Going National

A week ago was Election Day.

I was driving west on Route 34, listening to the very first election results coming in, listening to predictions and commentary, and getting ever more discouraged. So I picked a CD almost blindly out of the holder in my visor and slipped it in, listening as the radio gave way to music.

To the music of the band The National, to be exact. Their latest album, High Violet.

Around the same time, I got program notes from the bassist and composer Jack Vees for his new piece that would be performed this week in a couple of concerts, in New Haven and in New York.

This is the beginning of Jack’s program notes:

When Ben Verdery asked me to come up with a new piece for him, I jumped at the chance, but I did have one question for him. I knew I wanted to compose a piece that had some sort of pre-recorded backing tracks. I wanted those tracks to come from an album that Ben considered one of his favorites. The album he picked was High Violet by The National. (Bryce Dessner, one of Ben’s former students, is the guitarist in the band.) That choice led to some interesting, if unexpected possibilities.

I took several isolated sound clips from the CD and ran them through a process that has some electronic and acoustic elements to it. I played my sound clips into a grand piano with the sustain pedal held down. The resultant sound is not so much like reverb, but more of a tuned resonance of the original sound that went into the piano. It carries a lot of the harmonic content, along with echoes of whatever voice or instrumental sound went into it. This provides a big, soft-edged, ambient backdrop over which there is space to give Ben lots of wide open melodies, and even a spot for a good, old-fashioned guitar solo.

The piece is called National Anthem. The National. National Anthem. Get it?

Anyway, I just sat in on the sound check for the piece. Yup, it sounds pretty much like Jack wrote: resonant and atmospheric. The samples jump across the album; they’re mostly instrumental, but sometimes a lyric will erupt (“…to Ohio in a swarm of bees”). Sometimes the guitar solo wanders through the colored haze of the electronic track, echoing or commenting on High Violet; other times it rubs against it. Listening to Vees’s National Anthem is an interesting way to re-read High Violet.

Ever sung or played instruments into a piano with the sustain pedal held down? It’s fun. I love the way the piano holds onto the sound. The sound board and strings rub off the edges and send the sound back, softly glowing.

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