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"Triptych" premiere in Ann Arbor, 5 Things to Know

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2019

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Bryce Dessner may be a founding member and principal songwriter for the band The National, but that is, in truth, only a part of what he does.

On top of the group's output, Dessner, 42 -- who holds a master's degree in music from Yale -- has piled up an acclaimed array of projects in the classical music world. He's collaborated with the likes of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, along with Paul Simon, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and he won a 2016 Grammy Award for "Filament," an album with his ensemble blackird. Dessner, who resides in France, founded another instrumental group, Clogs, as well as the label Brassland Records, and he's co-founded music festivals in Cincinnati and Copenhagen.

His latest project is "Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)," a celebration of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe 30 years after his death from AIDS that's part of Dessner's partnership with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The music was premiered March 4 in Los Angeles, while the multi-media theatrical debut -- with poems by Patti Smith and Essex Hemphill and a libretto by Korde Arrington Tuttle -- takes place March 15-16 in Ann Arbor. And if that wasn't enough on his plate, Dessner has two more albums coming -- one of his own, and another with The National...

Dessner has been intrigued with Mapplethorpe and his work since the photographer's exhibit "The Perfect Moment" was banned in Cincinnati during March of 1990. "I was 14 years old when the whole obscenity trial happened, and that really marked me. My life turned around about what even being an artist mean, what role artists play in society, all the issues hovering around that during the 80s and 90s, with the AIDS crisis and what we now refer to as the Culture Wars. That really stuck with me, so this was a chance for me to re-examine some of that and look at the pictures again in a very different way than when I was an underage person being told I wasn't allowed to look at the pictures."

Dessner's musical score draws from Italian madrigal works but was also inspired both by Tuttle's libretto and by Smith and Hempill's poems. "I was responding, musically, to the text of the piece, which is the core of it. So the music was very much inspired by those words, but that said I was looking at Mapplethorpe as a classical artist. I compare a lot of his images to Italian paintings and various centuries of classical art and historical paintings or paradigms, and I wanted to convey that in (the music) as well."

The "Triptych" theater piece includes a wealth of Mapplethorpe's photography and a number of guest singers and other musicians, including Esperanza Spalding, as well as an on-stage robotist. It moves on from Ann Arbor to New York in June, with other stagings in the offing. around the world. "It already has more performances than I ever imagined it would have," Dessner notes. It's always lucky for a composer to have a piece performed, and in this case with five or six lined up and maybe more coming. So Im a lucky guy."

In addition to "Triptych," on April 8 Dessner will release "El Chan," a collection of pieces he wrote for French sister pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque, and one for two pianos and two guitars. The title track is dedicated to film director Alenajdro Inarritu. "The Labeques are two of the best pianists in the world," Dessner says. "They've been playing together since they were kids, and I really wanted to write these pieces for them. It's a record I'm very proud of."

On The National front, the group recently announced its own new project, "I Am Easy to Find." Due out May 17, it's a companion piece to a Mike Mills-directed short film, with the two project developed in parallel with each other. "It was a really interesting process to let those two things inform each other," Dessner says. "Mike Mills is an incredible collaborator and a brilliant mind." Dessner's brother Aaron, the National's lead singer, "is very present," but he's joined on the set by former David Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, the Brooklyn Youth Choir and Bryce Dessner's wife Mina Tindle. The National plans to go on tour in June, with some "special performances" planned as well.

"Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)," a multi-media concept piece inspired by the work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe that features music by the National's Bryce Dessner and poetry by Patti Smith and others, takes place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 15-16, at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. $34-$60. 734-764-2538 or ums.org.

Web Site: www.ums.org

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