Amongst the growing scene of indie-rockers turn composers, Bryce Dessner of The National fame may possibly be the most prominent of the bunch with a host of side classical projects and recent collaborations with the likes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and David Lang to name a few. Originally started as a request to Dessner to write an original piece for the Kronos Quartet in 2009 and would eventually evolve into a full-fledged record four years later. Aheym not only marks Dessner’s debut as a composer but on a greater level breaks down the walls of the contemporary classical fields’ stigma against writers outside the traditional training grounds.
Each of Dessner’s four original compositions found on Aheym are haunting with each an echoing bellow of darkness and a sharp aptitude for the riveting music writing. Atmospheric and tightly tense throughout, Aheym is a shining example of how daring and risque contemporary works can be without turning too avant-garde and ostracizing listeners of traditional repertoire. The Kronos Quartet, no stranger to experimentation, flow through Dessner’s program with such tenacity and harshness that their strings literally howl with anger, relaying an explosion of high emotion off the sheets.
Despite being four years old, the title track of the album, “Aheym”‘s recorded debut is no less as gripping as it was first heard. A pace so adrenaline-filled with movements of sharp pauses and drastic turns, “Aheym” is without a doubt Dessner’s answer to those who would ever question his composition skills, past, present, or future.
Give kudos to Dessner for his work on “Little Blue Something” which while equally as dark as “Aheym,” brings about an isolated, somber and edgy feel that the Kronos Quartet has seldom ever sounded like. It is here where Dessner learns the skill and patience of avoiding an all-out ruckus of strings that most contemporary composers forget, opting more for a subtle and steadily timed approach to create a truly gut wrenching effect.
“Tenebre” is easily the most subdued of the four compositions, softened and subtle compared to the majority of the record. Here the Kronos Quartet is possibly at their finest, riveting and meticulously pulling for more out of themselves and by the time Dessner arrives with his guitar, it’s damn near teeth-clattering with pent up rage.
“Tour Eiffel” will serve as the oddball composition of the group, coming off as a standout choral narrative and drastically artsy in comparison to the rest of the record. Dessner experiments the most with this composition, with varying levels of cohesion throughout the piece that at times can be off-setting to the listener, especially with its prophetic nature. At the very least, its no shocking than anyone of today’s contemporary choral composers’ above-average works.
Aheym is bound to get attention due to Dessner’s indie affiliations and the Kronos Quartet’s longstanding heritage. But putting backgrounds aside, Aheym is a pure and honest contemporary classical guidebook that showcases how one can tread the line between avant-garde and accessibility. Dessner proves his chops as a composer and Aheym is that stamp of approval.
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