Posts Tagged ‘Bryce Dessner’
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 http://www.brycedessner.com.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Closing Arguments: The Ecstatic Music Festival, New Amsterdam Records, and the Seeds of “Post-Classical” (Part 2 of 3)
Since January 17, Judd Greenstein’s Ecstatic Music Festival has presented New York City audiences with one-of-a-kind collaborations between composers and performers who share the creative impetus to explore the musical environment between the monolith of “classical music” and the divergent “indie” aesthetic which draws from popular music traditions.
But beyond the readily observable stylistic hybrid, what has the Ecstatic Music Festival really been about? This three-part series delves into the seminal influences that contributed to the conception and execution of the festival, and what it means for the dialogue between traditional classical music and emergent compositional styles.
As an introductory descriptor, “indie classical” is apt. Hosted by the Kaufman Center at Merkin Concert Hall, Ecstatic Music Festival’s prominent associate presenter is the quintessentially indie classical New Amsterdam Reecords, the New York City-based label that Greenstein co-founded with Brittelle and Snider in 2007.
Sometimes referred to as NewAm, the label also functions as a presenting organization dedicated to the propagation of new music one could just as easily label as “contemporary classical,” “alt-classical” or as Time Out New York did, the appropriately chronological “post-classical.”
But New Amsterdam couldn’t have become post-anything without a pre-something. For the indie classical crowd, that something was Bang on a Can, the seminal collective formed in 1987 by another trio of composers–Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. Greenstein is quick to recognize Bang on a Can’s crucial impact while noting the differences between the two organizations:
Bang on a Can is totally essential to what New Amsterdam Records is and does, and the existence of New Amsterdam Records has never at any point been a response to anything Bang On a Can has done–those two things are both true. If Cantaloupe Records [Bang On a Can's record label] had thought that they wanted to put out the NOW Ensemble record in 2007, then maybe New Amsterdam Records wouldn’t exist, right? Because if in fact Bang on a Can were an organization that fulfilled the needs that my community at that time had, then it may not have been necessary to build our own community, but they’re not a limitless organization in terms of resources. They have to make choices, and I don’t fault them for that. It’s just to say, it’s not the case that we’re doing the same thing. If it were, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. We would have been very happy to wind up as part of that organization….Now, it’s hard to imagine New Amsterdam being part of Bang on a Can. It’s hard to imagine the projects that we release and the shows that we do being under that rubric–they have very different characters.
Greenstein views his as the first generation of composers for whom the music of living legend predecessors such as Philip Glass, Meredith Monk and Steve Reich was the “lingua franca,” “the coin of the realm.” Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, more than 34 years after its premiere, even now is seemingly on the tip of every indie classical tongue. To the musical ear of composer and classical guitarist Bryce Dessner–who is best known in indie circles as a member of the rock band The National–the fully formed, prominent rhythms of Steve Reich are particularly inspiring for rock and electronica musicians. “Our drummer, Bryan Devendorf, warms up every night backstage by playing Reich’s Clapping Music with two hands. It’s usually performed by two players. Bryan has no real classical training, but Reich’s music really resonates with him.”
In addition to its compositional forebears, the Ecstatic Music Festival has benefited from the more recent precedent of New York City concert programming, which includes the MATA Festival, led by former Executive Director Missy Mazzoli, and the Look and Listen Festival, once co-curated by Sarah Kirkland Snider. Arguably most germane to Ecstatic, however, is Ronen Givony’s Wordless Music Series, which began in 2006. The series introduced new audiences to contemporary classical music by juxtaposing it with independent pop music in formal concerts. “[Givony] did an amazing thing in this city,” says violist Nadia Sirota, “just for having the balls to say, ‘Hey, this might be a little awkward, but here we are. I’m putting this in front of this.’ And I think what that’s evolved into is something really fantastic.”
By making collaboration of paramount importance to the vitality of the Ecstatic Music Festival, Greenstein has implicitly taken the evolution beyond Wordless Music while paying homage to earlier innovators of new music programming. “Where did people my age get the idea that you could put people from different musical worlds on the same program together?” the curator asks. “Obviously, it’s the Bang On a Can Marathon. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
As a composer/performer who is well acquainted with the new music scene in New York and the distinctive repertoire that has populated it, Dessner recognizes the current open and flexible performance climate as a continuation of a storied past. He cites the loft culture of the 70s and 80s, clubs such as CBGB and Tonic, historic venues like Brooklyn Academy of Music and The Kitchen, and contemporary spots like Barbès in Park Slope and Zebulon in Williamsburg.
“New York City has always been a nexus of these interesting venues that are home to experimentation and cross-pollination between different musicians,” says Dessner. “There is a very vibrant and open community of musicians in New York City, and all kinds of music being made that defies easy categorization. This is just to say that the dialogue between genres and between musicians with different backgrounds and educations has been going on for a very long time.”
The Ecstatic Music Festival runs through March 28 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City (129 West 67 Street). The festival is comprised of 14 concerts, during which participating artists who are “re-defining contemporary music come together for collaborations exploring the fertile terrain between classical and popular music,” according to the festival’s web site.
Featured musicians include: Nico Muhly with the Chiara Quartet; So Percussion with Dan Deacon; the Bang On a Can All-Stars, performing world premieres by Bryce Dessner, Karsh Kale,and Nick Brooke; Timo Andres and Gabriel Kahane; Nadia Sirota and Thomas Bartlett with Owen Pallett; Sarah Kirkland Snider with yMusic–and many others.
For more about the Ecstatic Music Festival, including ticket information, visit http://kaufman-center.org/merkin-concert-hall/ecstatic.