The Music

Notes on the Music from Wires

Posted by SoundBox

February 22, 2019



BRYCE DESSNER  Garcia Counterpoint, for Solo Electric Guitar and Tape  2015  |  8 mins
In 2015, brothers Bryce (b.1976) and Aaron Dessner of The National fame curated an epic 59-song Grateful Dead tribute album entitled Day of the Dead, a comprehensive compilation that features the talents of a wide swathe of artists. The album celebrates the vast, masterful catalog of songs written by Grateful Dead singer/guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, and lyricists Robert Hunter and John Barlow (the four who composed the lion’s share of the Dead’s music).

Bryce’s own contribution to the album, Garcia Counterpoint, is far from a Dead cover. Bryce summons his substantial compositional chops to transcribe one of Jerry Garcia’s famed guitar solos, reformulating and dosing it with “the Steve Reich (b.1936) treatment.” The result is a lush instrumental tribute to Jerry’s unique sound. Garcia Counterpoint adds yet another dimension to the mother of all tribute albums, one that elevates the Dead—and pioneering composer Steve Reich and Bryce himself—as major contributor to the Great American Songbook.

BRYCE DESSNER Aheym   2009  |  10 mins
Bryce Dessner offers these comments: “Aheym means ‘homeward’ in Yiddish, and this piece is written as musical evocation of the idea of flight and passage. As little boys, my brother and I used to spend hours with my grandmother, asking her about the details of how she came to America. (My father’s family were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia.) She could only give us a smattering of details, but they all found their way into our collective imagination, eventually becoming a part of our own cultural identity and connection to the past. In her poem ‘Di rayze aheym,’ the American-Yiddish poet Irena Klepfisz, a professor at Barnard in New York and one of the few child survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, writes: ‘Among strangers is her home. Here right here she must live. Her memories will become monuments.’ Aheym is dedicated to my grandmother, Sarah Dessner.”


BERIO  Folk Songs  1964  |  23 mins
Luciano Berio (1925-2003) was an Italian musician, conductor, music theorist, and experimental and electronic music pioneer. LOCAL TIDBIT: During his time as composer-in-residence at Mills College, Berio wrote Folk Songs for his then-wife, mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian. The songs in this collection illustrate Berio’s fascination with various musical cultures, exploring different countries and regions. Regarding the title, Berio commented: “My links with folk music are often of an emotional character. When I work with that music, I am always caught by the thrill of discovery . . . I return again and again to folk music because I try to establish contact between that and my own ideas about music. I have a utopian dream, though I know it cannot be realized: I would like to create a unity between folk music and our music—a real, perceptible, understandable conduit between ancient, popular music-making which is so close to everyday work and music.” He later reflected: “My interest in folklore is very longstanding—even as a boy I was writing pastiche folksongs. Recently this interest has put down deeper roots, and I have tried to gain a more specific and technical understanding of the processes that govern certain folk idioms....”

Black is the colour… (USA)
I wonder as I wander… (USA)
Looin yelav… (Armenia)
Rossignolet du bois… (France)
A la femminisca (Sicily)
La donna ideale (Italy)
Ballo (Italy)
Motettu de Tristura (Sardinia)
Malorous qu’o un fenno (Auvergne, France)
Lo fiolaire (Auvergne, France)
Azerbaijan love song (Azerbaijan)


BRYCE DESSNER  Murder Ballades  2013 |  20 mins
Murder Ballades was inspired by folk songs about real and imagined murders from America’s early settlement period. Bryce takes the song’s melodies and envelopes them in evocative accompaniments to create a highly charged atmosphere. On display is a brilliant and imaginative soundscape, achieved via special piano techniques, wailing string glissandos, punctuated chords, and other effects. LISTEN FOR: Brushy Fork, a Civil War fiddle tune, takes the cake with its propulsive rhythm, buoyant energy, and foot-stomping jollity.

IVA BITTOVÁ (ARR. HLAVENKOVÁ):  Elida  2005  |  3 mins
Czech violinist/singer/composer Iva Bittová (b.1958) teamed up with New York’s fierce chamber ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars to produce Elida, part of a multi-part work. Throughout, we hear sweeping piano lines meeting the lushness of a full string ensemble, while clarinet improvisations meet electric guitar noise. This music is sophisticated, direct, edgy, and nostalgic, cleverly mixing Eastern European classical music and folk traditions with angular string writing and heartbreaking Czech vocal melodies. Iva Bittová offers these comments: I once received a book of poetry from a fan in Prague after a concert. The book was written by the Czech poet Vera Chase, whose work tends toward feminism in my opinion. A few years later, I was searching for inspiration for my new music, and I found her poem “Elida.” I was inspired by the provocative and somewhat erotic nature of the poem. Also, I feel there is some humor in the lyrics, which I always like.

No one has touched me like you so far
I haven't met that right one yet
With a look and scent that is pure through and through
No one equals your smoothness
Made out of bones and perfume
The purest one
Just you
Oh, so gently you, mine
May touch me

I thought about this person in the poem. Then, surprise! I remembered that my grandmother’s favorite soap was called Elida. Perhaps this poem is not written for a person after all. I have tried without success to contact Vera Chase to ask her if I am right. I think I am. It’s fun to wonder.”

JEANETTE YU is Editorial Director at the San Francisco Symphony.