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The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at barbican.org.uk

Bryce Dessner: Twitter Q&A

Ready for this weekend’s Mountains and Waves: New American Music, New York composer and The National’s guitarist, Bryce Dessner joined us for a Twitter Q&A to answer some of your questions about his inspirations and creative practice. The problem is, 140 characters sometimes just isn’t quite enough…

Here are Bryce’s answers to your questions – characters unlimited.

‘So many of our creative traditions originally come from Europe and I was looking for an idea that felt more specifically American and was somehow unique to our national identity. There is a long tradition of American artists responding to landscape and several of the works on the weekend share this inspiration. (Black Mountain Songs, Round Up, Wave Movements)’ 


‘My work is often inspired by Renaissance music and 20th-century composers such as Bartok, Stravinsky, and Lutoslawski. Those composers share a love of folk music which also plays a huge role in my music. In terms of form I often take inspiration from literature or visual art – much of Black Mountain Songs is inspired by poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, or painters such as Franz Kline and Rauschenberg.’

‘The initial ideas can often come from similar places but then their development is very different. In The National my brother Aaron and I bring ideas into the studio and we develop them collaboratively with the band. A song is rarely finished before we have recorded it. With my classical compositions I notate everything ahead of time and the collaboration takes place with musicians once the score is complete.’ 

‘Richard and I both have a long background in contemporary music that predates our playing in rock bands. For Wave Movements, our new work for the Britten Sinfonia, we decided to embrace the idea of collaboratively composing together.’

‘The spirit of Black Mountain was very much about learning through doing. I think a creative life is all about taking joy in process, and this was something that was taught at Black Mountain. Caroline Shaw has a song in black mountain songs inspired by Anni Albers who taught her students to ‘confide in a constant.’ ‘

‘I have tons of historical influences but I also learn a lot directly from my friends. I often pass scores or recordings back and forth with Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Richard Parry, Andrew Norman, and Caroline Shaw. I find that’s a really great way to learn and it’s also fun.’

‘My brother Aaron and I actually spent our summers as kids at a summer camp very close to Black Mountain in North Carolina. I have long been aware of it and around the John Cage centennial I started thinking about creating a project inspired by the place. I think specifically the collaborative spirit of the place and multiple art forms and voices which thrived there is what inspired me.’ 

‘I’m the same musician regardless of what I am writing but maybe in the band we focus on keeping things as simple and concise as possible in service of the song. My compositions allow me to explore some ideas further and to take risks which might not always work in a song.’

‘Oh that’s hard! Lately I have been listening to ‘Memories’ by Leonard Cohen on repeat. It’s an insane Phil Spector arrangement that I love.’

Mountains and Waves: Bryce Dessner and New American Music takes place Saturday 9 & Sunday 10 May in the Hall, St Giles and Milton Court Concert Hall.

Listen to Bryce Dessner introduce the series on our Mountains and Waves podcast special.