The National’s Bryce Dessner Q&A On His Classical Album With Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood

The National’s Bryce Dessner and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood are soon to release a split-album of their works, performed by the Copenhagen Phil and conducted by André de Ridder. Before achieving success in their respective bands, Dessner and Greenwood trained classically, and they’re increasingly putting their day jobs to one side to pursue orchestral projects. NME sat down with Dessner to talk about the new album, communicating emotion through classical vs. rock music, Jack Kérouac and John Cage, and The National’s musical heritage.

NME: You released your debut classical album in November (2013), ‘Aheym’ with the Kronos Quartet. This record is with André de Ridder. How did it come together?

Bryce Dessner: A lot of it grew out of my relationship to André de Ridder, this fantastic young German conductor. He’s becoming a major force in contemporary music for new works. He’s someone who will conduct a Verdi opera or Beethoven, but he’s also working with people like me. He’s worked with Johnny Greenwood, Damon Albarn and Brian Eno. These are the kind of people in my mind who are stewarding classical music into the 21st century.

NME: What’s the connection between your works and Jonny’s?

BD: André programmed a series called ’60 minutes’ in Copenhagen. What you hear on the record was performed as a concert. Obviously I love Jonny’s music and I think he’s one of the best living guitar players. We have a lot in common: we both started in classical music and have come back to it in different ways although our music is stylistically different.

NME: Is that the first time you’d met each other?

BD: We actually haven’t met! That concert was done when I think he was on tour. We’ve met through our music. It’s kind of interesting as we have lots of things in common and friends in common.


NME: I was interested in the Kérouac reference in St Carolyn by the Sea. Apparently you were aiming to translate his hallucinations into music. How did you go about that?

BD: When I’m writing instrumental music, I try to find musical and non-musical inspirations. In this case I was reading Kérouac’s Big Sur. They call it a novel but it’s more like a memoir. It’s written six or seven years after On The Road when Kérouac was kind of a celebrity and suffering from alcoholism. He eventually died from that a year or two later. Essentially the story’s him going to Big Sur to write this poem. If you’ve ever been there, Big Sur might be the most beautiful place in America. It’s just cliffs and sea and you can see forever. It’s a deeply American experience going there. Also, he talks a lot about music in the book, referencing Charlie Parker and jazz of the era, but also Stravinsky and Beethoven. The book feels very orchestral and grand. He goes through these tremors of alcoholism from all-night drinking binges. St Carolyn by the Sea is a reference to his lover, who’s a single mum; she’s this beautiful tragic woman. This really screwed up Kérouac character is imagining this tragic image of her trying to drown herself, which she doesn’t do. I thought it was really beautiful and that it would be interesting to have a piece of music that traced the emotional arc of the book. It doesn’t do it exactly, but it’s like a formal inspiration.

NME: What do you mean by that?

BD: Typically classical music is based on classic form, so the sonata form or symphonies are normally written in three movements. The form of this piece is open form as it’s inspired by Kérouac’s work which is totally untraditional, like a lot of the poetry and writing of that period in America. Poets allowed the words to dictate the form, so I often musically like to do that as well. I let the music take its own journey.

NME: Similar in a way to aleatoric music?

BD: It’s similar. I think aleatoric refers to something specific like a musical technique, though. For instance, the beginning of Lachrimae has some aleatoric writing in it. In St Carolyn there’s no improvisation, it’s all music I notated. But in Lachrimae, if you listen to the cellos at the beginning, I set up certain ideas, but then they improvise them. So they decide what rhythms and how frequently they play them. So you’ll hear the other strings are playing rhythm music and the cellos are free.

NME: So when played live it’s always different?

BD: Yeah, it keeps it interesting to allow some freedom in there. John Cage is the king of that and he did it in a really interesting way. He wrote crazy, elaborate music but then he would leave this total improvised freedom. It’s difficult to set classical musicians free because they’re used to reading a score but you can do it in an interesting way. In Lachrimae it’s this gentle texture of sound that I really liked.

NME: I read somewhere that some musicians have used a dice to dictate form, like The Dice Man in Rhinehardt’s book..

BD: John Cage uses a Chinese counting system based on ‘I Ching’ in his work. He always said he was trying to remove himself from the music completely, to take the authorship away, so everything was done using a chance determination.

NME: What kind of risks can you take when writing classical music compared with rock? Does it feel freer?

BD: I enjoy it a lot. It’s free, it’s scary. If you’re working with people who spend their lives learning instruments and conductors, you have to be really organised. It’s a bit like writing, you can’t turn in a half-baked article; you have to really think about your punctuation. Playing in a rock band is more physical and we do a lot of improvisation, often the best ideas are the first thing I do when I pick up my guitar. There’s more physical energy where classical music is more poetic in a way – you can really think about a turn of phrase forever. I don’t labour over my lead guitar solos; they’re better just caught in the moment. But in this case it’s a chance for me to really set down my ideas more clearly in a personal space. I guess the evolution of this stuff for me was growing up playing classical flute and then classical guitar really seriously, I did a masters degree in that.

NME: Was that at Yale?

BD: Yeah, and when I moved to New York, in the late 90s. Eventually the band became popular enough that we could have a career. But I always kept doing the other kind of music, I guess it’s where I learned the most.

NME: So do you feel more comfortable in a ‘classical’ setting?

BD: I feel comfortable doing both. The band is very much about my relationship to my twin brother, which is the closest thing to me. Playing music together is very essential. But both types enable each other, and its important to me that people know I’m not some rock guitar player who decided to write classical music, and that part of me pre-dates everything. And a lot of this music is coming from the same place.

NME: Lachrimae was inspired by the English Renaissance composer John Dowland. What’s his significance to you?

BD: If you learn classical guitar, you play Bach, and then John Dowland. He’s the greatest. He’s interesting for many, many reasons. He was there at that moment when the sun exploded and composers started writing music with no sacred purpose, like a function of a mass or a wake. Emotions or love started to be a reason to write a song. Flow My Tears is considered one of the first examples. It’s what led to the idea of The National singing about sorrow. Benjamin Britten was also obsessed with John Dowland, he wrote more than a couple of pieces inspire by him. Britten also wrote a Lachrimae I’m sort of referencing.

NME: Why did you decide to bring the guitar, a non-conventional instrument for classical music, into St Carolyn on the Sea?

BD: I actually didn’t want to bring it in but the American Composers orchestra that commissioned it really wanted me to play, and they wanted my brother to play. He doesn’t have the classical training I have, so I had to write something I could basically teach him by ear.

I thought of the guitars as more of a colour group in the orchestra, and I used it as sonic texture, and that’s kind of how we think about music anyway. So there is, kind of, precedent for people multi-tracking in a recording studio. You find these really great electronic producers, rock musicians, who are just so skilled in the studio, a band like Radiohead, and the historical precedent for that is 19th century orchestral music. Say, if you add a brass instrument to a line in the strings it just opens up the sonority in this beautiful way. Things like that are exciting for me to play with when I’m writing this music.

NME: You can communicate an emotion with the lyrics of a pop song immediately. It’s not so easy with classical music. If you have something to say in this setting how can you get it across?

BD: I think these three pieces have something in common. I hope that they’re transportative somehow and they have an emotional arc that’s human in a way. The way that your day can swing from euphoric, to sad, or just calm at home. I’m not afraid to let music be emotional. We always say that National songs have to have a heart, that we don’t make cold songs. I don’t have any agenda with these pieces. I do hope they take you on some kind of journey.

NME: Do you feel more pressure from the classical community?

BD: You’re not measuring yourself against seventy years of pop music history or wondering if the record will sell well in the first week. You know not many people are going to show up at the gig; the nature of the music is that it doesn’t draw thousands, it might draw hundreds. It’s a nice change from the other world, even for an indie band like The National. It’s all about growth, whereas I think the challenge in classical music is internal growth. Whereas we’re seen as a senior band, in classical music I’m thirty seven and I’m a baby, as far as my creative growth. Obviously there’s some convincing you need to do a little bit, but there’s another part of that world that’s very adventure-seeking. Like Animal Collective, or these really adventurous composers like Ligeti and Penderecki.

NME: Who would you like to work with in the future?

BD: Collaboration is the thing I enjoy the most. I did Planetarium with Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens and I like learning from other people’s creative process. Patti Smith and Michael Stipe are heroes of mine and both are amazing writers. I’d love to do something with their text.

NME: Do you compose with tools like Logic?

I will demo things with Logic, I will compose by hand but I’m not a genius, like John Tavener, who just died, and wrote everything by hand. I don’t want to write music that’s impossible to play, but I feel like a lot of these musicians like to be challenged, and if you go to hear live music it’s nice to hear violinists play something really well. Part of what’s exciting, what keeps writers working, is refining and the clarity of their ideas. It’s a similar thing for a composer where you’re trying to make a score clear, and sometimes life is not clear at all so it’s nice to have that process. Weirdly, St Carolyn was written at a time in my life which was really hard and emotional and there’s something really healing about trying to make a pretty complex piece of music seem clear on the page.

The album will be released on March 4 on Decca