On edge and constantly shifting
Sometimes, as if by some twisted act of divine intervention, external events will imbue a work of art with a new level of meaning, totally against the will of the artist. 9/11 and The Disintegration Loops, the AIDS epidemic and William Friedkin’s Cruising—“to give something a whole new meaning” isn’t just a cliché. This phenomenon has reared its head yet again with Impermanence/Disintegration, the new album by composer Bryce Dessner (best known as a member of The National) and the Australian String Quartet (consisting of violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, violist Stephen King and cellist Michael Dahlenburg).
Two years in the making, Impermanence/Disintegration is a series of compositions centered around the theme of mutability and modern life’s constant state of flux. “I was thinking about how fragile everything is, about how things that you think are structurally sound or permanent actually aren’t,” Dessner said.
The music was meant to accompany a dance piece choreographed by Rafael Bonachela and performed by the Sydney Dance Company, originally set to premiere in March 2020. This was bad timing. After the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic and shutdown laws went into effect throughout the world, the Australian String Quartet was forced to record these tracks under lockdown, and the dancers rehearsed in isolation. While the piece finally premiered back in February, it had permanently changed: in this new context, its central concept was rendered even more poignant than before. This remains true for the piece’s corresponding album.
The record kicks off with “Alarms.” Flustered and anxious, this piece thrusts the listener without warning into a flurry of jerky, tightly-wound rhythms threatening to spiral out of control at any moment. It’s all tension and no release—just when you think they’re finally going to burst at the seams, the strings somehow kick into a higher gear, and the track only grows in intensity. Its sister track, “Alarms 2,” sounds even more agitated.
Subsequent tracks keep up this frantic pace, but they never quite devolve into total chaos, as the album title might lead one to expect. Instead, the mood remains merely nervous, skittering and constantly building toward mania, but never quite arriving. This is all the more disconcerting—besides, anything else would be too predictable, and just that’s not how the world is right now.
On “Emergency,” a terse, hypnotically repetitive viola line gives the piece an obsessive momentum before it shifts into something more serene and melodic. But this doesn’t last long, as the ensuing melodic motif quickly reveals itself to be just as incessant and vigorous, guiding the track back to a state of tension and uncertainty.
Rapid shifts in intensity are common on this record, with the aptly-titled “Impermanence” being one of the best examples. At first, Barltrop and Hiew’s violins wail and moan while King’s viola becomes increasingly discordant. The piece develops with sustained fervor, but, once again, a sweeping climax is averted, and it instead quietly dissolves, ending on a spacey, seemingly formless note.
Some pieces remain calm and somber throughout, especially “Disintegration” and “Embers.” These are beautiful tracks, but the record’s more hectic cuts do far more to reflect the theme of instability and to distinguish the work as a whole. The central theme feels hackneyed only on the final track, a rearrangement of ANOHNI’s “Another World.” It remains a beautiful song, but it feels a bit obvious in the context of this record, obnoxiously hitting people over the head with its theme (the overly syrupy strings don’t exactly help). This is the only instance in which the album’s exploration of unpredictability feels, well, predictable.
But overall, Impermanence/Disintegration beautifully captures the insecurity that defines human experience in the face of nature’s unbound, destructive forces. Constantly on-edge and always shifting, these compositions rarely sort out how people might expect them to because nothing in life is certain but impermanence.