Aaron and Bryce Dessner, identical twin brothers and twin guitarists for their band The National, are so in synch that their dialogue can, apparently, be difficult for outsiders to understand.
Their bandmates call this secret dialect “pillow talk”. The same shared understanding is evident in the Dessners’ compositions; fortunately, however, their musical language is more easily comprehensible than their conversations: melancholic, euphoric, haunting, beautiful. “I can stare at Bryce’s hands while he plays,” says Aaron, “and immediately play something that’s intertwined, and vice versa. It makes playing music together really exciting, because we never have to teach each other anything.”
When the brothers were commissioned to produce a collaborative work for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s genre-busting “Next Wave” festival last year, they naturally gravitated towards the subject of twins. “We definitely wanted a piece grounded in our own relationship,” Aaron continues, “and our musical relationship is inseparable from our personal one.” Working with visual artist Matthew Ritchie, they created a multi-media performance based on a Mayan creation myth, the protagonists of which are a pair of hero twins. The Long Count – a combination of concert, dance and a 70-minute film – is now coming to The Barbican for three nights in February.
Like the Barbican or Southbank Centre in London, BAM has long been a seed-bed for innovative new theatre, movement and musical work, and previously nurtured the careers of choreographers such as Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, and composers Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Meredith Monk. The annual Next Wave Festival encourages such artists to produce progressive new work collaboratively, and on a large scale. When BAM approached Bryce (whose side-projects include composing for the Kronos quartet) to take part, he immediately asked Aaron to join him, and the two soon picked out Ritchie as their natural third partner.
Ritchie, who is British but based in New York, had already worked with the Dessners, when they played improvised guitar as part of his installation at the White Cube Gallery in 2009. “Matthew designed the set and created the story behind The Long Count,” Bryce explains. “He tends to make large-scale installation work – sculpture, painting, film – much of which is based on epic narratives. He has worked a lot with Paradise Lost, and with this particular Mayan creation myth, ‘Popol Vuh’, which he’s been adapting into something resembling song lyrics for more than 10 years. The songs in the show are based on those texts. It doesn’t have a clear narrative; it’s pretty abstract, and based on a pre-modern story that was never told in a traditional way. But it’s a vehicle for our collaboration.”
The Dessner twins were born in 1976 and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they shared a bedroom, bathwater and a baseball card collection. At 13, the brothers met Bryan Devendorf, now the drummer in The National, while playing together for their middle-school basketball team. Devendorf, whose own brother Scott plays bass in the band, has said of the Dessners that they “make rock ’n’ roll into sports competition”. Their fondness for competitive sport is another reason why the twins were drawn, like Ritchie, to Popol Vuh.
In one strand of the stories, the hero twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, play a ball game, thus awakening the gods of the underworld. “They go through a series of very gory tests, which result in the creation of the universe,” says Bryce. As boys, he and Aaron were fanatical about a more local myth: that of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. “1976 was the second year of the famous ‘Big Red Machine’ team, which will mean nothing to people in England – but in America it’s modern mythology.”
The music in The Long Count is based on games, Bryce goes on: “There are some simple chases, which is often how Aaron and I play guitar: in simple, canon-like figures. We normally play something slightly off from each other rhythmically, by a note or a measure, and most of the music comes out of those playful, mirroring sequences. So the guitar pieces have certain qualities that we like to think reflect our own personal narrative and our way of making music together. There’s some physical movement in the show, too: at a certain point, for instance, we have a tug of war with a guitar suspended on the rope, to symbolise the game that gets out of control. We wanted a dramatic arc to the music. You go see a band and it tells a story; this, for us, is just a different way of doing that.”
Much of the movement in the piece was choreographed by the twins’ older sister, Jessica Dessner, a modern dancer who, says Aaron, “is probably the reason we started listening to what she’d describe as ‘cool’ music when we were younger: The Pixies and The Cure and The Smiths.” The Dessners have also enlisted a number of musical collaborators for The Long Count, including fellow identical twins Kim and Kelley Deal – of The Breeders and, in Kim’s case, The Pixies. “We grew up about 40 minutes south of where Kim and Kelley live in Dayton, Ohio,” says Aaron, “and we’ve always been obsessed with The Pixies and The Breeders, so they’re heroes of ours. And they’re also twins, so it was logical to ask them to take part. We spent a lot of time in Kim Deal’s basement in Dayton working on ideas.”
Meanwhile Matt Berninger, lead singer for The National, contributed his vocal chords to one song for the project (“the only song we’ve ever written with Matt for which he didn’t write the lyrics,” says Bryce). And Shara Worden, a classically trained singer who performs as a singer-songwriter under the name My Brightest Diamond, appears in The Long Count, masked and dressed magnificently to sing the soprano part of a bird demon, Vucub-Caquix. Berninger and Kim Deal will be absent from the London incarnation of the show, with Kelley Deal singing her sister’s parts, and Berninger’s shoes filled by Tunde Adebimpe, of acclaimed Brooklyn band TV on the Radio. A new song has been written with Adebimpe, and some substantial extra musical sections added. “The piece is still evolving, which is part of what’s fun about it,” says Aaron.
In time, The Long Count is likely to be recorded for a physical release, as an LP and a DVD, though their busy schedules have prevented that from happening thus far. The National has just finished a 20-month tour following its 2010 album High Violet, and the Dessners have also scored a forthcoming feature film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur. Bryce, a classically trained guitarist who studied music at Yale, is composing for the Amsterdam Symphonietta, a Dutch string orchestra whose summer concert tour will also feature music by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. Aaron, whose background is in jazz and alt-rock, has produced an album for rising star and singer-songwriter, Sharon van Etten, and intends to collate a follow-up to Dark Was the Night – a 2009 compilation album, curated by the Dessners, which raised more than $2m for AIDS charities. The twins also run their own New York record label, Brassland.
2012, then, promises to be a busy year, provided the world doesn’t end – as predicted by the Mayan calendar. That The Long Count should be performed on such an auspicious date is, the Dessners insist, mere coincidence. “If anything,” says Aaron, “the hoopla around 2012 was a reservation when we came to work with Mayan myth. Now that we’re actually doing it in 2012, it is quite funny. But I hope the world doesn’t end.”
The Long Count will be performed at the Barbican in London on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th February.