This week The National released their second album of the year – you can read a review of it here , and read a review of its May predecessor here - and as ever at the centre of it is one of the key composers, Bryce Dessner.
While his brother and National co-composer, Aaron, has worked with a few reasonably well-known pop figures like a certain T. Swift and written film scores with his twin, Bryce has established a reputation at the classical end of town with the likes of pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque, mezzo soprano Kelley O’Connor, Philip Glass, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Ten years ago, one of these collaborations, with the pioneering string ensemble, Kronos Quartet, encompassed personal and international history of migration and escape. He talked it through, and how it fits in with his day job in the band.
MID-MORNING AND BRYCE DESSNER’S corner of Brooklyn is noisier with the sound of young children (in prams, walkers and on foot) than with traffic.
We’re in The Farm On Aderley, which sits between a venerable early childhood centre, a muffin store and an organic market, in other words the kind of locale and the kind of cafe – hip staff, hipper indie obscurities from the ‘90s playing in the background, hippest yet menu – which has come to define Brooklyn for those stuck elsewhere in the city and the world.
Contrary to the assumptions of a hipster-and-baby takeover though, the migrants who created the many ethnic enclaves in Brooklyn – the Russians, the Poles, the Italians, the Jews – still come in waves, as do those from the other America, the non-New York stretch of the continent.
People like Dessner, who's lived near here for 10 years, having moved originally from Ohio with the rest of his band, The National. And people like his grandmother, who came to Brooklyn early last century from Eastern Europe and whose story, and the family mythology around it, inspired the first work Dessner wrote for string quartet, Aheym.
The title is a Yiddish word for homeward which could just as easily be a Yiddish word for onwards or upwards as the piece, played at the Opera House last year during Vivid Live, is driven by a propulsive momentum whose roots are in Philip Glass and Steve Reich, with whom Dessner has worked in the past.
Aheym is both the opening piece and the title track of the first collection of Dessner’s works for string quartet, as recorded and commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, the long-lasting band of innovators and boundary crossers who inspired Dessner – “I always say they are as influential as any living composer” - when he was studying composition at Yale University 18 years ago.
“I wanted to write something with economical themes. It’s just woven out of a few chords and rhythms, almost like the piece generated all that kinetic energy, that information,” Dessner says of Aheym. “The second piece I wrote was [the tense, viola-led, Czech-influenced] Tenebre and that was much broader sound wise, it’s longer, more ambitious formally.”
You can see a Brooklynesque immigrant culture as being at the heart of many of these pieces which also draw on European church music and a French poem written by an exiled Chilean in the string-and-choir number, Tour Eiffel.
"I've got this diverse education, growing up in classical music and existing between that and music that is more visceral, so for sure I've always been interested music from other cultures,” says Dessner. “But when I was 22 I lived in Paris for a year so I speak French, my girlfriend is French, so I have an interest in that literature and that history and when I was asked to write a piece for the children's choir I settled on that poem which is a really beautiful, simple thing which almost reads like a children's story.”
While the National are almost a formal rock band, built on intensity, melody and the interplay of singer Matt Berninger and the two sets of brothers, Dessner’s brother Aaron and the rhythm section of Bryan and Scott Devendorf, in his compositions, Dessner ranges widely.
“Stylistically I let the music take its own path and not worry so much about where it sits and that in the end is part of the joy of this music: that there is a certain freedom in it,” he says. “It's part of the reason why I'm drawn to concert music: it's a culture that is actually open to risk taking.”
After Aheym, Dessner, who is also composer in residence at Muziekgebouw Eindhoven in the Netherlands, has another album coming of orchestral work, including a guitar concerto; is working on a percussion quartet piece to be performed at Carnegie Hall by the avant garde So Percussion (using an instrument of his devising called the chord stick); has been commissioned by the LA Philharmonic for its 2015 program; and in production at the moment is a dance work with music commissioned from him.
With a tour of Australia early next year for The National it may seem an extreme over abundance but Dessner sees only opportunity, saying that the composition work is "so fundamental to my identity" and to the identity of The National.
"I'm not trying to take over the world," he laughs from his cosmopolitan corner of the most cosmopolitan city. "But I find it really rewarding to write and I thrive on learning. It's such a rich world."