Whether it's film scores, production music or full-blown orchestral performances, musicians in rock and pop have long dabbled in the finer musical arts. But The National’s Bryce Dessner is no a curious onlooker, looking to extend a successful indie-rock career. No, he's a bonafide genre-hopper -- a state of affairs that he handily proves with Aheym, a new LP that he wrote for Kronos Quartet.
With a master’s degree in music from Yale University, the multi-talented twin (of brother Aaron) has composed and played classical music for longer than he has rock, be it in Clogs or for performances with legendary composers such as Steve Reich.
Dessner's other classical credits could stretch a mile: commissioning ensemble pieces, scoring films, curating festivals, serving as a composer in residence, and working with Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and other A-list names. Oh, and he also co-runs Brassland Records, which releases classically infused records across the pop, rock and avant-garde genres.
This November, Dessner debuts an LP of four pieces that he wrote for Kronos Quartet, a 40-year-old ensemble that’s as close to rock stardom as a chamber group can get. Titled Aheym, it's 45 minutes of music transmogrify from racing and raucous to soft and pensive.
The title track opens with a frantic burst—almost, as Dessner puts it, like a metal riff—before easing into the multi-hued “Little Blue Something” and “Tenebre.” “Aheym” also shows its range, rising and cooling with pizzicato plucks and interwoven rhythms. “Tour Eiffel” closes as an exemplification of diversity, working minimalist guitar, piano buildups and a marching snare behind the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
To celebrate the album's release, Hive spoke with Dessner to discuss inspiration, musical pedigree and working with Kronos.
For decades, rock musicians have gotten involved in composing, but it seems that there’s a growing contingent of “indie-rock composers.” Do you think that listeners who generally aren’t into classical and chamber music are paying more attention now?
I think so. I think that musicians have really diverse taste in music. I don’t know that things have shifted that much, like, say between my generation and if you look at The Velvet Underground, who were really involved with people like La Monte Young and John Cale—someone who composes music and who was involved in experimental music in New York City in the late ’60s and ’70s. I think there always has been a relationship between more experimental or concert music and what is happening in pop culture.
What I can say about audiences is that with the changes that have happened in the music industry in the past 15 years, specifically the advent of the Internet and the changing of the radio format away from the mainstream, I think that it has allowed people to delve deeper into what their taste in music is. It’s easier to find things. If you’re curious about a string quartet, you can pull up YouTube and find [tons of] performances of it. That would have been hard before if you didn’t have access to the music, or if you couldn’t afford the concert ticket price.
Whether music has shifted all that much, I don’t know. If you look at, say, more adventurous electronica, it has more in common with composed music in history than it does with its closer relatives in pop music. So I think there’s all kinds of crossover going on. And I like to think that people are curious.
What has your Yale degree meant to your professional career?
Primarily, what I’ve learned in music came after. When I was in my 20s, The National was starting and we were writing all these songs, but to make money I was playing contemporary music. There aren’t a lot of guitarists, specifically electric guitarists, that play chamber music. I used to get hired a lot to do that, and through that I got to play with some really crazy, interesting musicians—people like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley—really seminal composers. That really occurred for me after school, and I kind of learned a lot about music and composing that way, through experience.
In a way, Yale—I was 22 and I didn’t really know what I was doing. It definitely opened my curiosity of that culture. The artists are really amazing musicians there, but there is a sense of it being its own little universe. You don’t necessarily feel connected to the rest of the world. I would say that it was a really good incubation period for me to learn about things and get excited about music.
The nice thing about music is that nobody cares about where you went to school. It doesn’t mean anything—it’s all about the way you play or the notes you write. It’s not some kind of business card; it doesn’t really work that way.
What was the process like writing for Kronos Quartet? Did you work directly with them, or did you just send off notation?
I know them well, and we would meet—each of the pieces on the record they read through, and I was able to get their feedback and rework. I like to write music that’s challenging but that’s not impossible to play. It’s very important to work with the players, and Kronos is so good at what they do. They’ve kind of paved this road of a contemporary string quartet. I would say that they’d be like The Clash—this old storied, really seminal band.
So I wanted to write for them in the way they play, the way they sound. They have a really great sound engineer, and they do more with live amplification than most groups do. They can sound huge. So I was able to really get inside their personality as a group. With that said, the music that you’re hearing on the record is all composed; it’s all scored. It’s music that I composed on my own and then is performed by them.
Aheym covers a range of musical themes and moods. Do you look at each piece as completely individual, or do you feel that there’s a unifying factor to them all?
I wrote them in response to each other. “Aheym” was the first piece that I wrote, and it was written specifically for an outdoor concert in Brooklyn. At the time, it was like, “Oh, my god, Kronos asked me to write something!” I was a bit overwhelmed. It was a daunting task but not the kind of thing you say no to.
So I was trying to write something that really would push what I could do but would work in that outdoor [setting]. And [Kronos founder] Dave [Harrington] asked that it not be too subtle or quiet—thinking of playing it in front of 5,000 people—so that’s partly why it’s such an intense piece. But once I got into writing that style, I really enjoyed it.
A lot of the instrumental music that I’ve composed in the past—[Clogs] is really delicate in character. And I think that because I was playing in a rock band and playing electric guitar as my primary career, in other instrumental music I felt like I could search into some softer and gentler music.
After having done that for 10 years, I was ready to write for a ferocious string quartet—that beginning [of “Aheym”] is something that I could even play on guitar, almost something metal.
That was a really great experience, and they asked me to do even more—but in a way, it was a challenge. It was like, “How do I respond? I don’t want to rewrite that piece.” So “Tenebre” was the second one that I did, and that’s why it’s longer, it’s more ambitious, it has more colors—it has more subtle textures to it. It expands, and at the end of it there are vocals. And then the quartet itself is tripled—there are two versions of Kronos that are pre-recorded and then what they do live.
The third one, “Little Blue Something,” in a way is cutting back toward “Aheym.” That piece is almost written as an introduction to “Aheym”—it’s in a similar key and has a similar style in a way. That was written as a tribute to these two amazing Czech musicians that I’ve loved for years. Their music—[Irena and Vojtěch] Havel—as far as the way that I write for strings, I’d say that they’re probably the most influential on me.
Which modern composers have inspired you most?
I’d say that [Béla] Bartók is the most influential on me. The Bartók string quartets are like the masterpieces in terms of contemporary repertoire for string quartet. Just studying those scores, whenever I’m having a hard time—actually, I’m having a hard time with a piece right now! I should go back and listen to Bartók. When we’re working on National songs, I might make a playlist of Smiths songs and the Pixies and other awesome things. When I’m starting a project that’s more classical, I’ll put together a list of things that have influenced me.
I really like incorporating folk music, and the music on this record has that feel a little bit. That’s something that Bartók really pioneered as well. And then, obviously, I’ve worked with a lot of the minimalist and post-minimalist composers, and that influence is maybe slightly more direct in that I’ve played that music and know those people personally. Although because that’s sort of the prevalent music in New York City now, and having worked with Steve Reich, a living legend—as a young composer, the influence there is more about trying to find my own voice and delve deeper into what interests me. Obviously, though, certain figures and certain repetitive fragments—there is that influence, for sure.
What did you and Aaron (and Alec Hanley Bemis) want to accomplish by starting Brassland, and what has been most successful about it?
We started Brassland in 2000 with Alec, who I went to college with. Alec had been running a 'zine out of his house as a teenager. It was a post-punk kind of thing; it was just as the Internet was happening. Pitchfork was just starting, maybe. I had these two bands—one was The National, and one was Clogs—and it never occurred to either of those bands that there would be other labels that would be interested in putting out our music. We thought that we weren’t bold enough, or egotistical enough, or smart enough to shop it around. So we didn’t send it to anyone; we decided to start our own label. [Alec] had come out of that culture of Dischord and Thrill Jockey and indie labels that had been started by musicians, so we did it and released those two records.
The plan was always to keep it really small and to have it be about community. It’s always sort of been within our group of collaborators and friends; occasionally we’ve veered outside of that, to varying results. We’ve tried to release creative music, whether it be a rock band or an experimental cellist or a composer. Whatever it is, it’s music that we love and that has some real attention to detail in it.
We’ve been really successful at helping music get out there and get heard that otherwise maybe wouldn’t have. Despite indie rock’s kind of proclivity for creative music, I think that like any industry, the trajectory is always that managers, booking agents, and labels kind of only know one language: the language of corporations, to grow, to get bigger. Everything is kind of geared in that way—“How do we sell more records? How do we sell more tickets? How do we get more airtime on the radio?”
And it’s not that we’ve avoided doing that with Brassland, but we’ve kind of encouraged artists. People come to us with varying interests. So, in a way, we’ve kind of been successful at allowing people to be themselves and not push them in one direction that’s like, “Let’s make it tour-able and sellable.”
I think at a time when other indie labels are trying to grow and almost become closer to what a major label would be, we’ve basically kept our overhead low. We got a little bit lucky in that The National became successful. Those early National records still sell a little bit, and they kind of help fund the whole thing. It’s still a healthy business, and we’re still putting out records. We have probably our best group of artists now that we’ve ever had.
Aheym is out now on Anti-