Black Mountain Songs, co-commissioned by BAM and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, will receive its world premiere on November 20 with performances through the 23rd. Featuring new music by Jherek Bischoff, Bryce Dessner, Tim Hecker, John King, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, and Aleksandra Vrebalov (performed by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Choral director and conductor Dianne Berkun-Menaker), the piece invokes the creative spirit of the fabled Black Mountain College. We caught up with co-curator and featured composer Bryce Dessner to pick his brain about his work and this special run of concerts.
Do you consider yourself to be a guitarist first or a composer first? How does your classical guitar pedigree inform your works for voice, orchestra, and chamber ensemble?
I actually grew up learning music on the flute and piano and switched to guitar later as a teenager because I wanted to play in a rock band. Shortly after I started studying classical guitar which eventually led me to contemporary music and studying composition at Yale. A lot of my early experiences as a professional musician were playing contemporary music by composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass on electric guitar. I don’t really think of myself as a guitarist or composer first, they are both essential parts of me. Like most composers who have an instrumental background, the guitar is my primary instrument and it is still what I play best. I have been ‘composing’ for a long time, and my interest in instrumentation has expanded naturally as I’ve written more music and I have been given access to larger ensembles and orchestras. Writing for chorus, and especially the young singers of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, has become one of of the greatest experiences of my musical life.
How does your process differ when writing music for your band as opposed to writing, say, a string quartet? Which allows you to be more adventurous?
The early part of writing is quite similar in that I am often improvising ideas, little fragments of phrases or chords that can be developed into a piece or a song. But from there the process is quite different. The National is a collaborative rock band: Our early song sketches are really very simple and we then develop them in the studio, and the recording of the song eventually is the main process of how we realize the music and finish the song. The National and writing music with my brother Aaron is really a fundamental part of who I am. The band are my family. In the case of my string quartets or other classical pieces, the music is definitely able to be formally more ambitious (a National song is rarely over 5 minutes, where many of my classical pieces are much longer). Working with classical musicians is something I enjoy very much and the score is the means of communication. So when I am composing I spend loads of time making my ideas really clear in the score, that way once the notes are there it allows the focus of detail and collaboration in rehearsal with the ensemble to be on the interpretation of the music and the subtleties of performance. I don’t think of clasical composition as more adventurous than writing songs for the band, they are both exciting in different ways. I often compare these sides of my life to a writer who might write novels or non-ficiton, but also writes poetry. They are different forms but both are really fundamental parts of who I am.
Black Mountain Songs is not your first collaboration with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who have commissioned and premiered your works To the Sea and Tour Eiffel. How has that organization helped you to find your voice as a composer?
Dianne Berkun-Menaker has been an amazing supporter of my work and helped me to develop my writing for voice. I definitely have grown a lot through working with them and there has been an evolution in my works for chorus over the last few years through the amazing dedication they bring to learning and performing the work. Where a lot of my orchestral writing is more complex harmoncially and rhythmically, I have enjoyed writing music for the chorus that is more melodic and simpler in structure. [We talked to Berkun-Menaker and Dessner back in 2012, Ed.]
Planetarium featured an integral visual component and you’ve collaborated with filmmaker Matt Wolf for Black Mountain Songs. As the sort of all-time pinnacle of liberal arts schools, Black Mountain College hosted some of the most important names in 20th century American art and music. To you, where and how do music and the visual arts converge? In what way do they reflect on each other?
I have always been really inspired by visual artists. Many of my projects have been collaborations with artists and I often find it really inspiring to speak with visual artists about music. Black Mountain College was so fascinating because of the way artistic communities converged there and learned from one another. It’s amazing to read about Merce, Cage and Rauschenberg woking together at a young age and the ways they influenced one another and the larger community around them. Whereas musicians and composers can be very academic and defined by whatever pedagogical lineage they descend from, I have found that visual artists often have a more open and progressive attitude about their work that is very healthy to be around. Historically there are so many important examples of visual artists collaborating with musicians and dancers, and Black Mountain for me is one of the most exciting moments in history for this kind of collaboration.
Lou Harrison, Cy Twombly, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, etc. the list of luminaries who passed through Black Mountain College goes on and on. What is the link between names like these and the composers/artists you’ve assembled for these upcoming performances at BAM? In what way can audiences expect the concerts to conjure the essence of that legendary institution?
We were very clear when we started working on this project that rather than create a documentary or a historical piece about the college, we wanted to make something new by inhabiting some of the creative ideas and the collaborative spirit of the place. Black Mountain Songs is woven out of fragments of text, ideas and images from the college, and the making of the work was very collaborative from the beginning of the process between Richard Parry and I, and amongst all the composers and chorus, and also with Dianne Berkun-Menaker and our director Maureen Towey, film-maker Matt Wolf, and choreographer Jenny Shore Butler. I think the audience will definitely learn something about Black Mountain through seeing the show and hopefully they will be inspired to go and learn more. We are so honored to have a Black Mountain alum, Basil King, onstage with us as our narrator. There are 13 different pieces of music in the show and the songs set texts or are inspired by many different artists and poets from Black Mountain including John Cage, Josef Albers, Robert Creeley, Franz Kline, FIelding Dawson, M.C. Richards, Ruth Asawa, Charles Olson, Anni Albers, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, and Cy Twombly.
Black Mountain Songs
Nov 20—Nov 23, 2014
BAM Harvey Theater
Full-price tickets start at $20
For more information and tickets, visit: http://www.bam.org/music/2014/black-mountain-songs.