Bryce Dessner talks about ‘double life’ as both classical and rock musician

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For a man who is about to hear a top symphony orchestra play his first stand-alone score, Bryce Dessner appears surprisingly calm.

Dessner will be in the audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall on May 28, listening to Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic play the world premiere of “Quilting,” a 17-minute orchestral score. The piece will be bookended by work by Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw and a new concerto for two pianos from Philip Glass, also a world premiere.

Perhaps Dressner’s ability to handle nerves comes from his experience recording and performing in front of thousands as the guitarist for the indie rock band the National. But after discussing his work in both classical and pop music, a more plausible explanation emerges: He’s been preparing for this his entire life. The National is simply one string to his accomplished bow.


“I’ve always had this double life,” he explains. “People ask: ‘How did you go from being a rock musician to a classical musician?’ It was actually the other way around.”

The world premiere of “Quilting” as part of the Phil’s Next on Grand new music festival comes at the end of a big month for 39-year-old Dessner. He curated a festival of new American music, “Mountains and Waves,” at the Barbican Center in London, which included a new piece by Dessner and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry written for the Britten Sinfonia. His 36-minute “Music for Wood and Strings,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall and written for So Percussion, was released on the Brassland Records label, which Dessner co-founded.

Born in Ohio, with a father who was a jazz drummer, Dessner began playing music as a young child — first classical flute, then guitar and piano.

He and his twin brother, Aaron, formed their first rock band when they were 13 and always took it seriously, but they had no expectations of making it big.

“I think that becoming a successful rock band is a little like becoming a professional athlete. Nobody plans on it,” he says.

It was classical music that Dessner embraced wholeheartedly, getting a master’s in music at Yale after an undergraduate degree in history.


He taught music theory and history in New York City after getting his degrees and played classical guitar recitals and contemporary classical music on the electric guitar.

“Being a classical musician, you can go to school for it, you can go get a degree. Even as a composer, there is a certain career path you can follow, but becoming a rock musician is a much more elusive career. How do you learn that or do that?”

Dessner, 39, has a gentle yet not soft voice, his answers thoughtful and deliberate.

He says he wrote “Quilting” entirely in Paris. His girlfriend is French, and he found being within walking distance of the Bastille and attending opera there an invaluable creative experience.

The result is a meticulously thought-out work. “It’s a big piece — I use the brass and the winds a lot. It has an almost dance-like quality in moments where it has certain sections, which have a real propulsive, kinetic rhythm to them,” he says.

He came up with the title because composing the piece felt like he was sewing together music as well as various instruments.

He researched the craft of quilting and says he became fascinated by how the patchwork patterns represented stories. He especially liked a pattern called “Road to California.”


“It’s also a bit of a wink of an eye to what the Americans were doing in the 19th century,” he adds. “We’re at the height of high art in Europe and masterpieces of orchestral music. And Americans were moving west towards frontier life.”

Europe might have dominated the world of classical composition at one time, but Dessner is part of a growing number of accomplished American contemporary classical composers. He says he is excited about the work he hears from his peers. And he calls the L.A. Philharmonic one of the most supportive orchestras for this genre of music.

Dessner was approached by L.A. Philharmonic artistic administrator Chad Smith about this commission, and he feels they have given him their full backing.

“It feels to me that if they believe in someone, they believe in everything they’re doing,” he says. “I think that everyone would agree their programming is just unparalleled in terms of new contemporary music. The musicians are just extraordinary, and Gustavo being Gustavo, well, it’s kind of the dream situation for any composer.

“There is a kind of adventure- and risk-seeking audience in classical contemporary music that is really empowering and part of what draws me to it,” he explains. “The people that come to these concerts are open minded and curious.”

Dessner has been writing chamber and orchestra music for many years and has already worked with the Chicago Youth Orchestra, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Britten Sinfonia and the Copenhagen Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and also soon the San Francisco Symphony. He also works with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra every spring.


He says he seeks much of his inspiration from writers such as Frank O’Hara and Jack Kerouac and the postwar American art of Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston.

And he is drawn to larger ensemble music because “there is something in the colors of the orchestra, the textual elements, I think of it as more painterly. You can blur sound, in a way.”

Despite his growing portfolio as a composer, Dessner remains best known as a member of the National, in which he performs alongside his brother Aaron, lead singer Matt Berninger, drummer Bryan Devendorf and bass guitarist Scott Devendorf.

Straddling the worlds of rock musician and composer has eluded others, but Dessner says it is “an essential part of who I am. It’s deep in my DNA.”

“In terms of how I developed as a musician, I was as inspired by Steve Reich [the American minimalist composer] as I was by Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin,” he says.

He is writing a piece for the New York City Ballet next season.

The festival MusicNOW that he created in Cincinnati is also celebrating its 10th year.

“I enjoy doing it, it’s really fun, and I’m building a body of work,” he said.

“Another reason why I do this stuff is it’s a challenge, and I’m always learning. As long as I’m excited about it, I’ll keep doing it. As long as I’m still growing as a musician, it keeps me inspired.”