To find the heart of Aheym, the startling new album of compositions by Bryce Dessner performed by the famed string ensemble the Kronos Quartet, we must look back to an earlier generation of classical composers and performers. There was a moment, several moments really, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when American concert music was resuscitated by a group of young composers—Steve Reich, LaMonte Young and Philip Glass among them—who not only spoke a new and vibrant musical language, but broke down the walls of the concert hall and the academy, opening their world to the light and noise of the rock and pop music of the times. John Cale of the Velvet Underground plays in LaMonte Young’s ensemble; Terry Riley’s A Rainbow In Curved Air leads directly to Pete Townshend’s synthesizer experiments with the Who; Philip Glass grabs the imagination of the young Brian Eno, and goes on to return the influence by composing symphonic variations on music by him and David Bowie. Into the midst of this moment came the Kronos Quartet, formed in 1973 to play this new music, and going on to define the openness of contemporary classical music as they tackled non-traditional composers from Jimi Hendrix to Laurie Anderson to Sigur Rós. Throughout their unique career, they have introduced several new generations to the traditions and techniques of classical concert music while continuing to champion new composers; in the process they have sold a few million albums.
So when the Kronos Quartet commissions Bryce Dessner, guitarist of The National, to write a series of pieces for them to perform and record, it can’t help but feel like the passing of a torch. Dessner, along with a number of his contemporaries, has absorbed the language of the earlier generation of composers into his musical DNA, and now sees no firewall between his solo composition work and writing and performing in a rock band. Bryce Dessner speaks naturally in both voices; he studied composition and guitar at university, discovering the music of Steve Reich through Electric Counterpoint, Reich’s piece for electric guitar, well before the National was conceived. Yet the dense stacked guitar chords that open “Tour Eiffel” might well come from a National song, with its slinky 7/4 time signature, just as the circular horn part on The National’s “Fake Empire” shows the profound influence of Reich and other minimalists.
The four pieces that comprise Aheym come from different compositional sources and moments. The title piece was inspired by Dessner’s Brooklyn neighborhood, with its deep history as a landing point for immigrants; “Aheym” means “homeward” in Yiddish, and the music evokes Dessner’s Polish immigrant ancestors and the wider sense of flight and passage. “Little Blue Something” was inspired by the Czech musicians Irena and Vojtech Havel, whose haunting compositions invoke minimalism, early church music and Czech folk melodies all at once; Dessner honored the inspiration by having the couple perform at the MusicNOW Festival he curates yearly in Cincinnati. “Tenebre” is Dessner’s meditation on light and music, commissioned by Kronos to honor Laurence Neff, their longtime lighting and stage manager. Heavily influenced by the dense choral music of Tallis, Palestrina and Gesualdo, the piece mounts to a finale where the Kronos Quartet performs overdubbed as three quartets, alongside the multitracked voice of singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. The album closes with Dessner’s beautiful “Tour Eiffel,” written for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, with text based on a playful poem by Chilean poet Vincente Hudidobro. Building on Dessner’s bossa-like guitar, the piece struts elegantly to a virtuosic climax of voices and strings.
Bryce Dessner’s music for the Kronos Quartet will delight longtime followers of Kronos’ work and will challenge and surprise the National’s many fans. At the close of day, Aheym is first and foremost a definitive creative statement from an emerging composer whose music transcends the artificial barriers of genre and performance.
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