The multitasking guitarist for The National adds yet another title to his job description: composer.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
Rock musicians usually have been free about acknowledging their influences – country, bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz, Latin music and more. But there’s one exception: classical.
Maybe it’s out of lingering embarrassment over those self-indulgent prog-rock bands of the early 1970s – Emerson, Lake & Palmer, particularly – and the bombastic metal bands with their Wagnerian pretensions. Too, once punk and alternative ushered in the notion that inspired amateurism was nirvana, the virtuosity demanded by classical didn’t seem a comfortable fit for rockers.
But there’s always been a “cool” side to classical influence on rock. The New Music/electronic music experimentalists – older composers like Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Pierre Henry and also younger Americans like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass – have provided ideas and inspiration. In particular, the latter group’s use of repetition, percussion and sound collages was as much in synch with the radical edge of the 1960s and 1970s as was rock.
“Rock musicians have always had diverse backgrounds –the Beatles were receptive to composers like Berio and Stockhausen, and the underground in New York was directly involved with experimental art and composers like La Monte Young,” says Bryce Dessner, 37, who has a Master’s degree in music from Yale University and is a guitarist with the Brooklyn-based band the National. (His brother Aaron also is in the band.)
A new album of the Kronos Quarter playing four of Dessner’s classical compositions, Aheym, has recently been released on Anti- Records. It is Dessner’s recording debut as a composer.
“When Steve Reich first started writing music in the 1960s, there were not really musicians who could or would play it,” Dessner says. “But I’m someone who grew up with his music. His stuff like “Electric Counterpoint” (a minimalist composition for electric guitar, recorded in 1989 by Pat Metheny) has been as influential on my style of guitar playing in a rock band as any rock guitarist.
“When I heard that as a teenager, I thought, ‘How does he do that?’ That’s what led me to study classical guitar at CCM (University of Cincinnati’s College – Conservatory of Music) and do my Master’s at Yale. I think the tradition of classical music is exciting and it’s enticing to work with talented musicians who spend their lives perfecting their instruments. And it’s exciting to write music for them.”
The old labels that segregated classical from rock are fading. That’s thanks especially to the Brooklyn-based indie-rock scene that is home for Dessner, as well as to progressivism among classical-music institutions.
One of Dessner’s other projects, the mostly instrumental group Clogs, is as much a chamber group as rock band. With Sufjan Stevens and Nico Muhly, he has collaborated on original compositions about the solar system – Muhly’s opera Two Boys just was performed by the Metropolitan Opera. And Dessner has worked with Victoire, the all-female band organized by Missy Mazzoli, a Brooklyn-based composer.
Instead of New Music, a term historically used for avant-garde classical, Dessner refers to “creative music” that combines rock, classical, folk and more.
“At a certain point musicians coming out of the conservatory would go directly into classical music,” Dessner says. But now “there are more options in terms of the creative music that is happening.
“That has to do with the diversification on the popular side as well as the classical side,” he explains. “Part of it is that the Internet has offered more access for creative music. It allows audiences to diversify tastes – it’s no longer controlled by radio. People searching for creative music can find it.”
And one place they can find it is on Aheym, which features Kronos performing four Dessner compositions. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus is an equal partner with Kronos on one of them. San Francisco-based Kronos, under the leadership of violinist David Harrington, is celebrating its 40th year as a pioneering cutting-edge string quartet that has recorded works by everyone from Reich and Riley to Jimi Hendrix and Thelonius Monk.
Aheym’s title piece, which has a minor-key forward thrust and a sense of urgent repetition that one could call rock-like, was commissioned by Kronos for the 2009 Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival. The venue was the Prospect Park Bandshell, which is just a few blocks from Dessner’s house.
“David wanted me to write them a piece for this particular concert and that’s how it started,” Dessner says. “One of the things he wanted was, because this was for 7,000 people in the bandshell, that the piece not be too quiet or subtle.
That’s why “Aheym” is this pretty ferocious piece of music. Up until this moment, the instrumental music I’d been writing for the Clogs had been gentle in character. By the time I got to writing this, I was ready to try to inject some energy.”
Harrington also asked Dessner about his family background. As a result, that led to “Aheym” being a tribute to Dessner’s grandmother (on his father’s side), who came from Russia through Poland to the scruffy but free New York of the 1920s and settled in Brooklyn. “Aheym” means “homeward” in Yiddish, the language of East European Jews.
“And at the time I wrote the piece my grandmother was alive but ill, 95,” he says. “So we decided I would write the piece for her. It’s an abstract evocation of this idea of passage.” After playing the piece in Brooklyn, Kronos performed it in Lodz, Poland – reversing Dessner’s grandmother’s journey as a way to honor her roots.
Dessner grew up in Cincinnati – where all five members of the National are from. “For a kid growing up in the Midwest, she was our connection to our heritage, in a way,” he says. “I have a mixed family background. My mom comes from a Christian Ohio family; my (paternal) grandfather founded a temple in Brooklyn. My dad grew up in an Orthodox household and then he branched out and rejected that upbringing. My brother and I were bar mitzvahed and went to reform temple in Cincinnati. More recently, I’d say I identify culturally with being Jewish and not so much religiously.”
Aheym’s three other pieces also have meaning for Dessner. “Little Blue Something” is a play on the album title Little Blue Nothing by Czech viola da gamba musicians Irena and Vojtech Havel, who played in 2007 at the MusicNow Festival in Cincinnati, which Dessner created and programs.
“My sister brought home that record when she was doing her junior year abroad, 1991 or 1992, and she was a choreographer and danced to that quite a lot,” he says. “So when we started Clogs, that music to me was in mind – almost like minimalist folk music with simple economic patterns played on instruments that you weave in subtle textural improvisation.”
The fifteen-minute-long “Tenebre” is dedicated to Laurence Neff, Kronos’ longtime lighting designer and has a short multi-tracked vocal contribution from Sufjan Stevens.
And the Brooklyn Youth Chorus commissioned “Tour Eiffel,” based on a poem by Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro. “Nico Muhly commissioned the piece for them – he was music-directing a show at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn,” Dessner says.
“He’s someone who really likes my music and thought it would be great to write for them. They have such energy; they’re like a professional choir at ages 14-17. And David really loves working with children as well, so I thought I’d put a quartet with it and he recorded it for album.”
Dessner has plenty of upcoming activities. The National still is doing shows for this year’s album Trouble Will Find Me and has contributed a song to the soundtrack of the new Hunger Games movie. On the classical side, this year’s MusicNow Festival in March is a full collaboration with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – Dessner and his brother both will play solo electric guitar one night and there will be a world premiere of a new work by Muhly.
Whatever else he does with rock, he wants to keep writing contemporary classical music. “The tradition of rock is 70 years old or so,” Dessner says. “But when you’re writing art or concert music, you’re dealing with 700 years of history or more. It’s such a rich, exciting tradition but also daunting.”