Dense Transcendence: Aheym by Bryce Dessner and the Kronos Quartet

Anti_logoAheym—released by Anti- on November 5—marks guitarist Bryce Dessner’s recorded debut as featured composer. Though undoubtedly most well-known as a member of the internationally acclaimed rock band the National, Aheym serves as an excellent introduction to Dessner as an intrepid creator of stirring works in the classical music tradition. And perhaps there is no better ensemble to help facilitate this introduction than the Kronos Quartet. It should be noted that the recording is among cellist Jeffrey Zeigler’s last as a member of the quartet with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt.


A blistering 5/4 rhythm that would feel just as appropriate scored as a blast beat for a hardcore band opens the title track and the album as a whole. The playing sounds effortless, but the sandpaper texture of the articulations connotes a tempestuous struggle. The pace seemingly quickens, as a 5/8 lilt provides space for some terse contrapuntal interplay. Though the harmonic and textural language is certainly indebted to the likes of Reich, Glass, and the Bang on a Can collective, Dessner packages the musical contents more concisely within a structure that more closely resembles a pop song. As a rock musician, Dessner is a master of subtlety, reveling in washes of reverberant harmony and economical melodies. As voiced by bowed strings, his compositional intensity is more overt, his love of densely packed layers and interwoven, quasi-hocketed instrumental lines now the focal point rather than a distant signpost in the landscape.

“LIttle Blue” continues in exploration of the 5/8 theme established in “Aheym.” Here, the time signature expands ever so slightly to duple meter, the tempo is slowed down to a moody waltz feel, and Dessner gives the quartet more time to ruminate on the melody. The quality of tone produced by Kronos is unparalleled; its ability to convey richness through paper-thin timbres is a testament to the integrity of the players’ artistic intent. Dessner also widens the collective tessitura to include a more robust focus on the cello’s lower range and the wispy harmonics of the violin. By the end of the piece, the composer turns to a variation of the chordal motif that opened “Aheym,” this time imbued with a kind of illuminated hopefulness. As companion pieces to one another, “Aheym” and “Little Blue” interact as enigmatic fraternal twins.

As a whole, “Tenebre”—which was commissioned to honor the quartet’s lighting designer and stage manager Laurence Neff and as such is a kind of ode to the nature of light—manifests itself as an engaging study of the varied timbre possibilities of string instruments—from sheer to robust, from harmonics to full-fledged bowing.

“Tenebre” begins with almost tentative tremolos, as if the beating wings of a hummingbird have been slowed down. Meanwhile a sorrowful melody in the cello fills the air with uncertainty, until suddenly and without warning, Dessner introduces an exuberant new melodic fragment in the violin that bursts through the moody ambiance, followed quickly by steady, slightly syncopated harmonic support from the rest of the quartet. The melody is nothing short of revelatory.

A third section begins with a quizzical melody and counterpoint. As he does throughout the album, the composer plays with minimalism not by manipulating note durations but by modifying the melodic line. And though the harmonic texture remains constant, the subtle modifications in the individual lines create a perpetual shifting. The composition reaches its emotional climax with a guest turn by fellow composer and indie musician Sufjan Stevens at his most ethereal, performing eight independent vocal lines with an ardent grace that brings transcendence to what is unequivocally the album’s strongest work.

Aheym_Dessner_Kronos“Tour Eiffel,” a song written for and performed by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (directed by Dianne Berkun), seems noticeably out of place on this collection—almost an anomaly. With additional musical contributions from pianist Lisa Kaplan, percussionist David Cossin, trombonist Dave Nelson, and the composer himself on guitar, the song features dense harmonies and a kind of celestial uplift that makes it poised for continued performances for years to come. In the context of the previous three compositions interpreted solely by the Kronos Quartet, however, “Tour Eiffel” is from a different soundworld. Until about the halfway mark, when the quartet makes it entrance, the composition lacks the intrigue and indefatigable momentum that characterizes the rest of the album.

It’s fitting that the accompanying video for the album’s title track was directed by Matthew Ritchie, the visual artist with whom Dessner and his brother Aaron collaborated for their 2009 multimedia song cycle The Long Count. Bryce Dessner has certainly worked in a variety of contemporary classical contexts— among them, as a member of the chamber music band Clogs, as guitarist for the premiere performance and recording of Steve Reich’s 2×5, and in Planetarium, a joint song cycle written with Stevens and Nico Muhly. But Aheym feels like the most formidable of these efforts, rivaled by The Long Count in terms of clarity of voice and unbridled intensity. Above all, Aheym whets the appetite for more large-scale works from Dessner. What would a Dessner symphony or opera sound like? This the question Aheym seems to dangle in front of listeners.

Kronos Quartey with Bryce Dessner, Aheym (ANTI-, 2013) Buy on Amazon.com | Buy on Amazon.ca | Buy on Amazon.co.uk