The National's Bryce Dessner Celebrates Premiere of New Symphonic Work

Shervin Lainez

The rocker's "Quilting" shares the bill with a piece by Philip Glass at Disney Concert Hall.

Bryce Dessner of The National has shared top billing with some of the biggest names in indie rock. But on May 28 and 30, the program at the Disney Concert Hall offers an unexpected change from the company he usually keeps. Dudamel, Dessner & Glass will feature a world premiere double piano concerto by Philip Glass, and Quilting, a world premiere symphonic work by Dessner, both under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel.

“To have a work being played twice by the LA Phil, conducted by one of the world’s greatest conductors, is such an honor. It’s so beyond anything I ever imagined happening,” Dessner tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Between melancholic flourishes of early records, like The National’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, and the rhythmically spare strains of 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, Dessner has been not-so-quietly cultivating a career as a classical composer, working with minimalist giants like Steve Reich, the Kronos Quartet, and Glass, with whom he toured in his early twenties. “I remember looking up from my chair at one point across the stage and seeing Philip Glass sitting on a stool listening to everything very intently. It was a really meaningful moment to see how curious he is about music.”

Which is why it shouldn’t strike anyone as strange that a rocker wrote a symphony. Dessner grew up in an Ohio suburb where he studied classical flute, then guitar and piano. And, of course, formed a rock band with his twin brother, Aaron when he was 13 years old. Ten years later, when The National debuted in 2001, they knew they were on to something. These days, with a 2013 Grammy nomination, a hit song on the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack and sold out tours worldwide, the leap into classical music hardly seems to be a logical next step.

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“Early on, I was a performer playing classical music. It’s in my DNA in a way that I can’t begin to extract it,” explains Dessner, who holds a masters in music from Yale. “Most living composers have grown up with rock and roll in one form or another. Me, who’s educated classically, I went toward rock music cause it was sort of a natural evolution from where I was playing with my brother. But I was always drawn back into classical music. I think that story is played out among many young composers. We’re seeing a generational shift.”

It’s a shift that could trace its roots to the 1970s, when minimalism got traction with artists like David Bowie, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. Forty years later, Dessner has found like-minded collaborators in fellow rockers like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who was classically trained from a young age and is composer-in-residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Earlier this year, Dessner worked with Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry on the symphonic, Wave Movements, which premiered under the baton of Clark Rundell with the Britten Sinfonia.

Quilting was composed while Dessner was living in Paris, taking in regular performances at Theatre du Chatelet and L’Opera. The majority of orchestral music is still derived from the European tradition, which got him thinking about what it means to be an American composer in the tradition of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, who drew from American folk music for compositions like Appalachian Spring and Rodeo. Dessner arrived at "Quilting" as a way of expressing that same folk tradition. “The way the quilts themselves tell stories of the communities that made them, I loved thinking about that as I was writing this piece — quilting, stitching together music, the role of a conductor with many musicians to sew a piece together, to make it greater than the sum of its parts.”

Next up for Dessner is a ballet score he’s composing, for dancer/choreographer Justin Peck and the New York City Ballet, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story The Most Incredible Thing, about a contest to find the eponymous item. As for The National, fear not rock fans; they’re just taking an extra year away from touring to focus on their songwriting. “We don’t plan to conquer the universe or become the next great stadium band,” smiles Dessner as he gets back to basics. “We just want to be better at writing songs.”