Dessner and Greenwood on DG


Bryce Dessner – St. Carolyn by the Sea

Jonny Greenwood – Suite from There Will be Blood

Bryce and Aaron Dessner, guitars;

Copenhagen Philharmonic, André de Ridder, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon CD


That crossover is not a “one size fits all” phenomenon is amply demonstrated by a new recording on DG. St. Carolyn by the Sea features two of rock’s best known guitarists and is out on March 3rd. These are no dabblers or interlopers; they take the development of classical “chops” very seriously. Bryce Dessner, whose regular gig is with the National, and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood have both written several pieces for orchestra. Their offerings on the DG CD are a study in stylistic contrasts.


Dessner’s work hews more closely to the minimalist aesthetic. The three pieces here each clock in at over ten minutes in duration, one closer to twenty, and Dessner uses that time to build ostinatos, textural overlays and passages of contrasting moods. Several of his sweeping crescendos are worthy of John Adams or Philip Glass. On St. Carolyn by the Sea and Raphael, Dessner neatly incorporates clear-sounding electric guitars and percussion writing that give the pieces the impetus of a rock drummer but, when the entire section is going hell for leather, writ large. In the work Lachrimae, there are also more delicate passages filled with sustained strings that are particularly affecting. Although Greenwood’s piece is the one that is a suite from a film score, there is a cinematic quality to passages in Dessner’s music too. Some of St. Carolyn’s more thrilling passages could easily be heard alongside a top notch suspense film.


Long fascinated with artifacts of modernism – including instruments such as the ondes martenot, for which he has written in the past – Greenwood draws upon a palette of stylistic resources that is often different from Dessner’s touchstones. Pileups of dissonances, cluster chords, and angular melodies suggest that Messiaen, Stravinsky, Dutilleux, and Ligeti are also on Greenwood’s listening list. In his Suite from There Will be Blood, I’m particularly smitten with the overlaid glissandos and chordal intensity of the movement “Henry Plainview.” Where there is repetition or the use of ostinato, as on “Future Markets,” it is more off kilter, frequently shorn off in dramatic fashion. And even though each movement of the suite is distilled from a film score cue, these aphoristic vignettes are vividly detailed and characterful.


So forget your preconceptions about “rock stars” as classical dilettantes: Dessner and Greenwood are the real deal.


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