"...of The National" is a phrase that often follows Bryce Dessner's name. It's not too shabby a suffix, but with the November 5 release of his recording debut as a composer, listeners may find that title to be inadequate for his talents (if they haven't already).
Not that Dessner is a stranger to the world of contemporary classical music. His annual Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival alternates independent rock, hip hop and Afrobeat with performances from Brooklyn's fertile indie-classical scene. He studied composition at Yale, founded the new-music ensemble Clogs and has written for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and Bang on a Can All-Stars.
This multifaceted experience is on full display with "Aheym" – a collection of four new works performed by the Kronos Quartet. Each piece displays the sort of earnest, transparent beauty found in the music of Arvo Pärt or Philip Glass. And drawing on his own Jewish heritage, the stories behind them are as touching and colorful as the music.
The title work is written to portray the ideas of flight and passage – Aheym means homeward in Yiddish – and it specifically draws on experiences from Dessner's grandparents, who immigrated to New York from Poland and Russia. The repetitive lines are fast and driving, the mood is intense and suspenseful.
Little Blue Something is inspired by a pair of Czech musicians that Dessner's sister Jessica met on a street in Copenhagen. Drawing on what Dessner describes as their "strange and lovely music," the piece combines folk music, minimalism, and direct quotation.
The next track is dedicated to Kronos' lighting designer, Laurence Neff, and named after a Holy Week service called Tenebre. It examines the relationship between music and light while using a variety of texture and layers. Kronos is joined by Sufjan Stevens performing an octet of voices on Hebrew letters.
Tour Eiffel features the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in a setting of a poem by Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro. "I chose it for its musical qualities which include text of a French folk song and solfège syllables as well as images of approaching modernity like 'the electric wing' and 'telegraph antenna,'" writes Dessner, who also appears on the track with his guitar. Percussion, piano, and trombone are also added, and the end product is stunning, nostalgic, and beautifully hypnotic.
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