Crash Ensemble play the music of Bryce Dessner in the Engineering Library at the National Concert Hall, 13 December 2014
Bryce Dessner is still best known as the guitarist of The National but his compositional career (taken to mean written down, ‘classical’ composition) has taken off in earnest in the past couple of years. Commissions from the LA Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall, as well as four pieces in five or six years for Kronos Quartet, speak of a composer who is about to break into the top echelon of the classical establishment.
One of the works on the programme today, Aheym, is a reworking of one of the pieces written for Kronos. It is heard here in an arrangement for the full ensemble, closing the programme. Before this, comes another of the quartet pieces, Tenebre—this time heard in its original form. This piece offers a snapshot of what seems to be Dessner’s voice—over and over, he zooms in on his material, presenting drawn-out repetition or development and then moving on, mainly suddenly and without transition, to unrelated material. This is often the sign of an inexperienced composer—a lack of confidence in the material leading its creator to throw more and more ideas onto the burner, like an amateur cook feverishly trying to find the right flavour to save a dish—but Dessner never sounds like he is making a mistake. His music seems to move in pockets of unconnected thought, in an unpredictable but deliberate manner. Taken in the context of more seasoned peers like David Lang and Michael Gordon, this becomes a very interesting trait. Tenebre is notable for its shocking and somehow fitting introduction of a prerecorded choral track late in the piece, a terrific effect and a very unusual device.
Crash Ensemble include a number of unfamiliar faces, all of whom seem well able for the job required. Aoife Ní Bhriaín stands out as having the talent and charisma necessary to play violin in a top new music group—a role which can carry some of the importance of a leader in an orchestra. The first piece on the programme, O Shut Your Eyes Against the Wind, sounds slightly messy, probably because the balance of the amplified mix can’t manage to sit well in the somewhat unforgiving space. The lighting effects in the Engineering Library have proved troublesome before at Crash gigs here. They consist of lurid blue and green swirling patterns, presumably antiques from the time in which the National Concert Hall was built, and are deeply offensive even before they are turned directly, and blindingly at the audience. These cheesy, unnecessary lights ruin the visual impact of the gig. The programme note for Tenebre contains the nugget of information that the piece was originally written as a gift for Kronos’s lighting designer on his 25th year with the quartet. Perhaps Crash Ensemble should consider hiring him, or at least somebody, to handle this vital element of their activities.
Dessner uses thematic and rhythmic material in a similar way to many other young American and American-influenced composers, but seems to have a knack for pulling it together in a way that sounds individual. He brings several trademark skills from The National’s music to these compositions, although they really don’t sound like his band. The most notable is an intriguing command of unusual, worthwhile texture. Finally, The National are masters of slow-burning climax—a talent dramatically absent from most contemporary composers’ arsenals—and he unleashes these deliciously on several occasions.
Dessner: O Shut Your Eyes Against the Wind