Bryce Dessner is a vital and rare force in new music. He has won Grammy Awards both as a classical composer and with the band The National, of which he is founding member, guitarist, arranger and co-principal song-writer. He is also an increasingly high-profile presence in the world of film score composition, with credits including Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning The Revenant. The breadth and level of his output is remarkable, with few artists able to bridge diverse creative worlds with such virtuosity.
A prolific writer with an open-minded musical paradigm, Dessner is in his natural element when collaborating across art forms. His colleagues include the world’s most creative and respected artists such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Alejandro González Iñarritú, Katia and Marielle Labèque, Paul Simon, Sufjan Stevens, Caroline Shaw, Johnny Greenwood, Bon Iver, Justin Peck, Kelley O’Connor and Ragnar Kjartansson and Nico Muhly.
His rapidly expanding body of works are commissioned by the world’s leading ensembles, making him one of the most sought-after composers of his generation. Dessner has written orchestral, chamber, and vocal compositions for the likes of Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Metropolitan Museum of Art (for the New York Philharmonic), Kronos Quartet, BAM Next Wave Festival, London’s Barbican, Edinburgh International Festival, Carnegie Hall, Sydney Festival, eighth blackbird, Sō Percussion and New York City Ballet. His orchestrations can be heard on the new albums by Paul Simon and Bon Iver, among others.
Bryce Dessner was named one of a collective of eight “extraordinary artists, thinkers and doers” to help steer the artistic leadership of Esa-Pekka Salonen when he takes over as San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director from September 2020.
In 2018 Steve Reich named Dessner “an important composer with a developed technique and an intense emotional voice. He continues today as a major voice of his generation.”
Increasingly in demand in the world of film score composition, Dessner was Grammy and Golden Globe nominated for the soundtrack of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning The Revenant co-written with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. Further film score credits include the soundtrack for Death of Marsha P. Johnson, the Netflix documentary about the LGBT rights activist; The Kitchen starring Elisabeth Moss and Melissa McCarthy for Warner Bros. out in 2019; as well as the upcoming The Two Popes for Oscar-nominated director Fernando Meirelles, recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios.
Major classical works include Concerto for Two Pianos (2018) written for Katia and Marielle Labèque and premiered by London Philharmonic Orchestra and subsequently performed by co-commissioners Orchestre de Paris, Borusan Philharmonic, Dresden Philharmonie and Orquesta Nacional de Espanã, with the US premiere taking place in September 2019; Voy a Dormir (2018) written for mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and St. Luke’s Orchestra and commissioned by Carnegie Hall; Skrik Trio (2017), commissioned by Steve Reich and Carnegie Hall and premiered by Pekka Kuusisto, Nadia Sirota and Nicolas Alstaedt; No Tomorrow (a ballet by Ragnar Kjartansson, Margrét Bjarnadóttir and Bryce Dessner; 2017 and winner of Iceland’s Griman Award); and Wires (2016), commissioned for Ensemble Intercontemporain and Matthias Pintscher.
So far in 2019 Gautier Capuçon and his seven-cello ensemble La Classe d’Excellence have premiered Dessner’s The Forest, newly commissioned by Fondation Louis Vuitton; Australian Chamber Orchestra has toured Dessner’s iconic work Réponse Lutoslawski for several dates across Australia; and Los Angeles Philharmonic and Roomful of Teeth have premiered the major new theatre piece by Dessner integrating the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Triptych (Eyes for One on Another). Meanwhile the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for one of its first ever contemporary installations, is currently featuring the song Death is Elsewhere co-written by Dessner.
Future projects include a stage work with playwright Enda Walsh, a concerto for violinist Pekka Kuusisto, plus a second collaboration with Sydney Dance Company.
Bryce Dessner has won a GRAMMY Award as a classical composer (Best Chamber Music Performance 2016 for Murder Ballads, performed by renowned ensemble Eighth Blackbird on their album Filaments) – as well as with The National (Best Alternative Music Album, 2018, for Sleep Well Beast). His other albums include El Chan on Deutsche Grammophon (2019), featuring an all-Dessner programme performed by Katia and Marielle Labèque with Orchestre de Paris and Matthias Pintscher, with Dessner appearing on electric guitar; St. Carolyn by the Sea on Deutsche Grammophon (2014) performed by the Copenhagen Philharmonic and Andre de Ridder; Music for Wood and Strings (Brassland records, 2015) performed by Sō Percussion on custom-built ‘Chord Sticks’ instruments; and Aheym, commissioned by Kronos Quartet (Anti-label, 2009).
Further releases in 2019 include When We Are Inhuman (37d03d), a collaborative album between Dessner, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and Eighth Blackbird; as well as an album of Dessner’s string compositions performed by Ensemble Resonanz (PIAS).
As Dessner’s career has expanded his activities as a curator have grown and he has crafted weekend residencies in his name at Barbican London, Philharmonie de Paris and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, bringing together artists such as Steve Reich, eighth blackbird, Sō Percussion, Katia and Marielle Labèque, The National, and Britten Sinfonia. He co-founded MusicNOW, the Cincinnati-based contemporary music festival; co-curates Sounds From a Safe Harbour, the biannual festival of music, art and conversation in Cork, Ireland; co-curates HAVEN, Copenhagen’s annual festival “for the senses” with experiments in art, music and food; and PEOPLE, which launched officially in Berlin in 2018.
Born in 1976 in Cincinnati, Ohio. After early training on the flute, he switched to classical guitar in his teens. He comments “As a teenager I was playing classical guitar recitals, and people said, ‘You know, you can’t really do both things,’” recalls Dessner. “My intuition told me they were wrong… Someday that diversity of experience would be more enriching or rewarding than just going down one path. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Yale University, and now lives in Paris.
In the spring of 2019, The National released their latest studio recording, I am Easy to Find, collaborating with film director Mike Mills. Dessner is principal songwriter for The National along with his brother Aaron, in collaboration with singer/lyricist Matthew Berninger.