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Bryce Dessner: when less is less

Minimalism, both good and bad, at a festival of American music

Charlie McCann | May 15th 2015

Bryce Dessner is a professional shape-shifter. Best known as a guitarist in the maudlin indie band The National, he is also a classical composer and festival organiser. Last weekend, he was all three at once. Hosted by the Barbican Centre in London, “Mountains and Waves” was Dessner’s miniature festival of music by Americans and about America. Contemporary orchestral pieces by Dessner and his friends, among them the composers Philip Glass and Nico Muhly, rubbed shoulders with folk and electronica. On the night I went, two minimalist works were on the bill: Dessner’s “Wave Movements” and Steve Reich’s “Drumming” (1970-71), a classic of the genre. One showed when less is more; the other when less is less.

“Wave Movements”, an hour-long piece Dessner wrote with Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, was performed by the Britten Sinfonietta. The visuals set the tone: hanging just behind the ensemble, a large screen glowed with images of the ocean by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Shot from a distance, his slate-coloured seascape rippled almost imperceptibly with calm, steady currents. It looked like a bad day at the beach in Maine: overcast and windy, with a strong chance of monotony.

The music was as grey as the imagery. “Wave Movements” takes one motif—a limpid violin melody—and repeats it, again and again. As more violinists took up their bows, the sound swelled. When raspy, listing notes began to surge through, it felt as if a wave would soon crash in on itself. Except that nothing quite so dramatic happened; these tinges of dissonance simply receded and disappeared, until the cycle began again—sometimes with darting pizzicatos to suggest the pitter-patter of rain, sometimes with more cellos to suggest the tug of an undertow, but always shored up by the same gentle motif.

Whereas Dessner takes one melody and does some basic arithmetic with it, adding and subtracting his strings to vary the intensity, Reich works like a geometer might: he takes one rhythm and multiplies it, staggering the pattern until he ends up with a mosaic of sound, as expansive as it is intricate. “Drumming” begins simply, with the steady thwack of mallet against bongo, tapping out a beat. Before long, the first drummer is joined by another, and then another, until four of them stand centre-stage by a row of bongos, their arms moving like pistons as, thwack by thwack, they build up a rhythm. As soon as the pattern is established, one drummer very slowly and carefully begins to fracture it: he changes tempo so that he is out of sync—but only just—with the others. It almost feels like a mistake, but give it time: when one rhythm steps away from the other, like two dancers uncoupling, it gives them the space they need to twirl around each other. Gradually, new rhythms phase in and out, while new timbres, from marimbas and glockenspiels, singers and a piccolo-player, add colour to the palette. The effect is kaleidoscopic.

In “Drumming”, one rhythm, repeated again and again, begets new ones. “Wave Movements” seems to use repetition for repetition’s sake—it doesn’t take us places we haven’t been before. Brian Eno once described minimalism as “a drift away from narrative and towards landscape”. In the cracks between Reich’s rigorous time signatures, you can hear snatches of the polyrhythms he heard when he studied drumming in Ghana. That sweet violin in “Wave Movements” gets us to the coast, sure—but there isn’t much to see there. Listening to Reich, you find yourself in a frenetic drumming circle in Accra. 

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