Crossing boundaries and gender boundaries is never easy, but for Bryce Dessner it has become a familiar experience.
Dessner, 45, a classically trained guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and composer, has accumulated several hyphens over the last two decades of his musical career. Arguably best known for his work with indie rock band The National ?? where he shares lead guitar, piano, songwriting and other tasks with his identical twin brother Aaron ??
He is also one of those rare musicians to have truly crossed and blurred the boundaries between classical music and pop / rock. In a recent phone conversation, we discussed his recent projects, his process and, of course, the music.
Dessner worked remotely on pre-pandemic projects and also on new collaborations. He is used to traveling while working and working while traveling. He writes and composes music while on tour with The National or until COVID-19 temporarily puts an end to it. He’s in a hurry.
Dessner is American, but has lived in Paris for a few years and has recently moved to the countryside. When we spoke in April, the City of Light had just entered new confinement, the pandemic dragging on. For Dessner, as for many, this spring in Paris was not like the others. “I haven’t seen my group for a year and a half,” he laments. “I haven’t seen my brother for a year and a half.” These times have not been easy. But unexpected opportunities presented themselves. He and his brother worked together remotely ?? on Taylor Swift’s Folklore, to name just one project, which won a 2021 Grammy for Album of the Year. Aaron has produced and co-wrote songs; Bryce arranged the orchestrations.
Dessner thrives on collaboration, “whether it is [with] great performers or other singers or creators or visual artists or dancers and choreographers or filmmakers. “He has worked with composers Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Sufjan Stevens, Caroline Shaw and Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque, and Composition commissions have come from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (for the New York Philharmonic), BAM Next Wave Festival, Edinburgh International Festival, Carnegie Hall, Eighth Blackbird and So Percussion.
Dessner recently published Impermanance / Disintegration, a music album he composed for the Sydney Dance Company ?? the score for their contemporary dance piece called Impermanance ?? performed by the Australian String Quartet.
This is not Dessner’s first experience in marking a work of dance. In 2016, the New York City Ballet created The most amazing thing, choreographed by Justin Peck to original music by Dessner.
Music and dance go hand in hand: dancers dance to the music; the music responds to the dance, if it is allowed. This is one of the reasons Dessner was drawn to it. “I grew up seeing my sister dance a lot, and so a lot of my early experiences went to modern dance. And so I have a long relationship with her as an art form.
“I think one of the great collaborations is between choreographers and composers. And in fact a lot of my favorite classical music was written for dance? Rite of Spring or Tchaikovsky’s ballets, ”he said. “There are so many fantastic pieces of music that have been written for dancing. So yes, I find that very inspiring. ”
“Dancers have a wonderful physical and emotional response to music, which is really inspiring and liberating for a composer,” he told me. “Purely concert works, especially in an orchestral setting, can sometimes be a little more intellectual than that [dance] the environment tends to be. “Music for dance” is a little disarming because you always think about the body and move and, you know, what do you want to move to? ”
Dessner said Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela gave him “a lot of leeway”, even allowing him to choose the theme and name of the work. He was tasked with creating the score before the pandemic. The wildfires in Australia in 2019 provided themes for Impermanence / Disintegration.
Due to the pandemic, he was unable to attend in person with the Australian String Quartet or the dancers. But Dessner had met the Sydney Dance Company in 2015, when he saw them perform a choreographed piece on a string quartet he had written for the Kronos Quartet, so he knew the dancers. “You are thinking of writing for specific musicians,” he said. “It’s kind of written for specific dancers.”
Describing the style of the music, he said, “It loosely divides into moments of stillness and loss, and requiem and mourning for things lost with the planet, or for relationships or whatever, then in times of urgency and more frenetic type of sound. ”The album ends with“ Another World, ”a haunting new take on English music artist Anohni’s haunting song infused with a rich and moving voice. Dessner obtained permission from Anohni to include and rework the original 2008 track with a new arrangement including strings.
Remote work had an impact on the process. “I think it’s been a very difficult time for performers, for creators and people who do more in composition or engineering,” he said. “It’s interesting to learn how to collaborate remotely.”
He was able to remotely monitor the Australian rehearsals and “watch” the dress rehearsal via Zoom, “with decent sound,” he told me. Dessner told me that he had never met ASQ, and yet the collaboration is very deep. “There is an increased need to share information as clearly as possible across distances,” he said. “It helps that I master the musical score because I can create a really detailed score and just send it. There’s something really powerful about being able to make a piece of music and send it to Australia and then have a band. that I have never met to actually run it. ”
Online technologies and tools have become essential for remote collaborative work, for this project and for Dessner’s other projects, including new film music.
Cinema has also become a familiar medium. Dessner previously co-wrote the score, along with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, for Alejandro’s Oscar-winning film I§ † rritu, The ghost. After our interview, I heard about another project commissioned by the Manchester International Festival, All this unreal time, a short film and an immersive installation for which Bryce and Aaron Dessner and Jon Hopkins composed the music. It is expected to premiere in Manchester by the time this issue of Stereophile goes to press.
He and his brother Aaron overcame the pandemic on different continents, relying on online tools to work together: “We use a fun audio program called Audiomovers, which is a very high quality type of monitoring that you can do. from a distance. Other logistics, such as working across time zones, didn’t pose the problems you might expect. “You’d think, ‘Oh, it’s going to slow everything down working with people in Australia or especially for me in Paris. … But in fact, this makes us very efficient: instead of a [or] a 10 hour day, we use every 24 hours, because I can work all day and send a score at night, then I get it the next morning, already recorded. ”
A similar approach has been effective for Dessner’s popular music projects, although the technology for that music is different. For example, in pop music, synth samples are often used for strings, or if played, “it’s not necessarily done in a way that they really think about capturing the best sound. Whereas in classical recordings they obviously go to so much effort to find a nice space and good conditions for it, and sometimes that difference can be a bit difficult to work with. ” We must consider both the context of the track and practical constraints.
“When you do something and you really want to try and make the best version of it, you know? In the end, you could probably just use samples on a synthesizer; it would be good. as magical as it can be? No. But it can work musically, anyway. So this is something that you just need to be humble about and understand that you are in favor of the song’s larger statement. ”
Whatever the genre, the magic happens, or can happen, when people are playing together in the same room. COVID has hindered this. Still, a lot of rock and pop isn’t recorded that way anyway: it’s put together from multiple tracks into separate parts, sometimes recorded in different places. The goal, however, is much the same.
“Whether it’s something that’s multitrack or done after the fact, we’re trying to capture moments in music,” Dessner said. “When I record with The National you’ll often hear things that are actually almost improvised, like maybe this was the first take I made on the song. We keep it, because it has something to it. of alive, as opposed to really feeling a little practiced or too manicured. ”