Bryce Dessner is the first person we have ever featured on NewMusicBox who glowingly talked about both Paul Simon and Helmut Lachenmann. Like many of the most inventive creative musical minds of the early 21st century, Dessner does not compartmentalize music into different genres. However, it is clear that he has learned different lessons from his immersion into different kinds of music-making and that these lessons have made him a stronger musician, whether he is writing songs and playing lead guitar in the indie rock band The National, co-scoring the soundtrack for the motion picture The Revenant, or composing a double piano concerto for the Labeque sisters.
“I find scores to be a very advanced form of technology,” he opined during our hour-long conversation with him at the Archives of the New York Philharmonic immediately after a rehearsal for his composition Wires (for which he joined the orchestra on electric guitar for three consecutive nights in between their performances of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius). “With digital music, or sequence music, whether it be using Pro Tools or GarageBand or Ableton, or whatever, everything is based on patterns and loops,” he elaborated. “With a score, you see very clearly how to defy that. You can write across the bar and the sense of form is much more fluid and asymmetrical. In that way, in fact, I use score a lot in the band to create some of those details. We’ll write a song that’s basically doing the same thing for four minutes, but then I’ll look at it in a score and I’ll create patterns and motion in it that maybe would have been hard to see if I was just playing an Ableton loop or something.”
But scores can also impose limitations, as he then acknowledged. “Right now I’m in a season of needing to liberate myself from … that kind of isolation of looking at music and manuscript, and to be closer to instruments and to this idea of sound and the physical relationship of when I’m hearing notes played, I’m also feeling the bodies playing them. This physicality of music obviously translates the most when I’m on stage with my instrument. … So the balance of those things, maybe to capture that kind of lightning or that physical energy and then put it into a composition, has been something that’s really evaded me but has also excited me at times.”
Bryce Dessner has never been content to rest on his laurels. He’s always eager to explore something different. When he was asked by Sō Percussion to create a companion piece for David Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature, he wound up creating a new instrument for the members of that quartet to perform his visceral Music for Wood and Strings. Similarly, The National’s song “Lemonworld,” from their breakthrough album High Violet, was a by-product of Dessner messing around in the studio and tuning his guitar “all the way down until the strings were almost flub.” While he was composing Wires, the piece he performed with the New York Phil, he literally wrote himself “emails every day with large caps saying, ‘NOT ALLOWED TO DO THIS’” in order to try to “break old habits.”
“Part of why I’m drawn to doing this is because I’m still learning,” he explained. “I’m trying to be humble about my art and to be open to trying new things and also to say, ‘I don’t think I know.’ I’m dialing in deeper to what my true voice is and not being scared to try things.”
Dessner’s fearlessness about taking risks coupled with his openness to and fluency in so many different kinds of music have made him an ideal ambassador, not just between musicians from different backgrounds, but also with audiences. This has made him an ideal music curator, a role he has had at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival in 2010, at the Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, which he founded, since its inception in 2006, and most recently at a NY Phil Nightcap concert last month. Ultimately, the experiences that Bryce Dessner has acquired and now shares as a musician are valuable life lessons that can be applied to all human interactions.
“I’m happy to be a kind of diplomat if people need me to be,” he said. “I find when you come into a room with judgment towards someone who is different from you …, you automatically cancel out all kinds of exciting possibilities that can happen.”
Frank J. Oteri: Very soon it will be 2020, which means we’ll be a fifth of the way into the 21st century. Though it’s probably still premature to make such pronouncements, if there’s anything that defines the 21st century musically, it seems to be the eradication of musical genres. There are people who exist beyond them in multiple realms doing all sorts of incredible things. You’re a clear example of that and actually have been since before the 21st century began. But I find it weird that in the waning months of 2019, in almost every recent interview I’ve read with you, people are still constantly gushing: he writes orchestra music and he plays in a rock band! Is it really that big a deal at this point? And if it isn’t, why are people still talking about it as though it is?
Bryce Dessner: I do get asked about that very often. Even [conductor] Santtu Rouvali, who is 10 years younger than me, asked me last night [after our rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic], “When did you start doing classical music?” It’s just a feeling that, because of education, somehow a classical musician can’t play in a band or that somebody in a band can’t be interested in doing this. This idea of genre is very old and outdated. I actually get a lot of credit for something that I shouldn’t. There are many composers who are more rock and roll than I am and who play in bands. Historically, there are so many examples of it. And then going even further back, there have been composers who were interested in folk music and composers who were incredible performers of their own work and great improvisers, in the Renaissance and before. But I’m happy to be a kind of diplomat, if people need me to be, since I exist in some kind of musical delta in between. Where music is more different is less about the musicians themselves—the performers or the composers—or even the audience. Where you find more barriers is maybe in the academic world or in some of the economies surrounding these institutions.
The truth is that I grew up playing flute and I started playing classical guitar in my teenage years. The rock band I started with my brother began after. I would say that I learned more about electric guitar from Steve Reich than I did from Jimmy Page. But actually I think that’s not uncommon now. Some of the most talented polymath Juilliard graduate composers that I know are actually making hip hop in L.A. or producing film scores. Then I know self-taught artists, without necessarily an advanced degree in music, who are making very complex electronic music that is far more rigorous than what I do. I find these things very exciting, but this has been going on since I’ve been a professional musician. Whether the world catches up with that, I don’t mind answering that question when people have it. What might be different is that at age 43 I’m still touring in a rock band and then performing with orchestras; maybe that is unique about my situation.
FJO: In a promo video that Deutsche Grammophon put out in support of their release of St. Carolyn by the Sea, you said that you’re the same musician wherever you go, which I thought was very beautiful. But I wanted to unpack that a bit. What does that mean?
BD: Sometimes there’s a sense of condescension towards musicians who have a different education, and what I’ve learned—I can say this with absolute confidence—is that some of the most talented musicians that I have worked with do not read music. They don’t have composition degrees, whether it be Paul Simon, Thom Yorke, or Justin Vernon. These are brilliant musicians who I’ve been really lucky to have come into contact with; they have incredible ears. That’s just naming some big names that people will know, but I find when you come into a room with judgment towards someone who is different from you, who doesn’t have the same education, you automatically cancel out all kinds of exciting possibilities that can happen. And I also mean that working with amateur musicians or with children or with musicians from different cultures. I think sometimes because of the required entry degree or entry ticket or cultural invitation that you think you’re buying, it cancels some things that could happen. So I tend to say I’m the same musician no matter. People with that question might be like, “Are you the master’s degree student, classically-educated artist in one room and then in the other you’re doing something else?” Actually, no. In fact, what I do in my band is very closely related to my compositional language and role as an orchestrator.
FJO: There was something else you said in that same DG promo video that I’d like to challenge a bit. You gave a reason that you liked being part of the classical music world—I don’t think you specifically called it “the classical world,” but it was implicit because it was footage of an orchestra piece of yours. You said that although people think it’s all old and about the past, it really is about the future. And then you said that you like being in this world because you can take more risks. I found that somewhat peculiar because there’s a ton of indie rock stuff that’s super adventurous. And certainly, the most recent album of The National is filled with experimentation, I think. But perhaps you meant something else.
BD: I think there are times in popular music, based on the economy surrounding it, where a certain kind of homogenization can take place, which I think is what we’re seeing now with online music, and Spotify in particular. What’s exciting about it is there’s access to what used to be hard to find; now you can find all kinds of obscure, exciting things from all over the place. But being in that world you do see a kind of sameness that starts to happen. That’s obviously a recent development, the result of the algorithm, but you’re getting a lot of music that sounds similar being made because it’s encouraged in that way.
The concert hall exists in opposition to that. There’s a sense of a diversity of sound and to really explore an idea deeper and not necessarily try to turn it into a three-minute sound bite that’s going appeal to an audience that doesn’t know it. The kind of poetry of concert music, of contemporary music, of new orchestra commissions that give an idea time to develop and give collaboration with musicians a time to deepen—that’s what I’m drawn to. That might sound in opposition to what might be a stereotype of the classical world being conservative and maybe a little closed to the outside. But my experience, and the reason I’m drawn to it, is definitely the kind of risk taking involved even, say, for the New York Philharmonic to be playing my piece and for the audience coming to hear it. I mean it’s on stage with Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, a very new piece with electric guitar and orchestra and it’s a different piece from the work that I’ve done in the past. So that to me is very exciting and it’s a risk. I’m drawn to that.
FJO: And certainly if you were going to follow the algorithm of Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, you wouldn’t get Bryce Dessner.
BD: You definitely wouldn’t. No. The algorithm would chew that up and spit it out.
FJO: But although you’re the same musician wherever you are, there are certain things that certain paradigms lend themselves to maybe better than others. I’m going to give you extreme examples of two pieces I like a lot that are very different from each other. One is your Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which you wrote for the Labèque sisters, and the other is the song “Anyone’s Ghost” on The National’s album High Violet that you co-wrote. One is very clearly a piece of classical music; it is perhaps the most conventionally classical music-sounding piece of yours I’ve ever heard. And while many of the songs on High Violet, including “Anyone’s Ghost,” are unconventional, they are clearly within the realm of an indie rock sound world. There’s some distortion on the vocal and there are certain things happening harmonically and timbrally that are clear signifiers of that idiom. So both of those pieces are paradigms of their respective genres in some way. But then in some ways, they’re both not. So it made me wonder how conscious you are of genres when you are creating music.
BD: The double piano concerto for Katia and Marielle Labèque, which they’re performing quite a lot now, was recorded with Matthias Pintscher and the Orchestre de Paris on Deutsche Grammophon, and it was for sure at the time that I wrote it the biggest opportunity I’d had. I’ve written orchestra pieces, but Katie and Marielle are really at the highest level as far as being international soloists. They’re very close friends of mine and big supporters of my music, which is also I think a new development for me—to have such keen, talented artists who are championing me and giving me that opportunity. So it was stepping up to a bigger stage. I had not worked with virtuosity on that level before. They were discovered by Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory when they were 15. And they were deeply close to Berio. They’ve worked with everyone, so I wasn’t going to try to impress them with my academic chops, or whatever it is, just write good music. I’d written a piece for them before called El Chan. They said, “We love what you do. We love St. Carolyn by the Sea.” So I felt really empowered, but also challenged to try to make music that could translate in a big hall with a big orchestra on stage. I like to hear musicians play and test the edge of what’s possible, without making them really grumpy. But in this case, they really practice eight hours a day still, in their late 60s! You can give them four notes and they make unbelievable music with it. So it was just an unbelievable palette of riches to work with them. And they took a risk in asking me. It was for the London Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris—I think five or six co-commissioners that were really on the highest level. So I spent a lot of time writing that piece. I think I was largely successful. They really love the piece. They play it a lot.
Occasionally I try to throw out the paradigm or the archetype that’s in front of me; instead of confronting it, I’ll try to go look in a different direction. A good example of that is Music for Wood and Strings, which I was commissioned to do as a companion piece for the David Lang piece, The So-Called Laws of Nature, at Carnegie Hall. So I thought, I’m not going to write a mallet piece and I’m not going to write a piece for drums. There’s so much great repertoire. I’m going to create a new instrument. And that’s what I did with that. But with the double concerto, I embraced the concerto as a form. The piece is full on virtuosic and has fireworks for a lot of it. But the middle movement might be some of the more lyrical music that I’ve written. The surprising thing is the cadenza is actually a song. When you get to that moment in the third movement, it grinds to a halt and Katia starts this chord progression; it’s just this simple four-chord song. Then there’s a kind of almost Nina Simone-eque improvisation over it, and then it takes off again.
That moment is sort of winking towards “Anyone’s Ghost” which is a simple pop song. I think the key might even be similar. There’s another one on that record, “Lemonworld,” that’s a fan favorite, but it’s actually a little bit tricky to pull off. For years “Lemonworld” was our headache, but now we’re very comfortable playing it. When I wrote “Lemonworld,” I had my classical guitar in the studio, the guitar I had as a 19-year old in Paris studying. I’ve played the 12 Villa-Lobos Etudes on that. I’ve played a recital of all the John Zorn etudes on it. I’ve played all kinds of concert music on it. This is an example of sitting in a studio. At the time Matt, our singer, was really interested in Nirvana and we kept failing in trying to write a Nirvana-sounding song, so I just decided to just tune that guitar all the way down until the strings were almost flub—it’s like a low B or something for the sixth string—and then play it really loud, channeling the John Zorn-like instrument as object, which I think of also is the way Lou Reed played guitar in the Velvet Underground period. That’s an example of how nothing I’m doing is original. High Violet, I think, is very much kind of Velvets. John Cale could just be droning through that whole record; it has that kind of texture in it. But that experimental relationship to my instrument comes out of contemporary classical music for me actually.
FJO: It’s fascinating hearing this because what you’re describing happening in the recording studio is all about taking risks and experimenting, the very thing that you said you felt you were able to do more of in the orchestral world. You’re experimenting in every world that you’re in.
BD: That’s good to hear. You’re helping me to discover that.
FJO: Of course the thing about generalizations is you can always find exceptions to them. But in terms of trying to find consistencies through these different things that you do, there is usually a sensitivity to orchestration details, whether you’re writing for orchestra or arranging a song for The National, or even before in what you did as part of Clogs, which we’ll hopefully talk about in greater detail later on. Similarly, though curiously not with the piece you’ll be performing with the New York Philharmonic tomorrow night, there’s usually a consistent pulsation or rhythmic groove in all of your music whether you’re writing a rock song or an orchestra piece.
BD: I think that pulse is something I’m really drawn to. My first experiences playing professionally in New York were playing with Bang on a Can. I’ve probably done more David Lang premieres than anyone. Well, maybe not anyone, but as far as other composers I’ve worked with, in my early twenties I was fortunate to get to work with Steve Reich. Then with Philip Glass and Terry Riley, so I have in me all that great music. I played in Michael Gordon’s band for a few years and we traveled together. So my early chamber music experiences were playing minimal and post-minimal music, the Bang on a Can collective music, which is very pulse oriented. That said, prior to that, I was playing a lot of Bach and a lot of Spanish classical guitar. I have a gentle side to my music. I’ve said that Julia Wolfe’s music rocks a lot harder than mine does. But I like exploring the way that musicians relate to pulse. A lot of the music I’ve written for dance especially has that in it. But some recent pieces I’ve done are inspired by landscape and they have a sense of stillness about them that is maybe less pulse driven. The piece we’re doing tomorrow with the New York Philharmonic called Wires was a piece where I was trying to break old habits. I was actually writing myself emails every day with large caps saying, “NOT ALLOWED TO DO THIS.” One of them would have been steady pulse. But the last movement actually has a very intense pulse, because it’s this moment of release when we finally get there. But otherwise there’s much less of this kind of repetitive kind of motion.
FJO: I love that you sent emails to yourself while you were writing this. What other things were you not allowed to do?
BD: No string arpeggios. I love string arpeggios, a chaconne-like bariolage, which is what they do so well and it sounds so great when you have many violins doing it. But every orchestra piece I have has that at some point, so that was banned. I’m trying to think what else was on my list. It was all kind of me looking at my music and saying, “Okay, I don’t want to repeat myself with this piece.”
FJO: But if you love these things, why prevent yourself from doing them?
BD: For a long time, I’ve had a feeling that an artist gets known for one thing. In my case that might be Aheym. It’s a string quartet, and it’s probably my most performed piece. It’s not that I’m a major composer or anything, but if there’s one piece people might know by me, it would be that one. So sometimes I do think that when I’m being asked to write music, some people might think they want that piece, because it has this sort of immediacy about it. It always works in a concert. It is great. And there’ve been probably 15 different ballet companies that have created work to that piece. But a lot of artists that I respect don’t repeat themselves. A lot of composers that I love continue to evolve through their careers. Part of why I’m drawn to doing this is because I’m still learning. I’m trying to be humble about my art and to be open to trying new things and also to say, “I don’t think I know.” I’m dialing in deeper to what my true voice is and not being scared to try things.
The other piece that’s like that is the string trio Skrik that’s happening as part of the [New York Philharmonic’s] Nightcap [Series]. I was commissioned to write that piece for Carnegie Hall for Steve Reich’s 80th birthday; he asked personally that I do that, which was very exciting. But to honor him, I actually wanted to try something different and to try to write a piece that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I remember sitting with him, it was just me and him, during the first rehearsal and I could tell he was nervous. He’s like, “What is this?” It’s got a lot of extended string techniques. You wouldn’t describe it as minimal. But in the middle of the piece, there’s this really high harmonic line in the strings—that’s a clave pattern that a lot of his music is based on. When that happened, he kind of got this smile like, “Oh, I get it.” My point was that Reich’s music has opened many windows. They typically get pointed in a certain direction, but there are actually so many different windows and doorways his music has opened that I can pass through.
FJO: Of course an artist wanting to expand and do new things is in direct opposition to what we talked about earlier regarding people’s listening habits being driven by algorithms nowadays. If Aheym fits a certain paradigm, your double piano concerto might work alongside it but the string trio won’t, because it doesn’t fit.
BD: The business of digital music algorithms and streaming is really unfortunate for creative music. Maybe it’ll shift. I love the egalitarianism of any teenager in suburban wherever can find, if they want to, and listen to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra or to Lutosławski or Harry Partch. They can find it all on YouTube now. They don’t have to be at some elite institution or in New York City. That is beautiful. But classical music, and contemporary music especially, gets lost in these kinds of spaces. For me personally, it’s really interesting where I’m sitting, playing in a band that does have certain songs that are quite popular and then making my own music outside of that and seeing how these things read. I’ve been told by the head of a very prestigious classical music label that my music is so avant-garde. Well, I felt terrible. If you think I’m avant-garde? The opposite of that would be one of my first experiences of curating was working with this Viennese art curator who was describing some of the music that I brought to her as entertainment. It was music by some artists whom I love, and I thought, wow, the perspectives can vary depending on where you’re sitting.
FJO: All those words are boxes. The term “avant-garde” is a silo, too: avant-garde as an algorithm, certain things sound a certain way. I know this from having attended several European contemporary music festivals. If a certain piece doesn’t sound a certain way, some folks will say, “Oh, this isn’t new music.” To be new, it has to sound like something that was done 50 years ago at Darmstadt. How new is that? In a way, the word new is very tricky and potentially a word that stifles.
BD: Again, I feel that very often for musicians who are playing the work and conductors who are relating to it, some of these boxes mean less. You’d be surprised. Working with the Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris, I was more than a bit nervous, as an American from New York going into the great home of European avant-garde music to present my work. But actually the musicians were just relating to me like a human being, like an artist amongst them. And they were extremely open-minded. We have these sort of ideas I think. One funny thing that I found living in Europe now for the last five years is that, in New York especially, we can think of certain composers as coming from really different veins of composition and backgrounds, but in Europe we’re all just a bunch of Americans. Oh, it’s the American school. It’s always interesting and funny to hear that.
FJO: I want to go back to something you said earlier about the most amazing musicians that you have come into contact with are people who don’t read music.
BD: Yeah, I feel like I wasn’t entirely fair, because I’ve also worked with some unbelievable musicians like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. I’ve been really lucky in my life. If I do nothing else, some of the experiences I’ve already had, I cherish so deeply. But I will say that I don’t place any value on what language an artist has. I think of it as language. The way they communicate their ideas can be in written form. I read an interview with Steve Reich where at one point he said that the main defining thing about what is classical is actually that we communicate through a score. I think that was a very smart and apt point. I find scores to be a very advanced form of technology ironically, because now with digital music, or sequence music, whether it be using Pro Tools or GarageBand or Ableton, or whatever, everything is based on patterns and loops. With a score, you see very clearly how to defy that. You can write across the bar and the sense of form is much more fluid and asymmetrical. In that way, in fact, I use score a lot in the band to create some of those details. We’ll write a song that’s basically doing the same thing for four minutes, but then I’ll look at it in a score and I’ll create patterns and motion in it that maybe would have been hard to see if I was just playing an Ableton loop or something.
FJO: Even in classical music there’s a dichotomy between music that was created on the page which then musicians try to play versus music that uses scores to capture what a musician has played. Say, Liszt’s solo piano music which is an intensely difficult thing, though it wasn’t for him. It later got notated and now other people do it, but he was writing to his abilities. Compare that to Beethoven’s late string quartets. Beethoven didn’t play the violin, or the cello, or the viola and was writing stuff that people thought was impossible at the time. Or a more recent example, Elliott Carter’s Third String Quartet for which the Juilliard String Quartet spent their entire first rehearsal on the first page. But they eventually did it, and now loads of groups have done it. Those are pieces that probably could not have been created by musicians who play those instruments because they wouldn’t think past their own abilities on the instruments. But, by the same token, the kind of thing that Liszt was doing couldn’t have been created by somebody doing it on paper because the notation also hinders you in a certain way. Both approaches are limiting. Perhaps working with both has allowed you a kind of fluidity beyond either of them.
BD: Right now I’m in a season of needing to liberate myself from Sibelius, that kind of isolation of looking at music and manuscript, and to be closer to instruments and to this idea of sound and the physical relationship of when I’m hearing notes played, I’m also feeling the bodies playing them. This physicality of music obviously translates the most when I’m on stage with my instrument. The electric guitar is amazing because of the sheer volume of it and it’s actually physical the way you feel it. It’s actually resonating against your body. So the balance of those things, maybe to capture that kind of lightning or that physical energy and then put it into a composition, has been something that’s really evaded me but has also excited me at times.
Everybody can use a reboot and I think that right about now might be a good moment for me. There are pieces I’ve written, there’s a cello solo called Tuusula that I wrote for a German cellist named Nicholas Altstaedt; that is a piece that I really love. For that piece I actually tuned a four-string harmony guitar and I told myself: okay, for two weeks straight, every morning I’m going to improvise on this instrument and develop ideas. I did that and transcribed them, and then used that as the ingredients for my soup or whatever and created a piece out of that. So it had this sort of improvisation in it. And the piece feels kind of free, maybe like you were saying about Liszt. It’s not music I would have intuitively written in score, because it’s coming out of my sense of improvisation.
FJO: Another extreme example of it is somebody like Meredith Monk who has created a lifetime of completely original music that defies conventional notation. She’s worked hard the last few decades to get that stuff on paper so that other groups can do it, but there’s no way it could have been initially created on paper because those sounds come from discovering sounds the human voice can make that there was no way to notate. Which got me thinking about your scores. You include a lot of verbal detail in your notated parts for electric guitar. The electric guitar’s been with us for almost 90 years, but there’s still no decent way to notate for it. I don’t know if anyone else has played these pieces for electric guitar and orchestra besides you. If someone else plays them, are they getting the same sounds that you’re getting? And if so, how are they getting them? I don’t think that even though you’re so specific, I don’t think that it’s specific enough.
BD: There are a few guitarists who do play my work. There’s a guy named Aart Strootman in Amsterdam, who’s a really great composer actually; he’s played a bunch of this stuff. But I like to hear what guitarists do with sound. I have a sound, I guess, having spent years doing it to have the confidence to say: okay, you can pretty much give me any amp and any guitar and I can probably get a sound out of it that’s not specific to whatever instrument I play. I tend not to like a lot of guitar effects that you associate with a certain generation or sound. I like a clean, beautiful tone basically, with some edge in it if that’s what it calls for. So I try to describe that as best as I can, but I’m also open. I love hearing the personality of a player and what they bring to it.
FJO: Getting back to what you were saying about sequencing. That’s a different kind of a notation which gives you a very specific result. What’s interesting about music notation is, even though it was originally created by monks to remember hymns, it became this tool that allows for interpretative variations. No two violinists are going to play a written cadenza exactly the same way. But it still going to sound like a violin. Whereas, if two electric guitarists are playing from the same written music, since there are so many things you can do with timbre, they might wind up sounding like two totally different instruments.
BD: The electric guitar is a very chameleon character. That’s part of its power, especially playing acoustic music or in playing in a classical setting. The guitar can be a kind of peacock. I tend to use the guitar as a complement to the harp and the piano, or the percussion. Many of the pieces don’t have harp or piano, and the guitar is playing that role. In Wires, the work that we’re doing with the New York Philharmonic, they really play together as a section. I’ve never written something very soloistic. I have not written a concerto for electric guitar. It doesn’t interest me to write the kind of shredding that you might expect from an electric guitar concerto. I would like to hear another composer do that. I was just thinking of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has an incredible orchestra piece Gemini I heard last night. He could write an interesting electric guitar concerto, I think.
FJO: Yeah, I’d like to hear that. To continue to talk about other people’s music, to take this back a few steps, before you got into composing and before you began playing in a rock band, before you did any of that, you were playing other people’s music. You were studying. You played flute, and you were playing classical guitar. So in a way your earliest composition lessons, so to speak, were your processing other people’s music and figuring out how it was put together.
BD: Actually in the early ‘90s, my brother and I and our friends would try to learn classic rock songs, maybe Nirvana or whatever it was. Maybe because we couldn’t, we immediately started writing stuff. At the time, it was just simple riffs, and so I think that writing music was part of my early experience playing an instrument. But I didn’t write on the flute. That definitely didn’t happen. I was playing Mozart. I studied flute for long enough that I was a good reader and I developed an interest in classical music. But once I switched to guitar, I was definitely, immediately, into writing stuff though I didn’t think about writing for other people until much later. In school, I took some composition classes and that’s when that happened.
The big shift for me actually was finishing grad school. There was a group of us that met at Yale and we started this quartet called Clogs, which is a really strange ensemble. It was bassoon, violin and viola, and I was playing all kinds of string instruments—electric guitar, classical guitar, banjo, ukulele, mandolin. Then a really great mallet percussionist, but he would also play steel drum and kit. We came together, I think to the chagrin of many of our professors, saying we wanted to write and we wanted to improvise. Padma Newsome, this incredible Australian musician who was very involved in the early days of The National, was the star of Yale composition back in the late ‘90s. He was the violist and violinist; he would switch between the two. Immediately we started getting deep into writing for that ensemble, and then eventually that ensemble would work with choir or we would work with orchestra. To our great surprise, we got a big NEA grant to tour and all of a sudden we started getting presented in proper festivals and in concert halls with that ensemble.
The other thing I have to say is that guitarists are notoriously poor at chamber music; our sight reading skills are lesser because we just have less music to play. So in that particular band, we were constantly going to Princeton to work with the composers there or to Yale and so we were always doing new commissions. I was constantly sight reading and the process of doing that and then playing in Bang on a Can and getting to play with Reich was this incredible swirl of music that was coming into me and going out. I was learning and doing things on the fly and having to adapt quickly. So that was a kind of a second education for me.
FJO: What I found so interesting about Clogs when I heard you perform 20 years ago was that, on the one hand, it sounded like contemporary classical music just in terms of some of the timbres; who else would feature a bassoon, right? On the other hand, even though it didn’t really sound like a rock band, the way the music was put together seemed very similar to the way a rock band creates music. Material emerged in rehearsals. There was a collective energy that came across in performances and on recordings. The term bandsemble, which is a somewhat silly term, hadn’t been coined yet, but Clogs were a bandsemble before there were bandsembles.
BD: I had an interesting experience a couple years ago with a composer whose music I like, who is maybe ten years younger than me, also a Yale grad. He started telling me about “this band that was part of the scene when I was in high school. They were untrained, but they made this kind of complex stuff. Did you ever of this thing, Clogs?” He was telling me this and I was like, “I was in that band, and we all went to Yale ten years before.” I think that, having come out of fairly classical education, we had deliberately decided to do this thing that was different. But is it that different from the way that Meredith Monk worked or Steve Reich or Philip Glass and their ensembles? Of course, they were composing the music, but then they had these bands basically that were part of their musical worlds. We were writing work and some of that music was completely scored. Other things we would develop through improvisation so that each record had a kind of different identity in that way.
FJO: But it is different because Meredith Monk’s group exists to do her music, just like the Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians existed to do Glass and Reich’s music. Clogs was cooperatively led. There was no leader, or at least it didn’t seem like there was. You were all in it together. And you’re all different people, and so you have different loves. Because of that, it created a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not trying to say this is better than what Steve Reich and Musicians were doing because I think that’s a stupid way to look at things. But I think you were doing something that was different in the context of that combination of instruments. Although it was perhaps not too different from what some rocks groups could have done. There have been a handful of rock groups that occasionally have a bassoon in them, but not like Clogs.
BD: We made five albums together and toured all over the place, and like I said, it was constant ambitious projects—writing for dance, we scored a couple films, and we did collaborations with other bands. We worked with a band called The Books who were also really interesting, kind of similar, but more of an acoustic-electronic kind of band. All that shaped who I am now. We kind of collectively arrived at a point, maybe now about 10 years ago where we all kind of went and did other things and our lives took us to different places, so we haven’t done anything with Clogs in years, but some of that music is certainly still in me for sure.
FJO: Since we’re talking about Clogs, one thing that we didn’t talk about in terms of through lines through different work you’ve done, which definitely emerges in Clogs—but which also emerges in the piece you wrote for eighth blackbird, Murder Ballades—is this really like deep immersion into roots Americana, the kind of stuff that’s on Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music, really gritty, modal, dark, primal American music. Maybe that young composer who didn’t realize you were in Clogs was in some way responding to the visceral, raw, Americana quality of some of Clogs’ music. Though clearly, since you’ve done versions of “Omie Wise” and “Pretty Polly” as part of the eighth blackbird piece, you’re still quite immersed in that material many years later.
BD: In my early experience playing guitar, I was obsessed with John Fahey; that’s why I picked up classical guitar—John Fahey and Jerry Garcia. I couldn’t figure out how you could play that way. I just couldn’t. I was pretty good, but I couldn’t decipher that language. That was what drew me into learning classical guitar and developing my technique, to get closer to some of that music. I do love American string band music, American folk music, even some early country stuff. I’m always mining my past and my heritage for ideas and for rhythmic information, even the rhythms you find in clawhammer banjo playing. In Murder Ballades, there’s a movement called “Dark Holler” that is just that. It’s not traditional; I just took a banjo pattern that I love, maybe a little bit inspired by the way Reich did that with West African drumming. Obviously, there’s a long tradition of composers doing that, whether it be Bartók, or Stravinsky, or Lutosławski—
FJO: —And now Julia Wolfe.
BD: Yeah. Julia Wolfe. And it feels honest as well. There’s something about the American concert classical tradition: 98 percent of music played in concert halls by symphony orchestras is European. So sometimes when I’m writing music, I’ll ask myself who I really am. Some of that American music is so close to my heart, and it’s music that I do play on stage sometimes. We’ll cover traditional music. It comes to me naturally. And my brother and I are developing this little new band called Red Bird Hollow, which is the name of a creek near where grew up where we used to go down and play. We’re just playing acoustic guitar together, and it’s inspired by that music.
FJO: Wow. So yet another project.
FJO: What’s interesting about all these projects is that your trajectory has been very non-linear. I knew it at the time, but going back thinking about it as I was preparing for today, I was amazed that The National and Clogs happened at around the same time basically; in my head I sort of rewrote history to thing that Clogs came first and then The National.
BD: I think Clogs was a tiny bit earlier. Maybe by months or a year.
FJO: But there were a lot of overlapping developments.
FJO: The other part that’s so interesting about this story, in terms of silo-ing vs. thinking beyond genres, is that one of the ways you defeated the silos early on with that you self-released all this stuff. It was all DIY. You co-founded a label called Brassland and everything you were doing was part of it. So Clogs albums were on Brassland. The two first albums of The National were released on Brassland. And Brassland even issued the recording of that piece you spoke about earlier, Music for Wood and Strings, the wild piece you created for Sō Percussion in which they’re hammering strings for an hour which is a totally avant-garde, out there piece. Everything is on that same label.
BD: We started a label in 1999 called Brassland with my college roommate, Alec Bemis, who’s also a music journalist and is a big champion of creative music of all kinds. We actually did it because we didn’t think anyone would necessarily be interested. We literally never even deigned to think that we would send our music to a label. We decided that we’ll just figure out a way to do this. Alec had had a zine in college, actually before college, so he had a little bit of experience sending tapes around, and was just as the internet was becoming a space for music. Before, for those early records, we would pack them ourselves and send them through like tiny little indie distributors. And back in the day, Clogs was the big seller for the first few years.
FJO: More than The National?
BD: At that time, yeah.
FJO: But then The National got signed to a bigger label.
BD: For Alligator, we signed to Beggars Banquet which is still our label, 4AD.
FJO: You started out being DIY and being able to do anything you want, but now you’re associated with blue chip companies for just about everything you do. Your orchestral music is released on Deutsche Grammophon, a label that people associate with Herbert van Karajan conducting Beethoven. And your music is published by Chester which is part of Music Sales which also owns G. Schirmer, which everyone associates with those yellow cover editions of standard repertoire. And this week you’re performing with the New York Philharmonic. Then on the rock end of things, your albums are released on 4AD, which at one point was distributed by Warner Brothers but is now part of a mega-indie conglomerate that also includes Matador and Rough Trade. All of these entities have audiences and have structures. I don’t mean to imply this in a negative way, but by their very nature, these entities have to be somewhat specific and contained, although you have been able to do the things you want to do within their structures.
BD: I think that speaks to shifting ground in the institutional world, even how you started this discussion talking about the 21st century. I always think the 21st century is less about ideology, at least in music. Hopefully that’s not coming back. Who knows, maybe Trump is right around the corner coming in to change music as well. You always hear these stories about allegiances and in fighting between composers, choosing a side, whether it be Paris or Vienna, Cage or Boulez, whatever it is. But I think if composers are allowed to find their voice, they can find it wherever they want to find it. Also making space in these institutions for voices that have been underserved—certainly not me having had so much opportunity and sitting where I’m sitting—but to me it feels very exciting and a quite rapid evolution. I see change happening at a much quicker rate than it did previously. So yes, to have a record with Deutsche Grammophon—I like the people that work there. And releasing an orchestral record is not something that Brassland could afford. To record an orchestra is extremely expensive. With a composer, the opportunity sort of presents itself, and you’re like: Yeah, great. That’s kind of what happened with the two Deutsche Grammophon records that I’ve done.
FJO: You talked about the schism between Cage and Boulez, but in the rock end of things there were similar schisms between, say, punks and progressive rockers. But now we look back on this stuff and hear proggy elements in some punk bands and punky elements in prog. And a label like 4AD has found a way to get past those dichotomies, too.
BD: Actually—I’m thinking about like a band like This Mortal Coil—4AD has always had a certain openness and a kind of dedication to creative music. But, you know, certainly I do, the one label we sent our first record to was Matador, and we got a letter back saying you will never be signed to Matador. We still have the letter. Matador is actually owned by the same company, Beggars, that owns 4AD, so we’re sort of signed to Matador, so I think they regret it.
FJO: So you’ve talked about being an American and American roots music influencing you, and you even started this other side project with your brother doing this music, and you’ve also talk about classical music being mostly European. But you now live in Paris. We touched on it earlier when you were talking about Ensemble Intercontemporain. It blows my mind that they’re doing your music because I associate them with a very different aesthetic, but I suppose that being there and making those connections has helped open that world up for you. So I wanted to talk with you a little bit about Paris, which is a city I love.
BD: It’s a good place to be right now. They actually need journalists and composers. I married a French woman, my wife Pauline, who’s actually ironically from an old French music family. Her great grandfather is Gounod. And her last name is de Lassus, like di Lasso. So it’s this old, but she has nothing to do with classical music. She has a beautiful voice. She’s a singer and has a band called Mina Tindal. We have a two-and-half-year-old son there. And her family is there. And so it really is a family choice. It was at a time in my life where I’d been largely selfishly focused on my work, and then I fell in love and thought I need to make this work. The only way to make it work was to go there. So I went through a period of really missing it here, I mean New York is New York. But New York has changed, I find. It’s not the place it was in 2005, or 2008, or even 2012. Maybe that’ll go a different way.
But Paris has also changed. Paris has opened up unbelievably, just even since I’ve been there, which has been five years. It’s far more international. Parisians are notoriously kind of standoffish but I have friends who come visit who are finding it way more friendly. I will say again, speaking to these kind of boxes we put people in, thinking about genre and classical this or classical that, I’ve had an incredible time working with orchestras there and I recently wrote for Gautier Capuçon, the French cellist who is at the height of international stardom. Or working with Matthias Pintscher in Ensemble Intercontemporain or working with Zaïde Quartet, a great French string quartet, the quality of musicianship is incredible and actually they’re quite open minded.
The Philharmonie would be like if you combine Lincoln Center, BAM, and The Shed into one giant institution. It is incredible and it has re-invigorated culture in that city. Every day it feels like there’s a new thing popping up. There are also a lot of good DIY small venues. I think in times of political turmoil, whether it be Trump in America or Brexit, the refugee crisis or the climate, Paris has this thing where it sort of slips back into being what Paris used to be. I was there during the Bataclan attacks. It’s a venue I’ve performed at; I performed there with Sufjan Stevens in 2005. There’s this sort of resilience that I found living there in the people and the way they’ve reacted to the state that the world is in. That’s my being optimistic. A French person would disagree with me vehemently, because that’s what they do, but I find it a very hopeful and exciting place. And, to be honest, being so associated with a certain kind of music from New York and being very much part of the kind of indie rock of the 2000s or the new music scene in New York, whether it be Bang on a Can or the venues I used to play, I think it’s been refreshing for me to be in a complete scene change. I go hear Ensemble Intercontemporain all the time, an ensemble that’s dedicated to playing Olga Neuwirth, Lachenmann, Berio, or whatever it be. It’s incredible to be able to see those concerts. It’s very easy to get to the opera. It’s very easy to get to Radio France. Living in Brooklyn, it would take me two hours to get in to see something at the Met Opera. Maybe not two hours, but like at least an hour, so it’s been nice living in Paris and to actually have access to so much art.
FJO: So to finally bring it full circle, the other thing about living in the 21st century is that once upon a time if you wanted to do a certain kind of activity, you had to live in a place where there was a scene for it. If you wanted to be a painter, you went to Paris. If you wanted to work in film, you had to live in L.A. You’ve been doing work in film now and you don’t live in L.A. You don’t even in live in New York. You don’t even live in America, but it doesn’t matter where you are.
BD: I’m lucky because I met my community through years of being in New York and I still have a house in upstate New York. My closest friend, Sufjan Stevens, lives near me. There are many long-term collaborators who are just part of my life now. I’m now at a different phase in my career; if somebody wants me to come somewhere, they’ll buy me a plane ticket. So I realize that there’s a socio-economic side of this that if I were in a different phase of my career, it might be harder to be isolated in Europe and not have that opportunity. Maybe in making that choice to move, I knew that my band could fly me to rehearsals for instance. That’s part of it. But it is true that more and more I see people leaving cities, giving up living condensed in a pressured environment where you have crazy stress trying to pay your rent and nowhere to rehearse. It’s not always the best way. Some artists thrive on that. Obviously New York is an incredible place. There are so many New York artists, whether it be David Lang or Aaron Copland. But more and more, I think the best work I’ve done is in the countryside where I’m really far from the city.