Rock meets classical as Perth explores music by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James Ledger and Andy Akiho.

Soft Soft Loud: the music of Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James Ledger and Andy Akiho

Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle, WA

February 13, 2014

Bryce Dessner (guitar), Margaret Blades and Alexandra Isted (violins), Nicole Forsyth (viola), Matthew Hoy (cello), Andrew Rootes (bass), Emily Clements (flute), Ashley Smith and Phil Everall (clarinet), Allison Wright (trumpet), Sean O’Brien (trombone), Louise Devenish (percussion), Daniel Susanjar (drums), Alessandro Pittorino (organ), Timothy Young (piano)

Ohio-born Bryce Dessner is a guitarist and co-founder of Brooklyn-based indie rock band The National. He has also studied classical guitar and flute, obtained a masters degree in music from Yale University, worked with composers like Steve Reich, David Lang and Philip Glass and been influenced by everything from Baroque to rock. He’s currently composer-in-residence at Muziekgebouw Frits Philips in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

So while there were definitely elements of Dessner the rock guitarist in his performance of his own Feedback Counterpoint for solo electric guitar, there was above all, both here and in his two other compositions featured as part of this sell-out Fremantle Arts Centre courtyard concert, evidence of Dessner the fluent, fluid and highly inventive classical composer.

Those two other compositions, Tenebre (2012) and Aheym (2009), both of which have recently been recorded by the Kronos Quartet, served as a frame for the program. Tenebre, for a string quartet which eventually expands to three (multi-tracking/prerecording is used) and vocals (ditto), references the Christian service of the same name (French from the Latin tenebrae, “darkness”) which takes place during Holy Week. It was written in honour of the Kronos Quartet’s long-serving lighting designer Laurence Neff, as well as to celebrate Steve Reich's 75th birthday; in it, Dessner wanted to think about some of the relationships between music and light.

Aheym is, according to Dessner’s program note, Yiddish for “homeward”. Originally for string quartet but here arranged for chamber orchestra, Aheym was inspired by the immigrant experience of his father’s Jewish family, who emigrated to the united states from Europe in the first half of the 20th century, and by his grandmother’s stories about that time. It is, according to Dessner, “a musical evocation of the idea of flight and passage.”

If the subtle and ingenious use of string harmonics and the extraordinary combination of voices and strings are what stands out in Tenebre, it’s the bracing combination of driving, muscular rhythms, variegated timbres and textures and extremes of volume, register and articulation that make Aheym such a compelling work. It and Tenebre were given equally compelling performances by an ensemble which included cellist and Soft Soft Loud Artistic Director Matthew Hoy and violinist Margaret Blades.

Following Tenebre, clarinettist Ashley Smith fizzed and bopped to a rhythm track and diverse sampled sounds in Nico Muhly’s It Goes Without Saying (2005) before an expanded ensemble came to the stage for the world premiere of Perth composer James Ledger’s When Chaplin met Einstein (2014).

Specially commissioned by the Fremantle Arts Centre for Soft Soft Loud, When Chaplin met Einstein was partly inspired by a meeting between those two geniuses and the collision of worlds old and new. In addition, it utilises the classic “Pierrot” ensemble of piano, violin, cello, flute, clarinet and percussion (used by Schoenberg in his seminal work Pierrot Lunaire). Well, not quite: Ledger has ingeniously replaced the piano with a Hammond organ and here, organist Alessandro Pittorino seemed right at home in sparkly bow tie, engaging in a lively, supple rhythmic conversation with the rest of the ensemble.

Feedback Counterpoint – the only work in which Dessner also appeared as performer – opened the second half of the program. Dessner’s largely improvised piece (the title references Steve Reich’s famous Electric Counterpoint) was on this occasion something else; this was the guitarist as colourist, most of the sounds produced without Dessner even touching the strings (he even used a bow). By turns lyrical and abrasive, the piece proper was prefaced by a gorgeous “Perth Prelude”, inspired by Dessner’s having visited Rottnest the day before and swimming with seals.

A slamming car door (seriously – a section of a car formed part of the stage’s backdrop) and strings and winds imitating sirens, screeching of car tires and even medical equipment featured in the following work led by clarinettist Phil Everall: Andy Akiho’s evocation of his mugging and subsequent hospitalisation, to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem (2008).

While minimalist techniques featured strongly in many of the compositions, this superb concert was much richer than that, offering a sizeable, cross-generational audience a taste of the variety, vitality and sheer listenability of what’s currently on offer in contemporary classical music.