Composer, Guitarist / *1976 Cincinnati, Ohio
Bryce Dessner became famous as the guitarist of the indie rock band The National, but the American artist has also long been recognised as a composer. As this season’s Creative Chair, he will be presenting very different facets of his work.
Here he introduces himself for the first time – with a questionnaire based on the legendary templates created by Marcel Proust and Max Frisch. Combining important and supposedly unimportant questions in a playful way, they provide insights into the interviewee’s personality. We have supplemented a selection of them with questions about music.
Where would you like to live?
I live in a really beautiful place: the Basque region of France, near San Sebastian, Spain, on the edge of a mountainous landscape. I grew up in Ohio, in a very boring landscape. It’s flat and not very appealing. So, I have very low expectations, meaning that I can live anywhere. Some people need the mountains or the sea. I never needed those things but was somehow drawn here. Now I live right next to a mountain, and I stare at that mountain most of the time – it’s very beautiful. I find the mountains very peaceful. Yes, I am very happy to live here.
Which mistakes would you be most likely to excuse?
Making mistakes is an essential part of life. And I have been lucky enough to have made mistakes in my life and learned from them. When my son – he is six years old – makes mistakes, I think that’s good, because that’s how we learn. That is something very human. But I don’t think it’s about making mistakes. It’s about what we do afterwards, how we learn from them. What do we say: «I’m sorry.» That’s important.
Your favourite fictional heroes?
I think of Odysseus, for example – that kind of epic hero. His trials and tribulations are so mythical. And of course, I also mean the idea of the epic poem, which is the basis for so many other tales and literary works.
Your favourite historical figure?
There are various figures in history who have inspired me greatly: people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the great Buddhist scholar Milarepa. They all had the same courage, the same bravery and non-violence in the face of great injustice. In a way, they are versions of the same kind of people who keep shining a light in the right direction. The work they did for others is incredible.
Your favourite designer?
There actually is one: a Dutch interior designer named Axel Vervoordt. He is very minimalist. Everything is based on naturalness, wood and things from the earth. And he is very influenced by Eastern philosophy. He designs architectural spaces, interiors, but they feel like art. When you are in these spaces, there is something very powerful about them.
Your most important character trait?
I think I am a patient person. So that could be a quality that I have that I would like to develop.
Your favourite flower?
I have two huge mimosa trees and they flower in February. Bright yellow. I like them very much. I also have a magnolia tree and I love the magnolia blossom. So, these two.
Which natural gift would you like to possess?
I have great respect for people who are good at making decisions. I am not the best decision-maker, so that would be something I would like to develop.
Would you like to have absolute memory?
Yes and no. Lately, old memories have been coming back to me – almost as if they were stored somewhere and were rising back to the surface. But I’m also glad that I can’t remember everything.
How old would you like to become?
I became a father a little late in life. My son is now six years old. And I would like to grow very old so as to spend as much time as possible with him.
Do you like travelling?
I love to travel. I love to lose myself in the world. I long for the time when there were no mobile phones, and I went to Italy when I was 20 – and nobody knew where I was. I think that’s a kind of lost beauty in the world, although there are ways to restore it. And travelling is also a reason why I so enjoy making music: I meet musicians from different cultures and listeners from different countries. It’s about having a connection with people from all over the world.
What do you do when you travel?
When I travel, I go running right after I get up. It’s a really good way to discover a place quickly. And if there is a river, I often run along the river. Rivers are beautiful, and historically cities were often built around them. That’s usually a good starting point for discovering a city. Then I try to find a good café, because that’s a meeting place and you get a feel for the city. I’ll also see if there’s an interesting art museum I can go to. When you travel so much and are only there for a short time, you get pretty good at it – almost efficient (laughs). But it’s nice to discover new places again. I’ve already been to Zurich a few times, but I’m very curious to learn more about this place.
Let’s talk a little about music. Do you like practising?
My first instrument was the flute, and I became quite good at it as a child. Then I switched to the classical guitar and studied the repertoire. Funnily enough, I often find myself in situations nowadays in which virtuosity is not necessarily the primary purpose or goal. It's about finding the right notes, not the fastest notes or the best played notes. I enjoy practising for myself. I like to improvise.
But fortunately I’m not often in situations where I have to perform very difficult music. But I have great respect for musicians who have to do that and therefore practise a lot. That’s also the reason why I love composing for orchestra, string quartet and outstanding soloists. Because it’s a wonderful thing to work with musicians who spend their lives perfecting what they do, and I wouldn’t aspire to their level.
Your key classical work?
«The Rite of Spring» («Le Sacre du Printemps») by Stravinsky is a piece that changed me. «Music for 18 Musicians» by Steve Reich has also influenced me. And I think the music of Bach is fundamental to everything. The same goes for Pérotin, the French composer of the 12th century. And in my opinion, the American singer Nina Simone is one of the greatest artists who ever lived.
How would you describe your instrument?
My instrument takes many forms, because I like to write for orchestra, which is an enormous instrument. I also enjoy writing for the organ, the harp or children’s choirs. The instrument I most enjoy playing is the guitar. But the way I use it is more like the way I write for orchestra: I think of it more as a timbre, a texture, and create interactions. I like the feeling of diversity and plurality in music, where you can feel a kind of vastness that is perhaps most comparable to nature. When you look at the sea or the mountains, you can perceive both a simplicity and a complexity. That’s why the orchestra, for example, really appeals to me – because of all the creative possibilities it offers.
How important is applause to you?
Everyone likes applause. Everyone likes recognition. As a composer and performer, I notice when a piece works. Sometimes applause can be superficial. Then the long-term effect of a piece is not so profound. And sometimes the applause is only scattered, but it’s a piece that sticks with people, and they’ll still be thinking about it in two weeks’ time. I think there was a history of composers in the 20th century who believed that applause wasn’t a good thing, because if people liked a piece, it wasn’t sufficiently intellectual. I think that’s a bit silly. It’s nice when people enjoy a piece and the musicians feel celebrated. I wish people would applaud more.
Do you have a pre-concert ritual?
I like to have my guitar in my hand or a piano nearby before a concert, just to play a bit. I usually have dinner after a concert. Not before. Otherwise, it depends on the repertoire being played and how stressful it is.
What do you appreciate about conductors or performers?
I prepare a score for the performance, but that isn’t the music. The music is what we hear and how the composition breathes and comes to life through the performers. Conductors are masterful communicators. They have an instinct for creating magic with a small gesture, and a good performer can respond to that. It is this dialogue, this exchange that is so human and so fragile and so beautiful.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible musicians in my life. And I’m really looking forward to working with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and Paavo Järvi, who I used to listen to as a child – because he was the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. I heard him there as a teenager. And now I can work with him in Zurich.
If you were to create a questionnaire, what question would it have to include?
I think I would ask, «Where is the place that you feel most at peace?»
And what would be your answer?
At the top of a mountain.
Interview: Ulrike Thiele
Every season, we invite an important composer to be our Creative Chair. Prepare to be astonished and moved by the music of our time. Our previous Creative Chairs: