CD Review: Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings—Sō Percussion (Brassland 45, 2015, 71 minutes)

This is my first review of Bryce Dessner’s music here, though I wrote about his Murder Ballades, performed by Eighth Blackbird on Cedille, in the American Record Guide. (Sadly, haste resulted in my number one sin-to-be-avoided as a writer, misspelling the poor man’s name. I acknowledge my ignominy and beg forgiveness.) Born in 1976, Mr. Dessner now makes his home in Paris. His career is a model of that happy union among a plurality of musical styles that we have witnessed in our time. No doubt his performance work with the guitar—an instrument that has traditionally bridged many musical landscapes—contributes to his sensibility. His list of compositions is impressive, and his work as a producer of new music concerts extensive.

In Music for Wood and Strings (2013), Dessner creates a 31-minute work in a series devoted to exploring the sound world, and perhaps the gestures and sensibilities, of what he calls “traditional American string music.” (My musical childhood was dominated by banjos and bluegrass music, so I hear the piece through that tradition.) It is scored for percussion and an ensemble of new instruments called chordsticks (developed in collaboration with the instrument builder Aron Sanchez). As Dessner writes, “a cross between a hammer dulcimer and an electric guitar, the four chordsticks are strung with 8 strings and tuned to two open chords so that Sō Percussion can use pencils, bows and mallets to sound either harmony, or play individual strings – creating melodies, tremolos and drones.” In addition, the bass instrument includes one fretted string that facilitates the playing of melodic lines. You can see photographs here.

The alert reader will readily intuit that two open chords does not make for varied harmonies—in that sense, at least, Wood and Strings evokes early minimalism, works like Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic (1969–1972) and Brian Eno’s Discreet Music (1975), and, contemporaneously, the processed violin music in the Cyclic Symphony (2009) by Joshua Carro. The work seems to vacillate among various drone chords—F major, C major, F Lydian, D minor strike me as particularly prominent—that are animated by all kinds of mallet and bowing techniques and, not frequently, incisive and propulsive rhythmic patterns. The resonant open strings and amplification create, within this deceptively simple framework, a great variety of timbres, the overtones often strongly present.

But the work succeeds, additionally, as an extended composition. Its nine sections are played attacca but clearly work toward an ecstatic climax in the eighth section (by far the strongest) and a quiet coda—marked by slow glissandos ascending toward the highest register of the instruments: as the only portion of the work that includes pitches outside of the open-string tunings, this moment is especially poignant. (I should mention that the CD includes the nine sections as separate tracks—presumably for “song shuffle” play—and as one long, continuous one.)

As for the performance, Sō Percussion is at their usual, extraordinary best. They are precise, highly musical and enthusiastic, and have just enough give-and-take in their realization of the rhythms to imbue Dessner’s music with the vitality that it deserves.

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