On The National’s De Facto Creation of an Artistic Scene Through Widespread Curation

01/27/2012 2:10 PM |


Last week brought with it the news that Aaron and Bryce Dessner would be curating three nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Called Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, the event’s website promises appearances from area musicians, a dance party, and screenings of short films. This isn’t the first time the brothers Dessner have worked with BAM; in late 2009, they staged The Long Count, in which they, along with National cohort Matt Berninger, My Brightest Diamond vocalist Shara Worden, and Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders, fused minimalist-influenced composition, Mayan cosmology, and the 1976 Cincinnati Reds. (Incidentally, it made for a terrific night of music.)

The news of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry came shortly after another music festival announcement involving the Dessners: this one from the long-running concert series All Tomorrow’s Parties. The National would be curating the festival in December; it will also serve as their sole appearance in the United Kingdom this year. Looking down the list of artists playing, one began to see some familiar names: My Brightest Diamond; Owen Pallett; Kronos Quartet.

Four artists in the announced lineup for All Tomorrow’s Parties — Pallett, Tim Hecker, Sharon van Etten, and Megafaun — have played at Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, curated by Bryce Dessner. Other groups announced for The National’s ATP gig (Buke and Gase, for instance) played the 2010 Big Ears festival, for which Dessner served as a curator. And the Dessners assembled 2009’s Dark Was the Night compilation, also featuring several of the announced ATP bands.

This isn’t intended as a criticism; rather, it’s to note that The National seems to be expanding outside of its role as a band and into more institutional territory. Admittedly, it’s not surprising to see why the group and its members earn curatorial nods: after all, a critically acclaimed, popular rock band with a member who’s also records as part of Bang on a Can, has shown up on recordings of Steve Reich compositions, and is fond of fostering one-off collaborations seems to be a logical choice for that position.

But what we’re seeing here now seems like the creation of something new — the de facto creation of an artistic scene without many of the trappings normally associated with one. Certain artists who regularly act in a curatorial role, such as John Zorn or Oneida, have extended that role to encompass a record label. Other artists gather around the banner of an artistic collective, a concept that applies equally to those that made up Elephant Six to the MCs and producers currently comprising Odd Future. And still others use a centralized group and its artistic offshoots in tandem, a methodology utilized by both Broken Social Scene and Wu-Tang Clan.

What The National seem to be establishing is on a grander scale. There are some parallels to be found to the likeminded artists affiliated with the mid-90s Dischord roster, or the Omaha-based bands that released music on Saddle Creek a decade later: groups that shared histories and ethics more than a specific sound. But there’s also something larger in scope: the clout of a once-cult band now experiencing significant commercial success dovetailing with the different sort of prestige that a group like Kronos Quartet brings to the table. (The recently-announced 2012 lineup for MusicNOW, which features Philip Glass and performances of work from David Lang and Nico Muhly, only furthers this.) In some ways, the All Tomorrow’s Parties lineup looks like one distillation of The National’s curatorial aesthetic. Time will tell if the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry lineup finds the boundaries of that scene-in-miniature expanding or contracting.