Bryce Dessner: El Chan (Deutsche Grammophon) Review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Bryce Dessner

El Chan

Deutsche Grammophon

Apr 10, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

On Bryce Dessner’s latest orchestral triumph, El Chan, the musical polyglot navigates even more effortlessly within the classical music spaceadding greater distance between his rock “roots” and his current creative output.

Even for an emerging musician, El Chan‘s three compositions are a glowing artistic achievement. But for someone like Dessner, who also serves as the lead guitarist and composer for The National, these compositions are additional material in an unrivalled body of work. Dessner, in addition to winning a Grammy for The National’s Sleep Well Beast, has amassed a long string of commissions from some of the world’s most prestigious philharmonic orchestras: Paris, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, to name but a few, as well heavyweights Kronos Quartet, Eighth Blackbird, Steve Reich, and Jonny Greenwood.

“You’re the same musician wherever you go,” explained Dessner in a recent interview. And examined through this lens, Dessner can easily move between the rock forward-thinking of The National, and the more expressive, insoluble nature of his in-demand classical compositions.

One of El Chan‘s compositions, “Piano Concerto for Two Pianos,” features sweeping arpeggios from the Labeque sisters (who play the piano on each of the album’s pieces). These conversing lines of prose don’t just add texture to the piecethey lend a point of reference to the composition’s oscillating flashes of brilliance. The themes in the third movement of “Concerto,” and indeed on the album as a whole, seem to reverberate off of the other linescreating a sort of vortex of sweeping pianos, violins, and cellos. But then, as is the case with the bulk of The National’s discography, there are moments of negative space, gaps that exist outside of the expected paradigm. That space soon gets filled with a “chorus” of repeating motifs, remarkably in contrast to the unique individualism of the composition’s first two movements.

On the more quietly emotive composition, titular “El Chan” (written for and inspired by film director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose film The Revenant Dessner provided additional musical compositions for), that fluidity of space becomes the focal point.

Although the album was composed on guitar and performed on pianos, the only guitar-led track, “Haven,” is a gorgeously shimmering statement that serves as extra punctuation to Dessner’s mastery. (

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 5/10


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