In 2006, the National’s Bryce Dessner founded the annual MusicNOW Festival at the Contemporary Arts Center in his hometown of Cincinnati. The venue was no coincidence: As a 14-year-old boy growing up in the city’s suburbs, Dessner was awakened to a whole new world of challenging art when the center hosted “The Perfect Moment,” a traveling exhibition of the erotically explicit photographs of the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
In Cincinnati, authorities brought obscenity charges against the museum and its director, igniting a nationwide debate.
“It was like a bomb went off in the city,” recalls Dessner, who composed the music for “Triptych (Eyes of One on Another),” a multidisciplinary performance based on Mapplethorpe’s work and legacy, to be presented at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Oct. 30-Nov. 3 by ArtsEmerson and the Celebrity Series of Boston.
“I’d been a Reagan-era kid, largely oblivious to the culture wars, and even to some of the politics,” he says. “It was an educational moment, and a real tricky moment for the city that still is, actually.”
Dessner went on to live in New York City for about two decades before moving a few years ago to Paris, where he and his French wife are raising their 2-year-old son.
In Paris, “you’re immersed in all the history, all the pure beauty, all the time — the beauty of the light and the sky,” he says. While working on the Mapplethorpe project, his customary route on his morning run took him through the Tuileries: “They have a sculpture garden there, and I would often think about how Mapplethorpe shot a lot of sculpture, especially as he was getting sick.”
Paris, he says, “is a great place to write. There’s a reason a lot of great art gets made there. Not to say that my art is great” — he laughs — “but I certainly feel creative there.”
“Triptych” is a true work of multimedia, combining Mapplethorpe’s images with a nine-piece chamber orchestra and the voices of the intrepid singing ensemble Roomful of Teeth. Librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle has incorporated writing by the late poet Essex Hemphill and the singer and poet Patti Smith, whose best-selling memoir “Just Kids” was about her close friendship with Mapplethorpe, who died of complications from HIV/AIDS in 1989.
There’s also a dancer, whose role, says director Kaneza Schaal, is to remind audience members that they are watching a performance about an artist whose medium was observation.
“There are so many ways to look at these images,” Schaal says, on the phone from New York. She wants the audience to be aware, maybe uncomfortably so, of its own act of looking.
In fact, she says, “none of us have a neutral gaze. I’m always interested in the layers of our presence as an audience, and as performers. This social contract that we enter into in the theater is full of so many different histories. Playing with many different cultural, historical, and experiential languages is always a part of my work.”
For Schaal, “Triptych” is personal. She was raised during the 1980s with a single mother in San Francisco’s Mission District, where she enjoyed the company of a large group of “uncles” — her mother’s gay male friends. By the time she was 6, she says, eight of them had died of AIDS.
“We’re holding so many ghosts in ‘Triptych’ — names that made it, or didn’t make it, into the archives,” she says. “As a young black girl growing up in San Francisco at that time, they were celebrating my difference in a world that so often wants to kind of gloss over it — ‘Oh, we’re all the same.’ ”
The time is right to revisit the controversy over Mapplethorpe’s work, she believes.
“As of late, when we’re confronted with problematic works, our tendency as a society is to try to erase them. I see Mapplethorpe’s work in all its problematic glory. I’m interested in how a new generation of musicians, women artists, queer artists, and dancers can rethink the classical language of his photography.”
Dessner, too, thinks of Mapplethorpe’s art in terms of the classical, and he challenged himself to express that in the music. Outside of his work with the National, he has amassed an impressive portfolio of new music, working with Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and the Kronos Quartet, among many others, and contributing to the Brooklyn Youth Chorus’s “Black Mountain Songs.” He’s also collaborated with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Sufjan Stevens (whom he calls his closest friend), and co-produced the charity album “Day of the Dead,” an indie rock tribute to the Grateful Dead, with his twin brother. (Aaron Dessner, also of the National, is cofounder and curator of Boston Calling, the annual music festival.)
If Mapplethorpe’s photographs are descendants of Italian Mannerism and Renaissance art, Dessner hears the a cappella singing of Roomful of Teeth on a continuum with the madrigal tradition.
“They work almost exclusively with living composers,” he says, “but I was thinking about remixing or reimagining madrigal, [which] I thought would be a beautiful musical analog to Mapplethorpe’s work.” He also had to factor in two additional voices, the soloists Alicia Hall Moran and Isaiah Robinson.
To achieve the punk/New Wave effect of the music Mapplethorpe would have been listening to in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dessner added an electric guitarist “to give it more grit. . . . There are sections that sound almost like rock music,” he says. “We don’t call it an ‘opera.’ If we use anything, we say ‘oratorio.’ ”
The lines between the National’s style of contemplative indie rock and the new music Dessner composes are becoming increasingly porous, he says. To name one example, he cites his band’s song “Fake Empire,” which is based on a rhythm Dessner says he learned from David Lang of the contemporary group Bang on a Can.
“That type of freedom and adventure feels really exciting to me,” he says. In his world — as in Mapplethorpe’s — boundaries exist only to be breached.
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
TRIPTYCH (EYES OF ONE ON ANOTHER)