ABC Classic FM’s Julian Day spoke to all-round musician Bryce Dessner ahead of his Perth Festival classical gig.
Julian Day: Bryce Dessner is an extraordinarily talented individual. He's not only one part of the chart-topping group The National (touring the country at the moment – indie rock band from Brooklyn), he's also curator, a performer with Clogs (a long-term cult group) and is now a burgeoning composer with performances and recordings by Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can All Stars, Eighth Blackbird and many more. Bryce is also appearing at the Freemantle Arts Centre to present Soft Soft Loud, an evening of his work. You've curated festivals and you have this growing output as a composer. I guess my first question has to be: how do you fit it all in?
BD: You know, people always ask me that and I always say, well "People who have real jobs, going into an office, are busy all day. We're musicians. We often just play at night." There's a lot of time in the day so I like to keep busy and for me music has always been a really varied activity. I've had classical music in my life since I was really small. And then playing in rock bands since I was a teenager. Somehow I manage to keep doing it all and I really thrive on the diversity of that experience. I'm a bit too busy, I think – with the success with The National which was kind of something none of us predicted, so what suffers is probably my personal life. I don't have much of a social life. But the work is all very exciting.
JD: I had a look at your tour schedule and it seems to stretch out into the foreseeable future for months and months on end.
BD: Yeah it does. I believe that things with The National wrap up in September though and once that happens then we'll take a couple of years off. Really, I guess, it's in the breaks that I'm writing a big new classical piece and then I'd be writing a big piece for orchestra that I'll really get going on in September. I do need a certain amount of peace and quiet to get those things done.
JD: I suppose there must be some compartmentalising in terms of your time and your schedule. But I wonder too, what about these different outputs – I mean, they are diverse and varied. Are they quite separate parts of your artistic identity, or do you see it more as the same compositional voice just with multiple outputs, if you like?
BD: I always say that I'm the same musician no matter where I go and obviously there's a really long tradition in music, from the Renaissance, where composers played their own music and they were great improvisers. I think that there is this diverse background. But in the 20th century we started imaging the composer alone in his room writing the great works and then delivering them to the orchestra – and not necessarily playing them or conducting them.
I think I'm part of a generation where musicians have such a diverse background and education, that it's a bit hard to pigeon hole us into saying "you're doing that, or you're doing that". I think for me, the important thing is that all of this music is really vital to my creative output and to who I am. Just because one thing is more popular than another doesn't mean that it's any less important. My musical being is the same wherever I go – the application might be a bit different. When you're writing a piece for classical musicians you're really communicating through the score – it's a written music. That'd be the primary difference, from say working in a rock band where you're primarily teaching others things by ear and it's a very collaborative effort.
JD: And I guess writing for orchestra, the very fact that you have to corral 80, 90, 100 people and make them do more or less the same thing at the same time just requires much more planning and forethought if you like.
BD: It does. I could very easily just tour around with my band and be quite happy and sufficient at doing that. But what I'm drawn to in music is being challenged and the learning experience of it. For me, working with musicians who have spent their lives learning their instruments and are just such sophisticated players – and then to work with an orchestra with a great conductor it's so powerful. Part of what attracts me to working with manuscript and notating music is that the layers of depth that you can go into are pretty amazing – maybe like a writer editing their book.
For me finishing a score is this exercise in clarity, where I'm trying to get deeper into what my ideas are and get them down on the page. Like I said, it's very different. With The National. We record and really write in the studio and we do that together – it's kind of uncovering the song as we go, during the process of recording. The challenge is quite different when you're composing music for a string quartet. You have to get everything onto the page right from the get-go. And then the collaboration is something else. The shaping of the music is a really beautiful process that is very rich and rewarding as well but it's a different kind of collaboration.
JD: On the classical front you've had several big successes lately. Two albums have come out very close to one another in fact. One just late last year came to my desk in November (that's the disc with Kronos Quartet). And then the upcoming disk of orchestral works St. Carolyn of the Sea. Talking firstly maybe about the first album, Kronos Quartet – I'm really curious as to what it was like working with these guys. I'm assuming these are pieces that came sequentially and have been gathered up I guess for this album.
BD: Yeah, the Kronos Quartet – I think David Harrington might be 65 now. They've been going for 40 years. They're more veracious and courageous and excited about music than any young quartet I've met; certainly, people half their age or even more than half their age. There's just a kind of energy about them. They really work hard and they play so much and tour so much and they're commissioning a lot of music. They latched on to me and they really like the first piece, Aheym, that I wrote. Usually each piece I've written for them has been commissioned for some very specific event – which is really helpful in a way because it informs what I end up doing musically.
Obviously Kronos is the rare instance of an ensemble that really has its own kind of canon. They're behind so many important works of the 20th century like the great Reich Quartet, the Phillip Glass music, and I think 3 Górecki quartets and having worked with people like Feldman and Cage. They have pioneered so much about how we think about classical music and where it's played, how it's released and what country it comes from. All these things, that actually (this is a bit self-referential) if you're writing for them, you're really relating to the music that they've championed. So that in itself was part of the process for me. They’re just very inspiring, sweet and encouraging Californians – they're really open-minded.
JD: Certainly many composers I speak to – even very high achieving, well-travelled composers – are none the less a little trepidatious when tackling something like the string quartet because, after all it does come with several hundred years of great pieces. Was there any sense of taking a deep breath stepping up to writing your first quartets?
BD: I think that [the string quartet] is one of the great archetypes of classical music. Obviously there's just so much important music – the Bartók quartets, the Beethoven quartets – you know, masterworks. There's that element of it that you feel. It's kind of like you're stepping up to a big plate or something and stepping up to weigh your work against those amazing pieces. But I think that the other side of it is that it's very unforgiving. You can't hide anything in a string quartet; every note counts. And in that way, finishing a piece is an incredible exercise in perfecting something. For me, it was a great challenge.
I played a lot in a quartet called Clogs – and actually I should mention, Padma Newsome. He's an Australian composer and amazing violist/violinist/songwriter that lives down south here in Australia in a little town called Mallacoota. We played in a band together for 10 years and he's a great string player who's played all the great string quartet and orchestral repertoire. He's a fantastic composer and a bit of a renegade in his own right. So I think that being around a string player like that – who’s a great improviser and really into extended techniques – sort of living in his world for a very long time was very helpful for me for when I decided to really start writing string orchestra music. I don't play any of them, but I've had enough time with them that I felt a bit liberated to do it. I wouldn't have done it 10 years ago. I think it was really something that a certain level of maturity brought me to.
JD: I'm glad you mentioned Clogs because besides being my next question, it was the first group that I really came to know your work with – I think long before The National – for me at least. Even hearing pieces on this upcoming album St. Carolyn of the Sea these orchestral works, there seems to me a certain dark hue to the timbres and sort of growing out from an intimate beginning if you like with some of these pieces. Which is not far removed from the intimate miniatures that I came to know, from your quartet Clogs and certainly there's the unusual timbres of clogs: viola, guitar, bassoon and percussion. These are sort of rich, darker sounds if you like.
BD: I think so. I that in Clogs we were sort of scavengers of musical styles and ideas. The records called Lullaby for Sue or Stick Music are probably more experimental in character. And then there are ones like the first one, Thom's Night Out or the recent two The Creatures or Lantern that are very folky. I think that there was a kind of freedom. I think in New York anyway, where we were living at the time, we weren't afraid to let music be gentle or to be emotive or to be melodic and I think that in our own way we were just writing music for ourselves to play and improvising together. There were lots of things we were doing together that were – on some level – carving a little new spot of the musical community we were part of.
I always say that it was a great laboratory for me, as a musician, to develop ideas and to grow. All the musicians in that ensemble are really fantastic players, so it was just a great opportunity for me to get really good at chamber music. And again, working towards finding my voice and composing for them is something that really helps with that. I think that we all grow and evolve out of experiences like that. All of these years touring with The National or years of playing music by composers like Michael Gordon or Steve Riech or Terry Riley and then working in my own ensemble with a group like Clogs have just been a tremendous education for me.
JD: There's an event that you're part of in Perth called Soft Soft Loud, which focuses on your work and that of friends. Can you tell us what's in store with this event?
BD: I'm going to be coming and hearing the musicians in Perth. I believe it's a group of local, really talented musicians who are playing as part of the ensemble. They're going to be doing two quartets from the recent record with Kronos – Aheym and Tenebre. Tenebre is a pretty ambitious piece, so I'm really excited to hear that. And then I'm going to be playing a solo guitar piece that incorporates improvisation into it. I've sort of titled it as a bit of tribute to Steve Reich. It's called Feedback Counterpoint and a lot of the sounds created with the instrument are actually done without touching the strings at all – so it's about the guitar as an object, the physical properties of how it channels sound. So then I guess it will be kind of soft, soft and loud. It does get quite loud in that piece.
JD: Yeah – right. I'm almost channelling Nirvana in a title like Soft Soft Loud. Well, wonderful to chat with you Bryce Dessner. Good luck with the event in Perth.
This interview was first heard on New Music Up Late on ABC Classic FM. New Music Up Late can be heard Fridays & Saturdays 10:30pm – 12:30am
Soft Soft Loud is part of Perth Festival at the Freemantle Arts Centre on February 13.