"Dessner is exactly the kind of composer who personifies what might be next for classical music."
Mark Swed, LA Times
Bryce Dessner is one of the most sought-after composers of his generation, with a rapidly expanding catalogue of works commissioned by leading ensembles across the world. Known to many as a guitarist with The National, he is also active as a curator – a vital force in the flourishing realm of new creative music.
Dessner’s orchestral, chamber, and vocal compositions have been commissioned by the likes of Los Angeles Philharmonic, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Metropolitan Museum of Art (for the New York Philharmonic), Kronos Quartet, BAM Next Wave Festival, Barbican Centre, Edinburgh International Festival, Carnegie Hall, Sydney Festival, eighth blackbird, Sō Percussion, New York City Ballet, and many others. He collaborates across art forms with some of the world’s most creative and respected artists, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Alejandro Iñarritú, Katia and Marielle Labèque, Paul Simon, Sufjan Stevens, Caroline Shaw, Johnny Greenwood, Bon Iver, Justin Peck, Ragnar Kjartansson, Jennifer Koh, Kelley O’Connor and Nico Muhly.
In 2018 Steve Reich named Bryce “an important composer with a developed technique and an intense emotional voice. He continues today as a major voice of his generation.”
Dessner’s work Murder Ballads, featured on eighth blackbird’s album Filament — an album he also produced and performs on — won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. He also co-wrote the score, along with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto - and was Grammy and Golden Globe nominated - for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar Award-winning film, The Revenant.
Dessner’s music – called “gorgeous, full-hearted” by NPR and “vibrant” by The New York Times – is marked by a keen sensitivity to instrumental color and texture. Propulsive rhythms often alternate with passages in which time is deftly suspended. His harmonies are expressive and flexible, ranging from the dense block chords of Aheym to the spacious modality of Music for Wood and Strings.
Bridging musical languages and communities comes naturally to Dessner, born 1976 in Cincinnati, Ohio. After early training on the flute, he switched to classical guitar in his teens. While in high school he started a band with his twin brother Aaron, also a guitarist. “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 from Yale University.
Aheym, commissioned in 2009 by Kronos Quartet, was a breakthrough score. It made its debut before an audience of thousands in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Since then, the ensemble has played the intense, anguished piece hundreds of times; it served as the centerpiece of a 2013 Kronos disc devoted to Dessner’s music on the Anti- label. St. Carolyn by the Sea followed in 2014 on Deutsche Grammophon, featuring the lyrical title work and two other Dessner compositions performed by the Copenhagen Philharmonic under Andre de Ridder. May 2015 marked the release on Brassland of Music for Wood and Strings, an album-length work performed by Sō Percussion on custom-built ‘Chord Sticks’ that lend a shimmering, hammer dulcimer-like quality.
As Dessner’s career has expanded his activities as a curator have grown as well allowing him to bring diverse artists and communities together in an organic way. In May 2015, he curated Mountains and Waves, a weekend-long celebration of his music at the Barbican in London, with guests including Steve Reich, eighth blackbird, Sō Percussion, Caroline Shaw, and the Britten Sinfonia.
In 2015, MusicNOW, the Cincinnati-based contemporary music festival he founded celebrated its tenth anniversary. It has featured Tinariwen, Justin Vernon, Joanna Newsom, David Lang, Grizzly Bear and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, among many others. As of September 2015, Dessner curates - alongside Cillian Murphy, Enda Walsh, Mary Hickson and Aaron Dessner - Sounds From a Safe Harbour, the biannual festival of music, art and conversation in Cork, Ireland. He is also co-curator of HAVEN, Copenhagen’s annual festival ‘for the senses, merging experiments in art, music, beer and food’ which launched in 2017 and PEOPLE, which launched officially in Berlin in 2018.
Dessner resides in Paris and has been increasingly active composing for major European ensembles and soloists. In 2016 he premiered a piece entitled Wires commissioned for the legendary Ensemble Intercontemporain and Matthias Pintscher, as well as recent solo works for violinists Pekka Kuusisto and Jennifer Koh. Dessner’s Concerto for Two Pianos, written for Katia and Marielle Labèque, premiered with London Philharmonic Orchestra in April 2018 and has subsequently been performed by co-commissioners Orchestre de Paris, Borusan Philharmonic, Dresden Philharmonie and Orquesta Nacional de Espanã, with several other European and US performances confirmed.
Other recent commissions include: Voy a Dormir (2018) written for mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and St. Luke’s Orchestra, and commissioned by Carnegie Hall; Skrik Trio, commissioned by Steve Reich and Carnegie Hall for the Three Generations Series and premiered by Pekka Kuusisto, Nadia Sirota and Nicolas Alstaedt in April 2017 at Carnegie Hall; No Tomorrow (a ballet by Ragnar Kjartansson, Margrét Bjarnadóttir and Bryce Dessner) which premiered as part of the Sacrifice Festival, April 2017 and winner of Iceland’s Griman Award; and the soundtrack for Death of Marsha P. Johnson, the Netflix documentary about the LGBT rights activist (2017). Previous projects include Quilting, a 17-minute score co-commissioned with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, premiered in May 2015 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and The Most Incredible Thing, a ballet created by Dessner, Justin Peck and Marcel Dzama, premiered in February 2016 by the New York City Ballet.
In Los Angeles in March 2019, Roomful of Teeth presented a major new theatre piece by Dessner integrating the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, named Triptych (Eyes for One on Another). Dessner also wrote the score for the major Netflix film The Pope directed by Fernando Meirelles out in late 2019, recorded with London Contemporary Orchestra at London’s Abbey Road Studios. The Metropolitan Museum in New York, for one of its first ever contemporary installations, is featuring the song Death is Elsewhere written by Dessner alongside Aaron Dessner, Ragnar Kjartansson, Gyda Valtýsdóttir and Kristín Anna.
In April 2019 Deutsche Grammophon (Universal Music) released the album El Chan featuring an all-Dessner programme of Concerto for Two Pianos, written for and performed by Katia and Marielle Labèque with Orchestre de Paris under Matthias Pintscher, El Chan for Katia and Marielle Labèque, and Haven, featuring Dessner on electric guitar.
Future projects include a major orchestral commission, a stage work with Enda Walsh and a concerto for Pekka Kuusisto, a second collaboration with Sydney Dance Company, a commission for YMusic facilitated by a Baryshnikov scholarship, plus a commission from Fondation Louis Vuitton for Gautier Capuçon and seven-cello ensemble.
In spring 2019 The National released their latest studio recording, I am Easy to Find, collaborating with film director Mike Mills.
The music of Bryce Dessner is exclusively published by Chester Music Ltd, part of the Music Sales Group.