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Dessner Convergence

A decade ago, a friend at the Blair School of Music suggested I listen to some music by Steve Reich. Kronos Quartet’s album, Steve Reich: Different Trains was the first recording of exclusively this composer’s music in our library’s CD collection that resonated with me. I had become fascinated with the tightness and camaraderie of the string quartet genre because of the faculty and student ensembles on campus, but since then the Kronos Quartet in particular has continuously impacted me.

Their work intersected my path as I pursued a second major in Spanish and studied composition. Their Nuevo (the newest of their discs available in the Blair music library at the time) introduced me to Osvaldo Golijov. While investigating various recordings of Samuel Barber’s Adagio, I listened to the album Winter Was Hard in its entirety. Their other recordings enhanced my survey of music by Alfred Schnittke, Terry Riley, and John Adams.

During my recent two years of commuting between Brooklyn and Long Island, The National became one of the panoply of artists I have discovered through WFUV. I glimpsed their swarm of vocals and riff-driven rhythmic agility in “Terrible Love,” but Kronos Quartet’s latest release, Aheym: Kronos Quartet Plays Music by Bryce Dessner, inspires me to listen to more closely to Dessner’s guitar playing and examine his other music projects. In the meantime, this combination of familiar ensemble and unfamiliar composer is an arresting convergence of musical realms.

Throughout the album, Dessner balances orchestral paunch with pristine lines. The title track opens with fiery disjunct rhythms that morph into a groove and are contrasted by a pointillistic melody in harmonics. In Little Blue Something, an interlocking idea in the low and middle ranges jells into a grand chordal ending. A rustling perpetuum mobile is one of many textures of Tenebre. The piece consists of successive emergences: of motive, of dissonance, of openness; of streamlined meter and pitch descent; of voices in unison with strings and asynchronous motion. The vastness foreshadowed by Dessner’s string quartet writing is fleshed out in the large ensemble of the concluding track, Tour Eiffel. The composer’s entrance on guitar aligns with a harmonic surprise. A vibrant ostinato in cello and piano is the foundation for soaring sopranos and violins. Drumrolls and repeated trombone attacks intensify the approach to the climax. That I heard echoes of Mahler, Stravinsky, Reich, and Sufjan Stevens in my Kronos Quartet introduction to Dessner suggests that I have more to learn from this contemporary.

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