordings of Yiddish folk songs made by ethnomusicologist Ruth Rubin into works for soprano and piano for an April virtual premiere through the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. danshoremusic.com.
Sirota, 38, is a talented solo violist and a member of the forward-pushing sextet yMusic. But she’s also known as a force of broadcasting. She was the host of the Peabody Award-winning podcast “Meet the Composer”; during the pandemic she launched “Living Music: Pirate Radio Edition,” a “quick and dirty” video series on Facebook; and she serves as the New York Philharmonic’s Creative Partner, helping to create its Nightcap and Sound ON series, as well as helping to produce Ellen Reid’s “Soundwalk,” which is set to migrate from Central Park to L.A.’s Griffith Park in February. As both artist and amplifier, Sirota is worth tuning into. nadiasirota.com.
Derrick Spiva Jr.
I was first drawn to the music of this 38-year-old composer, conductor and performer through “Hum.” It’s a wandering solo work (performed for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra by cellist Giovanna Moraga Clayton) that in its meditative course seems to trace a line through the wide spread of traditions Spiva draws from as an American with Ghanaian, Nigerian, British, Irish and Native American ancestry. (A fuller picture develops in Spiva’s string quartet “American Mirror.”) On Jan. 29, LACO will premiere two Spiva works, “Mind the Rhythm” for electronics and amplified violin, and “Mother of Bravery” for chamber ensemble. derrickspiva.com.
Darian Donovan Thomas
The Brooklyn-based composer and performer, 27, creates works that blur traditions and materials. I’m lately obsessed with Thomas’s works for strings and electronics (such as “Wings” and “Fluid,” both from 2016). But recent projects find him further expanding his vision and vernacular: “Soft Encounter” is a multimedia collaboration with singer Ganayva Doraiswamy, mrudangam artist Rajna Swaminathan and dancer Liana Kleinman. And “Kid Gunner Brother” finds Thomas coding a critique of gun culture into a playground hand game, using rhythm and repetition to disarm it, a la “Ring Around the Rosie”: “dark in origin,” Thomas writes, “but inconsequential in the present.” darianthomas.myportfolio.com.
My first encounter with the 34-year-old bass baritone from Raleigh, N.C., was his mortarboard-tilting performance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice” from Harvard’s 2019 commencement. Since then, Tines’s voice soars more surely each time I hear it, which, one day, I hope, might be in an actual room. But the power of his voice has impact well beyond the walls of the halls: His “VIGIL” for Breonna Taylor — created in collaboration with Matthew Aucoin, Igée Dieudonné and Conor Hanick — casts the light of his voice as a path for listeners to follow toward a direct call for anti-racist action. Until Feb. 1, you can stream the Vocal Arts DC presentation of Tines’s “Recital No. 1: MASS,” which includes premieres from Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Tyshawn Sorey. youtube.com/user/dtines.
Last year, Wang, 39, released one of my favorite albums of the weird, weird year: “An Atlas of Time,” a collection of pieces composed between 2008 and 2017 (and the follow-up to 2018’s “Urban Inventory”). A single title from the collection — “Unbreathable Colors” — may indeed tell you more than any blurb could about Wang’s approach to time and sound, unbound by language or expectation, and here and there so fragile it’s as if your attention alone is holding it together. In June, she’ll premiere a work for Philadelphia-based choir the Crossing. wanglucomposer.com.
An earlier version of this article misidentified a musical instrument in a piece by Yaz Lancaster. It is a double bass, not a cello. The story has been updated.