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First Watch: Kronos Quartet Plays Music By The National's Bryce Dessner

When you hear the name of guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner, you wouldn't be wrong to think immediately of hugely acclaimed indie-rock outfit The National. But he's also a stalwart of the new music scene. A collaborator with everyone from eighth blackbird, So Percussion and Bang on a Can All-Stars to Philip Glass and Steve Reich, he's the cofounder of the Brassland label and curator of Cincinnati's MusicNOW Festival. So when it came time for a string quartet to invite him to write a piece, it's hardly surprising that it was the Kronos Quartet that came calling.

Dessner first met the ensemble when he invited them to participate in the "Dark Was The Night" project, a album released four years ago that he produced with his brother and bandmate in The National, Aaron Dessner. "They did this amazing cover of Blind Willie Johnson's 'Dark Was The Night,'" Bryce Dessner says, "and [violinist] David Harrington is such a voracious musical mind, he asked me for a piece that they could perform in Brooklyn in 2009." The result was Aheym — "homeward" in Yiddish.

And what an appropriate title for this music. Kronos premiered Aheymin Brooklyn's Prospect Park, just a few blocks from Dessner's home. But its inspiration comes from even further afield.

"David is so curious about everything," Dessner continues. "He was asking me about my family history, and I told him that my grandmother came from Russia, through Poland. And he told me that Kronos was actually going to play a concert in Lodz, the Polish city of her childhood, and they could play my piece there. And so Aheym became a piece inspired by my grandmother. She actually passed away shortly after the premiere, so though I hadn't intentioned it to be so, Aheymbecame something of a memorial to her."

Since the premiere in Brooklyn, Kronos has played Aheym about 100 times around the world, by Dessner's estimate. But Dessner, who studied guitar and composition at Yale, points out that Aheym is actually his first work for string quartet. "A classical string quartet is one of the great archetypes of music," he points out, "but also very difficult to write for. It's an amazing unit that can sound like an orchestra, but in some ways it's very unforgiving compositionally — every tiny thing is heard, every voice is so important."

Adding to the pressure was that Aheym was commissioned by one of the most influential groups of the last several decades. "It was a little intimidating to write what was really my first string quartet for Kronos — they're such masters, and so influential for my generation in particular," he says.

The visually dazzling video for Aheymwas made by Matthew Ritchie, one of Dessner's longtime friends and collaborators. A painter and large-scale installation artist, Ritchie made this video by having his paintings animated. "There's a generative, cyclical nature to the music," Dessner observes, "and Matthew's film has this very kinetic energy to it. And it's full of motion, but that motion is abstract — and painterly." That's a good description of Dessner's music as well: full of dense colors and small movements, provocative, powerful and beautiful. The album, also titled Aheym, is being released Nov. 5 on Anti-Records.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.