American composer and guitarist Bryce Dessner sees a future where artists break free from the confines of genres, ideologies, and mediums and come together in conversation, collaboration, and an exchange of ideas.
A lot of music and visual art have a conversational quality. One reason live music is so moving is because you’re seeing human relationships play out in real time on stage. I find common threads through this idea of dialogue that you might hear in a modernist orchestral work (like Elliott Carter’s amazing Clarinet Concerto), or in West African pop music (Ali Farka Touré), or a lot of American Jazz (everything from John Coltrane to Anthony Braxton). There is a dialogue between musicians that feels human and touchable. Historically, what we also love about rock bands also has something to do with this alchemy; whether it be the Beatles or the Grateful Dead, the sum is bigger than its separate parts. While a lot of current popular music maybe lacks this human quality, some artists are very much bringing a conversational quality back to music. I would like to think that there will continue to be artists among us who can keep pushing things forward and find ways to infuse music with a sense of vitality. My friend Anohni’s new album Hopelessness, for instance, is both an ambitious pop electronic album and at the same time has more to say about the world than anything I have heard in years. We live in an unbelievably tumultuous time, but often these kinds of moments of turmoil can lead artists to make beautiful things, and strengthen artist communities.
We live in an unbelievably tumultuous time. But often these kinds of moments of turmoil lead artists to make beautiful things.
I have spent the better part of the last 20 years living in New York. Last year, I moved to Paris permanently and it has given me space to reflect on my years in New York and also on how my work has been influenced by the community around me. New York is a city built around collaboration and through the porous borders of art forms. It’s also always been a place where a young person can arrive without the baggage of their personal history or academic background and feel empowered to make something new. We often have this notion of 20th-century culture as the story of the isolated genius who searches for the most distant corner of the artistic wilderness where they might plant their flag and wait for the rest of the world to discover them there. Many of the artists I love (Schoenberg, Pollock, Duchamp, and Cage, to name a few) might be seen through this light. But the larger conversation around their work is far more complicated and interconnected than that, and I believe strongly that artists exist in dialogue with each other and the world around them. For me personally I have benefited from living in New York, where artists have long worked together across mediums and genres (think of Warhol and the Velvet Underground, Cage and Cunningham, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Sonic Youth and Mike Kelley, Philip Glass and Robert Wilson—the list could go on and on). The New York we arrived into during the ’90s was a place where all of this amazing history had made fertile ground for so many different kinds of art and possibilities, and especially for a free exchange of ideas amongst different art forms.
Left: Ragnar Kjartansson and The National, A Lot of Sorrow, 2013-2014. Photo by Elísabet Davids. © Ragnar Kjartansson and The National. Courtesy of the artists, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik; Right: The New York City Ballet performs Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of the New York City Ballet.
My own creative output has always been deeply influenced and aided by relationships with other artists. I have been lucky to be surrounded by brilliant collaborators who have helped push me further. This is true whether it’s working with my closest and longest-running collaborators, my brother Aaron and the rest of The National, or with close musician friends like Sufjan Stevens and Nico Muhly. This also holds true in more recent projects like my work with Alejandro G. Iñárritu on The Revenant or working with Marcel Dzama and Justin Peck on our ballet The Most Incredible Thing. And artists like Matthew Ritchie, Karl Jensen, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Dzama have also been important in my own creative development. I have often been drawn to visual artists, choreographers, and writers, especially because they have a very different sense of form and language than musicians. I’m often surprised by how what we might find vanguard in one art form can seem deeply conventional to another.
I believe strongly that artists exist in dialogue with each other and the world around them.
Living in Paris I’m aware that Europeans either envy or reject this sense of possibility that feels so American (to them it seems possibly overly optimistic or naive), but the more time I spend abroad the more aware I am of how essential this open atmosphere really is. I think collaboration was also partly what began to define American art as different from what we had inherited or interpreted from Europe. While Americans perhaps embraced popular culture and collaboration (Black Mountain College is the epitome of this spirit), and the physicality of art, Europeans in the post-war years rejected beauty and embraced more and more extreme forms of abstraction. But after years of growing up as an artist in New York City and enjoying so much about the city that allows artist to thrive, I am excited about the challenge of living in Paris and experiencing a very different creative environment. While on the surface there is far less interaction and collaboration between artists, there are deeper things about French music and art that interest me. In the world of contemporary music, American and European composers are often considered in very separate and isolated spheres. Until very recently, for instance, the music of an American master like Steve Reich was rarely performed or appreciated in Paris. Likewise, the European modernist tradition has long been out of favor with New York-based ensembles. I have been surprised the degree to which major composers in either scene can remain virtually unknown in certain circles. There are signs, however, of a growing appreciation and openness on both sides of the ocean for music that transcends ideology or dogma, which may have a vastly different DNA but that we can find common ground to appreciate.
Which leads me back to the future of art: We may now finally be living in a time where artists can freely embrace anything they choose, where the challenge is less about a stylistic allegiance and more about finding a uniquely individual language and looking inward for expressing something deeply personal or even political (or both)—in music and across art forms. I hope that in such a global world we might look beyond our immediate communities and learn more from one another.
Portrait of Bryce Dessner in upstate New York, by Antony Crook for Artsy.
—As told to Marina Cashdan
Dessner will be touring with his band The National through the summer; they are currently recording their seventh album, due to be released in 2017. Dessner’s forthcoming solo projects include performances of his works “Aheym (Homeward)” (2013) by the Kronos Quartet at the Holland Festival this June; “Music for Wood and Strings” (2013) by Sö Percussion at the Lincoln Center Festival this July; a new composition for the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Paris Philharmonie as part of a weekend celebration of his music in Paris; and the National Symphony Orchestra performing two of his compositions “St. Carolyn by the Sea” (2011) and “Lachrimae” (2012) at The Kennedy Center in November. Dessner will also contribute to Steve Reich’s 80th birthday celebration next spring at Carnegie Hall. Learn more.
Cover image: Portrait of Bryce Dessner in Upstate New York, by Antony Crook for Artsy.