Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many composers this month as part of its focus on contemporary music. Here’s what Bryce Dessner had to say.

1. What influences are important to you and your music? Do you choose them, or do they choose you?

I have many different influences which come from both classical music and non-classical references. I am as influenced by composers like Bartók, Varèse and Lutosławski, as I am by American traditional folk music and its many permutations. Early on in my career the music of American minimalists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, as well as figures like LaMonte Young and Terry Riley, were very important to me and I have been fortunate enough to work with many of them. Due to my background as a guitarist I am also quite influenced by Rennaissance music (for instance the lute music of John Dowland). I often find ideas for new work outside of music as well, and have written a lot of music either partially or directly inspired by visual artists. In some cases these works come out of direct collaborations, such as my long running collaboration with painter/installation artist Matthew Ritchie.

2. What (if anything) do you want listeners to take away from your music?

Music is a very personal experience, both for me as a composer and as a listener. I don't necessarily have an agenda I am hoping to impart through my work, but I hope on some level that the music connects in an emotional way and can offer some new perspective or open a window towards listening in a different and new way. Each piece has its own internal logic and set of parameters that are not necessarily part of some larger agenda.

3. Is there a composition of yours which you are most satisfied with? What makes it successful?

“Lachrimae”, my work for string orchestra written for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and inspired by John Dowland's “Lachrimae”, is a work which I am very excited about. There are numerous techniques in it which I was using for the first time (aleatoric string writing at the end, and many extended techniques in the strings throughout). The music is also simpler in some ways than many of the pieces that come before it and has an expressive energy about it which I am still very interested in.

4. How important is new technology to you as a composer?

I use technology mostly as a tool for generating ideas in my work. I have used the recording studio to improvise and capture ideas which can be transcribed later as source material. I have also used sequencing in logic and protools at times to find rhythmic and formal ideas. For the most part I have not used technology (tape, or interactive technology) within my classical compositions themselves. In a new work for percussion quartet, “Music for Wood and String” (2013), I worked with an instrument builder, Aron Sanchez, to design a new percussion instrument based on the hammer dulcimer. In this case I designed an instrument specifically for a musical concept, which in a way for me was a fairly involved use of technology (albeit somewhat old school!)

5. What music do you enjoy listening to?

I like to listen to a lot of different music. Often if I am working on a new piece I will make a playlist of relevant works either because of where my interests are at that particular moment or for their use of instrumentation. When I wrote “Lachrimae” for instance, I was studying Bartók's “String Divertimento” and Britten's “Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings”. I like to listen to music at home on vinyl and my collection roughly divides into the following categories: rock records that I love and can listen to over and over again (Pixies, New Order, Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, Velvet Underground, LCD Soundsystem...), classical records which are now out of print on vinyl or difficult to find (Boulez, Cage, Britten, Schubert, Xenakis, Tallis, Reich, Pärt), old American folk records (anthology of American Folk Music, Blind Willy Johnson, SUN Records Collection), and music by friends (David Lang, Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, Shara Worden, the Dirty Projectors, Tim Hecker, Ben Frost...). I recently also bought an old 1920s Victrola and a bunch of old 78's (Parsifal, La Mer, Daphnis et Chloe). Classical music on those old 78's sounds really crazy!

6. How is composing changing, and where do you want new music to go in the future?

I think for a long time in music and the visual arts our concept of how to move forward has been defined largely by the idea of the pioneer, a great artist who wanders out to some lonely uninhabited corner of the creative universe and plants their flag, waiting for the rest of the world to come around. This was necessary to break the mould of what a composer or artist could be, and to push the medium forward in many new and exciting ways (Schoenberg, Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, Carter, Babbitt, Reich...) I think with the advent of technology and the incredible and constant developments in that field especially in the last 15 years, many of these new and pioneering activities have been largely confined to the use of this technology in music, and in some ways can feel like a seemingly endless rabbit hole down which new music could fall. For me the challenge to young composers is how to find their voice within a tradition which is so rich with important historical works and within which pure ‘innovation’ is no longer the goal or even possible in the ways it may have been 100 or even 50 years ago. I do think it’s a very exciting time for young composers as orchestras and arts institutions around the world are re-shaping their objectives and opening themselves up to new programming. This process is being mirrored in the world of music distribution as record labels and radio have changed in profound ways over the last decade with the rise of the internet as the primary way in which people are accessing new music. I think all of this amounts to a very exciting time to be writing music with lots of possibilities out there for new music.


Bryce Dessner is a composer, guitarist, and curator based in New York City, best known as the guitarist for the acclaimed rock band The National. Their albums Alligator (2005), Boxer (2007) and High Violet (2010) were named among albums of the decade in publications throughout the world. Their most recent release, Trouble Will Find Me (2013), debuted at #3 on both the US Billboard Chart and the UK Albums Chart. Dessner has also received widespread acclaim as a composer and guitarist for the improvising new music quartet, Clogs. Bryce has performed and recorded with some of the world’s most creative musicians including songwriters Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Antony Hegarty and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo; composers Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Nico Muhly and Michael Gordon; contemporary ensembles Kronos Quartet and eighth blackbird, and visual artist Matthew Ritchie.

As a composer, his recent commissions include “Murder Ballades” for eighth blackbird, a new work for So Percussion that will premiere at Carnegie Hall in November 2013, and an evening length collaboration with Brooklyn Youth Chorus celebrating the artistic endeavors of the Black Mountain College. In November 2013, Anti- will release the album Aheym featuring the first recordings of Bryce’s compositions, performed by Kronos Quartet. The album will include his compositions “Tenebre,” “Little Blue Something,” Tour Eiffel,” and “Aheym.”

2012 brought a collaborative song cycle with Sufjan Stevens and Nico Muhly called Planetarium, as well as new commissions for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. Other recent commissions include a Jerome Grant from the American Composer’s Forum and the Kitchen (NYC) for a concert of his music, a commission from Thyssen Bornemisza Art Contemporary (Vienna) to create a 40-minute spatial sound work for the Morning Line, and a string orchestra composition from the Amsterdam Sinfonietta entitled “St. Carolyn by the Sea.” Other important works include a commission by the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia for “The Lincoln Shuffle” (a composition in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s bi-centennial) and “The Long Count” (an origins story told in music and video, commissioned by BAM for the 2009 Next Wave Festival). Bryce also recently composed two string quartets, “Aheym” and “Tenebre,” for the Kronos Quartet.

Dessner is the founder and artistic director of the acclaimed MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati, Ohio, which will present its ninth season in 2014. He is also a co-founder and owner of the Brassland record label, which is home to a diverse group of artists including the experimental rock duo Buke and Gase, celebrated young composer Nico Muhly and cellist Erik Friedlander. In addition, Bryce and his brother Aaron produced an extensive AIDS charity compilation, Dark was the Night, for the Red Hot Organization. The ambitious record features exclusive new recordings and collaborations from a long list of artists including David Byrne, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Sharon Jones, Cat Power, Grizzly Bear, My Morning Jacket and Spoon. Dark was the Night has raised over 2 million dollars for AIDS charities as of January 2012. Dessner is a graduate of Yale College and the Yale School of Music. He currently serves on the board of The Kitchen in New York City and is a composer-in-residence at Muziekgebouw Eindhoven.

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Bryce Dessner © Rene Cervantes