To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, composer Chris Campbell shares his perspective on Friday night’s program of The Music of Bryce Dessner, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
The Liquid Music series, presented by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, is navigating some challenging and exciting terrain. It’s dealing with no-genre aspirations, or what Duke Ellington once called “the music of the future..when it will be boiled down and left without a category.” The series is concerned with the cross-pollination of ideas, scenes and personalities, and the physical draw of getting people excited to come out to concerts. The mixing of contemporary and experimental musical genres has, of course, been central to the Walker’s performing arts programming for decades.
Ultimately, last night succeeded on all these fronts. The show itself presented an obvious entry point for the audience to experience the music they came for. It also provided, whether intentionally or unintentionally, an invitation to explore the larger world of classical music that can often be intimidating or esoteric. Audiences need more cordial entry points to that world, not less. Which leads us to the actual concert. The penultimate show for Liquid Music 2014-2015, copresented by the Walker Art Center, was billed as “The Music of Bryce Dessner – Program A” (Program B is tonight) but the evening felt more like a collaborative effort between equal-share friends. Composer, guitarist and curator Dessner, who is also a member of The National, had two pieces performed which bookended the main program. Joining him were multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Caroline Shaw, who each had several of their own works programmed, in addition to performing on each others’ works.
The show began with the piece Lachrimae. Composer Dessner, who acted as an engine and a rudder throughout the night, explained and gave context to the piece afterwards. The piece is heavily influenced by Renaissance composer John Dowland, whose works Dessner often played while studying classical guitar. Parry’s Interruptions followed. A suite of vignettes, Interruptions is part of a larger theme Parry is exploring, connecting performers’ heartbeats and breathing to their music making. Stethoscopes are used by the performers to link their biorhythms to the external rhythms being created. The piece is a series of lovely miniatures, like aural 2” x 2” paintings executed with a few well-placed and fully mindful brushstrokes. It was delicate, simple and balanced. Parry’s Quartet followed without much of a lull and was stutter-y, organically asymmetrical, and inherently inward-looking. Simple ideas executed well can be powerful, and Parry and crew executed well.
Dessner and Parry are both clearly interested in teasing out certain threads and tendrils that they might not be able to explore in a standard issue pop/rock song. A particular sonic image or texture that might only last a few seconds in a certain context was zoomed-in on, explored, and repurposed in the context of the evening.
Halfway through the main program, Little Scream (Laurel Sprengelmeyer) offered a sonic palette cleanser and built up the energy in the room with a quick two song set. Caroline Shaw’s two pieces were programmed next. Her work was the highlight of the concert in an evening chock full of good moments. By and By, her re-framed, stripped-of-all-varnish arrangement of gospel and bluegrass songs, took the energy of the room and transformed it upward and inward into an ethereal bloom. Shaw’s Entr’acte spun its web using small, motivic ideas. The piece churned along earnestly, with whispered asides and technical, snaky flourishes for punctuation. It developed with chorale progressions that were chopped, bounced and rotated through variation. The piece was smart and understated, with a clear and nuanced form. I saw the audience lean in toward the stage at certain points, which points to the piece’s impact.
Dessner ended the main program with a piece called Tenebre. It began quietly, fluttering while squeezebox clusters and chords lined up with lyric lines and gestures dancing atop. Tenebre’s language is pretty, with some sprinkles of dissonance thrown in like a well-placed swear word in a conversation. The piece reached its climax with a pre-recorded, disembodied Sufjan Stevens singing from the rafters. The strongest aspect of this piece was its kinetic qualities. The players gave the sound a corporeal property that moved.
After a 20 minute intermission, Parry’s new group Quiet River of Dust, which includes Laurel Sprengelmeyer, played a closing set. It was filled with Nick Drake-ish moments, but with a different color palette. In a song about rain and death knocking on one’s door, one of the amps started to break up and it created a weird radiating rain texture toward the end of the piece, creating a magic moment. The amp continued to break up for the next few minutes, which wasn’t so magical, but Parry handled it like a pro and the problem resolved itself without notice.
After listening to these three composers, I kept coming back to the breadth and depth of the classical ecosystem in terms of styles, designations, motivations, and vocabularies. If your view of serious contemporary classical music is Tristan Murail, Georg Friedrich Haas, Henry Brant, or even Heinz Hollinger (the linked piece reminds me conceptually a little of Parry’s quartet) this ain’t it, and it never will be. Good. The truth is, this gracious and approachable (gasp!) modality of classical music must exist as much as the most rigorous experimental classical music does. When in expert hands, both things are equally awesome. There’s no conflict when viewing it all as interrelating and informing one body of music. Having different schools, scenes and micro-genres help us evolve, converse, and adapt as listeners and creators alike. What was done last night was neither risk-taking nor groundbreaking from a certain point of view, but the music I heard challenges and pushes in important ways. Isn’t trying to be understood a risk in itself?
The playing and performances were tight, and it was a great night of music from three talented composer-musicians. I’m curious to hear how they develop their own musical logic and language over the next few years. Walking out of the hall, I heard a stranger next to me say to their date that they “want to learn more about string orchestras”. Appetite whetted. Invitation to explore accepted. It’s Saturday now, and in the light of morning I really hope that person engages and absorbs what the many branches of the classical tradition have to offer. I hope they get to know this awe-inspiring ecosystem better, from the most anarchic sounds, to the most whip-smart and whisper quiet. I highly recommend you go to tonight’s show and see what new magic happens.