The National

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.