Monday 11 August 2014

Orchestral works by Bryce Dessner and Jonny Greenwood that complement each other very well on a new release from Deutsche Grammophon featuring André de Ridder with the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra

New York based composer and guitarist Bryce Dessner (b. 1976) is well known as a member of the Grammy Award-nominated band The National. However, he is widely respected as a composer, working with some of the world’s most creative and respected musicians. He has a master's degree in music from Yale University.

Influenced by composers such as Morton Feldman and Steve Reich, his compositions include Music for Wood and Strings commissioned by Carnegie Hall, three String Quartets for the Kronos Quartet (including Tenebre commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and the Barbican Centre), Lachrimae for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Scottish Ensemble, and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, St. Carolyn by the Sea for the American Composers Orchestra and Muziekcentrum Eindhoven and Raphael, commissioned by the Kitchen and American Composers Forum through a grant from the Jermone Foundation, 2007.

English composer, guitarist and keyboardist, Jonny Greenwood (b. 1971) is best known as a member of the rock band Radiohead but started out as a viola player. The multi-talented Greenwood also plays harmonica, glockenspiel, Ondes Martenot, banjo and drums, as well as working with computer-generated sounds and sampling. He is also a computer programmer writing the music software used by Radiohead.

His classical works include Smear for two ondes martenots and ensemble, Popcorn Superhet Receiver for string orchestra, Doghouse for string trio and large orchestra and 48 Responses to Polymorphia for 48 strings.

Sections of the score for Popcorn Superhet Receiver were later worked into his soundtrack for the Oscar-winning Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood (2007). The soundtrack itself was, controversially, declared ineligible for an Oscar as ‘the majority of the music was not composed specifically for the film.’  However, Greenwood went on to be awarded Best Film Score at the 2007 Evening Standard British Film Awards, and Critics’ Choice Award for Best Composer by the Broadcast Film Critics Association of the USA.

Deutsche Grammophon has recently released a new recording with the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by André de Ridder  of Bryce Dessner’s St. Carolyn by the Sea, Lachrimae and Raphael coupled with Jonny Greenwood’s Suite from his film score There Will Be Blood.

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Bryce Dessner’s St Carolyn by the Sea for electric guitars and orchestra is based on an episode from Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur that deals with a writer’s mental and physical deterioration culminating in his nervous breakdown and brings all Kerouac’s surreal hallucinations into his musical soundscape.

The music seems to appear from out of nowhere with a long held, string chord to which points of sound are added by various instruments. The strings become more dynamic with rapid bowing before a cello joins. The sound of two electric guitars, played here by Bryce Dessner and his brother, Aaron Dessner , are heard strumming as this intoxicatingly attractive theme moves forward. The two guitars become more prominent acquiring a rather Iberian flavour with the strings adding to the texture. The music rises to a number of little climaxes with some lovely textures from the orchestra. Eventually the main theme becomes more insistent, with repetitions, though always varied in texture. Percussion is often used to good effect as, indeed, are all of the sections of the orchestra providing subtle colouring of the orchestral texture. Occasionally Latin rhythms appear and, later, some attractive electric guitar effects to add to the atmosphere with the music leading to a suddenly assertive coda.

This is an often dramatic and always very effective score that provides much attractive music.

Dessner had played John Dowland’s (1563 -1626) Lachrimae at school and based his own Lachrimae for string orchestra on that work, with Benjamin Britten’s Dowland inspired Lachrymae and Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings in his mind.

Strange string murmurings open this work out of which a melody slowly and quietly tries to emerge. The strange string sounds continue and become more dynamic but eventually fall back meditatively. The strings eventually take on a repetitive nature around which the higher strings provide a more melodic thread. Later the strings become agitated before the repetitive motif returns. Towards the end the music stops on a sudden flourish before the return of the opening murmurings on strings as the work fades to end.

This is a most effective and unusual work.

Raphael for mixed large ensemble was constructed around a drone from a harmonium and has, in the composer’s words, ‘a lot in common with some early minimalist pieces.’

The work opens on a held chord or drone from the harmonium to which other instruments of the orchestra slowly join, creating some lovely textures, so finely wrought and showing Dessner’s fine ear for colours and textures. Out of this drone the orchestra give the feel of slowly moving toward one. Little points of sound are added before a guitar, played here by the composer, moves towards a melody, broadly laid out. There are some gorgeous, rich textures that emerge as the piece develops; minimalist in nature, but always catching the ear with their fine colouring. Soon one becomes aware that the music is rising up dramatically, inexorably. There are many instrumental sounds, percussive, intoning and swirling, creating a spectacle of sonic display. Half way through the music drops as the harmonium can be heard. Two electric guitars join in a repeated motif before strings join to add to the texture. Eventually the music rises up dramatically, forcing its way forward before suddenly dropping as the harmonium plays a little tune to which a cornet joins as does a solo cello leading to a gentle string led orchestral melody and a glorious coda to this piece.

The 2007 film, There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is a story of family, religion, hatred, oil and madness, focusing on a turn-of-the-century prospector during Southern California's oil boom. Jonny Greenwood has created a six movement orchestral Suite from ‘There Will Be Blood.’

Open spaces provides deep, rich string chords that rise up in swathes of sound, with little trails of sound breaking away. This is music that breathes open spaces though with a slightly menacing undertow.  It is beautifully orchestrated with woodwind subtly adding to the texture and colour. Staccato strings bring a decisive sound to Future Markets lightened by pizzicato passages before the strings provide a sweeping melody. The music drops to a gentle melody leading to the end. Strings move forward with a sweeping melody in HW/Hope of New Fields soon hushed before pulsing forward again in this beautiful section.

Sliding strings sounds slowly emerge in the opening of Henry Plainview out of which a string melody appears. The cellos try to hold the melody over the swirling, sliding strings before all drops to a hush. A sudden dart of sound from the strings pulls the orchestra up, swaying back and forth before a final surge leads to a fading coda.

Rhythmic and pizzicato strings open Proven Lands in a determined fashion. A theme develops that works its way around the rhythmic motif. There is some terrific playing here in this spectacularly fine piece of string writing. A gentle calm arrives with Oil, a movement that rises in drama, occasionally, but overall there is a warmth and resignation to this music.

This suite sits together well as a separate work with some exceptionally fine string writing.

Conductor André de Ridder likes to programme these two composer together and one can easily see why as they complement each other very well. Greenwood perhaps provides greater form and melody whereas Dessner gives us fine textures and colours in a more minimalist framework.

The Copenhagen Philharmonic conducted by André de Ridder provide first rate performances, with notable contributions form Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and are finely recorded at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Concert Hall, Copenhagen

There are informative booklet notes.

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