[4 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In my review of Kronos Quartet‘s Bryce Dessner: Aheym last year, I said of the composer/guitarist for the National, “There’s more to come. There’s got to be.” I felt that Dessner’s collaboration with the Kronos Quartet was more auspicious than stunning. It was also, I believe, one of the first recordings of his classical compositions. But now that we have St. Carolyn by the Sea / There Will Be Blood on Deutsche Grammophon of all labels, I’m worried that Dessner might be peaking early. I have no evidence to suggest that everything from here on out will be inferior. Still, “St. Carolyn by the Sea” and its brethren are terrific pieces of music by any stretch.
Dessner’s work covers a little more than half of this release. But why are they paired with a miniature suite from Jonny Greenwood‘s score for There Will Be Blood? That’s a question for Copenhagen Philharmonic conductor André de Ridder, who initially had the idea. On the surface, it’s not a stretch to see why they are together. Both composers play guitar for critically acclaimed rock bands. Both composers didn’t jump into the pool of classical composition after finding success in the rock realm, they were wading around in it long before the National and Radiohead ever took root. And both pieces are indepently stunning. André de Ridder’s justifications are more thematic. He believes that both composers have a knack for wide-open frontiers in their sound, something that would give John Cage a bad case of agoraphobia. Anyone who has seen the film There Will Be Blood will agree that Greenwood’s writing matched the landscapes perfectly, something that would likely get Aaron Copland to give an approving nod. But as far as Dessner’s work goes? Everything is in full bloom.
“St. Carolyn by the Sea” really does bring quite a bit to mind. Speaking for myself, I’m alternately reminded of the dawning swells of “Egmont” followed by the gentle guitar plucking of Partridge and Budd when they journeyed Through the Hill. The harmony goes askew in “Lachrimae” when introductions gives way to conflict. Is it major or minor? Tense or calm? The explosive statements of purpose in the title track are swallowed by this eponymous sea and the halfway mark of “Lachrimae” is comandeered by pulsing activity of the waves. “Raphael” wakes from a coma, looking about, trying to piece together what kind of upheavel brought it this far. As it gets to its feet, you can feel the dizziness, the light-headdedness overcome it with tiny percussion toys and gently-played rapid strings. An electric guitar motif ushers it out of its stupor, gaining momentum with the ensemble along the way. The use of electric guitar in this setting goes by almost undetected. That’s how well it blends with the orchestra. It is, by no means, a “so-you-think-you-can-compose-classical-but-really-you’re-just-a-rock-guitarist” use of the instrument. It’s ornamental, at the most.
Appraising Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood here doesn’t seem as necessary. Not because there’s not a lot to write about, but because the soundtrack has been available to the general public since late 2007. Everyone knows how it sounds, how it makes them feel, and also what Jonny Greenwood has been capable of since (scoring at least three more movies, one of them being another Paul Thomas Anderson feature). The music is a frightening synthesis of Aaron Copland, Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti that matches the wide-open American west, death, and the chaotic cutthroat world of protagonist/antagonist Daniel Plainview. It was quite a match, though a subjective one, of course (I thought it was perfect while my sister-in-law, the cinephile of the family, found it a tad distracting). The de Ridder/Copenhagen Philharmonic performance does not differ greatly from the sountrack issued on Nonesuch, but there are differences nontheless. For one thing, only six tracks appear, comprising of just 21 minutes of the original music. This leads to the next difference, which is that the rubatos are nice and stretched. André de Ridder doesn’t have to worry about fitting the music into scenes for a film. This is especially noticeable on “Open Spaces” where the glissandos are less pronounced and consequently move slower and smoother. Other pieces have the luxury to take their time, like “Future Markets” and “Oil”. And with the exception of “Proven Lands”, the approach is less violent.
So there you have it. Greenwood’s “There Will Be Blood” suite receives a softer focus, playing to the music’s elongated strengths. Dessner’s works are a tremendous leap forward for the composer and sets the bar very high for any indie-pop musician who wants to take a stab at classical composition. Combined under André de Ridder’s guiding hand and Deutsche Grammophon’s professional stamp of integrity, St. Carolyn by the Sea/There Will Be Blood will go down as a modern classic. It can’t be anything else.