The National’s Bryce Dessner Goes Classical with the DSO

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Bryce Dessner is probably best known for his role as guitarist in the baritone-driven indie rock band The National, but he is equally accomplished as a classical composer.

“A lot of people ask how I ended up doing classical music given that I’m in a rock band,” he says, speaking from his home in France. “The truth is that it’s the other way around. I was trained as a classical musician and then started playing in a rock band later.”

Dessner grew up studying classical flute, guitar and piano. He started playing in rock bands with his brother Aaron when he was 13, but classical music remained his primary academic focus (he earned a master’s degree in composition from the Yale School of Music).

“In terms of identity, I’m the same person no matter what I’m doing,” he says. “Obviously any living musician born after 1960 has been touched by rock and roll. It’s the music of our time and it’s ‘in the air,’ as Steve Reich would say. My experience of it is just really direct because I’m actually playing in a collaborative band.”

As a composer, Dessner has worked closely with a who’s-who list of great American minimalists — he has toured with Philip Glass and he counts Steve Reich as a mentor and collaborator. You can hear their distinctive aesthetic influence in the pulsing, forward momentum of many of Dessner’s classical compositions.

But Dessner’s music draws on much more than just American minimalism. He gathers inspiration from the breadth of Igor Stravinsky’s compositions and, more specifically, from the use of folk tunes in both Stravinsky’s and Béla Bartók’s music. As a guitarist, he is fascinated by the lute music of John Dowland. He has also dabbled in serialism. Recently he’s been digging into the music of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. “I like to think of myself as a musical scavenger,” Dessner says.

This weekend both Bryce and his brother Aaron Dessner are in Dallas for a Dallas Symphony Orchestra ReMix concert featuring two of Bryce’s compositions. "Lachrimae" (which means “tears”), is inspired directly by John Dowland’s composition of the same name. Dessner explains: “It’s essentially a song about being sad. It reflects that period during the Renaissance when composers started writing music that existed outside of the church. They started to write about secular topics. For someone like me, these songs are really, really beautiful. I performed a lot of them when I was playing more classical guitar.”

There are excerpts of Dowland’s music woven throughout Dessner’s "Lachrimae." It’s a virtuosic, modern-sounding work that uses non-traditional cello techniques to create dissonant harmonies. If "Lachrimae" sounds familiar to you, it’s likely because you recognize it from the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning film The Revenant. The film’s director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, loved "Lachrimae" and chose it specifically for the movie’s score.

This Friday and Saturday evening, in addition to "Lachrimae," the DSO will perform "St. Carolyn by the Sea," a work that features both Bryce and Aaron Dessner on guitar. Bryce says he doesn’t love the sound of the electric guitar in classical music, so he had to figure out a way to integrate the guitars into the orchestra that worked for him. “It’s not written as a concerto,” he explains. “It’s written as an orchestra piece that has two electric guitars in it. The best way to describe it is that the guitars work the way a harp works in the orchestra. Their sound is woven into the overall orchestral texture.”

In its third season, the DSO’s ReMix series is coming into its own with programs like this weekend’s. In addition to showcasing Bryce Dessner’s music, this ReMix concert features two other contemporary compositions ("Orawa," by the recently deceased Wojciech Kilar, and "Finding Rothko," by the young LA-based composer Adam Schoenberg).

Exciting performances of contemporary classical music can be hard to come by in Dallas. This ReMix program offers a refreshing glimpse into the new and the now. It’s also an opportunity to see a musician you know best from one genre switch gracefully into another. Real musical talent is flexible like that.

Tickets for this weekend’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra ReMix concert with Bryce and Aaron Dessner are just $19 and include a voucher for a free drink. For more information, visit the DSO’s website. 

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