Bryce Dessner & Jonny Greenwood: St Carolyn by the Sea / There Will Be Blood Suite

Bryce Dessner

Bryce Dessner & Jonny Greenwood: St Carolyn by the Sea / There Will Be Blood Suite 

By Matt F

In mid 2013, Nonesuch released an album featuring compositions by Bryce Dessner. A little research revealed that Dessner was the guitar player from the rock band The National, but that he had initially been interested in classical and found that more mainstream music paid the bills. The disc featured none other than the Kronos Quartet, an ensemble known for their adventurousness and they gave the young composer a premier worthy of praise. Now, not to slight the Kronos’ adventurousness, but I didn’t think much would come of young Dessner beyond that recording. It wasn’t because it wasn’t good, it was impressive even (more so to the fact that the Kronos Quartet will often play compositions by fringe composers who have little access to the mainstream than any reflection on the music). So when a poster came into work from Deutsche Grammaphone featuring Bryce Dessner mere months later, a firm mental note was taken. Furthermore, Dessner, an upstart in the classical music world from as far as I know, was top billed above Jonny Greenwood, who has come into fame both as lead guitarist for Radiohead and for his striking films scores, including music to There Will Be Blood and The Master. The idea that Dessner got top billing said something to me, that the yellow label clearly saw something in his pieces that they believed in; this was clear to me before I even listened to the disc.

Upon actually taking the time to sit down and listen to it, all my suspicions were confirmed. To say that Dessner is the heir to any throne, say, Arvo Part or John Adams, wouldn’t quite capture what his music does; he isn’t the heir to the throne, he’s going to usurp it. There’s more to his music than just emotion (which even if there wasn’t that would be good enough), but he has brains. He has an ear for acoustics, he has musical instinct and he isn’t afraid to take a risk.

Prior to the 20th century, volume could only be achieved in numbers, if you wanted it loud you had to get more people. The achievement of electric instruments changed that, now an amplified voice or instrument can sound as loud or as full as an orchestra. Dessner acknowledges the difference and knows that volume doesn’t diminish power; his compositions organically fuse the traditional symphony orchestra with electric guitars in such a way that in all my travels through electro-acoustic soundscapes, I’ve never heard something so convincing.

Arvo Part is a good jumping off point for his music, Dessner may be lachrymose and solemn much of the time, but it isn’t melancholy or dreadful. What strikes me most is how musical he is. Sometimes, especially with so-called “crossover” acts, it sounds so labored even Philip Glass or Steve Reich often sound put-off when forced to write something that isn’t purely what their muses inspire. However, Dessner sounds very natural; the long form composition suits him well. Tight and compact, but expansive and expressive, like Richard Strauss, Dvorak or Sibelius with their tone poems; this isn’t quite a symphony so they could let their hair down, but they still have all the tools in order to not hold back.

The capper on the disc is a suite from Jonny Greenwood, featuring the score to There Will Be Blood. However, in the great tradition of film score composers making their music into orchestral suites, Greenwood has unified his score into a wholly satisfying treat. While I would’ve preferred a premiere recording, as I’ve listened to and absorbed the superb There Will Be Blood score for many a year now, it’s by no means a burden to listen to something you adore and admire over again.

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Kronos Quartet plays music by Bryce Dessner “Aheym”

bryce

Kronos Quartet plays music by Bryce Dessner

Aheym

By Matt F.

Although I earnestly attempt not to hold any predisposed opinions concerning classical music, I’m still immediately weary of so-called crossover acts, particularly rock stars trying their hand at long form composition. In the grand scheme of things the late Jon Lord, keyboardist for Deep Purple, was really the only composer/rock star who straddled both world with any authority,  although Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is showing serious promise.

Then there’s Bryce Dessner, guitarist/composer for The National, a band whose appreciation for classical music isn’t audible to my ears, but then again I couldn’t hear it with The Beatles either. Here he’s teamed up with the Kronos Quartet which lends him some legitimacy, but not by any means a guarantee. The opening piece “Aheym” leads with the type of energy associated with rock acts, and when I listened to it in the open air of the store it sounded like a pretty straightforward post-Philip Glass-ian string quartet. However, when I took it home and listened to it in more intimate quarters, I found myself not only surprised by the richness of complexity I had missed in my previous listens, but that it was complex in a very classical sense. The album is imbued with strong notions of traditional harmony and rigorous counterpoint, but it sounds neither like an intellectual exercise nor someone following a compositional textbook note for note.

I almost wrote off the piece “Tenebre” entirely after about 15 seconds in because it was so derivative of Steve Reich. However, upon taking the time to read the linear notes, I was quickly informed that the piece was commissioned for a festival celebrating the influence of Steve Reich on the occasion of his 75th birthday. My opinion quickly changed and instead of thinking him to be a copycat-hack I now believe him to be a talented, compositional chameleon.

Has Bryce Dessner completely changed my opinion of rocker/composer crossovers? Hardly. Has he nudged it in the direction of thinking that there may yet be hope for more Deep Purple keyboardists in the world? Lord knows.