The New Classical
It’s not too often that rock musicians delve into the realm of classical music, but The National’s guitarist Bryce Dessner and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood do just that on their new split EP, St. Carolyn by the Sea / Suite from “There Will Be Blood,” out this week on Deutsche Grammophon. Both musicians have composition chops—Dessner has worked with the Kronos Quartet and Philip Glass and released his solo compositional debut Aheym in 2013, and Greenwood has composed scores for several films in addition to There Will Be Blood, including Norwegian Wood in 2010 and, more recently, The Master in 2012.
Dessner’s half of the EP consists of three compositions, “St. Carolyn by the Sea,” “Lachrimae” and “Raphael,” played by the Copenhagen Philharmonic under the direction of André de Ridder, with Bryce and his brother (and fellow member of The National) Aaron Dessner on guitar. While each was written a few years ago, they weren’t easily available. The title track begins with a low, elastic string melody, light chimes, playing with rhythm and tempo—a postmodern approach to the classical form that fans of Aheym will recognize. Sustained, high notes from the orchestra hang behind Dessner’s melodic guitar, creating a spare atmosphere with a sense of large, open spaces. Hurried violines and rolling cellos rush together as the tempo picks up, adding martial percussion and flaring horns, turning the piece into a tense, demanding wall of sound before it backs down again.
“Lachrimae” is more of a traditional symphony piece, its orchestral strings rising and falling in waves of varying intensity, moving from slow, sweeping melodies to stabbing staccato notes. Ominous minor melodies begin “Raphael,” where shivering violins accompany slow notes from a harmonium, gradually speeding into an organized frenzy of tinkling percussion, light horns, and soaring strings. Dessner’s compositions are careful, complex, evocative pieces of music—beautiful classical tracks that combine the power of music’s emotive abilities and technical knowledge.
Greenwood’s suite from There WIll Be Blood may seem like an odd companion for St. Carolyn; after all, the movie was released in 2007, and this EP contains just a sample of the original score. The deep, haunting sound has lost none of its potency over time. Low, foreboding cellos still signal the nature of the film’s ruthless story, creating a tense, sometimes inhospitable atmosphere that perfectly evokes the noir Western tale of the early oil industry. Eerie strings rise and fall, coming in short, staccato bursts like an oncoming, runaway nineteenth-century locomotive belching black smoke into the arid desert air. Discordant violins screech then subside into symphonic waves, illustrating the decadence and the horror of the film and its cold-blooded antagonist.
The suite may not be new material, and technically Dessner’s contributions aren’t newly written either, but the pairing on this EP calls attention to the fact that there are rock musicians engaging in the classical genre, and it’s not an isolated phenomenon. Dessner and Greenwood are actively working at the boundaries of genre, using their composition skills and sensibilities in ways that benefit both their rock music and classical pieces, blurring the lines between classical and contemporary.
This EP and its conscious pairing argues, perhaps inadvertently, for the continued relevance of classical music and style that is beautifully and hauntingly rendered here. Dessner and Greenwood are definitely musicians to be watching, and hopefully they’ll continue to unleash new, genre-bending compositions to enchant us.