Details on the new album by the National have been scarce, but in the meantime, guitarist Bryce Dessner, who now lives in Paris, has been keeping busy composing for high-profile outside projects. Last Tuesday, the New York City Ballet debuted The Most Incredible Thing, the 10th new work from 28-year-old dancer-choreographer Justin Peck, the ballet world's great, young hope to convert a new generation to the art form. A creative collaboration with Dessner and artist Marcel Dzama, the production mixes a fanciful landscape of sounds and visuals to interpret Hans Christian Andersen's 19th-century fairy tale that hinges on its ability to deliver a high quotient of contemporary cool.
In fact, this is the second new ballet Dessner has scored for Peck, who has also worked with Sufjan Stevens, and Peck says he hopes to work with other indie musicians to attract new audiences. "Bryce and I have a really good working relationship — he's a friend and a very engaging collaborator — and I like his music a lot so I'm sure that we'll do another project together," Peck tells Rolling Stone. "I would love to work with Joanna Newsom on a ballet. I think that would be amazing. She has a gift for orchestrating and composing and I think she would be really engaging to work with. But she's elusive and hard to track down!"
We caught up with Dessner to find out whether there will be more music from the National anytime soon, composing for moving bodies and what it's like to score for an Oscar-nominated film.
Had you been a ballet fan before you began collaborating with Justin? How did that relationship start?
I grew up going to see my sister dance, both at the ballet and later as a modern dancer, and have always been a big fan of the ballet. So I have had a long relationship with dance. Originally when I moved to New York in 1999, I would see a lot of modern dance at BAM (companies like Pina Bausch and William Forsythe). I met Justin several years ago when he first did a piece with my friend Sufjan Stevens and we've been friends ever since. I've seen most of the works he has created at New York City Ballet. I also go pretty often to see other ballets, both in New York and also the Paris Opera Ballet where I now live.
Members of the National have said there will be no new album from the band in 2016, but you've been composing music for the movie The Revenant and with Justin for this ballet and other new music. Will be hearing more from you while the band regroups?
We are hard at work on a new album for the National now. Hopefully we will be playing some of the new songs live. When the band is not touring, I mostly devote my time to writing concert music for orchestra and various chamber groups. Although recently working with Justin on the ballet and Alejandro Iñárritu on The Revenant were big projects I loved being a part of. I am writing a new work for chamber orchestra for the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain, famously founded by Pierre Boulez, who recently passed away, that will premiere September 24th directed by Matthias Pintscher.
What's the difference composing for moving bodies as opposed to a film score like The Revenant?
For the ballet, the piece really starts with the music. Justin Peck and I collaborated deeply on ideas for the ballet but as far as workflow, the piece begins with music. For the film, I was responding to a work of art that was already mostly finished and worked closely with Alejandro Iñárritu on the score for certain scenes in the movie.
You ended up with roughly 44 minutes of music in this ballet, but how much did you actually create during the collaboration process?
I probably wrote almost twice as much music for the ballet and through a process of editing and reacting to Justin's ideas we narrowed it down to the 44 minutes in the piece.
Have you found that the classically trained musicians who perform your scores have any questions about the music? Do you work with the conductors and musicians on interpreting it at all?
When working with classical musicians, it is important to be clear as possible in the score about what my intentions are. Because there isn't a lot of rehearsal time, especially at the ballet, it's best if everything is written in the score. Part of what I enjoy about writing classical music is communicating through the score and collaborating with such amazing musicians.