While his day job as guitarist with the National remains, Bryce Dessner's reputation as a contemporary composer is continuing to gather strength. Over the years, he has managed to become successful playing in a pop band while expanding his horizons by writing contemporary classical music. After all, he has studied classical guitar, flute, and composition at Yale University and holds a master's degree. He is a musician who seemingly cannot sit still, and his plethora of projects and curated festivals are proof of that.
Dessner's debut album titled Aheym
(ANTI, 2013) was a collaboration with Kronos Quartet, who commissioned the work. In its long and illustrious career, this renowned string quartet has commissioned around 800 new works from contemporary composers including John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Henryk Górecki, and Astor Piazzolla
, which says a lot about Dessner's standing in the pantheon of contemporary music. Over the years, renowned classical orchestras have regularly commissioned his work and he has provided orchestrations for pop stars such as Taylor Swift, Bon Iver, and Paul Simon.
a collaboration with the Australian String Quartet and Sydney Dance Company, further explores the possibilities of writing for strings. Dessner was initially inspired by the tragedy of the Notre Dame fire in Paris and the Australian bushfires that ravaged the country. Those fires introduced the "inferno" that 2020 proved to be. COVID-19 then struck the world four days before the premiere of this work in March 2020 and postponed its premiere. The work was premiered in February 2021, in Sydney.
From these disasters, Dessner weaves a compelling story. The emotional force of Impermanence/Disintegration
is apparent on first hearing it. The composer is attempting to express the inexpressible through this music, and there is no denying Dessner's ability to convey deep, dark, and sorrowful emotions through art music. This is evident from the opening composition, "Alarms," where the cello becomes the dominant line providing rhythmic interest with swirling lines that disrupt the flow and instill a sense of urgency and yearning. Dense inner lines wave with contrapuntal intricacy for a sense of raw musicality.
This music thrives in performances of individuality and character, and the Australian String Quartet has that in abundance. There is an emphasis on musical subtlety and emotional depth throughout. On compositions such as "Disintegration "and "Embers," the players bring off the melodic lyricism that is soaked in sadness. The compositions are slowly evolving, and the players illuminate the poetics of each work in its proper light. This is music that arrives at its sophistication naturally. It boasts a more multi-dimensional atmosphere and depth with a richer thematic complexity to boot, as on "Emergency," "Pulse," and "Requiem-Ashes." "Another World," with Anthony Hegarty on vocals, is an emotive and effective conclusion to a brilliant album. It's a rendition of an older song by Hegarty with strings from the EP of the same title. The lyrics indicate a transformation and desire to escape: "I need another world, this one's nearly gone..." While the words point to an end of the world and list all the things he will misswhich actually serve as a warning of all things we'll missit's a metamorphosis that Hegarty craves for and the world now expects to happen after the pandemic. It's tempting to think about what will be lost by not seeing the dance troupe performing along with this music. Yet music this imaginative, emotional, and well-produced still provokes vivid pictures. Impermanence/Disintegration
is a special recording that can be encountered on many different levels. Dessner has proven to be an astute classical composer with a boundless ability to approach, stretch and reimagine the possibilities of a string quartet with taste and tenderness. His compositions have the distinct air of someone with a deep knowledge of music history committed to the present and future.
Alarms; Disintegration; Alarms 2; Embers; Emergency; Impermanence; Pulsing; Requiem-Ashes;
Another World (String Arrangement)
Australian String Quartet: Dale Barltrop: Violin I; Francesca Hiew: Violin II; Stephen King: Viola;
Rachael Tobin: Cello (guest); David Chalmin: electronics, mixing;
Composed and arranged by Bryce Dessner, except “Another World” by Anohni w/ string
arrangement by Bryce Dessner.