Bryce Dessner — Image via brycedessner.com

Bryce Dessner & Friends

Walker Art Center & Liquid Music Series

The two programs presented this weekend at the Walker Art Center — in collaboration with the Liquid Music series — were billed as The Music of Bryce Dessner. As it turned out, that title was only half accurate. The concerts did feature five works by Dessner, the classically trained composer and guitarist who is also a member of indie rock band The National. But perhaps more importantly, Dessner acted as curator and catalyst for a series of performances by an assortment of his friends and collaborators. The result was two fascinating — and very different — evenings of music spanning a wide range of genres and styles.

In general, Friday’s concert was more laid-back, anchored by three pieces for string orchestra — the Minneapolis Music Company — interspersed with works for other combinations, all sharing a spacious and open-ended feel. The concert opened with Dessner’s Lachrimae, a piece that started as a mysterious-sounding rumination and eventually built toward an insistently rhythmic, contrapuntally dense climax before a brief, slightly unsettling coda. Next came two small-ensemble works by Richard Reed Parry — a composer who, like Dessner, is also in a rock band (Arcade Fire) — from his series Music for Heart and Breath, in which the musicians use stethoscopes to attune their playing to their biological rhythms. The first, Interruptions, lived up to its title with a series of brief, tentative sketches, while the second, Quartet, was a more coherent variation on the same theme. Following the pieces by Parry, in a bit of a change of pace, his fellow Montrealer Laurel Sprengelmeyer (aka Little Scream) took to the stage with two arty folk songs, one solo and one backed by several of the evening’s other artists.

Caroline Shaw — Image via firstchairpromo.comAfter Sprengelmeyer’s set, composer Caroline Shaw presented two pieces. The first, By and By, was the most memorable piece of the evening, an alternatively wistful and strident setting of three gospel tunes for string quartet and voice, with Shaw herself contributing the expressive vocal part. The second, Entr’acte, a string-orchestra setting of a work originally written for string quartet, was an in-depth exploration of the moments when a piece of music turns left and suddenly transforms into something else. Following Entr’acte, the orchestra remained on stage to perform another expanded string quartet, Dessner’s Tenebre, a richly varied piece culminating in an ecstatic section featuring recorded vocals from indie folk singer Sufjan Stevens. After a brief intermission, the concert ended with another foray into more popular styles with a droney set of songs by Quiet River of Dust, a collaborative project of Parry, Sprengelmeyer, and percussionist Stefan Schneider.

While Friday’s concert leaned more toward the pastoral side of both classical and popular music, Saturday’s sounds were more confrontational and less classifiable, though all united by an interest in the intersection between music and machine. Dessner opened the concert with two very different pieces for solo electric guitar: the descriptively titled Feedback Study, in which he evoked Sonic Youth at their most experimental, and Garcia Counterpoint, an intriguing juxtaposition of material by Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and minimalist composer Steve Reich. Next up was trombonist Ben Lanz with an untitled work in which he processed almost inaudible sounds from his instrument through layers of electronics to produce an immersive atmosphere. After Lanz’s piece, Shaw returned with a brief, engaging piece for looped violin and voice. These three solo performances were followed by a brief set by experimental rock duo Buke and Gase, who used their trademark homemade instruments to create an absorbing wall of sound.

Sō Percussion — Image via sopercussion.comAfter an intermission came the two large-scale events of the evening, both featuring the new-music quartet Sō Percussion. The first was a collaboration with Buke and Gase, a six-movement suite of inventive and varied songs originally created for last year’s Ecstatic Music Festival. Following this set, Sō Percussion closed the show with Dessner’s 40-minute Music for Wood and Strings, performed almost entirely on an instrument called a “chord stick,” a sort of amplified hammered dulcimer created by Buke and Gase’s Aron Sanchez. Inspired by American genres ranging from string-band music to fingerstyle guitar to the minimalism of Reich and Philip Glass, the piece proved a fitting end to a concert in which seemingly no stone was left unturned in pursuit of rich new sounds.

Over the course of both evenings, Dessner showed himself to be not only a skilled composer but also an insightful curator, a gently self-effacing emcee, and an enthusiastic supporter of musical curiosity in all its forms. The audience seemed happy to be on the journey with him, and no doubt many listeners walked away with plans to check out more of what they had heard. (I know I’ll be looking forward to hearing more from Shaw and from Buke and Gase.) It was clear that all of these musicians take what they do seriously, but not so seriously that they can’t have fun, and their fun was infectious. One hopes the Walker and Liquid Music can keep finding opportunities to put on programs like this.

Bryce Dessner photo by Shervin Lainez
Sō Percussion photo by Claudia Hansen

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.