This work was commissioned by Carnegie Hall. The World Premiere was given by Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Nadia Sirota (viola) and Nicolas Aldstaed (cello) in Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City on April 26, 2017

  • 15 min

Programme Note

I have often been asked in the press about the influence of Steve Reich on younger composers, and it is difficult to overstate his unique position in modern music. His music has not just been essential to my life and work as a composer, but it was an inspiration for me becoming a musician to begin with. I now live in Paris and his presence in Europe may even overshadow his importance in America, a living modern master who is celebrated constantly in the major concert halls. Fifty years ago, the thought of an American composer having such importance in Europe would have been nearly unimaginable. Today, he is everywhere and his influence has opened up a broader conversation between two worlds of contemporary music. With all this acclaim and a sense of living musical history, it is possible to overlook the incredible generosity and graciousness of the man himself, whom I have been so incredibly lucky to know and to work with as a performer of his music, and later as a mentor and supporter of my own compositions. Steve’s influence is difficult to pigeonhole, extending across so much of contemporary music and well beyond the corners of genre or musical ideologies. He is equally influential in the electronic and rock worlds as he is in the contemporary classical sphere. I often point out, for instance, that his composition for multiple electric guitars, Electric Counterpoint, has had as much influence on my style of playing the guitar as any seminal figure of ’60s rock music.

The past six months have been framed by two earth-shattering events in my life: one personal and profoundly positive, and one public and devastatingly negative. The positive event was the birth of our first child (who arrived three-and-a-half weeks early, consequently delaying by a month or two the completion of this new work). Thus the piece I was writing took on another layer of meaning as I finished the last notes in the middle of sleepless nights while holding my newborn son. Waking up on November 9 in Upstate New York, I found that nothing looked or sounded the same after the election of Donald Trump. Pieces I had begun before the election were discarded, projects I’d been working on for years suddenly felt irrelevant. 

After seeing a powerful clip of Yoko Ono screaming for several minutes in response to the election, I decided to name my piece Skrik Trio. Skrik, which means "scream” in Norwegian, is also famously the title of Edvard Munch’s painting and the many poems he wrote about it. In one of them, he writes, "and I heard, yes, a great scream—the colors in nature—broke the lines of nature—the lines and colors vibrated with motion—these oscillations of life brought not only my eye into oscillations, it brought also my ear into oscillations—so I actually heard a scream—I painted the picture Scream then.” Munch wrote poems about all his paintings, often before he painted them. I thought about this phrase "brought also my ear into oscillations” as a very Reichian description of the effect of his music on me. I also thought about how traumatic events can re-frame discussions around works of art we had long ago made decisions about. In the case of Munch’s Scream, one of the most ubiquitous paintings of the 20th-century suddenly took on a new meaning for me. 

My trio begins and ends with a short drone that is interrupted by a series of episodes of varying rhythmic complexity and interaction between the three musicians. The work unfolds with a shifting balance between moments of "dialogue” between voices, and moments of rhythmic unison where the music moves more like choreography. When thinking about this work, I was also considering some of the origins of minimalism. La Monte Young’s Trio for Strings (1958), often referenced as one of the first "minimalist” compositions, served as a reference point for my choice of instrumentation, and my work begins and ends with a drone that is reminiscent of his Trio for Strings. The last bars of my trio also contain a fleeting reference in the violin to the final harmonic sequence of Reich’s masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians. 

This work utilizes certain string techniques we might associate more with the modernist sound world of Ligeti (who also wrote a piece dedicated to Steve Reich) or Lutosławski, but rhythmically and formally it inhabits a space very much connected to the vocabulary of Steve Reich. While my new work may not sound at all like Steve Reich, his work is everywhere, deep inside my musical DNA.

—Bryce Dessner