Rock and classical have been mixing together like peanut butter and chocolate since the 1960s. On one side, there were groups like Electric Light Orchestra, ELP, Gryphon, and Yes adding symphonic elements to rock music, and on the other, composers such as Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Ennio Morricone, and George Crumb borrowed the amplified sounds of rock in works such as “Black Angels” (Crumb), “A Rainbow In Curved Air” (Riley), or pretty much the entire output of Glass’ work in the 1970s.
The latest generation of composers, however are musical omnivores. Those born in the 1960s or 1970s have grown up with a whirlwind of sounds, everything from rock to jazz to world music and classical. A new release on the venerable classical label Deutsche Grammophon collects recent works by two of these musical chameleons, Bryce Dessner and Jonny Greenwood. Both guitarists, Dessner is best known as a member of the indie rock band The National, and Greenwood is a member of the much-lauded group Radiohead, whose songs have already proven to be an inspiration to such classical artists as Christopher O’Riley, who has released two albums of solo piano renditions of Radiohead’s music.
Three works by Dessner open this new album, two of which feature the composer on electric guitar. But instead of using the instrument as a showpiece, Dessner’s writing emphasizes the textural use of the electric guitar as part of the ensemble. On “St. Carolyn by the Sea,” Dessner and his brother Aaron’s instruments echo the high bell-like sounds of the strings and percussion that open the piece. The strings for the Copenhagen Phil take the main theme, and the while one guitar strums individual notes using a rat-a-tat sound, the other delicately amplifies the chord structures of the work. The mood of the music, as well as that of the second piece on the disc, “Lachrimae,” is reminiscent of the first half of Arvo Pärt’s “Tabula Rasa” with its frenetic bowing and cascading sheets of string sound.
My favorite of Dessner’s works on the album is “Raphael,” an atmospheric piece that opens with the electric guitars using their reverb and delay effects to spin an aural web. The middle section of the 17-minute work finds the strings and winds playing a pensive theme over arpeggiated electric guitar, and the finale is all brooding low winds and strings.
The album is rounded out with a suite of music from Jonny Greenwood’s score to the film “There Will Be Blood.” I found the film brilliant and unsettling in no large part because of Greenwood’s music, which is kind of like the anti-Copland. Greenwood’s wide open chords devolve into hints of atonality and evoke the desolate California oil fields in which the film takes place. The cue “Proven Lands” is all fidgety pizzicato and slapped strings. “There Will Be Blood” brings back memories of the film, but stands on its own as a brilliant work of darkened Americana.
Hear a sample of "Raphael" by Bryce Dessner: