#MusicForWriters: Bryce Dessner Strikes A New Chord Stick

So Percussion plays Bryce Dessner's 'Music For Wood And Strings.' Image provided by DotDotDotMusic
So Percussion plays Bryce Dessner’s ‘Music For Wood And Strings.’ Image provided by DotDotDotMusic

‘Dreaming Of Music For There Wasn’t An Instrument’

When you listen to Bryce Dessner’s newly released recording of Music For Wood And Strings, you’re hearing sounds unprecedented in our experience.

The “chord stick” is an instrument created by Aron Sanchez, half the team of Buke and Gase. While you might not think that Dessner, widely known as a guitarist with Cincinnati-born group The National, might lack for  instruments. But as a composer of highly regarded contemporary classical music, Dessner is understood to be the kind of colorist who explores sensually expressive textures and propulsive sonorities.

Created for and performed by one of New York’s most revered ensembles, So Percussion, Wood and Strings is the current Album of the Week selection from Dessner’s Brassland Records at New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music. The SoundCloud here lets you hear the eighth section of the 10-part, 36-minute work.

Almost immediately, you’ll understand why Daniel Stephen Johnson, writing at Q2 Music, refers to the work as “mesmerizing.”

For writers, Dessner has the unusual gift of a sort of propelled focus. The work can generate rapidly shifting dynamics of concentration: for authors, this is a prompt to intellectual energy, stimulation that never dictates but rather anchors and grounds the verbal mind in the musical context.

What you’re hearing will at times remind you of the dulcimer, but it’s important to know that the chord stick is played using both sticks and violin bows.

And that’s where I began in speaking with Dessner about the work.

‘Like Guitar Music That Guitars Could Never Play’

Thought Catalog: How hard is it to compose for something this new, for an instrument the rest of the world doesn’t even know?

Bryce Dessner. Image: Charlotte de Mezamat
Bryce Dessner. Image: Charlotte de Mezamat

Bryce Dessner: Starting off, I was dreaming of music for which there wasn’t an instrument. Yeah, it’s a little bit nerve-wracking, not knowing if it was going to work. We actually built a couple of prototypes and had a version of the instrument and played on it, myself, for a while. I worked with Aron Sanchez, then to redesign it a little bit — to make it more performance-friendly.

I took one of the instruments with me on a little tour to Australia a few years ago and learned quite a bit about it, made a few more changes to make it more flexible in terms of the sound it creates and also more stable in terms of holding pitch.

Once the instruments were finished, it was kind of an amazing project where I had just had such faith in Aron to build these beautiful new instruments: they do things I imagined they would do and they do them really well. I guess the big question was how am I going to tune them. They’re tuned to open chord, something you can’t change during performance. But once I had that set, then it was like composing for any other piece in a way.

TC: How long did the development of the chord stick take??

BD: I think the development phase of it was about a year and a half or two years, from the time [of the commission from Carnegie Hall].

TC: And the idea of writing it for So Percussion was there all along?

BD: I really wanted to try something new and different. I’ve known the So Percussion guys since some of us were at Yale together. They really function more like a band than a music ensemble would in a way, a really strong personality.

TC: And the result is we’re hearing something we haven’t had before.

BD: I’m excited for the instrument to have a life of its own. Maybe other composers can write for it. There’s a long tradition of percussionists building things…Bespoke instruments are not completely out of the norm.

TC: In the piece, itself, is there any programmatic work or is it abstract?

Wood and Strings cover linedBD: I often have narrative developments in my pieces — not programmatic, but they might be inspired by something. But this one is really an exploration of the instrument itself and more specifically having known So Percussion, and knowing their personalities and knowing the music they’re  good at and the music that might challenge them.

It’s a very personal project for me. I was able to get deep inside the personality of that ensemble.

Josh Quillen is the bearded member of the group. [Adam Sliwinski is bearded, too.] Well, Josh has the big beard. He’s a phenomenal percussionist. And one of the instruments has a fretted string, the bass instrument. The others are all played basically manipulated open strings, essentially eight chord. I needed something that could add a melodic quality to the instrument. It’s played almost the way you play lap steel guitar.

And Josh really took to it. He has an almost bluesy quality. That color ended up taking on such an amazing performance quality through him.

Or there’s Jason Treuting, who’s been in the group the longest and I’ve known him a long time. He’s a really big friend. And some people don’t know this about him but Jason is one of the best drum set players I know. He could tour with any band, he’s incredible. I really wanted him to play the snare drums. That’s an example of how the personalities played out in the composition.

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There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: Bryce Dessner Strikes A New Chord Stick

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.ThoughtCatalog.com



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