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Bryce Dessner – who composes “gorgeous, full-hearted music” according to National Public Radio – seamlessly blends aspects of the classical and the popular in his concert works, the compositions simultaneously alive to past and present and the potential of the future. Dessner’s scores, described as “deft” and “vibrant” by The New York Times, draw on elements from Baroque and folk music, late Romanticism and modernism, minimalism and the blues, as well as the inspiration of iconic figures from Béla Bartók, Benjamin Britten and Henryk Górecki to Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Such disparate American iconoclasts as John Fahey, La Monte Young and Glenn Branca also figure into this young composer’s sonic world. All these influences – not to mention his globetrotting experiences as a keenly collaborative musician across genres – wind together to inform Dessner’s organic and individual voice as a composer.
The most impressive document to date of Dessner’s art is the Deutsche Grammophon album St. Carolyn by the Sea, which features his debut recordings for the storied Yellow Label. Released on March 4, 2014, St. Carolyn by the Sea includes three luminous Dessner compositions – the title work, Lachrimae and Raphael – performed by the Copenhagen Philharmonic under conductor André de Ridder. The recordings also feature performances on guitar by Dessner and his twin brother, Aaron. Born in 1976 in Ohio and now based in New York City, Dessner first earned wide renown as a co-founding guitarist (along with Aaron) of the Grammy Award-nominated rock band The National. Yet, as WQXR New York has pointed out: “ ‘… Of The National’ is a phrase that often follows Bryce Dessner’s name. It’s not too shabby a suffix, but… listeners may find that title to be inadequate for his talents, if they haven’t already.”
The stage was set for the release of Dessner’s DG debut by the enthusiastic reception for Aheym, a 2013 album by the ever-trailblazing Kronos Quartet devoted to his compositions. In the cross-cultural arts magazine Bomb, veteran avant-garde composer-guitarist Elliot Sharp wrote about Dessner’s compositional method in the title work: “a dramatic opening, dark and insistent, then a breath, then an emerging melodic seed… The seed ultimately grows… to a rousing climax.” The U.K’s Independent singled out the title work, describing it as “an elegant braiding of interlaced lines that pushes the music forward in waves.” WQXR’s contemporary music site Q2 made Aheym an Album of the Week, praising the music as “stunning, nostalgic and beautifully hypnotic.” Pitchfork declared Dessner’s compositions to be “fierce, vivid music.”
St. Carolyn by the Sea presents Dessner’s works alongside a suite by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, one of Dessner’s peers as a rock guitarist and genre-bounding composer. For all his rock success, Dessner was trained as a classical musician. He graduated with a master’s degree in music from Yale University, having studied classical guitar, flute and composition. Settling in New York City, he performed with such contemporary-music ensembles as the Bang on a Can All-Stars, along with co-founding the improvisatory instrumental group Clogs, which was influenced by contemporary takes on early music. He worked with the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning composers Steve Reich and David Lang, as well as with Philip Glass, Michael Gordon and Nico Muhly. In 2006, Dessner founded the MusicNOW Festival, a celebration of contemporary music that he curates annually to acclaim in his native Cincinnati. He is currently composer-in-residence at Muziekgebouw Frits Philips in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
In a video about the making of the album St. Carolyn by the Sea, Dessner explains: “It’s not that as a rock musician you come into classical and then you go back to rock. You’re the same musician wherever you go.” But, he adds: “Part of what draws me to concert music is that there is a celebration of risk-taking. There’s a lot of talk about classical music and its audience aging, but I disagree with that. The reason that someone like me, who can perfectly well tour around in my rock band, is drawn to this culture is that there is a certain appetite and energy for performing adventurous music.”
In a recent article on Dessner as a composer in Listen magazine, Kronos Quartet leader David Harrington recalled: “When we were performing Bryce’s music along with Steve Reich’s Different Trains and Triple Concerto at a Reich festival, Steve said to me: ‘I can’t believe one person can be such a good composer, a great guitarist, a wonderful curator – and a nice guy!’ But it’s true. That festival of his in Ohio is fantastic – it symbolizes all the varied communities he brings together in music.” Composer Nico Muhly shared his theory about what sets Dessner apart in the classical world: “In classical, virtuosity can sometimes be its own goal. Bryce has wonderful technical facility, but it’s always about musicality for him.”
Explaining the various merits of rock and classical, Dessner says: “When writing a rock song, economy is vital – a song’s emotional core should be apparent quickly. It’s a great discipline for learning the virtues of clear, compelling ideas. Extended composition is a more personal space, like poetry – less immediate but perhaps more profound. What I think is great about what’s happening now is that the culture is more permeable, with artists collaborating more freely and working in different areas. The fact that such a venerable label as Deutsche Grammophon is opening up to new composers like me is a sea change, and I think you can feel it in the culture at large.”
The music on the album St. Carolyn by the Sea artfully blends immediacy and resonance, color and emotion. Rhythmically energized and melodically haunting by turns, the album’s beautiful title work – based on an hallucinatory episode in Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur – features the chiming guitar tones of both Dessner brothers woven into the fabric of the orchestra. “When writing for guitar on St. Carolyn by the Sea, I wanted to do something where it comes out in places with subtle solo lines but that fits in with the overall texture rather than dominating it,” the composer says. “I have no interest in importing rock tropes.” His bell-like guitar also colors Raphael, which Dessner wrote while experimenting with an old harmonium. “It develops out of a warm drone sound, something that it has in common with some early minimalist pieces.” The album’s centerpiece, Lachrimae, references both the John Dowland tune of the same name, something that Dessner has long played on guitar, and Britten’s orchestral work based on the Dowland. But the actual string writing in Dessner’s piece was inspired by one of his desert-island works: “Bartók is my favorite composer, and I think his Divertimento is the pinnacle of string writing.”
In celebration of the release of Dessner’s DG debut, pieces from St. Carolyn by the Sea were performed in March 2013 by the LPR ensemble under André de Ridder at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge, as well as by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with Dessner as part of the MusicNOW Festival.
New Dessner compositions include Murder Ballades, a work inspired by American folk music, for the multiple Grammy-winning new-music ensemble eighth blackbird. The group premiered the piece in Eindhoven in 2013 and has recorded it for release in 2015. So Percussion premiered Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings at Carnegie Hall in 2013, along with recording the piece for future release. The Kronos Quartet has commissioned a quintet from Dessner to perform with the group on guitar, to premiere in May 2014 at London’s Barbican. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus commissioned Dessner’s Black Mountain Songs to be premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November 2014, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic has commissioned a work from Dessner to be premiered in 2015.
Key past compositions by Dessner include the string quartets for Kronos (Aheym, Tenebre and Little Blue Something); Tour Eiffelfor the Brooklyn Youth Chorus; O Shut Your Eyes Against the Wind for Bang on a Can; The Long Count for orchestra and four singers, co-written with Aaron Dessner, for BAM’s Next Wave Festival; The Lincoln Shuffle, a cycle of pieces for brass ensemble and electric guitar premiered at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Library for Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial; and Propolis for bass clarinet and electronics, co-composed with David Sheppard and Evan Ziporyn, for a sound pavilion by Matthew Ritchie.
“Every time I compose for a new performer or combination of instruments, I’m inspired and invigorated,” Dessner says. “It’s a beautiful thing to have a job where you’re constantly learning and expanding the limits of what you can do. I’m always dreaming up new ideas.”