A rock gui­tarist’s suc­cess­ful de­tours into clas­si­cal

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY THOMAS HUIZENGA MU­SIC FOR­WOOD AND STRINGS Bryce Dess­ner, So Per­cus­sion Brass­land

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.

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