The National: Big Ears Festival’s 2010 co-curator heeds the call of two muses

The National

Photo by Keith Klenowski

The National

The National

Photo by Keith Klenowski

The National

The National

  • With: My Brightest Diamond
  • Where: Tennessee Theatre
  • When: 9 p.m. Sunday, March 28
  • Tickets: $32
  • With: The Clogs and Gyan Riley
  • Where: Bijou Theatre
  • When: 4 p.m. Saturday, March 27
  • Tickets: $21.50
  • Info: www.bigearsfestival.com

— Bryce Dessner of the bands The National and The Clogs has been deep in the planning of the artistic aspects of the Big Ears Festival. Invited to be a co-curator by festival organizer Ashley Capps, Dessner says he’s excited both about the shows and visiting a new city.

“I don’t know Knoxville at all, but I just have this great feeling about it,” says Dessner. “I’m excited to check out the local businesses and restaurants, and experience that stuff.”

The two concerts that Dessner’s two bands will present are expected to be full of surprises and guests. Rock act The National, whose 2007 album “The Boxer,” was named Album of the Year by Paste Magazine, will act as the festival finale, and the performance by classically inspired act The Clogs will include guest artists Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Sufjan Stevens, Dessner’s fellow National members Matt Berninger and (Bryce’s twin brother) Aaron Dessner and the Calder String Quartet. And, Stevens may perform a solo set during the Clogs show.

“I’m looking forward to what will be a really sprawling creative time,” says Dessner. “And Terry Riley being there is really, really important. You could probably trace a lot of the music at this festival back to Terry Riley in some way. And, as a 75-year-old, he has more energy and juice than a lot of us will ever has. Having him as a resident artist is phenomenal.”

Dessner says splitting his time being in a popular rock act and a more experimental group seems perfectly natural to him.

“It’s sort of like those two sides of me have always been there in a really organic kind of way.”

Dessner and his brother first clued into music from their father’s collection of vinyl records.

“It was all ’60s stuff, some jazz and some John Fahey records.”

It was the fingerstyle guitar work of Fahey and Leo Kottke that really caught his ear, though. Both Bryce and Aaron began learning how to play guitar around age 12. Bryce, though, quickly recognized that he would need lessons to play what he really wanted, and enrolled in classes at the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati.

Inspired by Ohio’s indie rock scene, the Dessner brothers and drummer Bryan Devendorf began playing in rock bands during high school and writing original rock music. Simultaneously, Bryce was reveling in classical guitar studies.

“I really fell in love with playing Spanish music and Bach, Renaissance music and that whole great repertoire,” he says.

He ended up with a master’s degree in music at Yale and playing regular classical recitals. Bryce says The Clogs sprang from this side of his musical interests.

At the same time, the rock trio (the members had since relocated to New York City) had expanded to include Bryan Devendorf’s bass-playing brother Scott Devendorf and vocalist Matt Berninger, and became known as The National.

Even then, though, Dessner was getting calls to perform with Bang on a Can, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and “all sorts of creative strange composers.”

Dessner says he doesn’t perform serious classical guitar music in public much any more, but he still enjoys playing it at home.

“We’ve just become so busy,” he says.

Dessner began his own small yearly music festival (MusicNOW) in Cincinnati in 2006, but he was happy to work on Big Ears as well.

“As for a good festival, if you have one to three transportive musical incidents as a performer I’d be totally satisfied, but I think there’s the potential for about 20.”

Bryce Dessner, far right, says he enjoys splitting time between performing with The National, pictured, and other musical projects.

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