The National guitarist Bryce Dessner joins Bjork and Grizzly Bear collaborator/composer Nico Muhly and singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens to perform a series of special concerts as part of Opera House music festival Vivid LIVE. In the lead-up to the shows, Dessner spoke to Time Out about the origins of this unique musical get-together.
You’ve been specially commissioned for Vivid – working with Sujfan Stevens and Nico Muhly. How did that come about?
It came up actually through a venue in Eindhoven, Holland that Nico Muhly’s been the resident composer at for a while. Nico, Sufjan and I are old friends, and we’ve all worked together in the past – not all together, but I’ve worked with each of them, and they’ve worked with each other. It was actually through the director of that venue, Frank Veenstra, it was his idea to get the three of us together. Part of the idea was also working with this really amazing trombone collective in Holland called the New Trombone Collective – seven trombones. It was part of the original idea that we would all write music for them. So that’s how it started, and then it went from there. The Vivid Sydney festival came on as a partner to help commission it.
Did you have a theme or an idea behind what you wanted to create for these trombones?
Sufjan really felt like he wanted to sing, and that would be song-based, so that automatically sent it in a certain direction; that was the first decision we made. From there we started throwing out ideas. With a collaboration like this you really do need to have some subject matter, it’s not like playing in a band where you just write songs. We needed something to gravitate towards a kind of vehicle for what we were doing. Ultimately, Sufjan had this idea that he wanted to write songs about the planets, and as a theme, that could be pretty broad and incorporate various things including mythology, astrology and personal narratives. Musically, that would be a great meeting place for us.
How do you guys actually create it? Did you all just sit in a room for months until it came, or were you collaborating over distance?
Both. We did do a couple of weeks of residency together where we jammed, and everyone brought various ideas, so we worked out song ideas that way. We worked separately on parts, too. Sufjan was writing lyrics and melodies, Nico did a lot of orchestration and then we’d come together and try it out, get feedback. We actually did an early version of the piece, like the workshop performance, in Cincinnati, Ohio in March. We did a week of rehearsals, and then we had an informal presentation of what it was. It gave us a chance to really hear everything and then revise it from there. It’s ongoing. I’d say all of us are the kind of musicians who don’t just finish the piece and let it be. We like to keep working on it and making it better, so some new tunes will be making their way to Sydney.
What exactly can people expect from the Sydney show?
As far as I know, the first half of the show is a Sydney-based string quartet that will be performing music by each of us. The second half is a 60-minute piece including songs for each planet – including Pluto – and a song for the Sun and the Moon. There are seven trombones on stage, three of us playing and then a drummer and a string quartet. There are beautiful quiet songs, and loud, intense songs with heavy beats. It runs a pretty wide range of sounds.
Is it more like movements to an overall symphony, or are they very clear, separate songs?
They’re clear separate songs. It’s a song cycle - they relate to each other, and we’ve thought about the way they flow into each other. I’d say they’re separate and individual compositions.
You were last here for Harvest Festival, where you were playing with the National. Do you think it’ll be different coming to Australia in such a completely different format?
Yeah. I think getting to play three nights in the same theatre is really great. You get really comfortable and can get used to the room. I think that’ll be really, really fun. The Harvest Festival was amazing, but when you’re travelling every day it gets really exhausting, so I think this’ll be better to be set up somewhere, and get to explore the city. Playing music in Australia is fantastic, the audience is so warm. We all decided that this was what we wanted to do in Australia. We know the people at the Sydney Opera House, and when we were coming up with the idea we felt that it’d be really great to do it there.
Do you have some favourite places in Sydney you’d like to visit? Is there anything you want to see?
Last time I was there, I stayed in Bondi Beach for a while, and that’s a guilty pleasure. We don’t have anywhere like that in New York. In Los Angeles, there’s something similar, but it’s definitely like a little paradise in the city. I’m sure we’ll make our way around, go to the beach and whatnot.
Is there anyone on the Vivid lineup you’d really like to see?
My Brightest Diamond is playing, and she’s a really close friend of ours, so that will be a great show.
Did you always want to be a musician, or was there a plan B?
There was a brief period of time where I was thinking about academia and being an historian. It was something I studied in college, but that lasted not very long, so I think I pretty much always knew I was going to be a musician. Being a musician, you don’t expect it to be the best way to make a living, so you work other jobs. When I first went to New York, I was a receptionist at a design firm. I used to teach guitar. I realised I was really lucky to be able to have a career doing it, that we could completely support ourselves using music, which is rare, and I’m appreciative of that.
If you could have the dream team collaboration, anyone living or dead you could form a supergroup with, who would it be?
The group we have together is pretty amazing. I’d love to play guitar for Patti Smith, I think that’d be really fun. As far as collaborating with other people, I don’t know. I do these things because I like to learn. That’s primarily why I keep doing different projects and working with people outside of my band. In that sense, I’d love to play guitar with George Harrison. That’d be really great.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
I just curated a festival here in New York called Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, so I was listening to tonnes of amazing local Brooklyn music. In particular, there’s a musician from Sierra Leone called Janka Nabay who is just amazing. It’s called Ubu music. He has a band of experimental musicians in Brooklyn, and what they’re doing together is really incredible.