Bryce Dessner – who composes “gorgeous, full-hearted music” according to National Public Radio – seamlessly blends aspects of the classical and the popular in his concert works, the compositions simultaneously alive to past and present and the potential of the future. Dessner’s scores, described as “deft” and “vibrant” by The New York Times, draw on elements from Baroque and folk music, late Romanticism and modernism, minimalism and the blues, as well as the inspiration of iconic figures from Béla Bartók, Benjamin Britten and Henryk Górecki to Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Such disparate American iconoclasts as John Fahey, La Monte Young and Glenn Branca also figure into this young composer’s sonic world. All these influences – not to mention his globetrotting experiences as a keenly collaborative musician across genres – wind together to inform Dessner’s organic and individual voice as a composer.
The most impressive document to date of Dessner’s art is the Deutsche Grammophon album St. Carolyn by the Sea, which features his debut recordings for the storied Yellow Label. Released on March 4, 2014, St. Carolyn by the Sea includes three luminous Dessner compositions – the title work, Lachrimae and Raphael – performed by the Copenhagen Philharmonic under conductor André de Ridder. The recordings also feature performances on guitar by Dessner and his twin brother, Aaron. Born in 1976 in Ohio and now based in New York City, Dessner first earned wide renown as a co-founding guitarist (along with Aaron) of the Grammy Award-nominated rock band The National. Yet, as WQXR New York has pointed out: “ ‘… Of The National’ is a phrase that often follows Bryce Dessner’s name. It’s not too shabby a suffix, but… listeners may find that title to be inadequate for his talents, if they haven’t already.”
St. Carolyn by the Sea presents Dessner’s works alongside a suite by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, one of Dessner’s peers as a rock guitarist and genre-bounding composer. For all his rock success, Dessner was trained as a classical musician. He graduated with a master’s degree in music from Yale University, having studied classical guitar, flute and composition. Settling in New York City, he performed with such contemporary-music ensembles as the Bang on a Can All-Stars, along with co-founding the improvisatory instrumental group Clogs, which was influenced by contemporary takes on early music. He worked with the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning composers Steve Reich and David Lang, as well as with Philip Glass, Michael Gordon and Nico Muhly. In 2006, Dessner founded the MusicNOW Festival, a celebration of contemporary music that he curates annually to acclaim in his native Cincinnati. He is currently composer-in-residence at Muziekgebouw Frits Philips in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
Bryce Dessner can be heard on Cantaloupe Music on the album death speaks.