by Maggie Molloy
To say that guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner thinks outside the box would be a bit of an understatement. After all, why limit yourself to the dimensions of a typical hollow-bodied acoustic string instrument when you can create your very own amplified hammered dulcimer?
Though perhaps best known as the guitarist for the indie rock band the National, Dessner is also a distinguished composer and innovator in his own right. He recently released “Music for Wood and Strings,” a 36-minute piece scored for amplified, dulcimer-like “Chordsticks” and performed by the experimental percussion quartet Sō Percussion. Dessner designed the instruments with the help of instrument builder Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gase, a Brooklyn-based musical duo.
Each Chordstick resembles two electric guitar necks laid out next to each other in opposite directions, though the instrument is played more like a hammered dulcimer. Each instrument has eight double-course strings and is tuned to a pair of chords. Using sticks or violin bows, the percussionists can sound either of the two harmonies, play individual strings, melodies, drones, and tremolos, or create a wide range of percussive sounds. The Chordsticks vary in pitch range, and the group is anchored by a bass instrument that can play fretted chromatic lines, as well as by occasional, muted interjections from a bass drum and woodblocks.
Commissioned by Carnegie Hall, “Music for Wood and Strings” seamlessly combines elements of post-minimalism, avant-garde, and folk musical influences. The effect is mesmerizing. Dessner creates a remarkably rich range of musical timbres within a circling, post-minimalist framework, crafting a beautiful and kaleidoscopic sound world through his dense contrapuntal rhythms and constantly shifting musical textures.
“I thought the instruments are so beautiful, I’m going to make [the piece] a really rich sound world—very consonant, also inspired by American folk songs, which are based on these open chords and open tunings,” Dessner said. “So the piece itself has that sound about it, where it’s played by these percussionists and the rhythm is incredibly difficult and layered and precise, but then it’s done with harmonies that are really sweet, actually.”
The work is charming and sincere, employing the perfect balance of silence and sound to create a fully captivating sonic meditation. Dessner’s colorful musical palette features hocketed rhythms, mirrored inversions, drones, tremolos, rhythmic repetition, contrapuntal textures, and a primarily tonal musical language, creating a vivid and distinctive sound that pulls the listener in from start to finish.
Writing the piece for four of the most renowned percussionists in contemporary classical music also doesn’t hurt. Sō Percussion’s perfect blend of rhythmic precision and organic expressivity brings the score to life, immersing the listener in an unforgettable soundscape filled with sweet strings and shimmering rhythms.
Who knew you could craft such an entrancing and intricate sound world from just a few pieces of wood and some strings?