Bryce Dessner harnesses Cork’s creative potential

The National guitarist is excited about curating the first Sounds from a Safe Harbour festival, which will be ‘like throwing a party for your friends’

It is proving hard to pin down Bryce Dessner. He might be in France, offers one of our go-betweens, or perhaps Ibiza. His management later suggests calling a third number, in New York. Finally, after one more switch, he answers the phone with a friendly "hola" somewhere in Spain.

It makes a satisfying amount of sense that Dessner is a moving target.

As guitarist with The National, he has cut a trail from Ohio, his birthplace, to New York, his home. As a contemporary composer of growing renown, he has collaborated with Kronos Quartet, Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry (sharing programmes with Steve Reich and Jonny Greenwood), often taking inspiration from American and European folk music. And as a curator of adventurous festivals, including Cincinnati's MusicNow and New York's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, he has put new musicians on the map while allowing familiar ones to break new paths.

Now his sights are set on Cork, where, at the invitation of Cork Opera House's Mary Hickson, he has curated the inaugural Sounds from a Safe Harbour festival. The four-day festival of music, art and conversation, it will provide a new berth for collaborations between Irish and international artists and will include a few performances of Dessner's own compositions. How important is such a place for musical ideas and exchanges?


“I think that place is a huge part of pretty much any musician’s work, in how one responds to an environment, whether it be your actual surroundings or the more figurative place we’re all living in,” he says. “This particular festival is really born out of a love affair with Cork as a city, which I have known for a long time.”

Waiting for an audience

In the early days of The National, the band played at the tiny Triskel Arts Centre in 2002, where, lying on the floor, Dessner wrote the song Vel Jester while waiting for an audience to show up. ("I don't think there was much audience to show up," he recalls.)

Hickson, Dessner says, made their introduction to the city, whose Latin motto – Statio Bene Fida Carinis, or "a safe harbour for ships" – gives the festival its title.

“A small charming city like Cork is really a great venue,” he says. “The idea of this festival is to activate many different sides of the city and focus mostly around the water and the harbour. I don’t think I would have done it elsewhere.” Part of the reason, he says, is to do with the Irish audience (once they do show up, they are very hard to lose). “It’s not a hard sell to be asked to do something in Ireland.”

Hence the programme, one guided by a combination of reassurance and experiment. Big attractions include performances from The Gloaming, together with Dessner's work with So Percussion, Music for Wood and Strings (a piece for customised dulcimers), and his new collaboration with Richard Reed Parry, Wave Movements, a co-commission between Cork Opera House, the Barbican, Sydney Arts Festival and Edinburgh International Festival.

The true spirit of the festival, though, may rest in its meeting points. Ireland's Crash Ensemble will collaborate with American folk star Sam Amidon and Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson. Dessner's brother and bandmate Aaron Dessner is partnering with Lisa Hannigan. Kjartan Sveinsson, formerly with Sigur Rós, will debut his brand new, unheard collaboration. Meanwhile Dessner speaks, loosely and gamely, of being "roped in" to various performances, where artists will tend to be in the audience.

“That’s the kind of thing that’s always exciting for me,” he says. As a curator, “a lot of the stuff that I work on is very intimate and often feels like something special happening for the first time.

“Inviting artists to do something, you want it to be a place where they’re going to feel challenged and excited and that will maybe open up some new doorway in their own lives or their own creative practice.

“That’s really the goal for me. If you’re in a band, you get asked to play the same song over and over again. If you’re a composer with a successful composition, that’s the piece that everyone wants to hear. I think a lot of what Sounds from a Safe Harbour is about are these new encounters.”

This is also a constant of Dessner's career. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, for instance, has been as likely to feature a film made by TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe as a musical performance, while MusicNow (now in its 10th year) could feature chamber music from Annie Clark one year, or her rock set as St Vincent the next. As a classically trained musician (he studied at Yale), Dessner is someone who moves with ease between genres and brackets; he treats his collaborators accordingly. "If I believe in what you're doing, I believe in everything you're doing," he says.

This, he recognises, is also how music evolves, through close contact, shared ideas, influences borrowed or stolen. The “solitary genius paradigm” as he puts it, has always been a bit of a sham.

“Art is a way of life,” he says. “We don’t think in isolation, we exist in a community with each other. The festival is certainly a celebration of that.”

It’s also an antidote to the “cabin fever” of regular music industry circuits, a festival closer to the intimacy of Reykjavic’s Airwaves than the gargantuan summer sheep pens.

“A lot of the music industry is geared towards selling records or selling tickets,” says Dessner. “Actually organising a festival and curating these experiences for people feels like throwing a party for your friends. Being asked to do something in a place like Cork, from my selfish point of view, brings all kinds of creative possibilities both as a curator and a musician.”

You could argue, with the decline of music as a product – from falling CD sales to rising streaming services – that experience has now become all-important. Much of Dessner's work as a composer, for instance, is not available as a recording, and even Wave Movements – which he and Parry will perform with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in tandem with a film by Hiroshi Sugimoto – is deliberately hard to quantify, its timings dictated by the sea, or "the rhythm of the ocean", as he puts it. "There's a real resonance with the harbour and the port."

That seems a good match for a festival. These days, to follow the tides and crosscurrents of music, you really have to be there.

  • Sounds from a Safe Harbour takes place September 17th-20th


Sounds from a Safe Harbour opens with a gig from The Gloaming in Cork Opera House (September 17th). These five musicians have given traditional Irish music its resonant new surge. Bryce Dessner has long collaborated with its pianist, Thomas Bartlett. “So it’s an Irish connection that goes much deeper.”

Similarly, Dessner has introduced a range of Icelandic acts for what binds them together, from the haunting Amiina, who perform their soundtrack to the animated fairy tales of Lotte Reiniger (September 19th, Triskel Christchurch), to former Sigur Rós musician Kjartan Sveinsson, who debuts his new collaboration with compatriot Skúli Sverrisson (September 20th, St Luke’s Church). “There are certain elements of folk music shared between these island nations,” says Dessner. “They relate.”

Elsewhere, Crash Ensemble collaborate with composer Valgeir Siggurðsson and Sam Amidon, the young American folkster who grew up dabbling in Irish folk songs (September 19th, Everyman Theatre).

Dessner's brother and bandmate, Aaron Dessner, pairs with Lisa Hannigan for a concert at the Cork Opera House (September 18th); Dessner and Richard Reed Parry partner for the Irish premiere of their sea-inspired co-composition Wave Movements (September 19th, Cork Opera House) performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra; and a concluding event (September 20th, Triskel) from Eat My Noise and Carinae, sees The Voice Effect Choir, Cork Concert Orchestra, Valgeir Siggurðsson, Liam Byrne, Sean MacErlaine and more join forces to respond to the theme of the festival.