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

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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.

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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 here.

This interview is cross-posted here.