Founded and still nurtured by local native Bryce Dessner, the festival has consistently delivered an eclectic mix of “contemporary music” since springing to life in 2006. For the uninitiated, don’t let that relatively innocuous description deter you from further investigation. It’s not hyperbolic to call MusicNOW one of the most unique events on the current musical landscape. And it’s in Cincinnati, of all places.
Best known for his work in the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati Rock band The National, Dessner is a classically trained guitarist with a broad sonic palate and a burning need to do something singular in his hometown. But taking an idea from wild-eyed dream to nuts-and-bolts fruition hasn’t necessarily been an easy task for Dessner and his small crew of festival cohorts and volunteers.
“A lot of little festivals pop up for a couple of years, and it’s easy to get excited at the beginning, but it’s hard to keep it going,” Dessner says by cell phone from a train somewhere on the East Coast. “I always wanted it to stick around long enough that we could develop relationships with people and make it something that people could look forward to every year.”
[Read an interview with multitalented Toronto-based musician Sandro Perri, who will perform at Memorial Hall on Thursday, here.]
Dessner’s curatorial ear is an essential element in what makes MusicNOW such a vital, of-the-moment musical snapshot. The festival has hosted everyone from relatively obscure Chamber/Classical-leaning acts and experimental instrumentalists to (now) better-known Indie darlings like Sufjan Stevens, Sharon Van Etten, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver), The Books, St. Vincent, Dirty Projectors, Andrew Bird, Grizzly Bear and Joanna Newsom.
Beyond good taste, it also helps to have talented friends.
“The first couple of years I was able to kind of twist the arms of all my friends to come out and play,” Dessner says, laughing. “After that I had to start looking farther afield.”
This year’s lineup includes inventive classical ensemble eighth blackbird (see interview on page 20), which will be joined by Philip Glass in taking on a new piece by multitalented composer extraordinaire Nico Muhly; the genre-defying stylings of Sandro Perri; slanted folkster Sam Amidon; and a sure-to-be-intriguing workshop presentation of a new song cycle written and performed by Muhly, Dessner and Stevens. (See sidebar for the schedule and a full rundown of performers.)
Muhly, who’s back for his second festival appearance, is typical of the versatile, boundary-pushing artists Dessner has recruited. Armed with degrees from Columbia and Julliard, the ever-busy 30-year-old Muhly has moved gracefully between a variety of musical endeavors — from working on film scores (including the Oscar-nominated The Reader) and collaborating with a variety of artists to composing full-scale operas and smaller-scale choral pieces.
“Bryce is the ideal modern musician, because he’s someone who’s operating in a bunch of different worlds, but virtuosically in all of them,” Muhly says by phone from his New York City apartment. “So there isn’t this sense of an awkward fusion of things. He is genuinely a wonderful Classical musician, as well as a genuinely wonderful Rock musician, and the two don’t feel like they’re coming from a different place. It seems like it’s all coming from the same pond of good musicianship.
“And his sense as a curator — I think partially it’s (that) he only curates things he’s interested in, which I think is quite correct. It feels like the music that he loves is all in a row.”
Muhly has a hand in all three nights’ performances. He’s part of the highly anticipated song-cycle collaboration with Dessner and Stevens Friday (the performance is sold out), and James McVinnie’s free opening night organ concert Wednesday at Christ Church Cathedral will feature Muhly’s work (among others).
And then there’s the piece he’s written for eighth blackbird and Glass (to be played Thursday). Muhly has worked with Glass for more than a decade as an assistant and collaborator.
“Oh, it’s really good; I’m really happy with it,” Muhly says in his typically animated way when asked what to expect of the piece he’s written for his mentor. “The piece does three things. The first thing is that I tried to write them the kind of perfect eighth blackbird piece, a fabulous distillation of everything they’re great at. No. 2, it’s Philip Glass’ 75th birthday and he’s going to be there playing with them, so I kind of made it like a little homage to him. There are these little snippets of early, early, early Glass that kind of pop up from time to time. And then the third thing it does is that it’s fast music and I was really in a mood to write a lot of fast music because I had just written a bunch of songs that were really slow and depressing.”
As for the other “world premiere” collaboration, for which Stevens is crafting the lyrics and Dessner and Muhly are doing the musical arrangements, expect something both familiar and adventurous.
“It’s probably going to sound like music you’ve heard from Sufjan before, but with just different kinds of sounds, and we’ll have a really amazing orchestration to it,” Dessner says. “Some of the songs are kind of quiet and beautiful and others will be pretty intense and upbeat — we have a drummer coming as well — so it’s exciting.”
That collaborative spirit and the audience’s sense that it’s witnessing something completely unique and new is what sets MusicNOW apart from festivals of similar ilk.
“One thing we always do is commission a piece of music that has never been heard before,” Dessner says. “It’s really incredible. A lot of times it’s a great, very open-minded and supportive audience. There have been many, many pieces that have been commissioned at the festival that have gone on to be recorded and released or even developed into much larger projects. People have formed new bands, have made new connections at the festival. Justin Vernon from Bon Iver basically formed his current touring band at MusicNOW in 2010. That’s the type of thing that’s happened a lot.”
Over-the-Rhine’s Memorial Hall, built in 1908 by the Grand Army of the Republic, again hosts MusicNOW’s centerpiece performances. The venue’s cozy confines and shambling yet ornate nature syncs well with the classically informed yet adventurous aesthetic Dessner presents on its stage.
“We try to keep it small and intimate and I think that really lends to a good listening experience,” Dessner says. “And then, for the artists themselves, they feel like they can take risks because they don’t have the pressure of playing to a 10,000-person crowd. Part of why MusicNOW really works and keeps going is that it has this kind of workshop, kind of homemade, feeling about it. It’s just very relaxed.
“The theatre itself is just majestic and for acoustic music it has incredible sound and is really beautiful,” Dessner continues. “At this point now, so many great concerts have happened in there at the festival that it does feel integral to what we are doing.”
Seven years in, the logical question now is how much longer can Dessner keep his brainchild alive and vital?
“As long as it seems there is interest in town for coming out I’ll keep doing it,” Dessner says. “It’s something that I really look forward to. It’s like a totally positive event in my life when I come to town. It’s great for the musicians and it’s great for the audience. It’s kind of a win-win scenario.”
MusicNOW 2012: The Lineup
For last year’s MusicNOW, the festival ventured outside of its usual home, Memorial Hall, but not very far — organizer Bryce Dessner’s band The National played Music Hall, right next door. This year’s opening MusicNOW concert is a tad further away, at Christ Church Cathedral (318 E. Fourth Street), but the setting is perfect for the night’s programming. And it’s a rare free event for MusicNOW. (Note: All MusicNOW shows start at 7:30 p.m.)
Performing is James McVinnie, the Assistant Organist at Westminster Abbey in London. Besides his work at the grand cathedral, McVinnie also teaches, performs throughout the U.K. and beyond and has had pieces composed for him by Graham Ross, Robert Walker and Mr. MusicNOW 2012, Nico Muhly.
Joined by in-demand violist Nadia Sirota (a founding member of MusicNOW regulars yMusic), McVinnie will work his organ magic on new compositions by Richard Reed Parry (a member of Arcade Fire and also a MusicNOW vet) and David Lang, a member of MusicNOW alumni Bang on a Can and winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music for his “The Little Match Girl Passion” piece. McVinnie’s performance will also include pieces by Muhly, the other Mr. MusicNOW 2012, Philip Glass, Bach and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
Also on the bill is Sam Amidon, an Avant Indie Chamber Folk singer/songwriter who drew acclaim for his performance at the Contemporary Arts Center last year. Amidon takes deep American roots music and doesn’t so much cover it as remix and mold it into something more modern and totally unique.
The action moves back to Memorial Hall (1225 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine) for the rest of MusicNOW. eighth blackbird (see interview, page 20) will pay tribute to the composer who laid the groundwork for the types of artists who play MusicNOW — Philip Glass. The group will play Glass’ “Music in Similar Motion” with the legendary composer, as well as a new work by Nico Muhly and a tribute piece in honor of Glass’ 75th birthday. (Glass is being feted by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra this weekend, as well. The CSO presents the world premiere of Glass' "Cello Concerto No. 2, Naqoyqatsi" Friday and Saturday at Music Hall.)
Canadian artist Sandro Perri will also perform. Perri has explored a variety of musical territories in his boundless work, from acoustic Indie Folk to progressive Electronic music.
The big names on Friday’s MusicNow bill caused it to sell out well in advance. But if you have tickets, you’ll be treated to a “workshop presentation” of a new song cycle by fest organizer Dessner, Muhly and Sufjan Stevens, the Indie star whose appearance at MusicNOW in 2007 also caused the night he performed to sell out.
Pedro Soler (who grew up in France) also performed at MusicNOW in 2007. This year, the master Flamenco guitarist is bringing along his son, Gaspar Claus, a noted cellist who has worked in various avant-garde music scenes all over the world. In a press release, Soler describes their improv-heavy collaboration as finding “common ground between my desire for archaic purity and Gaspar’s raw, uninhibited and fundamental approach.” Last year, the father/son team released its first recording, Barlande, with help from Dessner and Stevens.
Also on the bill is late addition This is the Kit, the brainchild of British-born/Paris-based multi-instrumentalist Kate Stables. TitK makes trippy, off-kilter Art Folk with instruments like banjo, acoustic guitar, trumpet and violin.
MUSICNOW takes place Wednesday-Friday. Friday’s concert is sold out. More info: www.musicnowfestival.org.