Full Circle

Bryce Dessner and I were classmates at Yale in the late 1990s. I remember sitting in the basement of our residential college together, trying to work through counterpoint exercises for our freshman music theory class. Bryce treated me as though I were the classical-music expert between the two of us, which, in hindsight, is both touching and amusing. As sophomores and relative outsiders to campus life, we sought out singles at the far ends of a giant, 9-person suite. Both of us mostly kept to ourselves, though I occasionally ventured downstairs to hear about his latest projects.

I was a huge fan of Bryce’s band, Project Nim, one of many endeavors undertaken with his twin brother, Aaron. They occasionally played at school, usually in our dining hall, and put out three fantastic albums that I wore out. Once, Bryce asked if I would be interested in an eleventh-hour opportunity to cover keyboards for them at a show in New York. I said no, probably because I didn’t quite believe that I could hold my own. I sometimes half-wonder if playing that show would have changed my artistic trajectory!

As I tried to get my bearings in the strange world of contemporary classical music, Bryce, who had stayed at Yale to earn his Master’s degree in classical guitar, was already recording on John Zorn’s label, and playing with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. He and Aaron were among the co-founders of Brassland Records in 2001, which put out two important debut albums that year: one by Clogs, an unusual quartet (bassoon, viola, guitar, and percussion) that Bryce and composer Padma Newsome formed at Yale, and one by The National, an exceptional band that Bryce would officially join in 2003.

Fortuitously, Bryce and I started to move in concentric professional circles over the past few years: when So Percussion closed out the 10th anniversary season on my concert series, Evolution Contemporary Music Series, I was thrilled when they suggested Bryce’s beautiful, inventive Music for Wood and Strings to anchor the program. That same year, our mutual friend Caroline Shaw played my piece my heart comes undone on a festival that Bryce curated in London.

Tonight, I'm going to see The National -- to my mind, the best American rock band of the 21st century -- for the first time. And tomorrow, on my birthday, I’ll be presenting an evening of Bryce’s recent solo and chamber music on the Evolution Series, with the composer on hand. Despite not having seen each other in nearly two decades, everything tells me that Bryce is the same gentle, thoughtful artist I immediately gravitated towards in college. The chance to reconnect with someone I like and admire so much is the best birthday gift I can imagine.