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Interview: The National's Bryce Dessner on 'Aheym' and Kronos Quartet.

Interview: The National's Bryce Dessner on 'Aheym' and Kronos Quartet.

The National's Bryce Dessner has released his debut solo album of recorded original compositions, performed by the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet - who are currently celebrating their 40th anniversary.

Coup De Main caught up with Bryce recently, while he was at home in New York enjoying a "beautiful Fall day", to discuss all of his past, present and future musical projects...

"I think that's the beauty of music as an art, is that it has its own language to it. It's non-verbal. It occupies its own space."

COUP DE MAIN: When I interviewed you earlier this year at Splendour In The Grass, you promised that The National would be returning to New Zealand next year, so thank you for keeping that promise!
BRYCE: Oh right! True. I love New Zealand. We always have to push to come down there because it's an extra big journey, but it's just so beautiful and the people are amazing and the shows we've done down there were so fun. We're excited to come back.

CDM: Last year, you performed 'Planetarium Songs' at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, could you ever see yourself doing some sort of live musical collaboration with Kronos Quartet and going on tour together?
BRYCE: They tour my music quite a lot, especially the title-track of the album 'Aheym' - they play that almost every night. They play almost like a rock band, I think they play almost 200 concerts a year. We are playing together, I'm going to join them in Berkeley, California, in December and then again at Carnegie Hall here [in New York] in March. I'll be playing with them, so yeah hopefully we would do that in Australia and New Zealand someday, I hope.

CDM: Were you familiar with the Kronos Quartet, before David Harrington asked you to write a piece for their performance at the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival back in 2009?
BRYCE: Yeah, if you're a young musician coming out of classical conservatory which I did, Kronos are really super influential. They really change the way people think about chamber music - both musically in terms of how people are writing for string quartet, but also just even the way a group functions. I always reference R.E.M. and the way R.E.M. was so important for a band like The National. It kind of opened up the door of the room in which we live. I think Kronos is that for many, many young chamber music groups. Coming up the way I did out of doing music school and what not, Kronos are just so influential and there's so many important records like 'Black Angels' or one called 'Early Music (Lachrymæ Antiquæ)', that are really seminal and quite important albums, so it's really amazing that I got to work with them and that we're now releasing a record together. It's an insane honour for me.

CDM: Sounds kind of like a dream come true.
BRYCE: Yeah, it is actually!

CDM: Your debut album as a composer, 'Aheym', is out now - what made you decide to release these particular four compositions together as an album?
BRYCE: The three pure quartet pieces - 'Aheym', 'Tenebre' and 'Little Blue Something' - were written for Kronos and in a way, each one is a response to one another. 'Aheym' was the first one I wrote that was written for Kronos for a specific concert in Brooklyn in 2009 I think, David asked me to write a piece that wasn't too quiet or too subtle and we talked about my background and my heritage and that my Grandmother is from Russia and her first language is Yiddish. So 'Aheym' is a Yiddish word and it means homeward. It was really written as a tribute to her and an evocation of her journey to America which is kind of an insane story, and that's why it has this sense of flight or passage to it. Usually with chamber music - or mood music, they call it - you don't expect it to be played more than once or twice, but Kronos basically adopted the piece and I think they have played it almost a hundred times now. In a way it was a success, the piece went well and they really liked it and played it a lot, so they asked me to write another piece.

For the second piece, I wanted it to be really different - so that's 'Tenebre'. It had more peaks and valleys and was also written specifically for someone, they commissioned it for their lighting designer, Laurence Neff. It was his 50th birthday and his 25th year with Kronos, and they wanted this piece to be for him, so I was looking into the relationship between light and music. That's why it's based on a holy week service called 'Tenebre' which is all about light. They extinguish fifteen candles throughout the mass to symbolise the death of Christ, so my 'Tenebre' references music written for that - so a lot of renaissance and baroque vocal music written by some of my favourite composers of that period. 'Tenebre' is in a way, is a more formally ambitious piece. It has more in it like different stringed colours and was me exploring other territory that I handn't covered in 'Aheym'.

Then the third piece is 'Little Blue Something' which is a different kind of music as well, it has a more folky feel about it. That was written as a tribute to these two Czech musicians that have been a big influence on me, their names are Irena and Vojtěch Havlovi. They made an album I think in the late eighties called 'Little Blue Nothing' which is really beautiful melodic album music - very minimal and it has a very Eastern European folk thing about it. I saw a connection to their sound and that which I consider to be Kronos, so I wanted to write a piece inspired by them. Those pieces are a conversation with each other in a way, and they fit together really well.

The fourth piece is the choir piece, and in a way that was trying to get diversity in the record. That was a piece that I wrote for this amazing youth choir here in Brooklyn which was commissioned by a friend of mine - a composer named Nico Muhly. He is a really great modern composer and in a way has become one of the leading composers of my generation and he loves this youth choir, they're amazing. He asked me to write a piece for them and David Harrington from Kronos loves working with kids, so he loved the idea of Kronos participating and being on that track as well.

CDM: What was it about Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro's poem that inspired you while writing 'Tour Eiffel'?
BRYCE: Often with contemporary music you're trying to forge new ground or experiment with new sounds or sonorities or chords, but in the case of working with children I was just thinking: "Okay they're fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, and I want them to have fun. I want them to enjoy singing this and I want them to be challenged." And I was looking for a text that I could really do that with. That's what that poem is, it's an amazing surrealist poem written around the time the Eiffel Tower was built and it has a playful almost childlike thing about it. It starts off [with the words]: "The Eiffel Tower, guitar of the sky". I lived in France for a while, so I'm a French speaker and I love to hear songs in French. The poem was written in French but I used a half French half English translation. In the music there is this kind of gentleness about it and a sort of warm essence about it. That's partly me trying to find a warmth in the music that the kids would enjoy singing to, but then ultimately the poem is really the inspiration for the piece, so it follows the art and the energy of the poem. It turned into this really virtuosic thing, it was really challenging for the kids but really perfect for them, and they sung it really well, so that was really fun.

CDM: 'Tenebre' features vocals from Sufjan Stevens, why did you decide to utilise his voice on that song?
BRYCE: Like I said, the piece is inspired by all this vocal music that was written for Church essentially. My 'Tenebre' is not religious but one thing that's interesting about the service is that it... my background is that i'm half Jewish actually, so 'Tenebre' is one of the few examples of the Judean-Christian tradition where the older service of the Jewish tradition survived in a certain sense into this Holy Week service where the service starts with them singing the Hebrew alphabet. So that's the beginning of those 'Tenebre' services and you hear the Hebrew alphabet actually sung which is just an illumination of those letters and it's really beautiful. I wanted it to be primarily a string piece, but I inverted the form. So in the religious service it goes from light to dark to symbolise the death of Christ, and in my 'Tenebre' I go from essentially dark to light, where you get the end of the piece and the quartet multiplies so we get three quartets playing. There's two pre-recorded and one live, and then these eight tracks of Sufjan singing. I wanted it to be vocal music but I wanted it to be an unexpected sound, so not a classical singer. Sufjan's also very involved and is one of my closest friends and we collaborate a lot together. He's also interested in sacred music and that style of singing, so it was kind of a challenge for him. I wrote this for him to sing and it's partly because I just love the sound of his voice, but also because I wanted to do something very atypical.

CDM: What would you like people to take away from listening to the album?
BRYCE: This music is very personal for me, so I haven't thought so much about what other people should think. But on some level I hope that the pieces are transportative in some way, where they take you somewhere or open some window to some other sound-world that maybe you haven't experienced. That to me would be a real success, if there's something learned or if people are transported to a completely different place when they're listening to it, yeah.

CDM: Was there any collaboration between you and the Kronos Quartet, while recording the tracks for the album?
BRYCE: It's all noted and the music is all written so they're working from score, but it's very collaborative in the studio - shaping the sound and even in some cases when you're editing the music when you think certain notes would be placed better in a certain range, or a certain thing was too difficult. There was a lot of collaborative work. It's like working with masters. They're just really good at what they do, so it's better to use them for what they're good at. I don't play any of their instruments, so it was very helpful to have them to give advice or to give suggestions.

CDM: Since 1973, the Kronos Quartet have contributed to over 40 albums. Is that an accomplishment you'd also like to aim for in the long-term, when you look back in 40 years time?
BRYCE: I think they're incredible, but I mean how many National albums are there? And Clogs records? There's definitely a good twelve or thirteen that I've made. I don't necessarily think in terms of numbers, but I'm really enjoying making all this music and hopefully I'll be doing it for a long time. So if people also want to hear it, I'll keep doing it and keep making albums.

CDM: How exactly does your composing process work?
BRYCE: I work often from score usually, so I'll write ideas in a notebook or music manuscript and just think more generally at first. There's usually two sides to that, there's the whole sound world just trying to find colours and chords and ideas and textual things like in the middle of 'Tenebre' there's a circular bowing passage, then there's the beginning of 'Aheym' there's that unison we mixed up; that was an idea I had. I just write down a tonne of stuff on a notepad and then eventually I take that and get into playing it on piano or guitar and finding actual ideas which I then usually work into Sibelius, which is a music notation program. So that's the whole musical front. I also mentioned 'Tenebre' being inspired by this religious service and 'Aheym' being about my Grandmother, 'Little Blue Something' was inspired by these Czech musicians, and 'Tour Eiffel' was inspired by the poem. I usually need something like that, almost like subject-matter to go on.

CDM: When you're composing instrumental music, do you have any particular visuals or feelings in mind?
BRYCE: I like music that... whether it be I'm writing a rock song or a string quartet, it needs to make me feel something. That can be cold, like when you're writing a cold feeling piece of music. I guess music is emotional at all times, so usually yes there must be something in mind, but it's not super specific. It's a musical feeling actually, which is nothing in particular. I think that's the beauty of music as an art, is that it has its own language to it. It's non-verbal. It occupies its own space.

CDM: At what age did you write your very first song ever, and what was it about?
BRYCE: My first songs I wrote when I was about sixteen or seventeen and they were probably about teenage angst - like heartbreak, unrequited love songs, I think.

CDM: If you could be the musical director for anyone or anything, who would you like to direct?
BRYCE: I'm obsessed with Patti Smith, if I could ever work with her I would be super happy.

CDM: Do you have any plans for a new Clogs album anytime soon?
BRYCE: Not that I know of, we're all sort of in different places. Tom [Kozumplik] is living in Australia and Rachael [Elliott] is living in North Carolina. We made a lot of records with that group, so for now I think... we do occasionally play together and Tom is writing a lot of really cool music, so hopefully we'll record some of that sometime.

CDM: What's left on your bucket-list that you'd really like to achieve?
BRYCE: Well I'm planning to write a big orchestra piece. I haven't written for large orchestra and I got commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra - which is really one of the greatest orchestras in the world - so that's my next big project, writing that piece.

Bryce Dessner's 'Aheym' album is out now!

Click here to read more interviews from CDM Issue #10!

Watch the 'Tour Eiffel' music video below...

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