Bryce Dessner: Blurring the Lines Between Classical and Rock

Dessner GreenwoodEarlier this year, Deutsche Grammaphon released “St. Carolyn by the Sea/Suite from ‘There Will Be Blood,’” an album featuring classical works composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, the subject of a recent Of Note blog post (Radiohead: Art-Rock Innovation, Classical Inspiration). Greenwood’s experience as rock star-turned reputed classical composer may seem unique, but on the album in question, he shares the bill with an American counterpart who has bridged the gap between classical and popular music in a similar fashion.

Bryce Dessner splits his time between composing modern classical pieces and playing guitar for acclaimed rock band The National. His appreciation for classical music came from playing classical guitar as a teenager, though he still played rock music with his twin brother and current band mate, Aaron. Bryce went on to obtain a master’s degree in music composition at Yale University; where he encountered some of the classical influences that would go on to inform his later work. Like Greenwood, Dessner rose to fame through his work in the world of popular music, but this reputation has allowed him to forge his own identity in the classical world. In addition to the joint album with Greenwood, he has been a frequent collaborator with the Kronos Quartet, while he currently serves as composer-in-residence at Muziekgebouw Eindhoven.

While Radiohead often experiments with atypical song structures and obscure instrumentation, The National’s brand of rock is rooted in a more visceral, post-punk aesthetic that hides harmonic complexity underneath distorted textures and driving rhythms. This means that their songs often take on a guise of simplicity, but the band’s craftsmanship is perhaps best exemplified by the interplay between Bryce and his twin brother Aaron, whether on guitar, piano or occasionally bass guitar. Though Bryce often handles the conventional lead guitar lines, they work in unison to create unobtrusively complex soundscapes. “Fake Empire,” one of The National’s better-known songs, consists of a polyrhythmic piano line accompanied by shimmering guitar arpeggios that cleverly echo the piano’s off-kilter rhythm. Like many rock songs, “Sea of Love” opens with a driving, eighth note rhythm and lead guitar line, but a slow, somewhat ponderous rhythm guitar in the background creates an uneasy tension in the opening verse that subverts the accompanying form.

So where does this influence tie into the world of classical music? According to Bryce, he is the same musician in both settings, but with The National, the challenge comes from approaching songwriting as group, particularly with the aim of creating accessible pop songs. It is through his classical compositions that Bryce exercises a more experimental sensibility. His influences include everything from modernists like Steve Reich and John Cage to English Renaissance composer John Dowland, but Bryce’s compositions are distinguished more by his unique create voice rather than any one musical influence. “St. Carolyn by the Sea” from the aforementioned release takes Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur as its inspiration, and the recording features Bryce and Aaron recalling their chemistry from The National as they take on the concerto for two electric guitars. While his work with The National features a variety of distorted textures, the same compositional talent shines through in Dessner’s classical work, as the two guitars combine wonderfully with both each other and the orchestra as a whole. It may be a while before a composer brings the distorted guitar rhythms of rock music to the classical stage, but musicians like Bryce Dessner show that the two worlds are closer than we may think.

Radiohead: Art-Rock Innovation, Classical Inspiration

English rock band Radiohead has always carried a reputation for innovation in the world of popular music, but their art-rock sensibility owes a great deal to the influence of classical music. Guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood handles many of the compositional duties in the band, and his passion for classical music has been at the center of some of their most innovative work.


Olivier Messiaen

A violist as a teenager, Greenwood attended university to pursue a degree in music. He was only enrolled for three weeks, however, when Radiohead received a record deal from EMI/Capitol. Despite his limited exposure to classical training, he developed a strong affinity for the works of Krzysztof Penderecki and Olivier Messiaen, the latter of which made a particularly indelible impact on Greenwood.

The most tangible evidence of Messaien’s influence comes in the form of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument similar in function to the theremin (perhaps best known to fans of campy science fiction or The Beach Boys). Cellist Maurice Martenot invented the ondes in 1928 with the aim of designing an instrument that shared the cello’s expressive capabilities. The instrument’s pitch can be controlled either by a traditional keyboard or a sliding a metal ring worn on the finger, while the instrument’s sound level is controlled by a key that allows for smooth musical dynamics. With such a wide range of playing possibilities, the ondes is capable of a variety of timbres. Messiaen was an early proponent of the new instrument, first using it in a 1937 composition for six ondes. He also used it to lend an ethereal quality to perhaps his most famous composition (and Greenwood’s favorite classical piece), the Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Greenwood playing an ondes Martenot

Greenwood playing an ondes Martenot

While Radiohead’s 1990’s output saw them achieve considerable commercial and critical success, particularly with 1997’s OK Computer, exhaustion and disillusionment with touring led the band to pursue a different creative direction with their next album, Kid A. The result was a daring, innovative album that went on to inspire a glut of electronic music in the 2000’s. Though the album’s themes and textures are forward-looking, Greenwood returned to his classical roots to accommodate the band’s stylistic shift. Greenwood’s compositions on Kid A range from soaring string arrangements to dissident brass interludes, and the ondes Martenot lends the album a haunting, otherworldly tone, just as it had fifty years prior in the Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Classical music’s influence on Radiohead isn’t a one-way street, either. In recent years, Greenwood has carved out a highly successful career as a composer, particularly in the film world, where he has written critically acclaimed scores for several films, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master. He has also served as composer in residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra and written several classical pieces that have been performed around the world (including a collaboration with his long-time influence Krzysztof Penderecki). Despite his considerable responsibilities as a composer, Greenwood continues to bring his unique vision to Radiohead. The video below shows an early iteration of one of their most popular songs, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” performed here with a chamber orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, and, of course, several ondes Martenots.

You can listen below to the ondes Martenot in a performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie (featured prominently in the opening two minutes and at 7:05), as well as in Radiohead’s performance of “How to Disappear Completely” from Kid A.

In its 2011-2012 Masterworks series, the South Carolina Philharmonic performed a Jonny Greenwood piece in an innovative concert under Music Director Morohiko Nakahara, who said, “If Radiohead ever comes to perform to Columbia, I will drop almost everything to hear them. In the meantime, I look forward to introducing Johnny Greenwood’s ethereal and magnetic string orchestra composition to you.” During that performance, Nakahara led the Philharmonic in Greenwood’s “Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which you can hear on the Carolina Live website.

Classical Music & Film

Classical music has long influenced the world of film, both directly and through the influence of composers. Figures like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold forged the identity of early Hollywood music with their Romantic compositional styles, and classical pieces were often used as test music for producers and writers.

Here are several classical works made ubiquitous by their inclusion in film.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
by Johann Sebastian Bach

Music Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeThe Piece: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was first published in 1833 after Felix Mendelssohn, a frequent admirer of Bach’s work, prepared and edited the piece. Critics and musicians alike praised the piece throughout the 19th century, with Mendelssohn, Liszt and others adopting it as a part of their repertoires. Mendelssohn deemed it “at the same time learned and something for the people”- certainly an astute presage of the work’s eventual popularity in the film world.

The Score: The booming, iconic introduction was used for the main titles of 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, creating an indelible association with the horror genre. However, the film world perceived it as a powerfully dramatic score in its own right, leading to its inclusion in Sunset Boulevard and Federico Fellini’s 1960 Palme D’Or winning film La Dolce Vita. Robert Schumann, though, viewed the aggressive opening lines as clever histrionics revealing Bach’s sense of humor, a view that is perhaps more in line with how the oft-parodied work is now regarded.


“The Call to Cows” and “The Finale” from William Tell Overture
by Gioachino Rossini

A Clockwork OrangeThe Piece: Rossini’s final opera, based on the play by Friedrich Schiller, was met with modest success during its initial performance history, but it is now best remembered for its four-part overture, which depicts an idyllic picture of the Swiss Alps. Franz Liszt, among others, prepared a piano arrangement that joined his concert repertoire. Though a frequent critic of Rossini, Hector Berlioz praised the overture as “a symphony in four parts,” despite its short length and uninterrupted structure.

The Score: “The Call to Cows” is often used to connote a pastoral morning setting, especially in cartoons such as Disney’s The Old Mill. “The Finale” is perhaps more recognizable. The rousing score was popular with American brass bands in the early 20th century, and gained a public profile as the theme to The Lone Ranger. Since then, it has appeared in everything from A Clockwork Orange to Armageddon and Toy Story 2.


Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss
and The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II

The Piece: These two Strauss’s wrote two works remembered in the film world for their use in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space OdysseyAlso Sprach Zarathustra was a tone poem that joined the classical canon after its 1896 premiere. While The Blue Danube was met with universal acclaim as perhaps the best-known waltz from the “The Waltz King” himself, Johann Strauss II.

The Score: Also Sprach Zarathustra drew inspiration from Nietzsche’s philosophical work of the same name- an appropriately heady conceit for the eccentric Kubrick. The score’s powerful introduction accompanies the title shot of 2001, and this connotation of the majestic and imposing has stuck ever since.  Kubrick did not shape the popular interpretation of The Blue Danube as he did for Also Sprach Zarathustra. However, his inclusion of the piece in 2001-where it accompanies two satellites as they “dance” in space-brought it to the public fore, and the lilting, elegant piece is now a staple in film and commercials.

Space Odyssey2001 is also notable for its use of several pieces from the modernist composer György Ligeti. Ligeti’s idiosyncratic work utilized micropolyphony, an abstract technique that went on to inform the work of minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. At the time of the film, Ligeti was struggling in obscurity, and Kubrick actually utilized his music without permission. The director was apparently incredulous when Ligeti objected to the unsanctioned use of his work, since, he argued, the film served as publicity for Ligeti’s music. Free marketing or not, a lawsuit duly followed, but the two soon settled out of court. Ligeti moved on with a heightened public profile, and Kubrick moved on with his reputation for an abrasive personality intact.

Ligeti’s dense work does like its classical counterparts in 2001, but it has since appeared in Hollywood films such as Martin Scorsese’s 2010 film Shutter Island. Additionally, the leitmotif from Darren Arnofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, entitled Lux Aeterna, takes its name from one of Ligeti’s works. Lux Aeterna has since been used extensively in film trailers and other forms of media, and the piece is popular for the dramatic tone it borrows from Ligeti’s work (though Requiem composer Clint Mansell wisely ignored the modernist composer’s absence of melody).