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Bryce Dessner

Bryce Dessner

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Tuesday 29th October, 2013 9:09AM

Bryce Dessner is the classically-trained guitarist who formed The National back in 1999 with brother Aaron. Since then he has balanced songwriting for one of the world's biggest contemporary rock bands with developing and flexing his classical guitar and compositional muscles, playing for the likes of Philip Glass and Terry Riley and, most recently, contributing to experimental classical group, the Kronos Quartet. Here Dessner discusses his education at music conservatories, and his unique and shared experiences in both a rock 'n roll band and as a classical musician.

Hey Bryce, how are you? What are you up to at the moment?

I’m just at home in Brooklyn, spending time with my brother’s daughter. We have a few days off in between promotion for this Kronos album and being on tour with The National. How are you and how’s New Zealand?

It’s good, it’s the middle of the day here and it’s very sunny, so I can’t complain.

Where do you live? In Auckland?

Yep, in Auckland.

I love it there.

You guys are coming back there soon which is exciting.

Yeah we’re really excited about that.

I wanted to start by discussing the beginnings of your interest in classic composition and your study, because it sounds fascinating but I can’t find a whole lot of information out about it.

When I was little I was playing the flute, and primarily classical music. When I was 12 or 13 I discovered rock ‘n’ roll because my sister’s three years older than me and she was listening to The Smiths and The Pixies. I caught the bug for that music from her and basically just bought an electric guitar – I think I rented it actually. I started teaching myself, but within the first year - I was a teenager and I was playing alone in my basement listening to stuff like John Fahey or great rock bands with a great guitar players - I realized that by just teaching myself I would never get as good as these guys, or good enough to write the things I wanted to write.

At age 13 or 14 I put myself into the conservatory in Cincinnati where I started learning classical guitar and all through high school I was pretty serious about it. I was playing in a rock band with my brother, but I was also playing classical music on the guitar. I ended up going to Yale for my undergraduate studies at age 18, and they have the best music school in the country - it’s actually a graduate performance school. When I was 18 I would sit in on classes in composition and I ended up staying there and doing a Master's degree in music. The whole time this was happening I was still playing in rock bands with my brother and then at the end of school The National started, which was in 1999, when I was in 22.

Just before September 11th I was living in New York city, teaching guitar and I started another band called Clogs, which was a group that came out of Yale. We were all classically-trained musicians and would write our own music, and that was a laboratory for me to try things about composition and colours. There was a lot of cross-over between that band and The National. Before The National became successful and before it became an international touring thing we all did different things to make money. The guys in the band all had real jobs where they were working in design companies or publishing companies, except for me who was the pro-musician. I would get hired to play a lot of chamber music and at at that time I was one of the few guitarists who could really play electric guitar but also read music well. There were a lot of composers who were writing for electric guitar, with these various acoustic ensembles. Early on I did a tour with Philip Glass and I got to work with Terry Riley - who’s a really important American minimalist - and then eventually I got to do an album with Steven Rice. In the mean time The National kept making records. I do have this classical interest and background but I’m not a different person when I’m doing both. We’ve done projects that blur the boundaries. I mean The National is really about the songs and we try and keep it that way but there are some pretty adventurous things happening in the arrangements and in some of the songwriting. Just before Boxer I started getting really inspired to write more music for other people to play. There was a departure there where I started writing for orchestra or string quartert, for example. I caught the bug of wanting to compose more and develop my voice in that way, and the Kronos album has evolved out of that.

What was the starting point for the Kronos collaboration, and how did you work together to develop the material that is on the album?

My brother and I produced this record called Dark was the Night. The title track is an old blues song and we asked Kronos to cover it because we wanted something a little different on the album. It was very much a bunch of indie bands and a lot of the leading groups of our generation – smaller groups as well as bigger bands like David Byrne and the Arcade Fire-

- Because it was a charity album, yes?

Yeah it was an AIDS charity album, and it’s actually raised over $2million for AIDS charities worldwide. It’s been a great story. Kronos had worked a lot with Steve Rice and so had I, so we connected through him, and then I met them and they were such amazing people and so open-minded and veracious about music. They were interested in pushing the envelope of what a string quartert is. David Harrington, who founded it, is in his sixties and he’s the most creative and energetic person I’ve ever met. Soon after that project he asked me to write them a piece. He wanted me to write it for a concert they were doing in Prospect Park and I live near Prospect Park and it’s built by the same person - Frederick Law Olmsted - who built Central Park and it’s this beautiful park that I go jogging in every morning. Kronos was going to play this concert there to like 5, 000 people and they asked me to write a piece for it. It’s a lot of pressure to write a piece for the greatest string quartet, to play in front of 5, 000 people. Usually classical things happen in front of 200 people, not 5, 000 people. Our rock band plays in front of 5-10, 000 people but it was a tall order. Anyway, he asked me to write a piece that wasn’t too quiet or too subtle, so that’s why the piece has this intense, kinetic feeling to it. ‘Aheym’ is a Yiddish word actually, and I wrote it to dedicate to my grandmother who had passed away around that time. Yiddish was her first language because she was a Russian immigrant. So the piece means ‘Homeward’ and it’s this idea of her journey home. We grew up hearing about her story of coming to America which is a crazy, immigrant story of her running away, so it has this sense of passage to it.

You mention that it has a kinetic energy to it. I’m interested in the different approach to imbuing a classical track with emotions and meaning, as opposed to a contemporary rock track that you do in The National?

I think in a song the emotion is very much in the voice and in the lyrics. In The National my brother and I write sketches and we send them to our singer and they’re little instrumentals that you could listen to without lyrics and ideally they have to be interesting enough that you can listen to them without lyrics and voice. In a way it’s a similar thing writing instrumental music but obviously once the vocal is down and the song becomes a song, it takes on this emotional life. I think the primary difference between doing that and writing primary instrumental music probably has to do with style. Is it romantic? Is there a recognisable melody? Is there something that you can sing along to? I want to write music that’s moving and transportative but isn’t saccharine or one-dimensional, so I try to do things that have a certain depth to them. ‘Aheym’, for instance, has an aggressive energy to it that typically songs by The National don’t have. It has an edge about it and a dissonance in the chords that we haven’t used as much in The National. Rock songs are typically three, four, maybe five minutes long, whereas the shortest piece on this album is eight minutes so it’s a different canvas where I can reach further afield and push myself further with the instrumentation. What makes The National a good band is that we put songwriting first, because you can dress something up a million ways but if the song isn’t good, it’s not going to work.

The National has been touted as having an emotional depth that a lot of bands operating in the same genre don’t have. Do you think this is, in part, to do with the complexity of song structure, which comes from your classic training?

Yeah a little bit. But also, my brother and I write songs together and he’s not classically trained and while a lot of the more experimental ideas might come through me, they’re re-interpreted by him and again, enveloped by the chemistry of the band. It’s not necessarily just me either - there’s this weird, rock-band-alchemy process that mixes these things together. We’re collaborative with each other but also with other people. Other people play on our records and we all have healthy relationships with other musicians. My project with Kronos is very healthy and opens the windows to a different world. I feel like I’ve gone deep into that territory and developed my voice as a composer. For instance, there’s a song on The National record called ‘This is the Last Time’ and I wrote the end of that song as a string piece. We had the song and I didn’t think it felt finished, so I composed it the way I would compose a string quartet and then the lyrics were written over the top, so that’s an example of where these things meet. I don’t spend too much time worrying about where everything fits – for me it’s seamless to think about where these things fit and think of them as similar but also different.


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