Perhaps best known as a guitarist and songwriter in American rock band The National, Grammy-award-winning composer Bryce Dessner has built one of the most fascinating and eclectic resumes in contemporary music.
An accomplished creator of works for orchestra and film, the multi-faceted musician has recently released Tenebre, an album comprising four of his compositions for strings recorded by Hamburg’s Ensemble Resonanz.
Famous for their unique programming, which combines traditional and new music, this dynamic, adventurous chamber orchestra places an emphasis on the resonance between the works, the public and the stories.
A few weeks ago, I caught up with violist Justin Caulley to talk about the ensemble, their collaboration with Bryce and the challenges of reworking his original material.
To start, please tell me a bit about Ensemble Resonanz.
Ensemble Resonanz is a string orchestra specializing in many different genres. All of the programming is done by different ensemble members, as well as our artistic manager, Toby. So it’s a democratic string ensemble focusing on many different areas.
Usually, we do concerts that are one half old music and one half new music. That’s kind of the idea. In our subscription concert series at the Elbphilarmonie, we do a broad mix, but the basic gist is trying to take older European classical music and mix it with different types of modern music.
The ensemble places an emphasis on resonance between the works, the audience and the stories. Could you elaborate on that?
It’s about trying to come closer to having an experience with the music. Not only trying to put different pieces from different eras next to each other, but also to present them in a way in which we create some sort of flow between the performers and the audience. I guess the vision is to create an experience of togetherness in the concerts.
In these different concert formats that we do, not only at the Elbphilarmonie but in our very own venue, the Resonanazraum (The Resonance Room), it has a lot to do with personally reaching out to the audience. Different members will moderate concerts. It feels very authentic, because we’re not professional speakers. We’re just talking. We copied that a little bit from the pop world, where a pop band would come into a venue and just talk to the audience and that would be very normal. It’s about closeness.
What would you say is the biggest challenge in presenting classical music in this way?
I think the technical challenge of playing music from different eras at a really high level is not to be underestimated. We have very interesting programming ideas, but we have to live it out. We have to live out ever idea. That’s the first thing that comes to mind.
You can’t play a mediocre Beethoven and ask the audience to forgive you because you’re very broad. (laughs) That’s not how it works. No matter how demanding the program is — especially if you pick it yourself — the idea is that people want precision. People want sparkly explosions of virtuosity, they want to hear everything. That’s the biggest challenge.
I think the audiences are more open than we sometime give them credit for, but if we’re going to say, “We don’t specialize in any one thing, we specialize in everything”, then of course the challenge is to live that out.
To my knowledge, classical audiences can be very demanding, I think more so than in other genres.
One of the interesting aspects of it is that when you start doing different music from different genres, you are able to experience different mixes of audiences. You can tell that certain people are looking for certain things.
The fact that classical audiences can be demanding is true, but they are also looking for something very specific. They are listening to certain details that they’ve heard before, maybe on CD. They are looking for a certain sort of virtuosity, because the scene has really been moved by virtuosity for centuries. When you play for pop audiences, maybe they’re not so worried if every single moment is perfectly together, like on a recording. They’re looking for energy.
Look, but that’s also demanding, right? I think everybody is demanding. People demand different things. And that’s the challenge. You want to put together a fantastic package that works for everybody. That just means you have to be really good.
Tell me a bit about Tenebre. How did this collaboration with Bryce Dessner come about?
Bryce met the ensemble during the “Reflector” series at the Elbphilarmonie. I was actually not there when it happened; I came onto the CD production. I had experienced Bryce on a couple of different occasions through the conductor André de Ridder, in Berlin.
I think when the ensemble played the string orchestra arrangements of his, especially the one of “Aheym”, there was an immediate connection. That was the moment in the Elbphilarmonie when we thought, “Okay, let’s make a CD! Let’s do a project!” There was interest on both sides to do a CD production.
How would you describe Bryce’s music?
I think Bryce’s music is definitely hard to describe. He is a man who evades simple categories and the music reflects that. Of course, there are heavy influences from American minimalism, but I think it is different from that in the sense that… I guess it really works a lot with just pure energy.
When you play a piece like “Aheym”, it’s working in a certain language of its own, but it’s also working with energy. Obviously, it just explodes right at the beginning and gets into a groove after that. You can tell that he exists in many different worlds, because the music reflects a search for something a little bit deeper than just what exists on the page.
What were some of the creative challenges of reworking Bryce’s original music? To what extent was Bryce involved in the creation of Tenebre?
Bryce was quite involved in how the album was shaped. He was extremely involved in editing and post production. I guess the challenge for us was just to try to create some sort of extremely “together” group feeling. We rehearsed without him a little bit and then he came to the recording session. We got a lot of the feedback from him, which was great.
Our goal was just to get into the score and try to be as precise as possible. The greatest challenge was to bring the intensity into every second and keep that intensity level up for the entire recording session, because the music is very demanding like that. It’s not music you can kind of ghost through. (laughs)
One of the challenges is to say, “Okay we have to really get tightly together as a group!” Because you can really feel the energy when everybody is exactly together. This happens even with a string quartet but even more so when you do it in a chamber orchestra version. It has to be really tight.
Once you got that, then there has to be some sort of group pacing. That’s the next challenge. If not everybody reaches their pinnacle at the same time, you need to pace that. There was a lot of that group work.
How did you choose the tracks for the album?
I think there were suggestions from both sides. It was definitely a wish on our side to at least record “Aheym” as a large group. That was a piece that we had played many times. I think it was also the idea of which string quartet pieces work well in a chamber orchestra. For example, “Aheym” works really well with more people.
Choosing “Tenebre” also had to do with the vastness of the music and how much it could benefit from a string orchestra version. I guess with the Skrik trio, colleagues of mine had already worked on that. I’m not sure whose idea it was to also put that on the CD but, at any rate, I think it was a collaborative idea process.
How do you find your individual voice as a musician in a chamber orchestra setting?
That’s a good question! That’s kind of a deeper question that the ensemble is always dealing with. Especially in Bryce’s music, it is really important, in certain instances, to give up your own personal will and feel the group. One of the issues is just communication within the rehearsal. There are ways within the group to kind of subtly move things.
That’s what’s interesting about this group pacing. It’s a bit like synchronized swimming. Everyone is making their waves together and then, at some point, it’s just trial and error. If someone is a bit faster or a little bit slower…
First of all, you have to orientate. “Where am I? Where are we? Am I a little bit early? Did I do this a little bit fast? Let’s meet in the middle!” Someone in a different section might get me to speed up in certain sections, some others might need to slow down.
It does feel like swimming, I guess, because each movement you make affects the other. You can make larger waves, smaller waves, but in the end, you have to be on the same wave. You have to try it a lot. We had to try some sections quite a few times, just to see where we are at.
We did quite a few rehearsal before we started recording, but also during the recording process. We took quite a few passes at certain long sections. It was certainly a bit of editing on the recording, but mostly, it’s long takes. I remember long takes. I guess that’s what I mean by trial and error. We had to really rehearse and try to get a feel for each other.
Where will you be presenting the music? Is there a tour scheduled for this project?
We have actually played Bryce’s music quite a bit in Hamburg and we played also at Reeperbahn festival. So there has already been some stuff going on with this music. I’m not sure of all we’ve got scheduled.
Four colleagues of mine are going to play with The National in a week, in Berlin. A quartet from the ensemble is going to open two Berlin concerts with them. The sky is the limit. Let’s see where it goes!
Bryce’s music has already become such a part of the ensemble’s repertoire that we’re just living with it all the time anyway. It will probably feel really natural to work it into our normal schedule.
What are you hoping this music will accomplish?
It is accomplishing what I would like it to accomplish. What I personally would love it to accomplish is to open people’s ears, in the sense that many music scenes are still dominated by categorical thinking. It is a challenge to step into a different scene. You can go hear Balinese Gamelan Ensemble and, if you’ve never heard that before, it can be so amazing… just the togetherness and the new sounds.
I guess that’s what I wish for this CD as well: to try to just get outside of the box and feel music for what it is in a sort of like deeper groove experience. I think that’s the most important thing for me. I want to open people up to this new experience that is not necessarily classical and not necessarily pop. It is outside of those categories and exists on its own. It speaks for itself in that sense.
What other projects does Ensemble Resonanz have at this moment?
There is always a lot going on. I just came from another day of recording Beethoven piano concertos with Riccardo Minasi, a baroque hero, and pianist Gianluca Cascioli. Simply amazing musicians! And our last three Mozart symphonies are coming out on CD soon. We did that last spring also with Riccardo Minasi. There is a lot of classical work going on but we continue to mix in the different genres as well. Hopefully, next week, on the 25th and 26th of November, the concerts with The National in Berlin are going to be big. Hopefully, we can then continue to reach new audiences through and with people like Bryce.