Bryce Dessner

Born 1976

Bryce Dessner

Composer • Guitar


American composer Bryce Dessner has at a relatively young age established himself on the biggest stages of the musical world. As a composer his works are commissioned and performed by major orchestras around the world, not to mention in major motion pictures. As a performer he is an active musician with his band The National.

Bryce Dessner was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on 23 April 1976, along with his twin brother Aaron. His musical training began on the flute, though as a teenager he joined his brother in studying the guitar. As a classical guitar student, he felt an early challenge to prove that one could be active as a classical musician while also pursuing the more popular side of music.

Dessner studied at Yale University in Connecticut, where he earned both his bachelor and master degrees. It was at Yale that he met fellow students with whom he would later form the experimental ensemble The Clogs. The Clogs are a quartet of instrumentalists including Dessner, Padma Newsome, Rachael Elliot and Thomas Kozumplik. The group performs a style of music that is often placed in the ‘classical’ category, but they are not so easily defined. They perform based on starting ideas that they build on with improvisation and draw from many different cultures and styles.

Dessner has also been a member of the Grammy-nominated band The National, which released its first album in 2001. The band, consisting of Dessner, his brother Aaron, Matt Berniger, and the brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf, was initially four members until Bryce Dessner’s joining as a full member soon after their first album’s release. The group actively records and frequently tours and takes part in festivals season around the world.

He performs frequently outside of his established ensembles, working with artists ranging fromSteve Reich and Philip Glass to Bon Iver and Antony and the Johnsons.

As a composer Dessner came into his own with a piece called Aheym, first performed by theKronos Quartet in 2009. The piece has become a staple of the group’s repertoire and they have since used it as the center of their CD of all Dessner music. His music has also been recorded by the Copenhagen Philharmonic and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to name a few. In 2015 he scored the filmThe Revenant for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award.

Dessner has established himself as a curator of new music. He founded the MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati in 2006, which sees performances of contemporary and alternative music. Since 2015 he has also been curating Sounds From a Safe Harbor, a festival based in Cork, Ireland. With his brother he runs the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival, which sees new music and specially commissioned movies show at its home at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The contemporary ensemble eighth blackbird commissioned Murder Ballades from Dessner. The work is based on songs of the nineteenth century. The original songs were written to spread news of particularly noteworthy murders, a way to spread gossip. The tunes can be quite catchy, even jaunty. Some of the sections of Dessner’s work, including ‘Young Emily’ and ‘Pretty Polly’ are classic murder ballads while some, like ‘Dark Holler’, are original songs by the composer. TheMurder Ballades were recorded on the 2016 Grammy award winning album calledFilament, which also consisted of works by Nico Muhly, Philip Glass and Ryan Lott.

2011’s Tenebre was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in celebration of their lighting designer Laurence Neff’s fiftieth birthday. The composer drew inspiration from the Tenebre service, a mass shortly before Easter. During the actual service fifteen candles are extinguished but Dessner’s version sets the service in reverse, symbolizing more light coming into the space. The piece quotes from past musical settings of the Tenebre including those by Renaissance composers Tallis and Gesualdo. It is scored for three quartets and an eight part vocal section, performed live and on pre-recorded track.

St Carolyn by the Sea was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur. It is scored for two electric guitars and orchestra. The piece begins small, growing out of chords in the strings. There are, at times Latin or Iberian flavours, all the while invoking Kerouac’s hallucinations through music. It was premiered by the American Composers Orchestra in 2011

Aheym for string quartet was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet for the MusicNOW Festival. The work was inspired by Dessner’s grandmother, who was a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. The title comes from the Yiddish term for ‘homeward,’ specifically from a poem by the poet Irena Flepfisz. The piece was premiered in 2009 and has been performed frequently throughout the world since.

In a short amount of time Dessner has established himself as a major force on the world stage. With his groups he has many recordings, five with The Clogs and six with The National. He has been composer-in-residence at the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven. His music is performed around the world including the New York City Ballet, Dortmund, Germany, and Sydney, Australia.