Music For Writers: Bryce Dessner Strikes A New Chord Stick

Bryce Dessner. Image: Shervin Lainez
Bryce Dessner. Image: Shervin Lainez

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‘Dreaming Of Music For There Wasn’t An Instrument’

When you listen to Bryce Dessner’s newly released recording of Music For Wood And Strings, you’re hearing sounds unprecedented in our experience.

The “chord stick” is an instrument created by Aron Sanchez, half the team of Buke and Gase. While you might not think that Dessner, widely known as a guitarist with Cincinnati-born group The National, might lack for  instruments. But as a composer of highly regarded contemporary classical music, Dessner is understood to be the kind of colorist who explores sensually expressive textures and propulsive sonorities.

Created for and performed by one of New York’s most revered ensembles, So Percussion, Wood and Strings is the current Album of the Week selection from Dessner’s Brassland Records at New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music. The SoundCloud here lets you hear the eighth section of the 10-part, 36-minute work.

Almost immediately, you’ll understand why Daniel Stephen Johnson, writing at Q2 Music, refers to the work as “mesmerizing.”

For writers, Dessner has the unusual gift of a sort of propelled focus. The work can generate rapidly shifting dynamics of concentration: for authors, this is a prompt to intellectual energy, stimulation that never dictates but rather anchors and grounds the verbal mind in the musical context.

What you’re hearing will at times remind you of the dulcimer, but it’s important to know that the chord stick is played using both sticks and violin bows.

And that’s where I began in speaking with Dessner about the work.


‘Like Guitar Music That Guitars Could Never Play’

Thought Catalog: How hard is it to compose for something this new, for an instrument the rest of the world doesn’t even know?

Bryce Dessner. Image: Charlotte de Mezamat
Bryce Dessner. Image: Charlotte de Mezamat

Bryce Dessner: Starting off, I was dreaming of music for which there wasn’t an instrument. Yeah, it’s a little bit nerve-wracking, not knowing if it was going to work. We actually built a couple of prototypes and had a version of the instrument and played on it, myself, for a while. I worked with Aron Sanchez, then to redesign it a little bit — to make it more performance-friendly.

I took one of the instruments with me on a little tour to Australia a few years ago and learned quite a bit about it, made a few more changes to make it more flexible in terms of the sound it creates and also more stable in terms of holding pitch.

Once the instruments were finished, it was kind of an amazing project where I had just had such faith in Aron to build these beautiful new instruments: they do things I imagined they would do and they do them really well. I guess the big question was how am I going to tune them. They’re tuned to open chord, something you can’t change during performance. But once I had that set, then it was like composing for any other piece in a way.

TC: How long did the development of the chord stick take??

BD: I think the development phase of it was about a year and a half or two years, from the time [of the commission from Carnegie Hall].

TC: And the idea of writing it for So Percussion was there all along?

BD: I really wanted to try something new and different. I’ve known the So Percussion guys since some of us were at Yale together. They really function more like a band than a music ensemble would in a way, a really strong personality.

TC: And the result is we’re hearing something we haven’t had before.

BD: I’m excited for the instrument to have a life of its own. Maybe other composers can write for it. There’s a long tradition of percussionists building things…Bespoke instruments are not completely out of the norm.

TC: In the piece, itself, is there any programmatic work or is it abstract?

Wood and Strings cover linedBD: I often have narrative developments in my pieces — not programmatic, but they might be inspired by something. But this one is really an exploration of the instrument itself and more specifically having known So Percussion, and knowing their personalities and knowing the music they’re  good at and the music that might challenge them.

It’s a very personal project for me. I was able to get deep inside the personality of that ensemble.

Josh Quillen is the bearded member of the group. [Adam Sliwinski is bearded, too.] Well, Josh has the big beard. He’s a phenomenal percussionist. And one of the instruments has a fretted string, the bass instrument. The others are all played basically manipulated open strings, essentially eight chord. I needed something that could add a melodic quality to the instrument. It’s played almost the way you play lap steel guitar.

And Josh really took to it. He has an almost bluesy quality. That color ended up taking on such an amazing performance quality through him.

Or there’s Jason Treuting, who’s been in the group the longest and I’ve known him a long time. He’s a really big friend. And some people don’t know this about him but Jason is one of the best drum set players I know. He could tour with any band, he’s incredible. I really wanted him to play the snare drums. That’s an example of how the personalities played out in the composition.

TC: It’s great to have composers like you working in such innovative ways, and with ensembles like So Percussion who can do this with you.

So Percussion at work with chord sticks in Bryce Dessner's 'Music For Wood And Strings'. Image: Provided by Brassland
So Percussion at work with chord sticks in Bryce Dessner’s ‘Music For Wood And Strings’. Image: Provided by Brassland

BD: I think there’s something counter-intuitive about a lot of innovation in music in the last 20 years, in that so much of it has been driven by technology. You can create endlessly complex variations of things using sequencers. So much innovation using technology, it’s just constantly at warp speed, expanding.

So there’s something kind of old-fashioned, really, about working with an instrument builder [in lutherie, with Sanchez]. It is amplified, but essentially, there are no effects on it, it’s just wood and strings.  I like the idea of innovation but in the old sense of the word.

TC: And it produces music in line with that concept.

BD: The piece itself is like guitar music that guitars could never play. This would be, for the most part, just far too difficult for a guitarist to play: too fast, too layered, too difficult. I grew up playing classical guitar and guitar quartets and that type of music. This is music that’s sort of hyper, beyond what we would do on guitars.

So that’s another side of it, a kind of ideal string music that I was dreaming about.

‘Having a Classical Education And Playing In A Rock Band’

TC: This coming Saturday (30 May), your new orchestral work Quilting is being premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall under Gustavo Dudamel. And I can’t help but think that your idea of innovation without, necessarily, technological elements might relate to your choice of quilting as a topic and title, yes?

Bryce Dessner Kronos AheymBD: If you look into my work, you’ll find that Aheym [2009] — a string quartet I wrote for Kronos Quartet — is probably the most performed work of music that I’ve written. It was written for my grandmother, a Russian immigrant. Her first language was Yiddish and the piece was written for her at a time when she was sick. She’s since passed away.

That piece had a bit of a more Eastern European modernist edge to it. And obviously my background is in contemporary music and also in Renaissance music…Bach, John Dowland. Tenebrae [2010] is inspired by this Mass service. Lachrimae [2012] is Dowland.

Then there was a a shift a few years ago and I started thinking more about the American side of my experience. This partly comes from being someone who exists in different worlds — that’s a very American phenomenon.

The fact of me having a very classical education and playing in a rock band. I get a lot of questions about that, which are linked to identity. That gets me looking into my background of growing up in Ohio and playing banjo and string music. Music For Wood And Strings is inspired by American string band music.

So yeah, for this big orchestra piece for the LA Philharmonic — and thinking about LA how many of our great cultural traditions actually do come out of California. I was thinking about the West and the 19th-century tradition of quilting. I think about patchwork, for instance.

For me, stylistically, I’m a little bit hard to pin down. Is it post-minimal, is it folk music, is it modernist? I think I’m a musical scavenger and I’m gathering thoughts and ideas from multiple places — often across forms. I’m often inspired by literature and art.

Quilting has this idea of how the quilt patterns told a story. Some of the quilts were stitched together from other quilts. So the new work is partly a wink of an eye toward that great American tradition.

TC: There’s a tactile quality.

BD: For me, the idea of Music For Wood And Strings, this new instrument, it gave us the piece…the beauty is in the material. I think about that a lot as a guitar player. It’s an instrument to make music with, but it’s also an object. And for the orchestra, the score is beautiful, you can see the music when you’re creating the manuscript.

TC: Are you a fast composer for orchestra?

Bryce Dessner. Image: Shervin Lainez
Bryce Dessner. Image: Shervin Lainez

BD: I’m not slow, but it helps for me to have a clear idea. Even something as general as a thought about quilting helps guide me through the process. It was an intense six months of writing every day.

TC: Are you working, as many of our writers do, every day at a certain time when you have a commission?

BD: I try to have a routine of working in the mornings. But I will say that like any writer, I do get blocks when I don’t feel inspired. What helps me is not to bang my head against the wall but go out and hear a concert or go to a visual arts show or sit down with a book. Inevitably, it helps so much to have my mind cleared. I think that’s why I mentioned visual art and literature as key in my music.

I think specifically, back to this America theme, the post-War years in America, painters like Cy Twombley, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline. Or writers like the New York School of poets — Frank O’Hara — or the Beat generation. There was such a huge explosion of creativity and original work. I find that period endlessly helpful…I’ve written a piece recently called St. Carolyn By The Sea based on the Jack Kerouac book, Big Sur.

TC: I feel like we’re in a very fertile period of musical composition, as well as amazing ensembles to deliver this material.

BD: I think it is unusual, and you’re right to point out the Internet. There’s always what’s happening in the creative world and what’s happening in the more economic model. When those two things align, you get a kind of solar eclipse, you get a powerful moment in culture. It feels like a pretty free period, most of the “style wars” for young composers…Because it’s easier to have a direct audience through the Internet.

There’s so much more diversity out there.Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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