Sundance 2021 Composer Spotlight: Bryce Dessner
"Dessner is exactly the kind of composer who personifies what might be next for classical music."
-Mark Swed, LA Times
Bryce Dessner is a vital and rare force in new music. He has won Grammy Awards both as a classical composer and with the band The National, of which he is founding member, guitarist, arranger and co-principal songwriter. He is also an increasingly high-profile presence in the world of film score composition, with credits including Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning The Revenant. The breadth and level of his output is remarkable, with few artists able to bridge diverse creative worlds with such virtuosity.
A prolific writer with an open-minded musical paradigm, Dessner is in his natural element when collaborating across art forms. His colleagues include the world’s most creative and respected artists such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Alejandro González Iñarritú, Katia and Marielle Labèque, Paul Simon, Sufjan Stevens, Caroline Shaw, Jonny Greenwood, Bon Iver, Justin Peck, Kelley O’Connor and Ragnar Kjartansson and Nico Muhly.
His rapidly-expanding body of works are commissioned by the world’s leading ensembles, making him one of the most sought-after composers of his generation. Dessner has written orchestral, chamber and vocal compositions for the likes of Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Ensemble InterContemporain, Metropolitan Museum of Art (for the New York Philharmonic), Kronos Quartet, BAM Next Wave Festival, London’s Barbican, Edinburgh International Festival, Carnegie Hall, Sydney Festival, eighth blackbird, Sō Percussion and New York City Ballet. His orchestrations can be heard on the new albums by Paul Simon and Bon Iver, among others.
Increasingly in demand in the world of film score composition, Dessner was Grammy and Golden Globe nominated for the soundtrack of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning The Revenant, co-written with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. Further film score credits include the soundtrack for Death of Marsha P. Johnson, the Netflix documentary about the LGBT rights activist; The Kitchen starring Elisabeth Moss and Melissa McCarthy for Warner Bros. out in 2019; as well as The Two Popes for Oscar-nominated director Fernando Meirelles, recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios.
Born in 1976 in Cincinnati, Ohio, after early training on the flute, he switched to classical guitar in his teens. He comments “As a teenager I was playing classical guitar recitals, and people said, ‘You know, you can’t really do both things,’” recalls Dessner. “My intuition told me they were wrong… Someday that diversity of experience would be more enriching or rewarding than just going down one path. He earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music from Yale University, and now lives in Paris.
In the spring of 2019, The National released their latest studio recording, I Am Easy to Find, collaborating with film director Mike Mills. Dessner is principal songwriter for The National along with his brother Aaron, in collaboration with singer/lyricist Matt Berninger.