CD Review: Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings—Sō Percussion (Brassland 45, 2015, 71 minutes)

This is my first review of Bryce Dessner’s music here, though I wrote about his Murder Ballades, performed by Eighth Blackbird on Cedille, in the American Record Guide. (Sadly, haste resulted in my number one sin-to-be-avoided as a writer, misspelling the poor man’s name. I acknowledge my ignominy and beg forgiveness.) Born in 1976, Mr. Dessner now makes his home in Paris. His career is a model of that happy union among a plurality of musical styles that we have witnessed in our time. No doubt his performance work with the guitar—an instrument that has traditionally bridged many musical landscapes—contributes to his sensibility. His list of compositions is impressive, and his work as a producer of new music concerts extensive.

In Music for Wood and Strings (2013), Dessner creates a 31-minute work in a series devoted to exploring the sound world, and perhaps the gestures and sensibilities, of what he calls “traditional American string music.” (My musical childhood was dominated by banjos and bluegrass music, so I hear the piece through that tradition.) It is scored for percussion and an ensemble of new instruments called chordsticks (developed in collaboration with the instrument builder Aron Sanchez). As Dessner writes, “a cross between a hammer dulcimer and an electric guitar, the four chordsticks are strung with 8 strings and tuned to two open chords so that Sō Percussion can use pencils, bows and mallets to sound either harmony, or play individual strings – creating melodies, tremolos and drones.” In addition, the bass instrument includes one fretted string that facilitates the playing of melodic lines. You can see photographs here.

The alert reader will readily intuit that two open chords does not make for varied harmonies—in that sense, at least, Wood and Strings evokes early minimalism, works like Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic (1969–1972) and Brian Eno’s Discreet Music (1975), and, contemporaneously, the processed violin music in the Cyclic Symphony (2009) by Joshua Carro. The work seems to vacillate among various drone chords—F major, C major, F Lydian, D minor strike me as particularly prominent—that are animated by all kinds of mallet and bowing techniques and, not frequently, incisive and propulsive rhythmic patterns. The resonant open strings and amplification create, within this deceptively simple framework, a great variety of timbres, the overtones often strongly present.

But the work succeeds, additionally, as an extended composition. Its nine sections are played attacca but clearly work toward an ecstatic climax in the eighth section (by far the strongest) and a quiet coda—marked by slow glissandos ascending toward the highest register of the instruments: as the only portion of the work that includes pitches outside of the open-string tunings, this moment is especially poignant. (I should mention that the CD includes the nine sections as separate tracks—presumably for “song shuffle” play—and as one long, continuous one.)

As for the performance, Sō Percussion is at their usual, extraordinary best. They are precise, highly musical and enthusiastic, and have just enough give-and-take in their realization of the rhythms to imbue Dessner’s music with the vitality that it deserves.

What Makes New Classical Music Classical?

In my review of Scott Pender’s release for Navona, 88 + 12, I closed by remarking that he “is inventive, expressively rich, and gimmick-free: his music is what I imagine when I dream of a future for classical music.” Not long afterward, a post by Greg Sandow on Facebook commented on his own blog post “It Can Be Done,” which reported on The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Wordless Music festival and their success attracting younger audiences. I was particularly interested in the Wordless Music model of combining various styles within a single concert: Sandow mentioned indie rock, noise improvisation, Shostakovich, the Bach B-flat-Major Partita, and more. It wasn’t clear to me how much variety there was within a single concert, but I got the impression that most of the concerts had a healthy mix of things. I’m certainly in favor of that: it seems more and more the case that the young composers and performers I know are interested in all kinds of music and very good practitioners of many styles. A similar, wider cross-pollination in concerts might increasingly appeal to younger audiences, too.

What most caught my attention, though, was Sandow’s overly optimistic observation that he sees no sign of classical music being dumbed down through attempts to reinvent its milieu and its programming. I disagreed and was immediately called upon to explain myself: I think people were concerned that I considered minimalism and other kinds of tonal-sounding music an example of dumbing down. I assured them that this was not the case, and promised to explain myself at greater length in a subsequent blog post. This is the result, which interleaves a number of related topics. First, some new classical music is dumbed down, and that comes from its failure to live up to the standards of what I would call new classical music—I need to explain what I mean by that. At the same time, new classical music should be distinguished from a great many other kinds of concert music (yes, yes, a vague term, I know) by composers who sometimes have very different expectations from a composer of new classical music. I conclude with some speculation concerning what these differing expectations might mean to the wider community of contemporary concert music composers and their prospective audiences.


In order to set up properly the context for my thoughts on the subject, I need to cite some passages from one of my American Record Guide reviews published in the November/December 2013 issue. The disc in question was called Bach Re-Invented (Sony 94168) with the pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the Absolute Ensemble led by Kristian Järvi, who performed music by Gene Pritsker, Daniel Schnyder, and Tom Trapp. The album’s premise was to take some Bach Inventions and commission three younger composers to create new music in their own manner related to the models. I dubbed this “the musical equivalent of making a great Hollandaise—one miscalculation and the sauce breaks.”

I thoroughly disliked Pritsker’s Reinventions (Piano Concerto). The first two movements are based on the C-major and A-minor inventions, passages of which are mercilessly repeated with the finesse of a jackhammer. Bach is also mostly unrelated to the other music in the piece, which, as I wrote, “runs a gamut of popular styles that would sound perfectly at home in a Las Vegas megaclub.” I liked the third movement, which introduced a beautiful bandoneon (played by Hector Del Curto) and was effectively based on Bach’s D-minor Invention: the mixture of styles here seemed more plausible and each contributed to the other. Nevertheless, the whole effort seems wrong-headed from the start because Bach seems more of a pretext for the album than a font of inspiration facilitating a meaningful dialogue between the old and new. These composers, it seemed to me at the time, weren’t writing new classical music, and the presence of Bach’s work reasonably led me to expect them to.

Classical music is a tradition with a history and certain generic expectations—both formal and social—that come along with it. For instance, even though the exact meaning of the word sonata has shifted over the years (it originally meant music that’s played by an instrument rather than music that’s sung), composers who write a sonata probably expect their listeners to know other pieces by that title (maybe a great many of them) and probably also expect their listeners actively to consider their prior knowledge when they hear a new one. Scott Pender’s Cello Sonata is such a piece; it interests me as much for whatever merits it has on its own as it does for the way it makes me rehear other cello sonatas (Beethoven’s and Brahms’s, for example). Of course, a composer can strike out on her own, can write a piece so far against the grain of the generic tradition of the sonata that the result might productively engage with the tradition—but even then I’m inclined to think that the composer must be deeply aware of the tradition before such a work could succeed. Marc Chan’s music might be the best example of this I can think of: his pieces J’s Box and My Wounded Head 3 (the latter dedicated to and premiered by me, I should add) are remarkable pieces that treat pre-existing music (Bach’s first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier and the passion chorale settings from the St. Matthew Passion) as reservoirs of material for a highly nuanced intertextual dialogue. His later works involving the music of Schumann continue this trend and demand, I think, an even greater awareness of their compositional subject.

There are a number of different streams of concert musical composition now that have very little to do with the classical tradition but that, nevertheless, don’t fit comfortably in non-classical traditions. They include minimalism, chance and indeterminacy, and sound art; one might stretch and add twelve-tone array composition into the mix, but it’s possible to argue that it refers to Schoenberg, which in turn refers very strongly to the Austro-German tradition. Insofar as some fundamental aspects of twelve-tone array composition work against many of Schoenberg’s conceptions of composition (especially the formal ones), I would see it as essentially a different tradition altogether. To the extent that the composers imagine, hope, or expect their music to remain performed in years to come, however, that music subscribes to the same sensibility as classical music, even if has almost nothing to do with the tradition. Like classical music, it demands our attention and thought through multiple hearings; one performance is usually insufficient.


Popular music, however, is different—it is predicated on a constant influx of new, relatively short and catchy items that stay in the mind’s ear for a few months and are eventually replaced by other offerings with equal staying power. That’s why I liked Tom Trapp’s Headless Snowman on the Sony disc. I wrote that it “clocks in at 4 minutes, makes its au courant musical points quickly and effectively—just as popular music does—and ends before it exhausts itself.”

I think that many people believe the solution to the “problem of classical music audiences” involves embracing the world of popular music more fully. This approach won’t do any damage when it’s well thought out and executed with honesty and imagination; and sometimes it leads to amazing results. I am by no means a purist when it comes to the updating of classical music performance, but I’m willing to be critical and call attention to when it works and when it doesn’t: the Kronos Quartet doing Jimi Hendrix worked; they’ve continued to have a strong career and presence. But Michael Torke singing the praises of Chaka Khan’s bass lines and thinking he was current for appropriating them (in one of his early releases) didn’t work: Khan was by then already a marginal figure in pop music, and Torke’s hitching his wagon to her star had no effect on his career whatever.

Torke is by no means alone in his misstep. I cringe when I recall Susan McClary gushing over Earth, Wind and Fire in her famous article “Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition.” She attempted to argue that the technology of recording was just as sophisticated as Milton Babbitt’s approach to array composition, that the band’s maintaining a groove was just as difficult to achieve as executing Babbitt’s complex rhythms. These are naïve, apple-and-orange comparisons, made still less tenable because Earth, Wind and Fire weren’t particularly sophisticated then and are now quaintly outdated except as the object of ’80s nostalgia. To be clear: I love McClary and think she’s one of the most important living musicologists. But even though there’s still a lot of useful material in her essay—above all her call for critics who can engage with the subjective aspects of twelve-tone and other post-tonal music in addition to (or even in absence of) the current tendency to offer little more than a technical description of its design—some of it has dated as surely as Earth, Wind and Fire’s “System of Survival.” And to the degree the ideas are outmoded, they cease to be intellectually or even culturally vital.


I do think there’s a good deal of very sophisticated music outside of universities and concert halls, though some of it may inevitably date as inexorably as Earth, Wind and Fire. My own tastes are almost insanely eclectic: Satoshi Tomiie, Tristan Perich, John Cage, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Milton Babbitt, J Dilla, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich (to say nothing of Machaut, Bach, Liszt, Haydn, Wagner) are on my mind and my playlist, and I’m always looking for new material.

Some of the above individuals may or may not represent a trend I am increasingly noticing where I encounter a number of composers who are both clearly uninterested in the classical tradition (which, I emphasize again, is fine) and, perhaps, more open to the idea of a product that, like popular music, speaks vividly to a certain, finite present, can be easily grasped with one or two hearings, and is readily or even eagerly discarded when a new work in the same vein appears. The songs of Corey Dargel and Matt Marks have very little to do with classical music, even though their work can hardly be called pop music. They have a certain sophistication that several hearings reveal, but it’s not particularly necessary to grasp that sophistication in order to enjoy their music. Part of it is a question of scale: the shorter such a composition is, the more easily it can be digested (and either forgotten or not—how many of us are listening to Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days now?). Even so, I might find myself returning to their work because their expressive or compositional merits still offer something that I want to experience again. In other words, Dargel’s and Marks’s chosen medium of song would no more assign their work to oblivion than Schubert’s.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel more than a little angst about the present tendency in new music, especially new American music, one that Milton Babbitt memorably resisted in 1975 when he said, “I dare to aspire to make music as much as it can be, rather than as little as one can obviously get away with music’s being, under the current egalitarian dispensation.” I like options. I like pieces that I want and need to hear again and again: Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians (or WTC 9/11, lest I be accused of liking only Reich’s earlier music), Cage’s Etudes Australes, Robert Morris’s MA. I need pieces that can stretch my capacity for hearing, challenge my assumptions of what a piece of music can be. (Two more recent examples: Enno Poppe’s Salz and Michał Dobrzyński’s Magnus Dominus.) But I also like somewhat less durable pieces—charming, maybe a bit profound, and more instantly understood—like Dargel’s Last Words from Texas, which I may well continue to explore, or Sage the Gemini’s “Red Nose,” which I probably won’t.

But the question remains as to whether this cornucopia of options will remain in play or whether, as another, younger generation holds increasing sway over taste-making, the options will become more limited. I mentioned Milton Babbitt’s lament above, and the recent near-canonization of Steve Reich as America’s greatest living composer suggests that he is right—as I recall, the pronouncement was made while composers like Elliott Carter were still alive, not to mention John Luther Adams or Alvin Lucier. Then, too, there is the question of the changing environments for music performance, rightly hailed by Sandow (and which occasioned this essay). These new venues might condition changing listening habits as much as the kind of music heard there.

Classical music (and whatever you want to call the other kinds of music I don’t see as classical) needs new, younger audiences to be sure. But the new audience might come at a cost. The Dinnerstein debacle suggests that today’s composers are more open to the popular music model, which is not designed, in the main, to reward hundreds of hearings, let alone initiate or sustain a canonical literature. And this is by no means a new phenomenon. Think of the 70-some operas Donizetti wrote because his audiences needed a constant supply of new fare. Same with the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. But I nevertheless worry that this more disposable concert music will lead to more superficial listening and a more fleeting sense of long-term musical memory.

I expressed more or less the same fear in the closing of my Dinnerstein review: “Classical music can wonderfully embrace the popular musical world around it—as in the work of Mason Bates or, in particular, Michael Gordon—but it cannot hope to offer momentary diversions in the same manner as pop music. That seems to be what this disc aspires to. And if this is all the future that classical music has, then classical music has no future.” I still believe this and hope new classical music will find a way to continue.

Finding the Emotion in “Left-Brain Music”: A Response to Robert Baksa (Part 2)

When I hear any music in an unfamiliar style for the first time I’m often (maybe always) unable to judge or understand it deeply, and I’m certainly not able to respond with any deep feeling to it. Never mind whether the music has triads in it or not. For example: the first time I heard Monteverdi (it was Wendy Carlos’s realization of excerpts from L’Orfeo) I was baffled—I thought it was awful and boring. But once I got used to how it went, I found that I could respond intellectually and emotionally.

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of our twentieth-century music has a much sharper learning curve. But I learn, with time. After many listenings, I find Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra beautiful; the variety of melodies and rhythm, and above all the sense of timing move me just as I’m moved when I hear Brahms’s Haydn Variations. And I’m excited and thrilled by the psychological drama Elliott Carter creates in his second string quartet. After spending some time listening with the score in hand, I find I can hear the dialogue Carter tries so hard to create in the music and perceive the very different personalities of the four instruments. And all this is in addition to what I intellectually understand about the compositional techniques in the music.

And surely some popular twentieth-century music can be very dissonant indeed. Think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which speaks clearly and easily even to the most uninitiated audiences. Now for me, the Rite is one of the most overrated pieces of our time. Still, I can’t deny the emotional power it has over me and over its audiences. There’s a lesson to be learned here. What if I had convinced people to believe, as I do, that The Rite of Spring should be retired from the repertoire? I wouldn’t have all the wonderful music written by men and women who have been inspired by it. And I have no doubt that it will inspire others to compose other music that I might love in the future. So will I discourage people from loving it, from learning more about it, from listening to it? No, of course not. I believe that we have no way of knowing what positive effects music can have, so why not allow it in? Why lock the door? This is, rightly or wrongly, what I think Mr. Baksa asks us to do—and all because he can’t respond emotionally to some twentieth-century and contemporary music and can’t accept the possibility that some of us do.

As a Cage enthusiast I couldn’t help but be irritated by Mr. Baksa’s facile and completely ad hoc dismissal of his music. Already I think there’s a wide appeal for some of Cage’s early work; the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano has been recorded over a dozen times and many people think it is a masterpiece, for instance. And now that we have a wide variety of Cage’s music available in wonderful recordings (the ones on Mode are the best for my money), I imagine other pieces will begin to make their mark, too. I will suggest two that I loved on the very first hearing: First, Roaratorio, that ebullient and richly textured glossing of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake on Mode 28–29 and Wergo 6303 (American Record Guide, Nov/Dec 1994). The world of sounds and music that Cage assembles evokes so many emotions in me, from a concert-hall reverence (the operatic aria) to wonder and joy. And of course Cage’s voice, reading his unfathomable mesostics on Joyce’s name, always moves and reassures me. A second work, of a much different sensibility, is Fourteen, a kind of concerto for bowed grand piano and thirteen instruments on Mode 57 (ARG, May/June 1998). The bowed piano has a stunning, gorgeous, lyrical sound; the other instruments, playing so simply and so unobtrusively, make me tranquil and attentive. In that piece I experience time in a way I never have before, and I’m certain others can respond positively if the music is here for them to experience.

In 1967, the great American scholar Leonard B. Meyer (in Music, the Arts, and Ideas) predicted a pluralistic musical culture in which diametrically opposing musical styles would co-exist: he advised listeners to stop attempting to judge which style was better and, instead, judge each according to its own standards of excellence and elegance. Now, more than ever, we must heed Meyers’s advice. We must build bridges to other styles, other generations—let alone other cultures.  For if we continue to fight over who is right and who is wrong, what is emotional and what is intellectual, what we should cherish and what we should discard, we may find ourselves with no classical music at all.

Finding the Emotion in “Left-Brain Music”: A Response to Robert Baksa (Part 1)

Robert Baksa’s argument against the overwhelming prevalence of left-brain-centric contemporary music and its adherents (American Record Guide, Nov/Dec 1999) strikes me as the latest example of a divisive mindset in Western classical music that has persisted since time immemorial. Critics have always tried to show how one music is inferior to another, usually by resorting to their own particular backgrounds. Scheibe criticized Bach’s music for not being natural enough; much later, Philip Glass called Boulez and his Domaine Musicale “these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this creepy, crazy music.” There is truth to both criticisms, I admit, but the truthfulness only strictly obtains when the standards of another musical sensibility (proto-Classicism in Scheibe’s case, minimalism in Glass’s) are applied lock, stock, and barrel to musical styles with very different aims and aesthetics. In similar fashion, the composer Robert Baksa appeals both to the history of Western music and to the oversimplification of recent scientific experiments to support a claim that dissonant music (particularly serialism, Cage, and Ives, who seem to be Mr Baksa’s principal targets) can only stimulate the left side of the brain—the hemisphere that does not respond as strongly to emotional content.

Disputes over taste and preference are not unique to Western classical music, of course; but since the market for classical music is pitifully small and probably shrinking all the time, ultimately these disputes do us no favors. And worse, I’m afraid they may have a destructive effect, discouraging people from exploring possibilities and alternatives and eventually experiencing them fully. Let me first respond to Mr. Baksa’s arguments and then suggest a few thoughts on our twenty-first-century condition.

When we write history, we must privilege some facts and exclude others in order that the story we tell makes sense and feels true to us. Even so, I think Mr Baksa’s account of history is more exclusive than it needs to be. For example, we have certainly not always assumed that the most complicated or progressive music is always the best. Mr Baksa’s “periods of simplification,” in short, have usually not been ignored. The fiendish rhythmic subtleties of the late fourteenth century, the Ars Subtilior, for example, never held lasting sway. Likewise, the chromatic experiments by Lasso, Gesualdo, and Vicentino didn’t substantially change the prevailing style of the time.

Nor does Mr Baksa’s account of the natural appeal of consonant intervals—because of their more audible place in the harmonic series—hold up very well. Our wonderful, euphonious thirds were once regarded as incidental and harmonically unstable. In fact, it was only when Dunstable’s sweet “English countenance” made its way to the continent that composers began thinking about making thirds the dominant feature of the musical landscape at all. Moral: our ideas about what is interesting or moving or beautiful in music change, and they’ll probably continue to do so. The “absolute,” perfect state of triadic music that Mr. Baksa would like us to believe in has never existed, not even in the West.

Now as far as experiments in listening are concerned, I’m not an expert, but friends of mine who are experts believe that we are still at the threshold of our understanding of how the human brain responds to stimulus, how it interprets and processes what it takes in. For example, the left and right sides of the brain do interact and influence each other, but in ways that are still unclear. And, perhaps more important, what we consider to be consonant intervals are not inherently familiar to all. Non-musicians can’t discriminate between them and dissonant intervals as well as trained musicians can. (I know this from teaching music appreciation for 10 years; so do many of my colleagues.) And so I’m content not to take these experiments so seriously that they influence my decisions about what I want to listen to or what others should listen to. In other words, I choose not to believe that dissonant or intellectually-stimulating music is devoid of emotion. I’ll make up my own mind after I listen, thanks. And furthermore I will try to create a situation in which my students and friends can be free to make their own choices, too.