Music Interviews

The National’s Bryce Dessner on composing, collaborations and minimalist mentors – Interview

The National's Bryce Dessner

The National’s Bryce Dessner

Bryce Dessner is in town – the Southbank Centre in London, to be more precise. Seizing the opportunity while his colleagues in The National are occupied with solo concerns, he has just attended the reopening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall – and has a new and very exciting Concerto for Two Pianos ready to go.

We are talking in his hotel the morning after the reopening ceremony – where members of the London Contemporary Orchestra played his string quartet, Aheym. “I’d never worked with them before, and they have a great energy”, he enthuses. “They did a really different performance of that quartet, it normally plays itself but they took this big, bold shift in the middle. They didn’t play that for me beforehand so I was surprised in the concert, but people liked it!”

The second half saw Dessner himself take to the stage. “I played Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint for the first time. I’m very close to Steve, he’s like a father figure. He’s been very involved with my music, and super supportive. That piece is a big influence on me, but I’ve never actually played it before. It’s fun to do, but it’s harder than you realise. The hall is beautiful too, and it feels like the Southbank Centre is in a really good place. The energy in the room last night was pretty electric. But really for me Friday is the big night, with a new piece.”

Dessner describes Aheym as “my most performed piece. I’d written a bunch before but this is one of the first for an ensemble I wasn’t playing in myself. It really took on, and the Kronos Quartet played it hundreds of times. Of all the pieces I’ve written this is the one that is probably most indebted to Reich, and he likes it quite a lot.”

“I’m very close to Steve Reich, he’s like a father figure. He’s been very involved with my music, and super supportive.” – Bryce Dessner

Reich is on record praising his protégé as “an important composer with a developed technique and an intense emotional voice… a major voice of his generation.” “Steve met me in my early 20s,” he recalls, “and I worked with him when I was really just becoming a composer. I was involved with him but had also worked with Philip Glass, and the generation one down from him – David Lang, Michael Gordon and the Bang On A Can collective. The only time I had played in the Queen Elizabeth Hall previously was as a guitarist with Gordon’s band. His music is like post-Reich but much more difficult, and it has this methodical intensity about it.”

He considers the different light in which the Reich / Glass / Terry Riley group now find themselves. “People talk about the minimalist movement as this left turn in classical music. At the time it was very radical and against the grain, and they were not loved for it. Now they are more ubiquitous and there is a bit of a reaction against it. I think more than the musical style it’s their generosity and open spirit that stands out. There is less of an aversion to other genres, musicians come out of rock or jazz, and there is the idea that education is very mixed.”

He warms to his theme. “There is not a purist approach to music. If you look at the generations before then, the Stravinskys and Debussys of the world, they also had so much information in their music – it’s not just Western classical music informing them, but folk music, Spanish music, music from the East. What I would say about Reich is that sometimes he feels far ahead of his time, a lightning rod and something of a renegade. He is greatly encouraging, and has suggested a few of my commissions. Tenebrae (a piece for strings) was suggested for his 75th birthday, and then Skrik Trio (for string trio) was for his 80th. He’s been very supportive.”

Bryce Dessner

Bryce Dessner

Dessner wrote his Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra for the Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle, with whom he is firm friends. They will give the premiere in the company of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds. “I didn’t have an interest in writing a two-piano piece as such,” he confesses, “because it’s a total mountain to climb. Some of the greatest works of classical music are in the piano concerto form. I have written a lot of ensemble pieces but this is the first concerto as such.”

Dessner’s inspiration is the artists themselves as much as the instruments they play. “The friendship and musical relationship with Katia and Marielle developed out of a meeting where we were doing a concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I didn’t realise they lived in Paris, where I live – so we met up. It’s not a professional relationship, we’re really good friends, and in a male dominated culture they are two amazing powerful women who have always done things how they want. They are such incredible musicians and bring so much to the piece. I wrote a piece called El Chan for them, a two piano piece in seven movements that I’m very proud of. It has a Messiaenic feel, a luminous thing about it.”

Dessner wrote El Chan in the immediate aftermath of his work on The Revenant soundtrack with Alejandro González Iñárritu. “I was staying with him in Mexico, and where his wife is from is a beautiful town called San Miguel Allende, in the mountains. There is this canyon there called El Chan that the local people believe has these magical powers. Each movement is about a story from this place. It’s very serene but ominous, and it sounds simple but is extremely difficult with layered polyrhythms. They spent a year learning it, and they recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon and have been touring it. It was a good lesson because it works as chamber music, but will not work on a stage as a concerto. It was the music I was ready to write, but the concerto is something else. The truth about two-piano writing is that it is one giant instrument, rather than two antiphonal colours, and they have very interesting qualities about their playing.”

“People talk about the minimalist movement as this left turn in classical music. At the time it was very radical and against the grain, and they were not loved for it. Now they are more ubiquitous and there is a bit of a reaction against it. I think more than the musical style it’s their generosity and open spirit that stands out.” – Bryce Dessner

He is full of praise for the Concerto’s dedicatees, the Labèques having amassed nearly 50 years’ musical experience as a duo. “They breathe like one musical mind, and they’re so loyal and understanding. I have a very close musical relationship with my brother Aaron which is almost telepathic, but Katia and Marielle have this really deep chamber music relationship. They spend hours together talking about scores, and it’s really lovely when they are learning a piece. It’s a real honour to work with them, even more so as they worked personally with Olivier Messiaen and Luciano Berio, and all these incredible composers.”

Their virtuosity is also a telling factor. “There is a strong and really beautiful sense of colour. Marielle has a really amazing left hand, and plays all the bass lines, while Khatia has an incredible virtuosity in her right hand. I spent a lot of time studying their repertoire, and they have an incredible piano room in Paris with a score library. They gave me keys and I wrote the piece there. I was able to get deep into what they play, what they do well, and whether this would be something new for them.”

Does the new piece betray some of its Parisian origins? “I definitely listened a lot to the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra,” says Dessner, “which is a big piece for them, but I actually think it has some American qualities. They really love American minimalism and my piece St Carolyn By The Sea. Some of my recent work has been more French in that it has been more Avant Garde, more complex in terms of its atonality. This piece I had big conceptual designs when I started, I was thinking about the Dutilleux Symphony No 2, ‘The Double’ – and it has all kinds of mirroring going on. I wanted to do something like that while thinking of siblings, and a refraction of personality through music which is such a beautiful thing. As I got into the piece it wrote itself, I did embrace the classical form – it has concerto form, fast-slow-fast with a cadenza, and I embraced that.”

Bryce Dessner

Bryce Dessner

We move on to discuss his work on The Revenant soundtrack, which clearly left a lasting impression. “Working with Ryuchi Sakamoto and Alva Noto was an influence on me and I learned a lot. They are part of a group of highly creative collaborative people who set their sights on something and don’t rest until they get there. For Alejandro the beauty is in the detail, so he will say ‘I need two notes’. My music is used in the bear attack, and it is two notes – but I did fifteen versions of that! Similarly the big moment with the avalanche, my music starts there. The end of the film is mostly my music too, an existing piece for string orchestra, ‘Lachrymae’. Everything that Alejandro approved made it into the movie, which doesn’t often happen in films as things get cut up. I’m very fortunate to cross paths with these crazy geniuses! It was an incredible experience to be in their orbit for a while.”

It is a sobering thought that all this musical activity takes place alongside Dessner’s role as lead guitarist in The National. Do the two really complement each other? Is there a special energy from his work as a composer that goes with him? “There is an ebb and flow to that, so for the most part, yes,” he confirms. “I’ve always had the two and been in bands with my brother and Bryan Devendorf, our drummer. The band is like family to me, and is so deep in my development. Most of the people who collaborate with us on stage often come through the door I have into concert music – and that is how the relationships with people like Sufjan Stevens and Nico Muhly have formed.”

There is the occasional conflict. “The cultures can clash in unfortunate ways – usually with scheduling, as it’s a totally different rhythm to the calendar. With classical stuff it needs to be organised two years in advance, and the band doesn’t think any more than four months in advance. This month I have to go to Munich and play a concert with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, and then fly the next morning straight into a concert in Ohio. That’s a bit tricky. I also find that despite me being involved in classical music since I was a child, in a way the more famous the band gets, the more the comments come up like ‘Oh, who’s this rock ‘n’ roller playing classical music? There is a sense of ‘otherness’ there, and I get it, but it can be seen as threatening to purists sometimes. At age 42 I’ve had that conversation for 20 years, and sometimes it’s a little tiring!”

Bryce Dessner

Bryce Dessner

Even now there is a sense that rock and classical should find more common ground – which happens on a day to day basis for Dessner. “Many of the composers I’ve worked with about have played in rock bands. John Luther Adams is a rock drummer, Michael Gordon and David Lang have been in bands, Steve Reich is a drummer. It’s pretty mixed now, but crossover tends to be a bad word. I try not to lose sleep over things, and to be honest musicians and composers don’t talk much about that sort of stuff. As Steve Reich says, ‘it’s in the air’ – it’s far more fluid, a relationship to sound.”

Dessner’s upbringing was flexible, as was that of his twin brother Aaron, bassist in the band – yet it didn’t start in music. “We were really into sports, and Aaron was a slightly better athlete! He was better and cuter and had girlfriends, and I was bigger and a more studious sort. I was into school and he wasn’t. He was the cool one. He was the star of the basketball team and we used to play one on one – and I never beat him! He has this competitive streak. We used to go to a basketball camp in Indiana, and we were small – quick but small – and we were getting the shit kicked out of us! After a while I just thought, I’m not doing this anymore. Aaron played drums as a kid and I played flute for a long time. Then around age 14 I rented an electric guitar and taught myself. For a year or so I started studying at the conservatory, there was an after school programme, and I got really into classical guitar. At the time we were listening to my dad’s records – Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead. I realised I didn’t understand how these guys play guitar, so I said I’m gonna study seriously. That was when the classical thing happened.”

Soon his twin brother was catching up. “A year or two later Aaron caught the rock ‘n’ roll bug, and he picked up the bass, and I was a year ahead of him in the training side but he was really fast at picking stuff up. I remember as kids I’d be playing Bach Fugues and he’d be listening and imitating me. We had bands the whole time, and I would say he focussed more on songwriting but I was more on orchestrating as well. It’s a twin thing – you don’t want to do exactly the same thing, so you end up complementing each other. We’re like one and a half people, a two-headed creature. The band sprung out of that, but we’ve done tons of other projects together.”

Dessner has written a good deal of music for the pairing. “St Carolyn By The Sea I wrote for the two of us to play together. I had to write it so that I could teach it to him, because the score is complex, but I knew he is so good playing by ear that he would catch it really quickly. There was a piece called The Long Count we did with a visual artist, Matthew Ritchie, a very mixed piece where we did half the music each. I asked him to do a piece for us to play last year, and he did a little improvised piece which was really good. We’re not in separate worlds by any means.”

Dessner’s future plans include an ambitious choral work for Caroline Shaw’s ensemble Roomful Of Teeth. “That is in a year – and it’s inspired by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and his foundation has given us the rights to use his videos for a show. It dates from growing up as a teenager in Cincinnati and the Mapplethorpe scandal, when they shut the museum, with a big censorship scandal. It really marked me as a kid. I knew Picasso and Klimt but it was such a big moment for me, and at the time I was really into R.E.M. I decided years later I wanted to do this piece, and it’s looking at Mapplethorpe through a classical perspective. I’m working with a playwright to create a text around that, and it’s a big piece with instrumentals lasting around an hour.”

Dessner is a clearly focussed figure, but every now and then a glint in his eye offers a clue to a more mischievous side to his personality – rather like his twin, who musicOMH interviewed 12 years ago. Their relationship remains key to his musical output, but it is clear from our time together that The National and Bryce Dessner spur each other on, and the Concerto represents another step forward in what is becoming a substantial body of composed work.

Bryce Dessner’s Concerto for Two Pianos with London Philharmonic Orchestra and Katia and Marielle Labèque will be performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 13 April 2018 before going on to be performed by Orchestre de Paris and Matthias Pintscher, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra and the Dresdner Philharmonie.

Several of Dessner’s works will be performed by diverse ensembles across London this spring, including at the Barbican’s Max Richter weekend in May.

Further details and ticket information can be found at, with more on The National to be found here.

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