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Bryce Dessner Is Redefining Classical Music for the Modern Era

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The Music of Bryce Dessner | Walker Art Center | Friday and Saturday, April 3-4 

While Bryce Dessner is predominantly known as the guitarist in the National, he is a classically trained musician and scholar, with a Master's degree in music from Yale. In recent years, his compositions have been performed in illustrious locations throughout the world, like Carnegie Hall in New York, the Barbican Concert Hall in London, and the Walt Disney Performance Hall in Los Angeles. During that time, he's worked alongside a host of renowned composers, including Steve Reich, Philip Glass, David Lang, and the Kronos Quartet, while firmly establishing his own distinctive voice in the world of contemporary classical music. 

This weekend, the Walker Art Center and the SPCO's Liquid Music Series are celebrating Dessner's unique musical gifts, as well as the talents of his contemporaries who will be joining him on Friday and Saturday. Ahead of these special shows, Gimme Noise was able to chat with Dessner from his Paris residence, where he shared his inspirations for his current work, how his approach to his classical pieces are similar to his songwriting with the National, and what we can expect from these upcoming performances.

Gimme Noise: You have a few special compositions set to be performed here this weekend. What are the origins and inspirations behind "Lachrime"?

Bryce Dessner: As a classical guitarist, my background is in playing Bach and Renaissance music, which is the great repertoire for the solo guitar and the lute. And "Lachrime" was commissioned by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, which is one of the great string orchestras of Europe. They play a lot of contemporary music, but they also play a lot of Baroque and Renaissance music very well, which I think is kind of rare. So, I wanted to write a new piece that was inspired by some of that early repertoire that I'm familiar with.

"Lachrime" is famously a piece that John Dowland himself made multiple versions of. It is based on a song of his called, "Flow My Tears," which is interesting for several reasons. In a way, it kind of ties together the entire weekend -- this meeting between more instrumental contemporary music and song, and how do those things relate. "Flow My Tears" was a piece that dates from when composers started writing music that had no use in court or church, but was about an emotion. It's an emotional song that is essentially about sadness. It's a simple, beautiful song that he himself then arranged as an instrumental piece.

My piece is inspired in part by Dowland and Benjamin Britten, and also Béla Bartók, a Hungarian composer -- as well as a performer and an improviser -- who was extremely influenced by folk music. So, my "Lachrime" fits in between the Dowland and the Bartók.

And what about "Tenebre," another piece of yours set to be performed over the weekend?

That piece is much more personal. "Tenebre" was the third of a series of commissions that I did for Kronos Quartet. It was written for Steve Reich's 75th birthday at the Barbican in London. But it was also was commissioned by Kronos for their lighting designer at the time, a guy named Larry Neff, who was turning 50 and also celebrating his 25th year with the group.

So, it had this double-edged celebration of Steve Reich -- who had been a mentor to me and was personally involved in helping me as I've grown as a composer and a musician -- and then also for Kronos it was this personal story of a very important person in their organization whose principal auxiliary was lighting the group.

So, I really thought a lot about that, and tried to come up with a theme that somehow would deal with both light and music. A lot of my favorite music is religious vocal music, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to work around this idea regarding our relationship to light. What's significant about Tenebre is that there is 15 candles that are extinguished into darkness as the mass goes on to symbolize the death of Christ, so the music itself traces this arc of light descending into darkness.

Larry Neff ended up passing away last year, so the piece has taken on a more profound meaning, where it's become a requiem for him. It's become a very important piece for all of us for that reason -- it celebrates his life and what he did. It's a sad evolution of what that piece has come to symbolize, but also quite meaningful. 

The version that we're going to do at the Walker is a new version for a larger string ensemble. It was originally written for a string quartet, but we'll be doing it with about 20 strings, so it will have a beautiful, richer sound.

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You've also got an experimental piece written for So Percussion, "Music for Wood and Strings." How did that work materialize?

It's a more recent work, done over the past two years. And it's more influenced by American music as opposed to the more European Renaissance music. "Music for Wood and Strings" is a 40-minute percussion work I wrote for So Percussion, and I think it's the highlight of the weekend. It's an important work for me. It's based on American string band music. I wanted to write a work for percussion, and I was inspired by kinetic rhythms. And to do that, I had to design a new instrument.

So, Aron Sanchez -- from Buke and Gase who are also performing this weekend -- built these instruments that the two of us designed together. They are hybrid dulcimer instruments that have eight strings each. So basically, I created this instrument, then I created this piece. It's almost like electric guitar music in a way, but the rhythms are far too difficult for guitarists to play.

It's a beautiful experiment writing for percussionists. I imagined the music, then I imagined the instrument. Then I built the instrument, then I wrote the music. It was a bit of a risk, but it worked out.

How inspiring and important is it for you to have so many of your colleagues and musical contemporaries taking part in these performances over the weekend?

To me, what is unique and significant about American music, is the idea of collaboration. It's a deeply American concept, and it's something that -- across different genres -- we've really embraced. Certainly my generation has a post-20th century openness about ideas and a cross-pollination between different art forms. And places like the Walker and events like Liquid Music are beautiful platforms and vehicles for these new types of collaborations. And it's something quite special that is happening now in America that is specifcally ours.

They've called this the Music of Bryce Dessner weekend, and I really think we should expand that. It's a celebration of all of the individuals who are performing over the weekend. It's an amazing honor that they would come and be here for me for this, but really the honor is all mine to present their music.

How does your approach to music and songwriting change, if at all, between your classical compositions and your work with the National and Clogs?

I'm the same musician no matter what I'm doing. If anything, my education is more classical than it is in rock music. My role in the band has been more on that side as well, with orchestration and the collaborations with who we work with -- that comes from my classical side. 

Written music is the language of classical musicians, we communicate with each other through score. As opposed to folk or rock based traditions, which is by ear.It doesn't mean that one is more complicated than the other -- that has nothing to do with it and is totally irrelevant. It's just a question of language.

So, when I'm working with an orchestra or a string quartet, I'm delivering a finished score and all of the information is on the page. And then the collaborative part happens in the shaping and coloring of the performance. In the National, or even in Clogs, we write ideas but we keep them quite simple, then we develop them together. So we develop them collaboratively. The original inspiration for a piece might actually come in a very similar way, where it might be four notes on the piano or a chord on the guitar or a melody that I decide to expand. From there, the development and how it plays out is slightly different.

And obviously, form varies. The So Percussion piece is 36 minutes long, a rock song is four minutes long. And that keeps me fresh and excited about music, having those two things in my life. Economy of idea is useful for all types of musicians and composers. And what draws me to the contemporary music tradition is the sense of adventure and open-mindedness.

Music fans in this area are quite excited about the Eaux Claires Music Festival. Aaron [Dessner] and Justin Vernon have assembled an incredible lineup for that weekend. Has your brother shared any insider info with you about what we can expect?

I think the festival program is amazing. But I think there's a whole other side to it, which involves the land itself. They are really creating a new kind of experience for a festival, and deeply thinking through the layout and the lighting, the food, the audio-visual experience -- all those things are going to be carefully put together. That aspect is going to be potentially revolutionary about that event, and I'm really proud of them for that. The two of them are curating the music, but there's a huge team of other people that are involved, as well. I think it's going to be extremely special.

The Music of Bryce Dessner is at the Walker Art Center on Friday, April 3, and Saturday, April 4. For tickets, lineups, programs, and more information, go to the SPCO's Liquid Music page.

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