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Classic Pop

May 22nd 2012 | Katie Benson

The National’s guitarist (among many, many other things) Bryce Dessner tells Katie Benson how being a modern music man is all about the giving and loving.

Growing in scale every year, Vivid LIVE is an artist-driven festival that brings the most brilliant, avant-garde and innovative minds to Sydney. Perhaps the greatest example of these ideals this year is the musical collaboration of American artists Bryce Dessner, Sufjan Stevens and Nico Mulhy. In a Sydney exclusive, this intelligent trio will be presenting Planetarium a pop-classical fusion that celebrates the wonder of the universe around us.

Born from a three-way commission between the Sydney Opera House, Muziekgebouw, Eindhoven and the Barbican, London, Planetarium sees all three artists stretch their musical legs, composing scores, lyrics and melodies that are intended to transport the listener to each planet, sun and moon. During the performance, the stage will be filled with some of Australia's finest classical musicians on trombones and strings, but it is the men at the centre of stage who are the masters of the event.

The most recognisable name of the trio, Sufjan Stevens, is no stranger to filling the grand halls of the Opera House; his Age Of Adz performance was labelled by many as one of the best concerts of 2011. As the sole vocalist and lyricist, it was Stevens' position to make the ethereal more personal in Planetarium. Nico Mulhy, a New York based composer brings the classical chops to the piece. A former boy chorister, Mulhy's arrangement and composition skills have been extended to such varied names as the American Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Bjork, Antony & The Johnsons and Grizzly Bear. Last but not least, the classically trained indie-rock star from Ohio, Bryce Dessner. Guitarist for The National, founder of the Music Now Festival, composer and guitarist for Clogs and most recently, film score composer, Dessner is the 'everyman' of the modern music age.

Despite being labelled as the highlight of the performance by British reviewers, in conversation Dessner is humble, focusing rather on the collaborative nature of not only this event, but also the current American music scene. For this concert, Dessner says it was a matter of three good friends, and a one-off opportunity that presented itself. “We've all been friends for years, I've worked with both of them and they've worked with each other, but we've never worked all together. New York is a very open community in that way, there's a lot of people working together all the time,” says Dessner.

“Nico's had a composing residence at Muziekgebouw, Eindhoven for about four years and the head presenter there suggested doing something with the two of us. We liked the idea so we went for it, partly because we were so attracted to the thought of working with seven trombones on stage.”

Enlisting Stevens, the trio set about writing individually at first, sending demos via email to one another. They came together for two week-long residencies, working on chord progressions and melodies before separating again, with Stevens 'leading the charge' of shaping these ideas into songs through lyrics. From there, the boys workshopped the piece at Dessner's own festival in Ohio, ironing out the kinks for their London performance in April, and since then it has been revised it again, meaning Sydney audiences will be hearing a further evolved work.

Opening with solo pieces from each artist, it is not until the second act that we're launched into the trio's space odyssey. Under an inflated orb that is plastered with video projections throughout, the musicians explore a rather grandiose theme. “I think with a collaboration like this, it's important to have a subject matter rather than just have some random songs. We needed some sort of vehicle to organise ourselves around, and we chose the planets because it was on a list of things we were thinking about, which is a very long list.

“It's not just about the planets, it's also about the gods. There's plenty of mythology and astrology in the songs, it's not just about the solar system. I think also with this idea of a big brassy sound, and using a lot of effects on stage, like vocal effects, it has a bit of a sci-fi aspect to it.”

When the trio come out to Australia, they will be bringing drummer James McAlister, and a core crew of four leading the sound and lights teams. For the rest of the production, all the positions will be filled by Australian musicians and technicians. This idea is just further example of Dessner's inclusive approach to his music. The 35-year-old not only stretches himself across several musical projects and genres, but also takes the time to nurture and encourage upcoming artists, and collaborate with those already established.

“There are several artists that I've worked with and helped in various ways…it's a really rewarding, different kind of energy. Different to just playing in my own band. Some journalists ask how I have time for all of this, and I answer that most people in the world have real jobs, get up and go to an office and work all day. We're spoiled, a lot of the time we're just waiting around in the back stage and this (collaborating, developing) is a really great use of time and keeps me motivated and inspired.

“I've always taken an interest in how music is presented and how it's released, and I don't think it's just me, I think it's symptomatic of my generation. Partly in response to the lifestyle we lead as musicians, always travelling from one place to the next, it's nice to keep going back to the one place and growing relationships with artists. So for me, it's been a really great chance to get involved with [festivals], and start fostering relationships with the artistic community that can develop over the years.”

Currently, Dessner is devoting the bulk of his creative focus to the Planetarium project, however he has also been working on a film score for a Jack Kerouac biopic, and scoring new classical material for a string quartet. Dabbling on both sides of the modern music scene, Dessner feels the classical world is the less restrictive of the two. “There's an interesting relationship that exists between creative indie music and the culture that surrounds it, though I enjoy the more avant garde side of contemporary music. It's a place where taking risks is really rewarded and you can experiment in long form, and much more experimental use of sounds.

“I really love working with trained musicians, people who have devoted their lives to the violin or the trombone, or whatever and they need someone to write the music. There are sides to the [classical] culture that are less exciting, it can be more academic or even elitist, but for the most part there's such a strong tradition of music that I really love.”

So when a pop-classical tour hits the road, do we see the trashed hotel rooms and leggy blondes of a rock tour, or are the boys all just backstage playing chess? “Sufjan is my neighbour and one of my closest friends, and so is Nico. We hang out socially a lot, so it's really fun. There's no rock'n'roll antics but we have a good time. Whenever Nico Mulhy is involved, there's a fair amount of shenanigans.”


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