CINCINNATI -- Bryce Dessner isn’t mystified why symphony orchestras rarely commission new music from ambitious rock, pop and hip-hop songwriters.
“There is a language barrier, like going to France if you don’t speak French,” Dessner said. “If you really don’t understand written music, it becomes really difficult to work with people who read and write from a score.”
That does much to explain how Dessner, who graduated Cincinnati Country Day School 20 years ago, crosses over without a stumble between his lives in rock and classical music. Long before he and his twin brother, Aaron, co-founded the rock band The National, Dessner studied classical guitar at the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music and at Yale University, where he also earned a master’s degree in composition.
In 2006, Dessner inaugurated the MusicNow Festival in Cincinnati, curated to showcase artists blurring and experimenting beyond the bounds of musical genre.
Language barrier notwithstanding, Dessner concedes a cultural disconnect also discourages orchestras from reaching outside the channels of formal compositional training for new music. That cultural chasm might, in part, explain why it took eight years for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to formally partner with Dessner and MusicNow.
On March 21, the Dessner brothers are performing with the orchestra on a program featuring Bryce Dessner’s “St. Carolyn By the Sea.” The ensemble Eighth Blackbird performs another Dessner work, “Murder Ballades,” and the orchestra premieres new music from one of classical music’s celebrated young composers, Nico Muhly. The following evening, MusicNow continues with a different program, highlighted by the premiere of music from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and a performance of work by Radiohead guitarist and songwriter Jonny Greenwood.
“The basis of all my music comes out of classical music,” Dessner said in a phone conversation from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I was really fortunate. Not many people can read music and play chamber music and play with these amazing artists,” he said. “I didn’t plan on playing in a rock band in a way that I could support myself. It’s the closest thing to my heart, but the classical music challenges me the most. It’s something I can imagine myself doing when I’m old.”
While insiders with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had watched and admired Dessner’s work with MusicNow, the orchestra pushed its own commitment to new music, albeit from within the more tested waters of classical composition. During the 2011-12 season, Philip Glass, creative director of the orchestra’s “Boundless” series, performed with Eighth Blackbird.
Though artistic leaders with the orchestra had spoken years earlier with Dessner about collaborating on MusicNow, it took bringing on Louis Langree as music director—and for a meeting between Langree and Dessner in Brooklyn—for the orchestra to formalize the partnership.
“This is really shaking up our model entirely,” said Chris Pinelo, the orchestra’s communications director.
Each evening features a world premiere, pieces created by rock musicians and evening-closing classical works seen as “far ahead of their time, where composers were breaking down artistic boundaries and pushing the envelope,” said Trey Devey, president of the orchestra.
The orchestra has commissioned a lighting designer, hired “opening-act” artists to perform in the lobby and told its musicians to leave their formal wear at home. A letter went to subscribers—either as an enticement or warning, depending on one’s perspective—detailing what to expect with MusicNow.
“We wanted to be clear this would be wild,” Devey said. “There’s a value system in our organization to be a place of experimentation. We have many musicians who are hungry to be a part of the reinvention of classical music.”
“St. Carolyn By the Sea” premiered three years ago through a commission by the American Composers Orchestra. Writing for the web site PopMatters.com, John Garratt noted “the use of electric guitar in this setting goes by almost undetected. That’s how well it blends with the orchestra. It is, by no means, a ‘so-you-think-you-can-compose-classical-but-really-you’re-just-a-rock-guitarist’ use of the instrument. It’s ornamental, at the most.”
Blair Sanderson, writing for AllMusic.com , lauded the pairing of Krysztof Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” with Greenwood’s “48 Responses to Polymorphia.” Nonesuch Records released the coupling two years ago, and the Cincinnati Symphony is performing the pieces back-to-back March 21.
“This album is intended for adventurous listeners who enjoy exploring the classical avant-garde,” Sanderson wrote. “Though deeper investigation may attract others interested in sound sculptures,
noise studies, and electronica, who can appreciate the atmospheric colors and shimmering sonorities of these modern masterworks.”
Some with an eye on the future of classical music point to soundtracks for movies and video games as an entry point for ambitious composers of popular music. But Dessner voices an aversion to anything reeking of pop-classical crossover, illustrated in MusicNow programming.
“I think music needs to speak for itself culturally,” Dessner said. “It wasn’t exciting to me to have my brother and I soloing over the top of the orchestra. I wanted the guitars to integrate into the orchestra.”
This is the festival’s debut in Music Hall after a history in neighboring Memorial Hall, and Dessner is excited about “seeing this play out on a grand scale.”
“Watching 70 people on stage collaborating is really one of the profound experiences of art for me,” he said. “It’s something all people should have the chance to experience.”
Beyond the cultural and language barriers, Dessner cites a subtle economic distance between young people reared in classical music and those brought up in rock and hip-hop.
“People who have access to that elite education tend to be the more affluent. Even going to concerts and seeing orchestras can be expensive,” he said. “There’s a reason people join rock bands—because you can get a cheap guitar and go into the garage and make music with your friends. And with cheap recording, you can make a lot of music on your own.
Dessner cites the Kronos Quartet as setting the model for how classical commissions should work. Dessner and Kronos recently released a recording of four works Dessner composed for the quartet.
“Write the piece you want to write, and that’s the approach I take with MusicNow. I say to take the creative pursuit that excites you,” he said. “There’s kind of a diversity of education nowadays with young musicians, the background is so mixed. The orchestral world and the world of criticism would benefit from a more open-minded approach to music and where it comes from. In the end, it’s all music.”
If You Go
What: MusicNow Festival
Where: Cincinnati Music Hall, 1241 Elm St., Cincinnati
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 21-22. Different programs each night.
For more information: http://www.musicnowfestival.org/