Catching a time to talk with Bryce Dessner isn’t easy, but when we finally connect on an early fall afternoon, the composer / musician sounds remarkably relaxed for someone who will be taking the stage in a few hours with his band, The National, on a tour stop in Phoenix after several other US and European dates; who, just a few days before, had dropped a new recording with the ensemble Eighth Blackbird and singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy; who was looking forward in a couple of weeks to the US premiere of his Concerto for Two Pianos, written for Katia and Marielle Labèque, at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; and who was prepping for his debut with the New York Philharmonic this month.
Of all the items on his overflowing plate—and these represent a mere handful—Dessner seems perhaps most awed at the prospect of performing with the Philharmonic in the New York premiere of his own Wires, November 14–16. He’s been here on numerous occasions, but as an audience member, and he knows what this particular “band” can do.
But then again, they haven’t had an opportunity to host a composer / soloist on electric guitar. Wires was commissioned by Ensemble Intercontemporain, and Dessner was the soloist for the 2016 premiere in Paris.
The title relates to the solo instrument’s strings, but also the use of wires in other forms of communication (phone lines, electrical transmissions). Communication is a significant word for Dessner, starting with the very basics of being on stage, watching the nonverbal interaction between performers. “There is an alchemy among musicians—whether it’s a great orchestra, a good band, or a string quartet—a mysterious, indefinable quality that can make music transcendent,” he says. “It’s the role of the composer to drill the well down deep enough to tap into that magic.”
Dessner, who studied classical guitar as a teenager, admits to a bit of self-interest in writing Wires; he wanted to explore the possibilities of electric guitar within an orchestral setting—how the instrument’s sound might work with, blend into, or be set off by acoustic instruments and different sections. “I tend not to play in a traditional solo way. It’s more of a timbral function, more like a harp or piano, in this particular piece,” he says. Indeed, the wires of harp and piano also feature prominently.
“Harnessing the power of an orchestra is an endless education,” he says. Orchestration is always on his mind, even in his work with The National. “I’ve always kind of taken the role of orchestrator in the group, thinking about colors and shading of sounds and instruments. It’s the direction my brain goes.”
Much has been made of Dessner’s dual life as classical composer and indie-rocker; he’s a leading force in a generation of musicians that not only crosses borders, but pretty much annihilates them. “Depending on where you’re sitting, those things mean more, or mean less,” he says. “The finest concerto soloists I know are very open in the music they enjoy listening to or playing.”
Dessner was already making his way in the classical world after earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in music at Yale, forging relationships with the likes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and the Kronos Quartet. His music was first heard at the Philharmonic in a 2015 performance of Wave Movements, written in collaboration with Richard Reed Parry (of the band Arcade Fire), and Gift was one of 30 short works premiered by violinist Jennifer Koh on her Shared Madness program, presented by the Philharmonic in 2016.
This time around, Dessner will also curate the first Kravis Nightcap program of the season. He is no stranger to the role, having curated programs starting with the MusicNOW Festival in 2006, in his hometown of Cincinnati. He views it as an important way to introduce emerging composers and performers. “There’s a lot of pressure with young musicians, to always be presenting themselves. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for exploration,” he says. A composer can create the architecture within which musical magic is possible, but a curator can give him or her the space to make it happen.
Rebecca Winzenried is the Program and Publications editor at the New York Philharmonic.