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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Dessner

Uncovering the Mystery Behind Bryce Dessner’s St. Carolyn by the Sea

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Album cover for St. Carolyn by the Sea; Deutsche Grammaphon/Universal Music 2014.

Album cover for St. Carolyn by the Sea; Deutsche Grammaphon/Universal Music 2014.

Since Deutsche Grammaphon/Universal Music released conductor André de Ridder and the Copenhagen Phil’s St. Carolyn by the Sea–a collection of orchestral compositions by both The National’s Bryce Dessner and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood–on March 4, Dessner’s seemingly nonstop schedule has shown no signs of slowing.

The composer and guitarist has since contributed to the Kronos Quartet’s 40th Anniversary Celebration at Carnegie Hall on March 28, and  a reunion with the quartet for a world premiere at Barbican Concert Hall in London is scheduled for May 13. And while his “Murder Ballades” will be performed in the states of Oregon, New York, and Ohio throughout the month of April, Dessner has a full slate of tour dates with The National through August.

In a recent interview, Dessner spoke at length about writing orchestral music, the lesson that rock music teaches, and what ultimately attracts him to contemporary classical music over pop.

 Daniel J. Kushner: What influence did your orchestral song cycle “The Long Count” have on your progress as a symphonic composer and the trajectory that led you to the compositions on this new recording?

Bryce Dessner: Part of that experience really  gave me a real appetite for this music and for developing–you know, further–my own voice, and so, out of that, “St. Carolyn by the Sea” is in a way a much more, I think, developed composition. It uses some of the same techniques that I was using in “The Long Count”, specifically the mirror, kind of canonic behavior in the guitar writing….in “The Long Count” some of the guitar behavior is more sort of riff-oriented, whereas in “St. Carolyn,” the guitars are sort of treated as a section of the orchestra, so they sit timbrally like in the orchestral color, like the winds or the brass or the strings.

DJK: What relationship, if any, does the piece “St. Carolyn by the Sea” have to the concerto as a form? It doesn’t feature the guitar in a conventional means for a concerto, but I’m curious if there’s any correlation.

BD: I think a lot of my favorite electric guitar playing actually behaves that way, where the guitar is used as a kind of shading or a color, and less the kind of rock-driven tendency,  rock tropes. Playing pentatonic scales over orchestral music is not something I want to do or listen to. That tends to be what you think of for an electric guitar concerto, so I really didn’t want to write a traditional concerto in that sense.

I think that [in] orchestral music, there’s a mystery–the communion you get of so many musicians working together, [there’s] a kind of elusive energy about that that to me is one of the great human aspects of art, in the orchestral tradition. Where else in modern art do you see 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 people making something in real time? The mystery and the magic of that to me feels much more exciting than playing out my solo lines over the top of it. But I would say that doesn’t mean I don’t want to write a concerto, but I don’t think I’d do it for the electric guitar first. –Bryce Dessner

DJK: Is there a particular  instrument that you would be keen to explore in a concerto first?

BD: I think that writing for solo violin, [there are] just so many incredible players nowadays, and young people who are doing really exciting programming, so that would probably be my first. I would say violin or cello.  I’ve really developed as a string writer in the last four or five years, and I think I have enough to say now with those instruments that writing something like a concerto would be a really exciting goal for me.


DJK: In comparing your collaboration with Kronos Quartet on the album Aheym, this new recording St. Carolyn by the Sea has that intense, mesmerizing rhythmic quality that seems characteristic of your work. But here the compositions seem to expand and take shape at a slower, perhaps more brooding pace. Is this in part a result of writing for different instrumentation, or because there are different musicians involved?

BD: The larger pieces are slightly less anxious I think, they have a little less of that driving energy about them. I’m not sure if I made a conscious decision about that or if the instrumentation led me to that. I think specifically in the case of “Lachrimae”, it has to do with the musicians I was working with–so the Amsterdam Sinfonietta commissioned that piece. You know, I often try to think about–when I write instrumental music, the hardest thing is finding an idea. Once I have an idea, the music kind of comes. But I try to find a way into the piece, is what I always say. That may be these kind of non-musical references that I make, but more often actually, it’s who I’m writing for. So in the case of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, they’re a really great conductorless ensemble and sinfonietta in Amsterdam–really , really phenomenal players. Really, It’s probably one of the best groups like that in Europe. And they play beautifully–they can play Renaissance or Baroque music, but they also can play new commissions and they’re just really good at both. So I think that’s part of what led me to “Lachrimae,” is I wanted to do something that kind of sat in between those two spaces. And so, the piece itself, being based on the John Dowland “Lachrimae”…there is something kind of peaceful about it, you know, and I think that I wanted to write a piece of music that was breathing a bit deeper in a way and less sort of hurried.

DJK: How do you feel that your music and that of Jonny Greenwood’s compliment each other on this album?

BD: I think Jonny does some really inventive things with harmony, and maybe my music is sort of more centered around what’s happening rhythmically…People ask me, ‘Does the rock music experience benefit at all, writing these kind of longer-form, more ambitious concert pieces?’ And I think that there’s something you learn as a rock musician about the immediacy of sound. That doesn’t mean poppiness, catchiness. It means actually just the kind of primary element of material and keeping things focused in a way, and I hear that for sure in his music, and I hope that it happens in mine.

DJK: You’ve been very successful at balancing your work as a composer with your very busy schedule as guitarist in the band The National. Do you think you’ll have to choose at some point to focus on one more than the other? If so, does one feel closer to your heart?

BD: My life in The National is really about my relationship to my brother [guitarist Aaron Dessner]. We’re twins….The National is a place that we really thrive together, and that relationship is kind of fundamental, the most fundamental thing. I’m basically a born collaborator being a twin, and if you look at pretty much all of this music you can see it in that light…I call The National my family, and I’ll be doing that as long as I want to.

That said, the reason that I do this other music….I find the kind of adventurous spirit of contemporary music–audiences, ensembles, composers, whatever it be–I find there’s a real open-mindedness that you don’t find as much in the kind of pop world or whatever. I think there’s an adventurousness and a kind of  excitement about taking risks that is what draws me to it. I think ultimately, for my life, I see myself doing that forever. I can imagine myself as an old man writing music for choir or orchestra. I don’t know that I’ll be touring six months out of the year in a rock band when I’m 60.

For more information about composer Bryce Dessner and St. Carolyn by the Sea, visit


Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival and the Invisible Architecture of Musical Taste

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As I left the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival on its closing night, Saturday, May 5, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had wasted so much time—not at the festival itself, but long before.

I had grown up listening to music oblivious to the domineering constructs of ubiquitous genre definition, the invisible architecture of non-substantive taste. I’m not sure which attitude was worse—contented ignorance of how the conventions of constant classification had put unnecessary limits on my musical discoveries, or my more recent belief that the use of genre labels to separate real/perceived differences in music was a necessary evil.

Guitarist Bryce Dessner performs with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus; photo by Mike Benigno, courtesy of BAM.

Upon experiencing Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,however— the New York City festival that Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner of the band The National were commissioned by Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to curate—genre distinctions emerged more grossly superficial than ever before.

Conceptually, the approach of the brothers Dessner seemed straight-forward and unadorned—invite artists and musicians whom they liked and respected to perform. The performances throughout the three-day festival, which began on Friday, May 3, were distributed among three separate performance spaces at BAM: the intimate Rose Cinemas, which hosted both musical sets and the screenings of nine short films by Bill Morrison, Matthew Ritchie, and others; the versatile BAMCafé, the site of performances by a truly eclectic mix of musicians—the Jack Quartet, Buke and Gase, yMusic, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Oneohtrix Point Never among them; and the Howard Gilman Opera House, which functioned as a “main stage” for such artists as So Percussion, The Antlers, Tyondai Braxton, St. Vincent, My Brightest Diamond, and Beirut.

Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond; photo by Mike Benigno, courtesy of BAM.

Above all, the genius of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry was in the logistics. The performances in each of the three venues overlapped with one another, with festival patrons moving freely from one space to the other. By design, one could catch the beginning 15 to 30 minutes of the film screenings, catch the middle of an Opera House performance, and then head upstairs to the café for the open bar and the end of another set.

The formality that audiences may have come to expect at performances by composer Judd Greenstein and The Yehudim, violist Nadia Sirota, the NOW Ensemble, and others was jettisoned. And by having three simultaneous options at any given time, the experience of the listener/viewer felt varied and organic. Yet because all of the scheduled performances are staggered, as opposed to scheduling acts during approximately the same block of times, the festivalgoer had more genuine choices with which to craft an individual experience of musical discovery. Instead of the masses herding themselves from one stage to the next at the pre-appointed time, it seemed impossible that any two people had the exact same experience.

Apart from Bryce Dessner’s annual MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati, the Ecstatic Music Festival, established in 2011 by the above mentioned Judd Greenstein, is Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’s most immediate and relevant predecessor. The creative circles of both Ecstatic and Brooklyn Ferry are essentially concentric; several artists, including My Brightest Diamond, So Percussion, Buke and Gase, yMusic, Missy Mazzoli and Victoire, Jherek Bischoff, and Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire have contributed to both festivals.

Arone Dyer, left, and Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gase; photo by Rebecca Greenfield, courtesy of BAM.

Such artists are inherently uninhibited by the dichotomy of vernacular versus formal, to which I had subconsciously adhered. And both festivals are excellent environments in which to be stylistically unencumbered.

But while each festival begins with the premise “Let’s have makers of great music all play on one bill,” the central conceits that Ecstatic and Brooklyn Ferry each project to their audiences differ in telling ways. The qualitative difference lies not in the music itself, but in the way the music is presented.

The Ecstatic Music Festival has from its inception clearly delineated which artist was more “classical” and which was more colloquial in each of its collaborative performances: So Percussion with Dan Deacon, Anonymous 4 with The Mountain Goats, composer Rhys Chatham with Oneida, etc.

But the mere acknowledgment of these genre distinctions lend them a validity that I sense is unintended. The result seems to be a contradictory concession of sorts that says using genre distinctions are vital to explaining why genre distinctions are unnecessary. The paradox is typified in the festival website’s heralding of “contemporary ‘post-classical’ music.” If labels were truly inconsequential and ultimately irrelevant, there would be no reason to employ them in the setup. Somehow, it undercuts the authenticity and dynamism of Ecstatic, and credence is given to the invisible yet still perceptible wall between classical and non-classical.

From left to right, Adam Swilinski, Jason Treuting, and Josh Quillen of So Percussion, photo by Rebecca Greenfield, courtesy of BAM.

The Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival seeks to showcase the aforementioned borough’s music scene , but makes no effort to address genre at all. This approach suggests a way toward ensuring that the once obtrusive architectural eyesores of musical labels are not merely just invisible, but altogether intangible.

Violet Friday and The National as Rock Music Metanarrative

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For those of you who are fans of independent record stores, perhaps you did Black Friday a little differently than most people stateside.

Instead of waiting in line at 4 a.m. so you could trample your fellow intrepid shopper in front of you in search of the new iPad/Xbox 360/HTC EVO hybrid, perhaps you visited your local niche establishment at 4 p.m. and said hello to the lovable eccentric who lives two doors down–and you may well have purchased the 2-disc expanded edition of The National’s May 2010 release  High Violet.

Album cover for High Violet, Expanded Edition

That distinct possibility, realized or not, inspired me to think about The National-as-rock-band.  Not just as an indie rock band , or  Brooklyn’s hipster favorites, but as a rock band.  Why do music fans like The National?  Why is their music such a tremendously rich slow burn?  Why do the band’s songs nudge at your aural consciousness like the  indefatigable dark horses of sound?

These are questions that are not easily answered, and certainly not by any one individual on behalf of anyone else.  Music listening is, no matter how public or ritualistic in nature, a deeply personal experience.  And so, I’ll offer my subjective analysis as a listener and lover of meaningful music.

The National performing live; fan photo by Liesbeth Boel via Facebook

There are, first of all, the distinctive musical elements of The National.  The brooding propulsion of the rhythm section.  The subtle textures and ambient tinges of the Dessner brothers’ guitar work.  The strikingly singular bass-baritone of lead singer Matt Berninger.

And while these characteristics function as effective representations of the band’s musical traits, they also function as personality traits–not only of the band members but also as reflections of our own personality traits, and that of rock music as a whole.  These personality traits may reveal the nature of the music itself, the creative/psychological motivations of the music-makers, and what all this says about “rock music” and us, the “rock music listeners.”

Bryce and Aaron Dessner; image for The Long Count

I suppose a good place to start would be the twin guitars of twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner.  While the instrument choice is a facile signifier for rock music, the Dessners’ implementation of the instrument goes beyond mere rock technique.  Yes, there is the steady stream of eighth-notes, the steady staccato pluck of post-punk guitar.  The solo guitar lines could be described as angular yet atmospheric, descriptors that could also be applied to Interpol, Editors, and any other current band who owes at least a modicum of its style to the legacy Joy Division.

But after that, the differences become pronounced.  The slow momentum and captivating harmonic textures of the Dessner guitars imbues The National’s music with the inexorable sense of impending gravitas.  The sound itself possesses a kinship to that of Sigur Rós, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and post-rock music in general.  In other words, the guitar, a traditional instrument for rock music, is utilized here to produce sounds that result in a style that is other-than-rock-music.  Traces of “classical” music emerge, if only from an architectural standpoint.

Emotionally, there is a sense of purpose commingling with a sense of longing, I think.  Sometimes the guitar tone is gritty, even muddy, as in the song “Apartment Story,” from 2007’s Boxer, or more pristine reverberating with a kind of audible shimmer.  But regardless of tone, one gets the sense that these are guitar-driven songs, and the guitars themselves are always driving toward somewhere, some momentous musical destination.

The National’s brass arrangements on several of their songs deserve recognition as well. The trumpet and trombone sound like translucent pillars of sound that cut a sharp profile in the audio landscape. They emanate an ethereality apart from the rest of the band, and help greatly to give the music a dramatic arc over time. An intimate in-studio performance for Canada’s Q TV below:

Bryan and Scott Devendorf of The National

If anything about The National makes it a “rock band” in the most conventional sense, it’s the rhythm section of another set of brothers–bassist Scott Devendorf and drummer Bryan Devendorf. Understated yet always “in the pocket,” the bass keeps the music grounded in the familiar balance of a solid low-end sonically, while the drums faithfully pound out rock’s mainstay rhythm patterns without sounding clichéd or stale.


Matt Berninger, performing with The National; photo copyrighted by Shawn Anderson

Perhaps the most easily accessible attribute of The National is the voice of Matt Berninger.  Personally, his vocals are refreshing to my ears, after the constant barrage of male vocalists with high tenor voices, and some of them less than spectacular.

[I have to take a moment now to elaborate on this last point with an unabashed rant/aside, addressed specifically to Chris Carrabba:  Mr. Carrabba, I blame you for the supersaturation of pseudo-emotional juvenile pop drivel voiced primarily by whiny little boys trying too hard to, seriously, I do.  How is Dashboard Confessional not the most overrated band to emerge from those emo-terrible times.  You single-handedly bastardized an entire musical subgenre.   I won't justify your music with adjoining photo.  That's all.]

Back to Mr. Berninger.  His voice is the musical manifestation of a nearly impossible paradox to exhibit physically–a state of bleary-eyed focus, an alert weariness.  If I try to sing along with the National’s songs, the tessitura of the melodies are usually at the bottom of my tenor range–an interesting exercise.  I recently played The National for my sister, and she expressed an almost immediate aversion to the music, largely because the vocals reminded her way too much of Johnny Cash.  That was a bad thing in her mind, I guess.  I hadn’t made the connection before, honestly, but now that it’s in front of me, I disagree with her value judgment of the comparison.

The National distances themselves stylistically from seemingly 90% of other bands, merely with the bass-baritone range of Mr. Berninger.  To elucidate my point about the personality quirks inherent in this voice, I have to move to the tempo of the majority of the band’s songs: andante–meaning a moderately slow or “walking” pace.  The skeleton of recent songs by The National (by recent, I mean from Boxer to the present) can often be identified by the methodical chord progressions and Berninger’s vocals..  The band sometimes fills in the spaces with faster subdivided rhythms in the instruments, particularly the electric guitars and drums, as in “Terrible Love.”  But other times, as in High Violet b-side “Walk Off,” the skeleton is pretty much all that remains throughout the song.

And so, in both instances, the vocals must carry the song thematically and inform the direction the music takes.  The words that inhabit Berninger’s vocal lines obviously play an integral role.  In an interview with Daytrotter from July 9, 2007, one specific Q & A exchange struck me as particularly poignant:

*Is it important to you that your lyrics read like literature?*
Berninger: No. It’s important to me that they are NEVER read like literature. Without the music they don’t work. They’d be like a dress without the girl.

Berninger’s lyrics benefit from unorthodox imagery and word combinations unfettered by cliché.  They often present stark and sober, but at times simultaneously heartwarming and intimate moments, followed by a more universal statement about the human condition or an emotional state:

Stay out super late tonight /Picking apples, making pies/
Put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us/
We’re half-awake in a fake empire/We’re half-awake in a fake empire

Tiptoe through our shiny city /With our diamond slippers on
Do our gay ballet on ice/Bluebirds on our shoulders
We’re half-awake in a fake empire/We’re half-awake in a fake empire

–“Fake Empire,” Boxer

I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees/
I’ll never marry but Ohio don’t remember me/

I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/
I never thought about love when I thought about home/
I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/
The floors are falling out from everybody I know/

I’m on a blood buzz/

~”Bloodbuzz Ohio,” High Violet

A couple of the newly released songs on the expanded edition of High Violet become increasingly beautiful and intuitively truthful upon drinking in Berninger’s words:

There’s a radiant darkness upon us/I don’t want you to worry
I was careful but nothing is harmless/Baby, you better hurry

You were a kindness when I was a stranger/But I wouldn’t ask for what I didn’t need
Everything’s weird and we’re always in danger/Why would you shatter somebody like me?….

I’ll do what I can to be a confident wreck/Can’t feel this way forever, I mean
There wasn’t any way for anyone to settle in/You made a slow disaster out of me

\You Were A Kindness\ from High Violet Expanded Edition


Wall Street jumps in the Hudson with gold in their bathing suits/
Then we send in the miracle ferries–that’s all we do/

Wanna give a withering speech to the fucked/

We have beautiful views of the weather coming for us/
We’ll dive in with the sin-eaters while they suck it all up/

Wanna give a withering speech to the fucked/
Save my young white neck, it ain’t my fault/

\Sin-Eaters\ from High Violet Expanded Edition

So what does all this mean for my contention that the music of The National functions as a kind of metanarrative for the current state of rock music as a whole? Well, the answer to that question is of course terribly subjective and in no way meant to be a definitive critique of the whole of The National or the great history of rock music. My answer is merely that–my answer, based on personal listening experiences.

The separate parts of The National’s musical identity, detailed in this post, add up to a whole which serves as a kind of personality profile. This profile of the band known as The National, bears a striking resemblance to the multi-faceted personality of current-day rock.

Both profiles bear the mark of rock music’s time-tested rhythmic tropes–backbeat on two and four, with plenty of accents and syncopations in between, and the occasional unconventional time signature (ex. 5/4 time) juxtaposed with 4/4. Both have acquired more and more textures, layers over time. There are the hereditary influences of punk and post-punk alike (or as Tony Wilson explains in a recent Joy Division documentary, the “Fuck you” sentiment of punk and “I’m fucked” realization of post-punk). That being said, sometimes absent are any overt ties to the blues, jazz, and gospel, the paramount forebears of rock ‘n’ roll and all of its innumerable descendants. There is, however, a seemingly emergent “contemporary classical” strain, with sweeping and cinematic orchestral arrangements, and the implementation of classical music’s techniques and theory.

Emotionally, both The National and rock music seem detached and intimately connected all at once. There is a deep pathos stemming from some tragic disconnect between what was and what can be. The hard truth of what actually is becomes frightening and gorgeous. Sincere emotion is evident, but it always seems just shy of breaking through to effect transformative change. A cathartic breakdown is needed. Can one be both dead and alive all at once? The living contradiction, the breathing cliché that is human life is unavoidable. And undeniably beautiful.


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