the AU interview: Bryce Dessner (New York)

Bryce Dessner, as you may have noticed if you've heard or seen The National, is a multifaceted musician who is world-renowned for a reason. Dessner is also well known for his collaborations with the Kronos Quartet, legendary music group who have had just as much influence on the contemporary music scene as well as the classical industry they broke out onto 40 years ago. Dessner chats with me about the upcoming album Aheym, which is going to be released in November, his first album of material performed by the quartet.

Thanks for your time today Bryce, how have you been recently?

I’m good! I’m doing well, I’m home in New York for a little stretch, which is nice.

Awesome. Are you getting around to any CMJ events or are you just chilling out at home?

I’m mostly chilling out, yeah. I’m going to see an opera on Monday but yeah, no CMJ I don’t think.

Fair enough. I have to say congratulations on the album that is about to come out soon; for your career especially, I would imagine Aheym is a pretty great marker.

Yeah it is. I’ve been writing music for a long time, but this is the first collection of things that is my own and to have the Kronos Quartet doing it is a big honour, obviously.

For sure – I was speaking with David [Harrington] from Kronos last week and he had nothing but absolute praise for the work that you’ve done. I’m very excited to hear it. It sounds like a real interesting collection of sounds.

I mean, it was in different stages, it’s been a long collaboration. Not super long, but they’ve been going for 40 years, so this collaboration’s been going for three or four years. It’s interesting in that each piece is written in response to the other piece; the first one is the title track, called “Aheym”, and that track is very energetic and there is a very intense energy about it. It was commissioned for an outdoor performance in New York City, in Brooklyn in Prospect Park – David asked me to write something that wasn’t too quiet or too subtle. That is part of why that piece has such an intensity about it and I was really going for a piece that would really challenge them and also be exciting for audiences.

Sometimes when you do these things, you’re under a little bit of pressure and obviously at the time, writing the string quartet for Kronos was like a really big deal for me. I trusted my instincts about it and it ended up being a real success for them; I think they’ve performed that piece almost a hundred times now and out of that piece is sort of where this all started. The second piece that I wrote was called “Tenebre” and that also had an interesting story behind the commission; it was commissioned as a gift to their lighting designer, who was turning 50 and it was his 25th year with the group, so that was also a really personal and interesting project for me. I was very honoured to be asked to get involved in a very personal story and so that is why “Tenebre”… it is based on this holy week service that is the day before Good Friday and it’s all about this amazing Renaissance music written for it. It’s all about light and music, extinguishing the sixteen candles into darkness. I essentially wrote a piece inspired by that service and based it on some of it on the music – there is a lot of great local music from the Renaissance written for that. It goes along like that; that piece, in a way, I had already written a rock piece, where there is this intensity which I think, for a string quartet, really works for them. I wanted to do something then that had more colours and it was broader and more diverse, formally more ambitious, longer and so each piece, in a way, has a relationship to the other.

Awesome! I think that the good thing about the Kronos Quartet or indeed, one of the interesting things about them, is that a lot of different music fans are drawn to their style of performance because they have been known to perform some eclectic programs over time. I suppose that, working with them, there would have been a real buzz to be able to work with such talented musicians.

I mean, they’re just musically…obviously incredibly cutting edge and at the top of their field as being one of the best string quartets in the world. They also have a really broad vision about music that extends well beyond the western concert music world, into commissioning Tibetan throat singers and they’ve worked with lots of Indian musicians from outside the western sphere of classical music. I always say that Kronos, as a group, has been as influential on the contemporary music scene as any composer in the last 50 years, you know?

They’ve had a really profound influence on young musicians and helped brought a great shift in how young ensembles can function and operate in where they play and how they present their work. All those things, they’ve really been mavericks about. After all that time, they’re now in a place where they’re being kind of canonised where their work is considered and then, to see them still so voraciously working with someone like me…I’m in my mid-30s and to have this vast creative collaboration with them…I’m writing a new piece for them for May, on top of the record! That’s just indicative…they’re doing it with me and they’re doing it with a lot of people. It’s quite exciting to just be involved in it and it’s been a great thing for me, obviously.

Definitely. I remember seeing some of the shows that were brought to the Adelaide Festival earlier in the year and they were just mind warping through that program. For you personally, having this record on the go and its accompanying commitments, as well as your stuff with The National, it must be great to have as many creative outlets as you do?

Yeah, I mean, they’re different worlds for me that have always co-existed and there is that relationship between them. I grew up playing classical music and I primarily studied classical music, but I’ve been in rock bands with my twin brother since I was 13. Obviously, for any living composer, especially here in the United States and in New York, the primary music that we’re exposed to as kids and growing up and in university and whatnot, is rock music, popular music. It’s what is on the radio. You find that hybrid of maybe classical music that is trying to bring rock energy into it and that kind of dynamic is quite common; in my case, I benefit from actually playing in a rock band, you know? [Laughs] I spend a lot of time playing electric guitar and playing loud music in front of loud audiences, so I find that when I’m writing for a string quartet or working on concert music, it’s allowed me to be something else. I don’t necessarily need to exercise that energy within all the music I’m doing; I find that it’s actually great to let things be different. I always say that I’m not necessarily a different person when I’m in the room, working with Kronos. Actually, Kronos recently played with The National at a big festival in San Francisco and it was very interesting, because we rehearsed with them and they were rehearsing something I had written that was maybe more complex or something and it’s all just music. It all has an emotional importance to me.

There is also a language shift, you know? When you’re playing rock music or working with say, musicians who don’t use notation or something, there is a big difference between that and playing with musicians who are in a string quartet or an orchestra. The primary language is through the score, so notated music; that has been something that has been really important to me, to keep refining. It’s a labour-intensive, but really rewarding process – it’s almost like editing a manuscript. For you, it’d be like working on an article. In a way, that process through the score and through notated music, is a beautiful process and I do enjoy that quite a lot.

Oh for sure. I suppose, finally, with this record being set to reach many when it is released in November, are there any performances you’re going to be involved in?

I mean, the music is music that is performed quite a lot. Kronos plays “Aheym” all over the place and they will also play “Tenebre” sometimes and they recently did “Tour Eiffel” with the Brooklyn Youth Choir, but I can say that in San Francisco in December, I’ll be performing with Kronos. I’ve written a guitar part that is not on the record, but live, I’ll be doing it with them. I think the Australian Chamber Orchestra also has a concert in Sydney on November 2nd, where they’re actually playing “Aheym”, so that might be something to point out!

Oh brilliant, I’ll look that up! Like I said, I’m very interested to see how these pieces flow into one another, especially after having seen the Kronos Quartet live. I suppose that’s basically all I had for you today Bryce, I just wanted to quickly congratulate you on this all coming together…

Oh thank you – I’ll make sure you get a copy of the record right away.

Oh thank you! Well thanks for the chat again, enjoy your time in New York and we’ll be seeing you soon!

Thanks so much!