You might know Bryce Dessner for his moving work as guitarist and composer for rock outfit The National, but his career as an independent ‘classical’ composer is developing rapidly. The classical path brought Dessner together with icons such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw, but also with pop phenomena in the likes of Bon Iver, Paul Simon and Sufjan Stevens. This Birds of Paradise performance will mark the first-ever programme bringing together three of his concerto’s: Trombone Concerto, St. Carolyn by the Sea and Concerto for two pianos. The event concludes with the world premiere of a suite from the Complete Mountain Almanac: a song cycle from Norwegian composer Rebekka Karijord for whom Jessica Dessner wrote the lyrics and Bryce orchestrated the arrangements. .
Dessner will play guitar during this night, for St. Carolyn by the Sea, master of trombone Jörgen van Rijen for the Trombone Concerto and the world-famous piano duo Katia and Marielle Labeque for Concerto for two pianos. Rebekka Karijord and the French singer-songwriter Pauline de Lasssus will join on vocals for Complete Mountain Almanak. The Belgian Casco Phil is their solid orchestral partner tonight.
Neil Wallace talks with composer Bryce Dessner, composer Rebekka Karijord and lyricist Jessica Dessner about the making of the music and the album Complete Mountain Almanac.
In addition to writing the lyrics, visual artist Jessica Dessner was also responsible for the artwork of Complete Mountain Almanac. The basis for this are drawings of trees, which she made daily while writing. A selection of those drawings will be on display in this exhibition.
Dessner – Trombone Concerto
Dessner – St. Carolyn by the Sea
Dessner – Concerto for two pianos
Karijord/Dessner – Complete Mountain Almanac (world première)
Benjamin Haemhouts, conductor
Bryce Dessner, guitar
David Chalmin, guitar
Jörgen van Rijen, trombone
Katia & Marielle Labeque, piano
Rebekka Karijord, vocals
Pauline de Lassus, vocals
Jessica Dessner, lyrics
A co-production with B-Classic (B), Casco Phil (B) en De Singel (B)
Neil Wallace talks with composer Bryce Dessner, composer Rebekka Karijord and lyricist Jessica Dessner about the creation of the music and the Complete Mountain Almanac album. Complete Music Almanac is the musical collaboration of Karijord and poet, dancer and multimedia artist Jessica Dessner, joined by her brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National. As the record cycles through the seasons, the seamless correlation between reckoning with the state of the planet in the wake of the climate crisis, and the healing of one’s body becomes abundantly clear. Sonically, the album cycles through folk, classical, chamber music and everything in between, creating a cocoon-like atmosphere that draws the listener into a stand-alone universe.
“Delicate yet powerful, and utterly compelling.” Mojo
“The results are an intense juxtaposition of the intimate and the universal framed in beguiling chamber-folk arrangements.” Uncut
In addition to writing the book of poems from which the lyrics for Complete Mountain Almanac were adapted, multimedia artist Jessica Dessner also created the artwork for the project. After writing the manuscript for CMA in the fall of 2018, Jessica embarked on a year-long project to paint ‘a daily tree’. A selection of these paintings will be on display in this exhibition.
Jessica Dessner: “Following a breast cancer diagnosis, I decided to paint a tree for every day of 2019. Through a daily meditation on their changeability and resilience, trees became my role models for healing and restoration. In their ability to withstand the harshness of seasons and the weather – to lose leaves, branches and even larger parts of themselves, yet still stand – trees helped me to settle into the insight that everything happening to me is of the earth.”
A Q&A for emerging composers, curious music students and music lovers. The young Dutch composer Remy Alexander talks to Bryce Dessner about his way of composing. A close encounter where you can ask your burning questions to Dessner.
The name Bryce Dessner is usually followed by a long list of musical professions: composer for concert hall, pop club and cinema, orchestrator for Taylor Swift and Sharon van Etten, album producer, curator. Often also on the guitar strings himself: both with The National and in his classical writings. A man of many music worlds, you could say… but Dessner doesn’t see it that way. The exercise is always the same. You write notes on a sheet for musicians to perform.”
There’s only one Bryce Dessner I can get into. But you can’t deny that you master very different musical languages, can you?
Bryce Dessner: “I tend to disagree. Pop music may be structured a bit differently. It is often made with computer programs in studios. As a result, you are stuck to a grid, usually in a 4/4 measure. In classical music you attach more importance to the big picture. But even in classical music you can argue that composers are best known for their hooks. ‘Ode an die Freude,’ or Ravel’s Boléro. It’s really not that different.”
“What interests me, for example, is the texture of the sound. The timbre. An avant-garde composer like Lachenmann does this with his Musique concrète, in which he no longer plays instruments in the traditional way. To me, that’s similar to how Lou Reed or Sonic Youth treat the electric guitar. It is no longer about the notes, but about the resonance of the string, about the magnetic energy in an amplifier, about feedback… That is almost spectralism. That fiddling about the finest details, that can also occupy me endlessly. Both in my scores and in my rock songs.”
Does that mean that inspiration can come from anywhere?
Bryce Dessner: “I am fortunate to work with the greatest classical performers. I know brilliant Julliard alumni who haven’t written a note of classical music since graduation. And I count conceptual German electronics artists like Mouse on Mars among my friends – you can only have a discussion about spectralism with them. So yeah, that really excites me. You never know what you’ll find where.”
What I think is the great strength of your music is how you never lose the overview of the bigger picture in that detail mania. You always succeed in building a narrative with that meticulously sculpted sound.
Bryce Dessner: “It’s not like I write program music, of course. I’m not making a story out of it. But I do understand what you mean. I’m not writing from an ideology, it’s not didactic, I don’t want to make a pedantic point. My inspiration often comes from an extra-musical source, which undoubtedly seeps through into the notes. At St. Carolyn by the Sea, that was a poem by Jack Kerouac. For the Concerto for two pianos, these are the art of Robert Rauschenberg and the poems of Robert Creeley or Frank O’Hara.
Often it is those American artists from the middle of the last century. The moment when we first developed our own artificial language in the US. There have been initial interesting experiments by Charles Ives or Aaron Copland or even Milton Babbit. But they remain very much anchored in the Western European music tradition.”
“From the thirties of the last century you suddenly get – first in the visual arts – artists who are starting to get away from that completely. Think Jackson Pollock, or John Cage. What interests me is how they break free from those preconceived structures. I hope to do the same in my music. The language determines the form, not the other way around. I want to go through that journey of discovery over and over again. A piece comes from an idea, the rest flows naturally from that…”
And then all the rules overboard?
Bryce Dessner: “I wouldn’t go that far either. When I write a concerto, I know that I have to follow certain rules. A concerto is a paradigm: you know you are writing for a soloist and an orchestra in a concert hall. That requires a certain approach anyway.”
You often call composing a ‘collaborative art’. What exactly do you mean by that? You decide what is in the score, right?
Bryce Dessner: “In my eyes, the notes on the paper are only for conversation. If you want to collaborate with an orchestra or a string quartet, that notated music is the language you use. And you can also change that language. When I write pieces for my brother, I have to do it in a different way, because he can’t read music. When I orchestrate for Paul Simon, it’s a different way of notating than when I’m writing for classical performers. Steve Reich used to say, ‘It’s not classical, pop, folk or electronica. It is one language communicated through a manuscript of written music.” It is a means to an end. It’s certainly not the final music. You can have a beautiful manuscript that won’t translate; but you can also have a score of incredible simplicity that still produces some of the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard.
I also often write my pieces for the person I have in mind. I wrote the Trombone Concerto specifically for Jörgen van Reijen; the piano concerto was written for Katia and Marielle Labeque. The intervals I use are adapted to their way of playing. And vice versa, they also inspire me. For example, in the Concerto for Two Pianos, there is a moment in the second movement where Katia suggested that I repeat a passage of 16 bars. She determined that the melody would come out better that way. She was right. So I added a double bar line with a repeat mark in my score. That’s what I mean by collaboration.”
Do you have no problem letting go of a work?
Bryce Dessner: “More than that, I try to disconnect myself from the music as much as possible. Ultimately, it is the performers who have to interpret my work, who have to interpret the notes and convey them to an audience. That, too, is part of the give and take of our art form. In the transfer it gets interesting. That twentieth-century idea of the lonely, genius composer alone in his writing room, isolated from the world, not playing a note himself… that is no longer the case. Someone who comes into a rehearsal with a score and expects you to perform their music exactly as they wrote it down, I don’t believe in that. Composers have always played their own music. They improvised freely, leaving room for virtuoso cadenzas where they could showcase their skills. Only in recent centuries you were suddenly taken much less seriously if you did that as a composer. I find that shortsighted.”
That’s The National guitarist speaking.
Bryce Dessner: “Oh, I happen to be in a band that is quite known. I’m originally stemming from classical music, of course. But actually that’s exactly what I mean. Look at the composers of today. John Luther Adams is a drummer, Jennifer Higdon plays in a rock band. They’re both Pulitzer winners. You also have to perform music and you don’t necessarily have to stay in that box of classical music.
Everything is increasingly flowing together. Genres fade, that’s what Birds of Paradise also wants to make audible.
What’s more, I don’t think composers or musicians themselves seldom think about those boxes. These are mainly art institutions that want to maintain a certain kind of tradition. I think we lose far too much time discussing what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music. While it is all just perception. In classical music I often get the label that my work is too avant-garde, while voices in the avant-garde label my compositions as entertainment. That’s why you always have to write from yourself. Just ask yourself the question ‘what do I want to write?’ Then you will get there. Because that is the beauty of the field today: there’s a time and place for everything.”
On Composing is a series of podcasts from Birds of Paradise about different ways of and ways of looking at composing. Various artists will talk about how they each deal with new compositions and composing in their own way. At the same time, the podcasts form the basic material for Music Miners, the education program of Birds of Paradise.
In this episode the American composer Bryce Dessner speaks. He is interviewed by Remy Alexander, program manager of Music Miners. The podcast is available here and on the TivoliVredenburg site from 14. March. Also listen to previous episodes with Sarah Neutkens, Dominique Vleeshouwers, Bram Stadhouders and Perforator and subscribe to this podcast via: Spotify | Apple Podcasts | Deezer
Music Miners is possible in various settings and is available throughout the school year for secondary school students. Choice and planning of artists in consultation with Remy Alexander: email@example.com
The climate crisis was the starting point for the song cycle Complete Mountain Almanac, which concludes the concert by Bryce Dessner and Casco Phil. In line with this, we are organizing a media training for artists in collaboration with Music Declares Emergency Netherlands, in which they receive tips and tools for convincing communication about the climate crisis. It will be an interactive session in which Sem Bakker (Popcoalitie) and Frederike Berendsen (FRÉ, Music Declares Emergency NL) will talk to artists from the Dutch music industry in the ‘safe space’ of Club Nine.
You can register for this free training via firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com