A rock guitarist’s successful detours into classical
Bryce Dessner is best known as a guitarist for the indie rock band the National, but that may soon be eclipsed by his steady rise in the world of contemporary classical music. In May alone, Dessner’s orchestral score, “Quilting,” was premiered by conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; he curated a festival of new American music in London; and he released an album of his piece “Music for Wood and Strings,” performed by the ensemble So Percussion.
Not content simply to compose a new work for the adventuresome percussion quartet, Dessner came up with a new instrument, too. The “chordstick” is a cross between a hammered dulcimer and an electric guitar, according to Dessner, who collaborated on the design with Aron Sanchez, the instrument builder behind the experimental rock duo Buke and Gase.
The So Percussion players use a combination of pencils, violin bows and mallets to achieve a surprisingly broad variety of sounds from the set of four chord sticks. Built in various sizes, one of the larger instruments features a fretted string for laying down rock-inflected bass lines.
“Music for Wood and Strings,” a suite of nine continuous sections commissioned by and premiered at Carnegie Hall, opens with the serenity of an Indian raga. The bowed chord sticks have an uncanny resemblance to a tamboura, the drone instrument of classical Indian music. But as soon as that sound evaporates, the chord sticks are energetically hammered in away that makes a listener wish that Steve Reich would write a piece for the Hungarian cimbalom.
Some sections act as tranquil interludes, foils to rowdier episodes thickened with ancillary drums. Then there’s Section Five, which pulls out all the chordstick stops. It’s the frenzied Scherzo of the piece where shimmering minimalist figurations commingle with a woodblock in extremis and a prog rock groove that would not sound out of place on a Yes album.
At 35 minutes, it’s arguable that the piece might be stretching its limits. Still, on repeated hearings it’s commendable how satisfying a quartet of chord sticks can sound. Chalk that up, in large part, to the imaginative musicality and can-do spirit of So Percussion.
Unlike some rockers who turn to classical, Dessner earned a master’s degree at the Yale School of Music and played flute and classical guitar before forming the National in 1999. With fellow indie rockers Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Dessner personifies what appears to be a generational shift in musicians, comfortably straddling the worlds of rock, jazz and classical music.
“Music for Wood and Strings” is proof that Dessner’s taste for experimentation outside indie rock is steadily becoming the more interesting side of his genre-blind personality.
Huizenga is a freelance writer.