Most pop-music fans know Bryce Dessner as one of the five members of The National, one of the most celebrated rock bands of recent years. The group has won all sorts of accolades, including a Grammy Award for best alternative album for its “Sleep Well the Beast” (2017).
“There’s a lot to marvel at on any National album: the regality, the musicianship, the compositional flourishes, the ornate displays of sublimated rage,” wrote Pitchfork critic Evan Rytlewski about the group’s most recent recording, “I Am Easy to Find” (2019). “The ex-Brooklynites are among the smallest handful of ’00s bands to close out the ’10s with a higher stock than what they entered with; theirs is one of the richest dynamics in indie rock.”
Despite his pop music credentials, Dessner, 46, has his roots in classical music (he earned a master's degree in music from Yale University); he has a kind of second career (or first, depending on how you look at it) in the field. The composer and guitarist has created commissions for groups as varied as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Kronos Quartet and the New York Ballet. His Murder Ballades was featured on Eighth Blackbird’s album, “Filament,” which won a 2016 Grammy for best small ensemble performance. One of his latest projects is his first-ever opera, a work based on the Greek myth of Heracles, which is expected to premiere in 2024-25 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
One of his most ambitious classical works will be performed May 26-28 and May 31 when guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra present the ensemble’s first performances of his Violin Concerto with soloist Pekka Kuusisto, a friend for whom it was written. The 2021 piece was co-commissioned by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in Germany, Orchestre de Paris, San Francisco Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestra and Southbank Centre in London. “It’s really great when you write a new piece and it has a life,” Dessner said. “Sometimes these things happen once and then disappear, so it’s quite nice when it’s done elsewhere.”
Some archetypal classical forms are not especially appealing to contemporary composers, but Dessner describes the concerto as a “well-worn, very handy thing,” with a soloist functioning as a kind of protagonist interacting with the orchestra. He believes a new work in this form lends itself more easily to audiences. The composer has an affinity for evocative titles, and he originally named this piece The Anthropology of Water. But he changed his mind about a week before the premiere, worried that the title might be too programmatically limiting, with audiences listening for certain expected elements, rather than just being open to what comes.
The aborted title was taken from a lyric essay by Canadian poet Anne Carson, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner, which tells of young woman’s journey along the Camino de Santiago, a network of centuries-old pilgrimage paths in Spain, France and Portugal and the leaps of thought that accompany it. Dessner, who lives in southwestern France near some of these venerable routes, realized that writing a concerto is similar to taking musical pilgrimage. “Why write a violin concerto when so many pieces in the classical repertoire are violin concertos, and there is really no need for more of them?” he said. “But it is a path that we take.”
“It’s really great when you write a new piece and it has a life. Sometimes these things happen once and then disappear, so it’s quite nice when it’s done elsewhere.” — Bryce Dessner
Although Dessner is sometimes described as as a crossover or cross-genre artist, he doesn’t see it that way. For him, music is music, and he tries to avoid hierarchies and boundaries. “I’m the same musician no matter what room I’m in,” he said. “Maybe the language changes.” There has been a dialogue between musical cultures and modes of performance for as long as they have existed. “That kind of porous communication between different forms is what eventually leads to interesting things and has given birth to all kinds of exciting things in music.”
While the 20th century was enriched by the rise of landmark styles such as jazz and rock, it also saw a sometimes contentious battle of classical ideologies, with serialism overpowering nearly all other approaches for decades. “I think the 21st century, especially for young artists, there is a kind of empowerment to just finding your own voice, basically,” he said. “In a way, the environment is much more open, and you see the elder figures in classical music are no longer dominating the style.”
As an example, he points to Salonen, who in addition to being one of world’s leading conductors, also is important composer. “He is extremely pioneering and open about what music can be played by an orchestra and what the influence of popular music could be,” Dessner said. “He is very visionary, and that’s empowering to a younger generation. And by younger, I mean younger than me.”
Dessner works with Salonen at the San Francisco Symphony as part of that orchestra’s Collaborative Partners, a groundbreaking artistic leadership program that the conductor instituted in 2020-21 when he took over as music director. It consists of eight artists and thinkers from various cultural disciplines, including jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, computer scientist and robotics innovator Carol Reiley and composer-pianist Nicholas Britell.
“We’re there partly to participate with the orchestra, but more so, to be a kind of sounding board to Esa-Pekka and the team in San Francisco about programming and what role the orchestra can play in the city,” Dessner said. “It’s a little like a think tank, I guess.”
On top of everything else he does, Dessner writes music for movies. Although he had some previous forays into the field, he points to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” (2015), as his serious entrée into that realm. The director wanted to use the composer’s Lachrimae (2012) for string orchestra as part of the score and asked Dessner to write some additional music. In the end, his music is used in about a third of the film, with two other composers contributing as well.
“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “Film at its best, that’s what it is,” he said. “It’s like opera was in the 19th century, it’s a form where there are so many people collaborating together.”
Among more recent movie projects, Dessner wrote the music for Fernando Meirelles' film “The Two Popes” (2019) and is working on another Iñárritu project. “It can be overwhelming,” he said of working in the cinematic world, “so sometimes I’ve got to not take on too many projects, because they are pretty all-encompassing.”
Note: The National will appear July 15 as a headliner at the annual Pitchfork Music Festival, which runs July 15-17 in Union Park.