Deceptive Magic: The Music of Bryce Dessner

My review of the Bryce Dessner concert for the Walker Art Center on their Green Room Blog. From the April 13th, Program B, including performances by Buke and Gase, So Percussion, Benz Lanz, and Caroline Shaw.

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Deceptive Magic: Noah Keesecker on The Music of Bryce Dessner, Program B

Let’s dispense with the obvious. Bryce Dessner is a sorcerer, Buke and Gase is a griffin, Ben Lanz is a cyborg, Caroline Shaw is a unicorn, and Sō Percussion is a machine.

Great. Glad we cleared that up. So if you had bumped into me before last Saturday night and asked what I was doing that evening I could have said, in metaphorical truthiness, “I’m going to go see a sorcerer play music with a griffin and a machine. Oh, and there will also be a cyborg and a unicorn. Wanna join me?” To which you would have said “I’ll grab my wand while you pull the brooms around.”

Seriously though. There was a lot of energy in McGuire Theater on Saturday night and I am not going to say it was all good. It was certainly well crafted, well educated, and well executed but there were some elements of the evening that I just couldn’t get over. Liquid Music is one of my favorite concert series anywhere but the more I pay attention the more I wonder if this trend of the Indie/Classical interloper isn’t simply a new version of orchestra pops concerts; Indie Chamber Music for Millenials. There. I said it. We’ve got  Sufjans and Newsoms and a good line of bands working with top tier chamber ensembles and symphonies. Of course this isn’t a revelation, good old Pitchfork has tossed the Indie Classical label around for quite some time. And so what? The label is just the words we make up so we can talk about something that doesn’t have a name. And so what.

This overnight review has turned into three, four, five overnights for me. Like that old college friend that’s “just passing through” and crashes on your couch for a few too many days, I’ve been wrestling with identifying what it was about this concert that left me so, well, not impressed.

So I broke this down into my main observations (read: complaints) and a silver lining.

Your Credentials Don’t Matter
Nothing feels more like the eye-rolling snake oil call of a traveling salesman than waving credentials like a white flag of peace before you enter the hallowed white walls of contemporary art institutions. You know that scene from Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?

Do I really need to state for the millionth time that college degrees are not a magic recipe for making good art? They mean something but they do not guarantee quality. Correlation does not imply causation. I got hung up on the fact that everybody wanted me to know Dessner went to Yale for music. Yes, I just kicked that dead horse so let’s move on.

Silver Lining: The more I think about it the more I feel that my own bias is the problem here. The institution waves the academic flag because the institution needs it, not the audience, not the artist. The artist is going to make their work regardless of announcing their pedigree and the audience is going to like or dislike their music regardless of the artist’s pedigree. Dear Audience and Artist, you are free to go.

A Minimal Amount About Minimalism
Can we just admit that Minimalism is the Pop Art of the classical music world? That hocket is the audio equivalent of halftone and being functionally monophonic is an harmonic palette of just primary colors?

Silver Lining: There is some great Pop Art in the world and talented artists continue to test its boundaries.

Punch-In, Punch-Out
It’s a structural thing. It’s about the construction of the work, specifically Dessner’s work. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that he writes straight into a DAW. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I would be the last person to tell another artist that he must suffer the misery of a quill and inkwell or that you should write your canon out by hand rather than click a couple buttons, trim the fat and call it a day. But I’m not talking about canons, I’m talking about being able to hear the tool. “And how, all knowing and curmudgeonly wizard, can you hear the tool of composition? Please, enlighten us!” Well, there was an overwhelming amount of blocks. A layer begins, another layer is slapped on top, then you pull something out for a bit, then you layer it all back in. It was as if you could just see someone punching tracks in and out on a sequencer. Lines did not blend, they were jutted up against each other like a mixture of hard geometric shapes. Melody was down played in favor of textures and process, nudge a loop, get a new permutation. Nudge it again, get another permutation.

Silver Lining: Electronic dance music and a majority of popular music idioms have ingrained a very satisfying appreciation for blocky layers and abrupt change. The reason is because time is difficult to parse when things move slowly so the more you repeat with a frequent change the more you demarcate time for the listener. It’s pleasing to hear, it’s jarring, it’s well crafted, which all makes it exciting.

Did anyone else notice that there were very few dynamics during this concert? Ben Ganz had dynamics (but some suspiciously flat sounding audio quality at times), and Caroline Shaw wins the nuance award for the evening with her clever, delicate, and expertly balanced work for solo violin and voice.  The rest of the concert was mostly just… loud. Not uncomfortably loud but just consistently lacking in the use of softer amplitudes. This to me is something that really sets classical music apart from pop genres. It’s super hard to listen to Mahler, or Brahms, even Stravinsky in your car because the works are constructed out of a amplitude range that goes from bombast to susurration. The Saturday night show had very little whispering and felt more like any other rock show. One could argue that loud is a choice, and it can be, but when you deny yourself the expressive power of using a full dynamic range, I consider that to be a poor choice. Not to mention tiring.

Silver Lining: Loud is easy. Loud is fun. Loud keeps your attention.

You may be wondering if I have any compassionate or happy bones in my inner ear and the answer is yes, yes I have a few. Buke and Gase proved to be a fantastically quirky duo that write some really fine songs and Arone Dyer’s voice and melodic sense cannot be overstated. For two people and a pile of invented instruments, they produce a facile capriciousness of style and an amazingly varied color palette.

As mentioned previously, Caroline Shaw performed a felicitous little piece for violin and voice. It was a simple little piece and like great simple things it was deceptively complex. I call this easy complexity and it is a mark of artistry.

Finally, we come to Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings, a percussion piece written for a mutated sort of dulcimer created by Aron Sanchez. I’m going to be totally honest and say that the dulcimer is probably one of my least favorite musical instruments ever created and a 21st century dulcimer is still a dulcimer. The one magical moment from the work was near the climax there was a sheet of resonance hanging in the air and then like some kind of magical creature, there emerged some of the most sparkling overtones that I have heard in person for some time. And it occurred to me that no sorcerer’s apprentice is going to make this kind of ethereal sonic event happen, only a full fledged sorcerer can pull that off.

Overall, I thought I hated this concert but as I wrestled with the lingering sounds and mulled over all these pesky details I came to really enjoy how persistent the music had been. I am not an advocate for liking everything that is made. I like to dislike things because it is in taking issue with work that we are faced not just with those challenges in front of us but the challenges inside of us as well.

I love writing grants! It’s so much more fun and easy than playing music ... said no musician, ever.

Talking about grantwriting is like talking about writing about art. That seems like a real bummer of a situation to be in yet many artists are eager to understand how to turn their passion into prose in a way that speaks to funders while not betraying their vision. I am called on to speak on this topics across many disciplines every year but in 2013 MacPhaill Center for Music asked me to describe an approach to grantwriting through the lens of music. So I took a crack at marrying form to funding and this is what I got.