27 August 2015
Many will know Brooklyner Bryce Dessner best as the guitarist in moody rock band The National, where he plays alongside his twin brother Aaron. But his sister, Jessica Dessner is also an influence on his approach to writing music. “My sister is a contemporary dancer, and I like the idea that dancers have this immediate, primary response to music. Classical music is often met with more of an intellectual reaction. I’m interested in exploring how music can lull and surprise the listener, and the different levels we react to it on.”
For Wave Movements, a work he has composed with his friend Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, they took inspiration from the ocean. After taking field recordings of the sea, and examining the restless rhythms, swells and irregularities it produces, they wrote a piece that mimics those sounds, to be played in synch with a black and white film by Hiroshi Sugimoto.
“[Sugimoto’s] Seascapes photos of water and air and the horizon have this naturalistic feel, they’re very slow moving and gentle, so we’ve explored different string techniques to reflect that mood.”
The multi-media performance was premiered earlier this year at The Barbican, as part of the Mountains and Waves weekend that Dessner curated, featuring minimalist works by Terry Riley and Steve Reich. For the Edinburgh International Festival date, Wave Movements will be performed live by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as a result of Dessner meeting up with EIF’s director, Fergus Linehan a few years ago and being asked to take his compositions to the Sydney Festival, where Linehan was also director.
“I like that Fergus is interested in opening up the windows a bit and letting something new in,” says Dessner. “He wants to broaden the horizons of classical music, and make a bigger statement. We can leave at the door those old ideas of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Fergus is more about encouraging composers and musicians to take a risk, and he’s in a position to empower them to do that.”
The blurred lines between high and low art are a subject close to Dessner’s heart. Although many would consider his day job to be touring, writing and playing with The National – and he admits it does take up a chunk of his time – he’s also a very sought after classical composer, who’s worked with the LA Philharmonic, Kronos Quartet and Brooklyn Academy of Music amongst others, and is currently writing a ballet for NYC Ballet to be performed early next year. Dessner also founded the MusicNow festival back in 2006, where his pals Sharon Van Etten, St Vincent, Sufjan Stevens, Bang on a Can All-Stars and Nico Muhly have all played.
“There are these old ideas about classical music being formal and sophisticated, but for me the exciting things happen when we get away from those old paradigms. Look at Tim Hecker, or Oneohtrix Point Never who play around with sampled electronic sounds in an orchestral way, or [US composer] John Luther Adams who takes inspirations from Alaskan landscapes, or me – god forbid I should play loud music in a rock club, and write classical music. But it’s like a writer doing poetry, and fiction, and journalism, or letting them blend together. It’s just about using different muscles.”
As well as Wave Movements, the EIF concert will also include Heart & Breath, a piece written by Reed Parry, based on body rhythms and breathing patterns that Dessner and Reed Parry perform live, and Ballades, a score originally written by Dessner for LA Dance Project.
“Ballades was inspired by murder ballads, a lot of them Irish and Scottish actually. I wanted to look into the European roots of US folk traditions, and maybe figure out why American culture is so defined by violence.”
Dessner’s played Edinburgh before, but more recently at the Corn Exchange or Glasgow’s 02 Academy with The National. He’s excited to be returning to Edinburgh, a city he describes as “so, so beautiful”, and particularly chuffed about where his music fits into the festival programme.
“The Edinburgh festival is well established, and has this huge reputation. But this year’s programme isn’t about turning its back on the historical traditions, it’s more about letting more people into the party.”
Wave Movements is part of The Russian Standard Vodka Hub Sessions at the Edinburgh International Festival tomorrow.
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