Bryce Dessner has always been one of the more gifted artists in contemporary music. Along with his twin brother, Aaron, Dessner has made a name for himself by composing wistful, deep-cutting compositions for his full-time gig as guitarist in The National. But when he’s not busy pulling the strings for the New York five-piece (or in his other group, The Clogs), he’s usually busy with some other project or collaboration—whether it be working with Sufjan Stevens, Philip Glass, Steve Reich or Antony (from Antony and the Johnsons), or curating events like Cincinnati’s acclaimed MusicNOW Festival, to name a few.
So when the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet asked Dessner to collaborate for the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival in 2009, naturally Dessner said yes. (The Kronos Quartet also appeared on the Dessner brothers-helmed compilation Dark Was the Night.) The result was a piece titled “Aheym,” which was inspired by Dessner’s Polish immigrant grandparents, who settled in Brooklyn (the song title means “homeward” in Yiddish). And now Dessner and Kronos have taken that collaboration to the next level, releasing an album comprised of four works oscillating between effusive strings, anxious arrangements, fluid movements and sparse, harrowing vocal work by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
From the moment it begins, Aheym pulses with tension. The title track bursts forth with an onslaught of frantic jabs before retreating into a more tempered melody punctuated with strings that swoon and swell. But the tension is always present, lurking just beneath the surface. It’s relieved, if only momentarily, on the sophisticated, sonorous “Little Blue Something” before launching into the anxiety-ridden “Tenebre” (meaning “darkness”), a piece that moves and melds in several different fashions and instances. The strings build and bend, and soon vocals become yet another instrument in the mix, rather than serving as any sort of centerpiece. Meanwhile, the last track, “Tour Eiffel,” starts things off with the choir, before an arsenal of strings, piano, guitar and other instruments are eventually at the helm, feeding into that thickening cloud of perpetual disquiet.
For Dessner, the move from indie rock to classical composition feels like much more than a mere side project. Having earned a master’s degree in music from Yale, Dessner seems made for this type of orchestration, and the collaboration with Kronos, a quartet that has nearly devoted itself to performing contemporary compositions from living composers, feels like a natural fit. The album is both sincere and sinister. Fans hoping for a dose of mellow indie akin to The National won’t find it here. What they will find, however, is a startling classical work that is just as harrowing and heartfelt as the music of Dessner’s indie-rock alter ego, if not more so. And because of that, Aheym is a masterful, soul-scourging work.