A Modern Classic
The collaboration between Bryce Dessner and the Kronos Quartet is, to use the cliché, a match made in heaven. You may know Dessner as the guitarist and mastermind behind The National, or from his numerous side projects working with the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Philip Glass, or even from his numerous curatorial ventures (like the MusicNOW Festival, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and the Dark Was the Night compilation). Over the past few years, Dessner, who holds a master’s degree in music composition from Yale, has composed several pieces for the Grammy-winning Kronos Quartet, who you might recognize as the maestros behind the harrowing soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream.
Aheym is Dessner’s debut release as a composer, and the combination of his haunting arrangements with the Kronos Quartet’s deft musicianship makes for an impressive, striking piece. The title track, which means “homeward” in Yiddish, was inspired by the story of Dessner’s immigrant grandparents. It begins with quick, staccato bursts of strings anchored by a deep, ominous cello in obsessive, foreboding minor tones. Dessner introduces a variation in the strings’ melody, an almost dissonant, tense line, before the Quartet drops down to a single cello accompanied by light, plucked violins. As the piece grows, more string melodies enter, intertwining in counterpoint to weave a complex, revolving tapestry of sound. It’s reminiscent of the dark, beautiful sounds from Requiem, pulling the frenetic strings into a tight, sawing crescendo.
All of Aheym fits into this rather somber, brooding tone, though “Little Blue Something” drifts into a major key for a few moments. This piece, which was influenced by the Czech musicians Irena and Vojtěch Havel, starts with a low bass playing a sort of call-and-response melody with lighter strings, transitioning into sweeping, rich harmonies and countermelodies that test the boundaries of simple meter. “Tenebre” is more solemn, with a single violin rising from quiet humming in a slow, swooning mournful melody, its elegiac notes vibrating in space. It picks up with rapid-fire violins, layering on twisting melodies. It’s a transformative, protean piece, moving from spare and haunting into what’s almost a danse macabre with spiky melodies, then backing off again into a soft interlude, where the first vocals from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus appear.
The choir reappears on “Tour Eiffel,” which is based on a poem by the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro. The voices echo in rich, full pulses that stop abruptly, then split into sopranos and altos moving in a haunting counterpart. A single cello slips in, following by warm guitars and piano. Here, for a few moments, is the mellow sound that might remind you that this is indeed Bryce Dessner from The National orchestrating this classical piece. As the piece builds, dark, dancing keys and militant percussion pick up into a swirling crescendo, reaching a fever pitch in the final moments before dropping down into simple, wordless vocals, like something echoing in the vaults of a medieval cathedral.
Aheym shows the beauty and continued relevance of classical music in the modern world— and that Bryce Dessner is definitely someone to watch. Here’s to hoping for more collaborations like this one.