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COMPOSER: Bryce Dessner

On composing the music for Alejandro Iñárritu’s Bardo, Yale residency, and upcoming projects


JUN 12, 2023 | ISSUE 11

Bryce Dessner - Illustration by Ella Mazur

“If I’m pointing at the moon, don’t draw my finger.” Bryce Dessner

Artists can approach their field of work with a honed specificity, nearing virtuosity in their command of a particular instrument or medium. Many of  Bryce Dessner’s collaborators — Alejandro Iñárritu, Katia and Marielle Labèque, and Anne Carson among them — might fit neatly into this bracket. However, his expansive and cooperative practice seeks the passageways that can be found between art forms and, in turn, art worlds. On the occasion of taking up residence at Yale University’s newly-opened Schwartzman Center, Dessner discusses the push and pull inherent in a collaborative artistic process, particularly the nuances of composing for cinema, and how this can be mapped onto the complementary roles taken within a band.

For Dessner, chamber music and classical composition followed playing in a band, and now the immersive sound environment found in film and installation is a source of insight. In the trajectory of Dessner’s journey, the interplay between classical music and visual art appears with film as an intermediary but, interestingly, opera also plays an important role. It makes sense, given his origins, that the spoken or sung word would be a meaningful consideration. His latest film project seems to bring this full circle─composing for Rebecca Miller’s She Came to Me, a film partly about a composer finding his way back to music.

While Dessner describes his time at Yale in almost entirely positive terms, the Schwartzman Center residency will serve as a way to address what he describes as a “walled elite institution.” Despite all its attending privilege and inequality, the residency nonetheless exists within different intersecting communities, not the least being the city that the school is based in. Drawing on the way his own practice in composition has progressed, but also morphed to accommodate the ideas of others and entirely different forms of performance and experience, Dessner seeks to foster an interdisciplinary atmosphere, creating space for practitioners to reach outside of the potentially narrow confines of their graduate studies. Also important to him is the richness to be found in an instinctively open-minded approach to the artistry of others, finding value both in the “Juilliard-trained polymaths” and “self-taught amateur musicians” that he has encountered throughout his varied career. Now, Dressner enjoys a newfound opportunity to communicate this approach to another generation of artists.

Poster for BARDO

Bryce Dessner - Photo by Anne Mie Dreves
Cover art for Complete Mountain Almanac


sM | BARDO is your second time collaborating with Alejandro Iñárritu, what do you enjoy the most about this creative partnership?

BD ── Alejandro is really one of the great living artists. He’s a very generous, curious, and open-hearted person─working with him is one of the best things I get to do. He always says, “If I'm pointing at the moon, don't draw my finger,” which I think is a good indicator of his approach. Alejandro also assembles an amazing group of creative people around him. He works really closely with his sound design team — Nicholas Becker on this film — who is a really exceptional artist. There are also quite a few pieces of music Alejandro and I did together, including the main theme. He would whistle melodies, and then I arranged them. It's a little like being in a band and he's the lead singer, I would say. It's that kind of feeling of collaboration.

BARDO is, in a way, kind of a Buddhist film about the sense of self and removing the self. That’s also what it’s like to write for a film project: you don’t carry your artistic ego out in front. You have to be open to hearing other voices in collaboration.

sM | As a composer who creates for a variety of formats, how is writing for cinema different from others?

BD ── Writing film music is very different; it's more like creating music for an installation or immersive experience. Not only are you working with images, but you're working with a surround-sound environment. And Alejandro, because of the types of films he's making, requires an unparalleled level of detail. You're never just making a piece of music, because it will be very carefully interwoven with sound design, dialogue, and ambient space. It’s like writing for a new form. Maybe this is how it felt when opera or the fortepiano were invented; it’s a new environment. I used to avoid working on films. I had a bad experience coming out of college with a student filmmaker, and I was busy: I was playing in a band, coming out of a classical conservatory, playing chamber music, and writing my own music. I felt, at the time, that film was one step too far. It's also very difficult to start in film and then to move to making other music. For many major film composers, you've never heard their music in a concert hall. I personally wanted to develop my work elsewhere for a time, and then eventually Alejandro asked me to work on The Revenant, and that was really the first big film I worked on. sM | Your latest film score, for She Came To Me, is notable because the story centres around a composer. Did your approach to this particular soundscape feel more personal?

BD ── It's a beautiful, very special film. It’s about an opera composer who’s experiencing writer’s block, so there are two on-screen operas in the film that I was commissioned to write scores for. I also produced a brand-new Bruce Springsteen song that was written for the film. Writer and Director Rebecca Miller is incredible and extremely open-minded. We became very good friends and she treated me like an artist, with total respect and agency. I just made the music that I wanted to make, and so it’s the first film where the music really resembles my music for the concert hall. We recorded the score in Paris, and it features pianist Katia Labèque, who I work with a lot, and she’s also close friends with Rebecca Miller. It was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime scenario for me.


sM | How does it feel to be back at Yale, 28 years after you first stepped foot there as an undergrad?

BD ── I had a really good experience at Yale, as a kid from suburban Ohio. It was amazing to meet so many creative, intelligent people, and to have access to incredible libraries and facilities. It's a kind of fairy land concentration of brilliant minds. But Yale has also grown; they've grappled with their past and are making new motions towards the future. The Schwarzman Center is new and, in a way, kind of independent from other parts of the university. It’s an honour to be part of the early group of people that are defining what that place is going to be. sM | What are some of your priorities in commissioning new works in this residency?

BD ── There are two things that I missed on some level when I was a student at Yale, but which later became really important to me. Firstly, I want to create a multidisciplinary environment. A lot of what I’m doing with the Schwarzman Center is music based, but I'm encouraging artists to really think outside of just music. The university is so rich with artists in other media, and the Center can be a kind of incubator for work that can then go and have a life elsewhere. Typically when you’re in music graduate school, you’re focusing on a narrow topic because you have to─but I’m encouraging artists to think beyond what’s in their immediate back yard. My second priority is creating a better connection with the wider New Haven community. Yale, for a long time, has been a kind of walled elite institution, but I think that the New Haven community itself has so much to offer and so many incredible people, artists, and resources; so some of the projects we’re developing are aiming to connect with that broader community.


sM | The Dream House Quartet is a fairly unorthodox conception of the quartet format─how was this project conceived? BD ── The Dream House Quartet is a very exciting project for me on many levels. On a personal level, it involves three of my closest friends. Katia and Marielle Labèque are very famous classical pianists in their own right. I wrote them a concerto before, and other music for two pianos, and selfishly, this was my excuse to actually get on stage and play with them. David Chalmin is also an amazing composer/electric guitarist/producer/engineer, and he’s someone I also work with a lot. We all live in France near each other, so it came together organically, and now we’re developing repertoire for this instrumentation. sM | What’s in store for the spring concerts?

BD ── It turns out that the idea of two electric guitars and two pianos is pretty exciting for composers. We play music composed by myself and Chalmin, but also pair it with what we jokingly call “historical music” by older living composers, like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and David Lang. Then also some more recent work, like a set of pieces by Thom Yorke, and a piece by Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir. Katia and Marielle make us look really good because they’re insanely virtuosic. Being up there next to them is pretty flattering. sM | It seems the operatic format is one that you’re increasingly interested in, what’s your next venture in this genre? BD ── I’m working on a big opera called H of H for Chicago Lyric Opera. It has a full orchestra and chorus, plus six primary soloists; and it’s written by Canadian poet Anne Carson, one of the great living English language writers. She had been developing this text for quite a long time, as a play based on the Heracles story, and she’s adapted it into a libretto for this project. It also involves our mutual friend, Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who will co-direct it along with Elkhanah Pulitzer, who herself just directed John Adams’ new opera Antony and Cleopatra, among tons of other amazing pieces of work. It's definitely the biggest thing I've done, and the libretto itself is just stunning. The end of it reads: “As we go in grief, we go in tears. So many swift and dirty years, we've lost a man of greatest merit. Truly a devil of spirit, our greatest and most legendary friend.” You can almost hear these words sung. I’m still figuring out what this opera is going to be, basically, but I’m really excited.

Dream House Quartet

sM | You collaborated on the recent album, Complete Mountain Almanac, with your sister. Where did this familial appreciation for music come from? BD ── I think my sister Jessica is really the muse of the family, or maybe she’s really the artist among us, and Aaron and I just follow in her footsteps. She was a ballet dancer growing up, then started writing poetry and did an MFA in poetry, and later she developed this incredible talent for pencil drawings. She was like a pole star pointing the way forward. My dad was a musician, too, so we grew up with music in the house. During the first year of her ongoing struggle with breast cancer, Jessica wrote Complete Mountain Almanac as a book of poems, one for each month. Norwegian singer Rebekka Karijord set that text to music, and then we recorded the album with my brother and I in Paris just before the pandemic lockdowns. It was really beautiful to work with Jessica in this capacity, and the album is really gorgeous. sM | How do you contend with the notion that composers who can tune into different genres are somehow regarded less seriously by critics of classical music and simultaneously as too serious by listeners of contemporary/more popularly-oriented genres? BD ── I try to be pretty humble about what I'm doing, which is just making music that's personally interesting to me. I'm a product of my education and my curiosity. I was a classical musician first, but I try not to spend too much time searching the universe for where I fit. There are musicians from all backgrounds that interest me, whether they’re Juilliard-trained polymaths, or the self-taught amateur musicians I work with all the time. Thom Yorke and Paul Simon aren’t people who communicate through musical manuscripts, but they’re probably the two most brilliant composers I’ve worked with. Somebody like Nina Simone, who I think is the greatest musical artist of the 20th century, was rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music. I’ve had people say my music is too avant-garde or too “crossover,” but as an artist, if you get lost in the weeds with that, you'll never find your own voice. Now, of course, as a middle-aged white man, I’ve been privileged and people have helped me to do exceptional things in my life, so I can’t really complain. The next phase of classical music is now opening its doors and starting to provide more diverse opportunities; it’s becoming less blindly elitist for performers, composers, and audiences alike, and I’m thrilled to see that happening.