Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Bryce Dessner of the National on his new classical record: “I'm the same musician; whether I'm with the band, or I'm at home or doing an orchestra piece&#82

Bryce Dessner of the National on his new classical record: “I'm the same musician; whether I'm with the band, or I'm at home or doing an orchestra piece&#82

11 February 2014, 11:00

“I exist through my notes” – Steve Reich

Those words from the legendary minimalist composer came during an interview in which he discussed the duality that appears to exist with himself and other musicians who straddle the “rock” and classical worlds. In particular, Reich name checked Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Bang On A Can All-Stars’ Mark Stewart…and Bryce Dessner, guitarist and arranger with The National and a respected classical composer in his own right. Reich believes, and more of this later, that regardless of what genre these guys are working in, they are first and foremost musicians…the only difference is that one form is notated, the other is not.

Bryce Dessner is a classically trained musician who happens to also play in a rock band; he’s not a rock musician trying his hand at composition. Studying classical music from an early age and eventually obtaining a degree from Yale School of Music, Dessner formed The National with his brother Aaron, the Devendorf boys and Matt Berninger in the late 1990s, and not too long after he also started his neo-classical chamber music band Clogs with Padma Newsome, who also studied at Yale. In spite of the success of The National, Dessner has kept working in the classical sphere, composing and being commissioned to write a number of pieces, the most recent of which was last year’s stirring Aheym with Kronos Quartet.

This month sees the release of St Carolyn By the Sea; Suite from There Will Be Blood - a collection of compositions from Dessner (plus Greenwood’s score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic movie) performed by the Copenhagen Philharmonic and conducted by the brilliant German Andre de Ridder. Over the phone from New York, Dessner explains the fact that de Ridder had been performing the compositions together was the partly the inspiration for pulling the pieces together as one performance: “Andre is this amazing German conductor, one of the best practitioners of news music like this,” explains Dessner, “and he works with a lot of great orchestras – the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Copenhagen Phil, who recorded this [St Carolyn]. We’d done a couple of projects already with him conducting, and Andre’s worked directly with both me and Jonny before and really likes to program our music together. So doing that theme kind of came from Andre, and it made a lot of sense just to pull the recordings together.” My own experience of de Ridder comes from his participation in Efterklang’s incredible Piramida concerts in 2012, perhaps the most seamless connection of rock and classical music there’s been in recent years, so the question is was de Ridder the obvious candidate to oversee this particular project? Dessner explains: “I think he’s part of my generation of musicians in a way, where those old genre definitions don’t mean as much anymore, because of our educations and the music we’ve grown up with listening to and the different influences we have. Andre will go to Africa and play violin in a band with Brian Eno, and then he’ll conduct a Wagner opera! He’s definitely someone who has diverse musical lives…that mirrors in a way the diversity some like me or Jonny like having in our musical universe.”

The pieces on St Carolyn are not all new compositions, but a collection of commissions that date back to 2007. Dessner takes up the story: “Raphael was the earliest piece that I wrote; it was originally written for a small chamber orchestra. I expanded it a bit and reworked it – the version you hear on the recording is actually a new, better developed version of the original piece.” Bryce Dessner is someone who, when composing a piece, often relates it directly to another cultural item. The title piece St Carolyn By the Sea is inspired by Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur but, I ask, is there anything that ties the three individual pieces together? “I think in a way they’re all responding to each other,” says Dessner. “Raphael was the first one I’d written in that way, and I think that Raphael is very much around a drone so it seems to have a lot in common with early minimalist drone music…things like La Monte Young, who I was listening to, or even a composer like Morton Feldman.” Is there, then, an influence from rock music as those two composers exist on a liminal between these worlds? “Yes,” agrees Dessner, “there is a crossover even there, like you were saying, between rock music . With people like John Cale from the Velvet Underground, there is that droning sound of viola through the music. I think also the way I use guitars on Raphael maybe had more in common with certain guitar bands like Sonic Youth – they were really influenced by Glenn Branca. So at the time I was really experimenting with guitar textures, thinking more about the texture element and less about the notes we were playing.”

The guitarist reveals more about how there’s a clear link in sound across the compositions: “From there I was really developing specifically the way I write for strings; in St Carolyn By the Sea you have a lot more activity in the strings, and then especially in Lachrimae you have a full string orchestra – in a way that has more in common with Bartok than early minimalist music.” What’s striking about the three pieces is that despite their differences – just listen to how the harmonium drone of Raphael differs from the sumptuous string arrangements on the beautiful Lachrimae – the record hangs together without any jarring effects. So how did Dessner manage to achieve this? “It’s an evolution,” he reveals, “and that’s part of why I enjoy writing this kind of music – it’s a constant education and learning experience. I really like all those pieces; they’re different in their own way, and I don’t want to write the same piece twice so…just like a band doesn’t want to repeat itself, I’m continually developing different ideas and thinking how I can push myself.”

Although Dessner studied and listened to the likes of Reich and Philip Glass, whom he now could really class as his contemporaries, a piece like Lachrimae pays its dues a little further back in history. The piece shares its name with a composition from 16th century Renaissance composer John Dowland. His Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, was originally composed for five lutes or violins, so does Dessner’s piece pay some kind of tribute to that? “Yeah; I was asked to write a piece for a string orchestra…” begins Dessner. “I really love, and I grew up playing, classical guitar. The two things I played a lot of on classical guitar were Bach and John Dowland’s Fantasies, and there’s also a Dowland piece called Flow My Tears which is interesting for many, many reasons. Dowland did multiple versions of it and Lachrimae is based on that original song – he has a string consort arrangement of that piece.” Were there, or are there, other more recent versions that also inspired? “I’d actually heard a bunch of recordings,” states Dessner. “I heard Jordi Savall play it and so I decided I wanted to write a piece inspired by it. In the tradition of modern composers being inspired by Dowland, Benjamin Britten being the most famous – he actually wrote a Lachrimae himself – I was also following in that tradition.”


Bryce Dessner three

The tricky part of playing an electric guitar with what’s predominantly or completely an acoustic orchestra is how to make sure the guitar doesn’t dominate or override the rest of the instruments, something Bryce was well aware of when it came to the recording of the pieces: “On St Carolyn, my brother and I were there so that’s performed live,” he explains. “It is difficult when you’re working with acoustic instruments and then you have an electric guitar through an amplifier – it’s so much louder – but to get the kind of tone we like to get you do have to push the amplifier a little bit.” But Dessner as we know is very experienced at this sort of thing: “I’ve spent years playing electric guitar in a chamber music setting, due to my time with Clogs, so I’m kinda used to playing dynamically in a way. In certain sections the guitars are really written to blend into the orchestra and other sections they’re written soloistically where they should peek out above the texture. I would say that’s what might be unique about the guitar writing on the record, that it’s not meant to be soloistic “rock” guitar. It’s about blending into the colour of it; just as in the way with brass and strings, the guitars become their own section.” Does that mean the guitars are treated like another section of the orchestra, and conducted sympathetically? Dessner agrees: “That’s something I worked on a lot; the guitars are essentially clean, they’re not using a lot of effects and they’re almost played quite classically in a way.” Not always, mind you: “On Raphael there is a technique I’m using, during the middle section, that kinda sounds like a hive of bees, a swarming bee sound – and there the guitar is laid flat on my lap, almost like a lap steel guitar, and played with the handle of a screwdriver…you can turn it on top of a single string and it creates this kind of amazing tremolo sound. So there are some things in the music that are quite particular!”

Recently on BBC Radio 4 there was a documentary set around the impact of serialism and the theories of Schoenberg and Boulez; it argued that these composers killed melody in classical music, making it an elitist thing and taking it further away from its popular cultural roots in folk music and dance. Applying a set of rigid structures meant there was little scope for improvisation or interaction with the audience, and I wonder if that conservatism still hangs around classical music and puts “rock” music listeners off investigating even those composers well known to Best Fit’s readers, the Reichs, Glasses and Brancas of this world. I ask Bryce if he thinks this remains the case in the constantly evolving musical world of the 21st century.

“You know, I think people are really curious these days,” he says. “Part of what’s happening with the music industry shifting in the way it has there’s been a move away from mainstream radio monopolising what people have access to. With the internet, it’s so much easier – if you’re in to creative, detailed music – to look into what your influences are, what the artist you like listens to, what your friends are listening to…the degrees of separation are so much shorter, and that’s playing out in many different ways.” Does that even apply to Dessner in terms of how he developed or still develops as a composer? He agrees: “In terms of the education of musicians, part of learning certainly seems to be having access through YouTube, Spotify or whatever it is you can find. Y’know, even just yesterday I heard about some really obscure piece of American 1950s mid-century orchestral music and within seconds I’d found it on YouTube! And that, fifteen years ago…could have taken a month! I think that’s a really healthy thing and, take a musician like Tim Hecker who’s a really interesting composer working in an electronic format: he’s making orchestral music but coming at it from a different direction.”

So it seems that the impact of Schoenberg might have been lost in the decades since, especially the ones in which Dessner was studying? “I think, actually, that audiences whether they’re classical or coming at it from a more popular music direction are more open-minded than ever before,” he affirms. “Look at a popular rock band like Radiohead, who are in a way far more adventurous than any avant-garde composer but they’re writing songs that they can play in front of hundreds of thousands of people or whatever it is…and I think that people are really curious about music these days and there’s possibilities for young musicians opening up that weren’t there.”

Dessner continues: “You mentioned Schonberg, and certainly in the 20th century there was a lot of exciting music, but it kinda led towards classical music ending up a little bit in the realm of the ‘academy’, you know, in an academic format and popular music really being the music that was part of a culture…and I think that’s shifting a bit, and it’s definitely a living culture with lots of exciting musicians doing new programming and composers writing new work…and there’s crossover in really interesting ways. The crossover between rock and classic isn’t interesting to me in a cultural way, or sociological….’oh there’s a rock musician playing scales on an electric guitar’….that’s not interesting! What is, is if we get some exciting music happening.”

I finally come to that Reich quote, and ask if the only simple difference between something like St Carolyn By the Sea and what The National does is that it’s notation versus non-notation: “Part of what I enjoy about the music I write for concert music or classical music is that it’s a little bit like what you do as a writer where there’s a certain process that you go through,” explains Dessner, “in terms of making something really clear. The clarity of communication; like when you’re communicating through a score with musicians. It is a particular skill and it’s like a language…so I think of it like, that I speak French, and learning French has kind of enabled me to travel in a certain way and I lived in Paris for a year…and so it’s a very similar thing, I think.” The guitarist is making it clear that the compositional aspect of his musical career isn’t more worthy or special than playing guitar in a rock band: “Learning to read music doesn’t mean that the music is necessarily better or more advanced, it’s just a tool. It’s a tool for communication, and I’ve met people who don’t read music at all who write really complicated pieces…and on the other hand there’s composers who are very advanced notators butt their music is exceedingly simple and can play it by ear.”

I ask if Reich is just describing himself when he speaks of musicians like Dessner, Greenwood and Stewart; surely he’s the perfect example of someone who is equally at home composing or creating song structures that would fit into the rock world? “I think that reading music, notating music is kind of…it can expand your horizons and open up possibilities of collaboration with different kinds of musicians in ways that are exciting,” states Dessner. “I think Steve is pointing out a specific thing….he’s an interesting case himself! His Music for 18 Musicians which is one of his most famous works, the early version of that was developed partly in a collaborative way, I think some of it was notated, some of it developed in rehearsal and then later that piece was put down to score – after he developed the piece he more meticulously noted that into a performance score. And there’s lots of examples of that; of composers who over time revise things….but for me it’s a different type of thing.”

Is it something more personal and simple than that? The process differs, not the person? Dessner agrees: “I’m the same musician; whether I’m with the band, or I’m at home or doing an orchestra piece, I’m the same person, y’know? When we’re rehearsing with The National we’re teaching each other by ear, when I’m working with a string quartet I’m presenting it as a score and I’ve thought through all the details beforehand. I generate music in some similar ways but it’s the process that ends up being different.”

St. Carolyn By The Sea is out on 3 March, via Deutsche Grammophon.

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