Meet composer Bryce Dessner

Photo of Bryce Dessner, credit Shervin Lainez. Image description: a black and whiteheadshot of the composer Bryce Dessner with a plain white background. A man with light skin wearing a shirt and suit jacket. He looks directly into the camera.

New works are what keeps the musical world turning.

On 3 October you can be among the first to hear a Violin Concerto written for our Featured Artist Pekka Kuusisto by composer Bryce Dessner, whose creativity embraces many genres, from pop to film scores.

He has responded to the theme of Human/Nature with a piece inspired by walks around his home in south-west France.

The composer and band member of The National talked to us about the role that the natural world plays in his music and what is special about having his piece performed by Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Pekka Kuusisto and the Philharmonia.

The concert on 3 October is part of our Human/Nature series which delves into humanity’s relationship with the natural world. As a composer, do you often look for inspiration in nature?

I have written several pieces directly inspired by nature including my new Violin Concerto we will hear tonight and a recent orchestral work Mari (2021) which is inspired by the French-basque landscape where I now live and my reflection on the orchestral pastorale tradition. I have also often taken inspiration from the oceans and water itself including my orchestral works St Carolyn by the Sea and Wave Movements. My Piano quartet El Chan was also inspired by the mythology of the Mexican landscape in the canyons surrounding San Miguel Allende where I composed the work.

I often look for inspiration for my music outside of the music itself, and while they are in no way programmatic, I find it inspiring to allow the natural world to breathe life and organic matter into my music.


What is the creative idea behind your violin concerto?

My Violin Concerto was partly inspired by Anne Carson’s essay The Anthropology of Water, which re-imagines the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. I now live in the Basque region of France, just beyond the Spanish border on the Atlantic coast which sits directly on the pilgrimage route. I spent much of 2020 and 2021 at home during the pandemic, often taking long hikes through the oak forests with my four-year-old son.

I considered how journeys by foot create a different connection to the land and environment in which we live. Something about the practice of composing for orchestra, and writing a violin concerto, felt at times like a musical analogue to this pilgrimage. Taking a journey that so many have taken before, and in which so many other musical pilgrims have left some of the most iconic and timeless music.

So what does it mean for a contemporary artist to make this same journey and how these artifacts left behind by other artists inform our own course. Why are we drawn to a path so many before us have taken and often? What could I have to say that could be new or specific to my own journey? These were thoughts in my mind as I composed this concerto for my dear friend Pekka Kuusisto, also thinking of the amazing conductors and orchestras who would perform it.


I find it inspiring to allow the natural world to breathe life and organic matter into my music


How did you approach writing for the violin?

I have now written quite a lot of music for strings, including several string quartets, several pieces for string orchestra, and a series of solos for violin, viola and cello. I wanted this piece to included textures and sounds I have explored over the years, and then new ideas I am trying for the first time.

I am often drawn to ethereal and strange sounds that the violin can make, the glistening sharpness of its natural and artificial harmonics, the vast timbral diversity of the sound depending on where the bow is placed, the kinetic energy of the arpeggio, the natural warmth of open strings and certain intervals, and the sheer joy of hearing scalar passages played… These are all ingredients in the work.

I wanted to respond to the great tradition of the Violin concerto and my piece acknowledges several of those mammoth works either in techniques or formal ideas. But I wanted to subvert at times the traditional balance between soloist and orchestra, and in the second movement of my concerto every string player has their own unique solo part, and in other moments the soloist is driving large string unisons with every orchestra member becoming part of the collective motif.

You wrote this concerto for Philharmonia Featured Artist Pekka Kuusisto, who is a long-time friend and collaborator of yours, and the soloist tonight. What is working with him like?

In Pekka Kussisto, the violinist for whom my Concerto is written and dedicated, I have an ideal collaborator. I have previously composed a violin solo, Ornament and Crime (2015), for him and he has long been a champion of my music both as director and chamber musician. He works at the highest level with a wide range of classical repertoire and is equally hungry for new works. He has a broad knowledge and appreciation of music beyond the walls of the classical genre and brings a creative whimsy to everything he touches.

Pekka and I worked quite closely on the piece once I had finished the score and I was able to revise the work and incorporate some of his feedback into the piece.


You are a famously versatile artist, working and performing across a variety of genres, from orchestral music, to rock and film scores. How do these different kinds of music inform each other?

I have never really spent too much time thinking about genre or attempting to classify the different types of music that I am involved in.  I think mostly this has more relevance when thinking about where music is played (in a theatre or in a club etc) and perhaps in terms of the way that musicians communicate with one another.  The common thread for me is the power of collaboration and working with artists from different backgrounds and fields, and how to best communicate our ideas while remaining open to one another.


The Philharmonia has such a strong tradition of premiering new works for orchestra and it is an incredible honor to premiere my violin concerto with them and their new leader Sanntu-Mattias Rouvali


You’ve worked with a long and impressive list of collaborators over the years, including composer Philip Glass, filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez-Inárritu, the Labèque sisters, the Kronos Quartet, and most recently singer Taylor Swift. Why is collaborating important to you? 

Collaboration is the reason why I am an artist. I take great inspiration from other artists, especially from artists outside of music and this has been how I keep my own ideas evolving. Early in my career, I had a couple of important collaborative experiences with visual artists and choreographers and I learned that this type of back and forth interaction around process and creating was really the most important part of my work. It is also the common element that you find in every aspect of what I do, whether it be collaborating in my band around a live performance, composing for a soloist, or working with a film director.


This will be the first time the Philharmonia Orchestra performs your music – what are you looking forward to?

The Philharmonia has such a strong tradition of premiering new works for orchestra and it is an incredible honor to premiere my violin concerto with them and their new leader Sanntu-Mattias Rouvali. Santtu and I have worked together twice before in New York and Paris and I was also very much thinking of him and the Philharmonia when I composed this new work. So I feel it is as much written for him and the orchestra specifically as it is for our great soloist Pekka Kuusisto.


“It is an endeavor as old as civilization to set out on a road that is supposed to take you to the very end of things, if you keep going… So a pilgrim sets off. One thing is certain, one item is constant in the set of beliefs with which he travels. It is simply this, that when you reach the place called the end of the world, you fall off into the water.”

Anne Carson, The Anthropology of Water


Pekka Kuusisto gives the UK premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto on Sunday 3 October.

Tickets from £13.

Book now


Pekka Kuusisto, the Philharmonia's Featured Artist 2021-22

Pekka Kuusisto will perform the UK premiere of Bryce Dessner's Violin Concerto