The National's Bryce Dessner on the American landscapes that inspire him

Ahead of a concert series in London of new music exploring the American musical landscape, the musician selects seven works that provide fertile ground for his imagination

Robert Frank: The Americans

Robert Frank's Americans
Strange and surprising … Frank’s The Americans. Photograph: Steidl

In 2009, I went to see the retrospective of the US photographer Robert Frank at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. It was the first time I had seen his series of photographs The Americans, and I was struck by the poignant images of American landscapes and faces. The work felt very familiar but also strange and surprising: he was turning a mirror on the everyday and uncovering details we’d never noticed. There is theatrical energy in those photographs, as if they were film stills – some deeper narrative lurking behind each picture. The National had been holed up for more than a year at that point, recording our fifth album, High Violet; seeing The Americans was important for me as a reference to the songs we were writing. I’d been listening to Matt Berninger’s new lyrics for months and somehow seeing Frank’s work brought the album more into focus. I asked Matt the next day if he’d been thinking about those pictures at all in his writing, but like me, he’d never seen them before.

Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester

The poet Charles Olson was the last president of Black Mountain College, the influential experimental art-college in North Carolina that ran from 1933-57. His peers included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, and Franz Kline, to name just a few. By all accounts Olson was a bear of man, 6ft 8in tall with bushy eyebrows. His lectures were said to run all through the night. Last year I was on my own little pilgrimage to visit Black Mountain, the inspiration behind our Black Mountain Songs for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and I met the now 90-year old man who had bought the college from Olson in the early 50s. (The site has since been home to a Baptist boys’ summer camp, Camp Rockmont.) He described stumbling upon this little creative refuge in the mountains, where the student-run classes would be considered progressive even today, but were almost unimaginable in the early 50s in the American south. I spoke with him on the back porch of the old dining hall, which overlooks a stream that runs down through a rhododendron-covered ravine to the quietly still Lake Eden. The whole valley is a deep, verdant green, nestled into stunning smoky mountains on all sides.

Even though the college is long gone, the place made me nostalgic. I’d spent my childhood in these same mountains with my brother, Aaron. We learned to play guitar at a nearby boys’ camp where we spent several summers. Despite the fact that virtually every important figure of the 20th-century US avant-garde passed through Black Mountain (including Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Ruth Asawa, Robert Creeley), after visiting the place I felt sure that what made it so exceptional, and what defined the place even more than its extraordinary inhabitants, was the landscape itself. Those mountains, the water and the air. It’s an idea that comes up again and again for artists in the US. The geography that inspired Olson the most, outside of Black Mountain, was his home town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. In Olson’s poem Maximus to Gloucester – which I set to music in our Black Mountain Songs – he writes:

... An American
is a complex of occasions,
themselves a geometry
of spatial nature.
I have this sense,
that I am one
with my skin
Plus this—plus this:
that forever the geography
which leans in
on me I compel
backwards I compel Gloucester
to yield, to
is this

Tim Hecker’s An Imaginary Country and John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape

The title of Tim Hecker’s fifth album references John Cage’s series of compositions from 1939, Imaginary Landscape. Cage’s pieces were inspired by technology and his vision of the future, and called for percussion instruments as well as phonographs and amplifiers; his 1939 work is often cited as one of the first examples of the electro-acoustic music (he called for various recordings to be played during the piece, including his own, foreshadowing sampling long before it became common practice). Tim Hecker’s album is a beautiful ambient-electronic record which more directly references the North American landscape (Hecker is a Canadian living in Los Angeles). I will sometimes listen to the album while working on my own music. I would describe it as orchestral, even though there are no orchestras: the scope and colour of his writing is as rich as any large-scale composition. Cage and Hecker share a knack for challenging preconceptions of composition and of what music can be. Both feature in Black Mountain Songs, for which Hecker and I collaborated on setting a text by MC Richards, another important teacher at Black Mountain. John Cage’s music, meanwhile, begins the show, and his words are heard (either sung or spoken) throughout.

Round Up: Sufjan Stevens

A few years ago, my friend Sufjan shared with me some film footage he’d been working on about a rodeo in Pendleton, Oregon. The slow-moving images of bull- and bronco-riding, along with stunning portraits of the cowboys, would become the basis of an hour-long film and score called Round Up, which has its UK premiere at Mountains and Waves on 9 May. Sufjan is one of the greatest musicians of our generation, and the music he lets out into the world is but a tiny fraction of the huge body of work he is constantly making. He is also a beautiful storyteller, who has long been interested in the American landscape, and the narrative that is told in different places through history and folklore. Round Up is a beautiful cinematic documentation of the American rodeo tradition, and is also in some ways a visual companion to the intensely personal songs of Sufjan’s new album, Carrie and Lowell. Its score is written for Yarn/Wire, an amazing two-piano, double-percussion quartet from Brooklyn.

Jack Kerouac: Big Sur

C1459K California Highway One winds along the Big Sur coastline. Near Monterey County mile marker 20.00.
California State Route 1 winds along the Big Sur coastline. Photograph: Alamy

Kerouac’s Big Sur was written a few years after On the Road, as he was losing his mind and dying from alcoholism. The book reads like a memoir and tells the story of his idyllic but troubled visit to a friend’s cabin in Big Sur, the extraordinarily beautiful enclave on the California coast that has been home to many artists (Henry Miller famously lived out his last years there). The writing veers in and out of simple daily observations of his surroundings and alcohol-induced hallucinations and delirium. A contemporary of Olson’s, Kerouac is one of the best-known artists of a visionary generation. The Black Mountain poets and the Beats shared an innovative approach to language and form. I have regularly sought inspiration from this period of American literature: several years ago when I was composing my first orchestral piece, I happened to be reading Kerouac’s novel. His language and the sweeping narrative of the book felt orchestral to me (he even references Stravinsky and Beethoven). Big Sur inspired me to write St Carolyn by the Sea for orchestra and two electric guitars – the title is an image taken from the book.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean exists in a long tradition of music inspired by water and the ocean. From Handel’s Water Music to Debussy’s La Mer to Berio’s Wasserklavier, composers have sought inspiration for their music from the sea. Become Ocean, which won a Pulitzer prize for music in 2014, is significant for the way it transforms the sound of the orchestra into something completely oceanic. While most of Adams’s compositions use wide sonic palettes and take inspiration from nature, Become Ocean takes this even further, as the orchestra morphs into a heaving wall of sound that is analogous to the power of the ocean.

Around the time of its premiere with the Seattle Symphony, Richard Parry and I had begun work on another piece of sea-inspired music, Wave Movements, for string orchestra and percussion. The music we composed is timed to wave patterns in the ocean and accompanies slow-moving film of the sea by the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto (his Seascape photographs are another great example of work inspired by the sea). Wave Movements has its world premiere on 10 May with Clark Rundell and Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican.

The Mountains and Waves concert series is at the Barbican on 9 and 10 May 2015.


Bryce Dessner

The GuardianTramp

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