May 27, 2015

Bryce Dessner, So Percussion, Aron Buke & Gase team-up

Of late, Brassland has had our most Dessner-heavy release schedule in quite some time. There is the wonderful (and still fresh) Aaron Dessner production-work on This Is The Kit’s new album Bashed Out — the Bryce-curated indie-all star compilation MusicNOW: 10 Years
— and, just last week, Bryce’s new solo album Music for Wood and Strings which, amazingly, was the Hot Shot Debut on this week's Billboard Classical chart!?!

(That chart debut is even more amazing if you consider the fact that most of the Billboard "classical" chart is stuff like Lindsey Stirling's dubstep violin jams and compilations with names like Classical Treasures: Classics For Relaxation.)

As with all of Bryce’s composerly ventures, “solo album” is a misnomer. The Music for Wood and Strings project was developed with input from a pair of long-time collaborators. It was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for a performance by label pals So Percussion and, most intriguingly for Brassland followers, Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gase built the unique instruments upon which the piece is peformed. These “Chordsticks” — designed collaboratively by Aron and Bryce — are a cross between a hammer dulcimer and an electric guitar. They look like this.

Critics are already raving about this music. Classical music authority WQXR named it Q2 Album of the Week calling it “startlingly enjoyable” — a “witty and substantial” homage to Steve Reich; this Chicago Reader write-up luxuriated in the album’s “hovering drones, lockstep polyrhythmic patterns, collisions of overtones, and repetitive, pulse-quickening minimalist cycles.” Pitchfork said the music “creates its own sound world” — one that is “thin and full, sharp and malleable, hazy and clear.” But more to the point, the 'fork referred to the album as “the sonic equivalent of WALL·E and EVE dancing in space."

Uh, why is that the point?

Well here’s the thing: like that reviewer's allusion to a Pixar animated film, the Bryce / So Percussion pairing has provided post-minimalist composition a bit of a pop culture moment. We are used to newspaper articles with headlines like “Rock Star Writes ‘Real’ Classical Music”. (i.e. Ahead of this week's premiere of Bryce’s new orchestral work “Quilting” at the LA Philharmonic, the Los Angles Times wrote about his “'double life' as both classical and rock musician.”)

What we didn’t quite expect is that So Percussion seem to be developing their own double life—as a serious new music group with the pull of a pop culture celebrity magnet?!? The group’s previous collaborators include indie-composer types like Dan Deacon and Matmos, so they’re used to bringing classical-music chops to unexpected places. It’s not-so-weird for them to show up in places like this “new music edition” of NPR Music’s beloved Drum Fill Friday segment. (That said, is this the first time Iannis Xenakis’s “Peaux” ever followed in the footsteps of, like, Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" or Black Sabbath's "War Pigs"?)

(PS-If you have no idea what we're talking about at the end of that last paragraph, pay a visit to Google. You need some educating.)

What seems a bit more outrageous, though, is when former teen “it” girls effuse about rigorous 30-minute plus, through composed music. And that's just happened a few weeks ago when Molly Ringwald Tweeted this reaction to excerpts of the piece being played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Even stranger? When current “quality television” it boys pose for #selfies next to a member of the world’s best percussion quartet.

Why yes that is Kit Harington aka Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow posed next to So’s Josh Quillen after Bryce’s mini-festival at London’s Barbican Centre. Ok, that was more a coincidence than anything else, but this music continues to pop up in unexpected places: Last week everyone’s favorite science podcast Radiolab featured So Percussion performing Bryce’s piece. (Download it here.) The everygeek’s favorite blog Boing Boing premiered this “making of” documentary about the album just a few weeks before that.

And have we mentioned So Percussion will be performing "Music for Wood and Strings" at Bonnaroo? Mark your calendars on Saturday June 13th festival goers. In the same vein, comes this Rolling Stone Italy review which, roughly translated, includes this quote: "Upon first listening you will be among those who question the extravagance of the thing, but after a second listening (smoking a joint is recommended), you'll be treated to a marvelous immersion into the unknown."

What is one to make of this? Is minimalism having a moment? Does this piece even count as classical music when the context shifts to a rock festival stage? Will "Music for Wood and Strings" take American composition to places it’s never been before? How long will this list of rhetorical questions get before it gets awkward and you'll want it to stop?

We won’t try to answer any of those questions, but we will point you to this excellent article from London’s The Guardian newspaper wherein Bryce provides a bit of insight into the thread of American creativity that’s informed his work: A poem from the Black Mountain School, Robert Frank’s sweet longing photography, Kerouac's "Big Sur." ("That article is a keeper," said some person to us in a recent email.)

Add to that proud lineage some college student tripping balls at Bonnaroo on his summer break between sophomore and junior year just at the moment when Music for Wood and Strings' “Section 8” kicks in. Mind exploders, all of them.

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