Bryce Dessner is the guitarist in the National — so how’d he end up composing music for the acclaimed string quartet the Kronos Quartet? Turns out he’s also hip-deep in the world of contemporary music (or “modern classical,” if you prefer). Dessner’s a graduate of Yale University with a master’s degree in music composition, a collaborator with luminaries such as Steve Reich, and a composer of pieces commissioned by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. So when the Kronos Quartet wanted to surprise their longtime lighting designer Laurence Neff with an original composition for his fiftieth birthday, they approached Dessner. The collaboration expanded into a gorgeous and compulsively listenable four-track album, Aheym, out November 5th from Anti- Records. Rolling Stone spoke with Dessner about life as a composer and a rock star.
How did you first meet the Kronos Quartet?
I had been a fan for years, and I’ve worked with people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who obviously are big Kronos collaborators. So I met Kronos through Steve Reich and I asked them to appear on Dark Was the Night, a big AIDS charity record my brother [National guitarist/keyboardist Aaron Dessner] and I were producing for the Red Hot Organization. They covered the title track, which is a Blind Willie Johnson song [“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”], and we struck up a friendship through making that record.
How did you end up in these two different musical worlds?
From the time I was thirteen or fourteen, my brother and I have had rock bands that included the drummer of the National, Bryan Devendorf. But that entire time, I was playing classical guitar and learning about composition. It’s been a refreshing balance in my life. What has shifted was that in my early 20s, the classical side of my life was more my job. The way I earned money at first was playing contemporary music on guitar and teaching music. You can’t really plan for a rock band to become successful — it’s like trying to be a professional athlete. Nobody plans on playing their own songs in front of thousands of people.
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Is your compositional approach different in the two contexts?
When I’m scoring something like a string quartet, it’s all notated music, so it’s meticulously written in the score, which is very different than doing things by ear. In terms of generating the actual material, it’s all coming out of the same head. Occasionally there’ll be an idea that starts out as a National song and it ends up being something more formal. When I’m writing for certain instruments, you want to write within what you know about that instrument, but also challenge the player. Something like “Aheym” is very virtuosic — but because I have a history of performing music, I don’t like unplayable music.
Is one music world more judgmental than the other?
I would say people are refreshingly open-minded about it. There is a reactionary conservative side of classical music, which is not the most exciting side of it. The side that draws me in, there’s a real encouragement of risk-taking, going back to masters of that tradition like Beethoven and Bartok and Stravinsky. You could see popular music as more conservative, once you get into the realm of songs that work on the radio. Sufjan Stevens contributes vocals on “Tenebre”– how’d that happen?
There’s eight voices of Sufjan on there. I played in his band in 2005, and more recently, we worked on a song cycle called Planetarium. He’s played on the last three National records. He’s one of my closest friends and a neighbor. That piece, “Tenebre,” is based on Renaissance vocal music. The piece was commissioned for Kronos’s lighting designer, so I was thinking about light and music, and Tenebre is a Holy Week service, the day before Good Friday, also called Maundy Thursday. It’s all about light: they extinguish candles during the Mass, symbolizing the life and death of Christ. Because the piece is based on vocal music, I wanted it to have voices at the end. But I wanted to do it in a nonclassical way, and Sufjan has this light airiness in his voice that I thought would be beautiful. And he’s game for this kind of thing.
What’s the most surprising use any of your music has ever been put to?
Probably Barack Obama using “Fake Empire,” a song I wrote for the National on Boxer. It was one of his campaign songs in 2008. The song actually has something tricky going on in it: it has very simple chords, but it has a 4/3 polyrhythm, which is something that I would use in a more contemporary composition.