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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with The National's Bryce Dessner on 'Black Mountain Songs' Collaboration at Brooklyn Academy of Music with Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry, Brooklyn Youth Chorus

By Maria Jean Sullivan m.sullivan@classicalite.com on Nov 21, 2014 09:39 AM EST

In 1933, John A. Rice left Rollins College amid controversy and created Black Mountain College--a liberal arts scene in North Carolina based on John Dewey's principles of progressive education. Enlightened scholars, poets and artists to come down from the mountain would include: Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Cy Twombly, to name but a few.

Bryce Dessner, himself, holds on to the collaborative spirit once found in those rolling hills of Carolina. When he's not touring with his twin brother Aaron in The National, he is crafting and perfecting his own slew of collaborative orchestral compositions.

Last year, Dessner released Aheym, an album of works performed by the Kronos Quartet on Anti-Records. Shortly thereafter, he released St. Carolyn by the Sea via Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music, the official debut recordings of "Lachrimae" and "Raphael" as performed by the Copenhagen Philharmonic under conductor Andre de Ridder and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. Those pieces take influence from Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur, whose movie adaptation the Dessner brothers wrote the score for. And other notable projects have paired him with The Knights, L.A. Dance Project and the Los Angelas Philharmonic.

For his latest piece, Dessner takes to Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry to co-curate Black Mountain Songs, an ode, of sorts, to the era of Black Mountain College. Featuring the Brooklyn Youth Chorus under conductor Dianne Berkun-Menaker, the evening-length piece features Dessner, Parry, Tim Hecker (stay tuned for our forthcoming interview with him), Jherek Bischoff, Nico Muhly, Caroline Shaw, John King and Aleksandra Vrebalov onstage together. Directed by Maureen Towey, the week-long run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is complete with visuals by Matt Wolfe and choreography from Jenny Shore Butler.

Classicalite recently caught up with Dessner to talk shop on the beginnings of Black Mountain Songs.

Classicalite: What was the driving force for you to create a large scale project like Black Mountain Songs?

Bryce Dessner: I had been involved with Brooklyn Youth Chorus quite a bit for the past I think I have written three different pieces, and I had participated in a collaborative evening with Nico Muhly in 2010 called “Tell The Way”, that was done at St. Ann’s Warehouse. So Dianne Berkun-Menaker, the director of the chorus, asked me to follow up on that experience, to curate. To both write music and curate a collaborative evening for them that eventually about doing something again there, to get involved, to do this for the BAM Next Wave Festival. Specifically, I spent a lot of time thinking about the nature, what the Brooklyn Youth Chorus is all about -- which is this incredible group of teenage singers and a really amazing director. The kind of mission of the organization in many ways felt like it would kind of dove tail perfectly with what, for a long time, has been my fascination with Black Mountain College, like the history of that place, so it kind of came about that way. I was asked to create a piece for them, then I sort of found my way to Black Mountain via really just thinking about the kids, about the Brooklyn Youth Chorus organization and what might be an interesting subject matter for them to collaborate around.

Clite: So, the question to collaborate with Brooklyn Youth Chorus came first. Black Mountain College, to take inspiration from them, came second?

BD: Yeah, I spent probably around six months looking at different types of ideas, and I settled on Black Mountain because it’s something I’d been interested in for a long time and it felt like it really was a good fit for this project.

Clite: What was the process like between you and Richard Reed Perry?

BD: Richard and I are old friends and we collaborate all the time, both formally and informally. He’s played on the The National's records and I recently produced his last record, (Music For Heart and Breath) and we’ve done tons of improvising together. And often if we’re working on pieces, we’ll share them with each other. So it’s sort of just part of our dynamic as friends is that we’re collaborators. It’s really a fun thing to work on together. I immediately thought that Black Mountain is something that we both share, a love of that period of American art, and it felt like the perfect opportunity for us to work on a bigger project. So we actually tried to create our own little Black Mountain. I have a cabin up in the mountains near Woodstock, in the Catskills. So we would go up there, the two of us, and think. We were sharing everything we had our hands on regarding Black Mountain, looking into various artists that were there, sharing texts that we found.

A lot of the poetry is especially beautiful and that’s a lot of what makes up the show itself, the setting of texts from the Black Mountain poets. So eventually we started talking about musicians we’d like to work with, some of the choices were also really close collaborators and friends, like Nico Muly and Caroline Shaw, people that we’ve worked with a lot. Then there were conceptual ideas, we really wanted to get Tim Hecker involved, he’s just an amazing electronic artist, and John King is someone who actually worked with Merce Cunningham and he’s a really amazing orchestra composer. He’s done some great works with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, so we definitely wanted to work with him. Aleksandra Vrebalov is Serbian composer that I met working with Kronos Quartet, and she is again a very different kind of voice and does very unique work, so I felt like she would be a great fit. In each case, we kind of approached the composers and made sure they were as excited about the subject matter as we were, and tried to make sure it was a good fit. That the collaborative element was essential to what the piece became.

Clite: OK, that’s interesting. Was there a significance to having eight composers, or did it just kind of happened that way? I know that you guys have all worked together on several projects.

BD: Yeah, the eight, it just kind of grew and Diane, from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, is a really ambitious, and courageous, and creative woman, and the kids are so incredible. I mean, they learned the music all by memory and they kind of will just go for anything you throw at them. It’s that kind of crazy spirit that we embrace, so yeah, the piece grew, we could’ve kept it small but I guess an important thing to know about Black Mountain is it wasn’t a school of one voice, if you think about it, it was kind of a polyphony of voices. Many different styles of art and thinking and even within different years of the school, it really changed course, so you can’t really sum it up as one thing, it’s quite diverse actually. So we wanted to show, we weren’t trying to just tell the whole story, we were really trying to create a new piece of work that somehow kind of took off from the spirit of Black Mountain that we would create a new piece of art that was maybe embodying some of what was special about the place, but it’s not a documentary, we’re not trying to tell that story in song, or something. But one thing we did embrace was the idea of multiple creative visions and multiple composers, so in that way it was kind of perfect as a collaborative vehicle for this project, just to embrace that multiple identity that made the piece pretty diverse.

Clite: I think the film by Matt Wolfe gives the piece a whole other layer, as well. I’d like to here what your opinion is on getting him involved.

BD: As we were thinking about how these things go, the idea is great and then getting to the practicalities of how to pull it off is much harder. So we were thinking a lot about what the tone of the work should be and around that time I saw a film by Matt Wolfe, called I Remember, that’s based on the life of Ron Padgett and Joe Brainard, a short film that we actually showed at BAM that’s a part of our Crossing Ferry Festival that my brother, Aaron and I curated a couple of years ago. It mixes poetry and documentary footage of the actual artist with appropriated footage. It has a kind of sense of nostalgia, but also it’s own greater vision and is a work of art in and of itself. When I saw it I knew right away that I wanted to get Matt involved, because it felt like he had his finger on the pulse of what might be the perfect overall vision for how the piece should look and feel. So he ended up making about four film sequences that are to various songs in the show that kind of help weave the narrative, like you said, it’s a layer. Obviously the show is about music, it’s about 70 minutes of music, and that’s the central thing, but this added layers of staging or visual to give the piece some more resonance and meaning to the audience.

Clite: It definitely makes for a more well-rounded effect. I like what you’re saying about how it’s not supposed to be a documentary piece.

BD: Yeah, in places his films are providing a visual narrative to the music and in other places they’re more abstract, and in some places there are some sort of bits of documentary where you’re actually seeing people or pictures from the actual place and time.

Clite: The 2014 Richard B. Fisher Next Wave Award honored Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the production of Black Mountain Songs. How do you feel about that, that’s monumental, no?

BD: I mean BAM has been super supportive of me and the chorus. I’ve worked with them now for seven or eight years so Joe Melillo, especially, has been artistic director over there and has been really there for me for a long time. It’s like family in a way, to be able to live like a 10 minute bike ride from BAM and be able to cycle over there for rehearsal and the shows. Living in New York City is obviously unlike nothing else, but then to have a major internationally important art institution, like BAM, as really the epicenter of culture in Brooklyn, and be so open-minded and expansive in their programming vision is just really special. So yeah, to be honored for that, especially, I would say, I don’t feel that that’s really my award, that’s really for the chorus, their commitment to commissioning new work from the composers, and learning it and doing it at such a high level. They sing things that professionals would have a hard time singing, so I think that that’s just a testemony to what an amazing organization they are.

Clite: Absolutely, I agree. My last question: Any of these orchestral works you’ve been doing lately with the Kronos Quartet, Reed Parry, yMusic, the Black Mountain Songs...is this style going to translate to your work with your brother Aaron and The National? Or, do you like keeping them separate?

BD: I don’t want to say that they’re not separate, I’m the same person no matter what I’m doing, the music comes from the same place, but the development comes differently. The ideas are just kind of born out of my head, and if I’m writing something for a choir or orchestra, my primary way of communicating is through the score, so I work really hard to make the score really clear. Where if I’m doing stuff with my brother, it’s far more collaborative. We try to come up with really simple ideas and then we develop them, the processes through rehearsal and the production of records collaboratively with the rest of the band. So that’s super close to my heart and it’s obviously the thing I’m known for maybe the best, but I’ve really always had both things in my life, just working to try to balance each other. Working in more contemporary music, that will allow me to explore more ideas and more experimental sounds and textures, where obviously working in a rock band, that’s very trying to keep the things more simple, and it’s really more about the song itself. There was a work called "The Long Count"  which we did for the Band Next Wave festival that really kind of married the two. So we have explored projects like that together and I imagine we will again.

Black Mountain Songs will run at BAM from November 20 to 23; you can purchase tickets here.

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TagsClassicalite Q&A, The National Bryce Dessner, Black Mountain Songs, Arcade Fire, Richard Reed Parry, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Matt Wolfe, Nico Muhly, BAM