Interview: Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry – 'People no longer need a bank account big enough to afford a ticket to hear this music'
Indie giants Dessner and Parry explore their orchestral leanings at Edinburgh International Festival
This article is from 2015.
As new Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan brings pop and rock music into the programme for the first time this year, from Sufjan Stevens to FFS, few musicians seem better placed to reflect on this important sea change than Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry.
Close friends best known as members of renowned North American indie-rock bands The National and Arcade Fire respectively, they’re also both classical composers. Dessner has a masters degree in music from Yale University and has seen his works performed all over the world by the likes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Kronos Quartet, while Parry’s debut contemporary classical album Music For Heart And Breath (produced by Dessner) was released last year. They appear at this year’s EIF as part of a performance of their debut collaborative composition Wave Movements, an ‘orchestral work with a very strong visual element,’ as Dessner describes it, based on the different wave cycles of the world’s oceans. Composed directly to the rhythms of waves, it will be played by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra accompanied by a film from Japanese visual artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, and alongside Parry’s composition ‘Heart & Breath’, which will feature Dessner and Parry on guitar and bass.
Dessner has known Linehan for many years, ever since the Irishman gave The National guitarist one of his first opportunities to see his classical works performed outside of the USA during his tenure as director of the Sydney Festival (which Dessner credits Linehan with ‘revolutionising’). ‘I think the message Fergus is embracing is a broader vision of what is music,’ he says, over the phone from New York. ‘It’s a statement that Italian opera and Beethoven symphonies and Schubert’s Lieder and contemporary works by modernist composers and Stockhausen and minimalist composers like John Adams, all of these things matter, you know? People no longer need a club membership or a bank account big enough to afford a ticket to the most expensive halls across the world to hear this music – you can hear it in many different ways.’
Dessner believes it’s important not to see Linehan’s message as being a pejorative statement on EIF’s more traditional preserves of classical and opera music, because the lines between pop and rock and classical musicians are often much more blurred than many may appreciate. Take Sufjan Stevens for instance, who brings one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year to EIF in indie-folk heartbreaker Carrie & Lowell, and who is an artist Dessner knows well as a collaborator both in his classical career and with The National. ‘You have a musician like Sufjan who grew up playing oboe and writes ballets and classical music,’ he says. ‘He’s obviously an extremely talented songwriter, but he’s someone who probably has more in common with his composer peers than he does other pop songwriters.’
Responding by email from Japan, Parry is rather more succinct in his praise of changes afoot at EIF. ‘Go Edinburgh!’ he writes. ‘The walls are down. It’s fantastic. Let’s all make the most of that.’
While Dessner grew up surrounded by classical music, learning Bach fugues on the guitar from a young age (he describes his electric guitar playing in The National as being ‘more influenced by Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’ than it is by Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page’), Parry’s background lies principally in folk. His late father David Parry was an influential figure on the Canadian folk scene in the 1970s and 80s, and Richard was raised in a very musical household, an atmosphere which ‘firmly established that music was just something that I do, almost all the time,’ he says, ‘whether it’s singing, playing, composing or collaborating.’
A multi-instrumentalist – he’s the Napoleon Dynamite-alike who can just as likely be spotted squeezing an accordion as he can banging out percussion on a motorcycle helmet – Parry began experimenting with instrumental chamber music with his group Belle Orchestre, several members of which also play with Arcade Fire. Belle Orchestre have performed often alongside Dessner’s improvisatory side-project Clogs, ever since he and Parry first met and bonded when The National and Arcade Fire by chance found themselves playing different rooms at the same Amsterdam venue in 2005.
Ten years later, Wave Movements comes to Edinburgh, a score for string orchestra with percussion which Dessner describes as ‘quite trance-inducing’ and ‘minimal in its aesthetic’. ‘We were thinking about the naturalistic element of the sea and the sound that the sea makes, the sound that nature makes,’ he explains. ‘We thought about the instrument itself as an extension of the body and the natural properties of the string instrument. Various things like circular bowing and certain types of harmonics. Very specific things in terms of timbre and tone and where you place the bow on the instrument.’ According to Parry, the audience can expect ‘a very hypnotic, beautifully ephemeral musical experience.’
As for The National and Arcade Fire, what are their present statuses? The National are ‘having a good time’ writing new material, says Dessner. ‘I think where our last album Trouble Will Find Me had a kind of layered and well-crafted feeling about it, the new works we’re doing sound much more effortless. It’s all happening quicker. So it’s really fun.’ For Arcade Fire, the future is a little vaguer. ‘We’re hiding and averting our eyes for a while,’ writes Parry. ‘There’s a live film coming out in the fall [The Reflektor Tapes], and we’re playing music casually together when the mood strikes. But no big plans right now.’
Wave Movements, The Hub, 473 2000, 28 Aug, 9.15pm, £25.