"I wanted to create something unique and special in Cincinnati,” Bryce Dessner told me on the occasion of the first MusicNOW in 2006.
Uh, mission accomplished, Bryce.
The Cincinnati native’s brainchild has undeniably established itself as a one-of-a-kind experience, an eclectic, unusually intimate festival where musical artists as diverse as The Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly and Tim Hecker to The Books, Joanna Newsom and Dirty Projectors come to celebrate the sounds of “now.”
Best known as a guitarist in Grammy-nominated Indie Rock band The National, Dessner is also a classically trained musician intent on spreading his love of adventurous soundscapes, whether they be created by avant-garde Rock bands or more traditionally configured orchestras. It then comes as no surprise that he would want to collaborate with our very own Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and its recently installed new conductor, Louis Langrée to present this year’s line-up, which features freshly minted works by Muhly, David Lang and Dessner himself, whose album of Classical compositions, St. Carolyn by the Sea, surfaced earlier this month.
CityBeat recently connected with Dessner to discuss this year’s festival, which will also include the CSO’s take on pieces by Krzysztof Penderecki and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, plus appearances by Will Oldham, local band Little Lights, eighth blackbird and, as usual, a few surprises.
CityBeat: This is the festival’s ninth year. Was it always the plan that MusicNOW would be an ongoing, long-term endeavor?
Bryce Dessner: Yeah, I always think part of the challenge with creative projects, whether it be a band or a festival or whatever it is, is just sticking around long enough that people can relate to it, that the idea can develop to the point that it can contribute something meaningful. I didn’t want to start a festival for a year. When I started it, I kind of told everyone that we needed to commit to it.
CB: So you’re not ready to stop anytime soon?
BD: I definitely want to get to 10, and then we’ll think about what it means to keep going and should it be something else.
CB: How has your curatorial approach to booking the festival changed over the years?
BD: We didn’t have an ideological agenda at the beginning.
I would say it was a snapshot of contemporary music culture now. That could include songwriters or musicians from Africa, and obviously there’s a healthy dose of contemporary Classical music. And we’re really committed to commissioning new work and new collaborations have been a big part of it.
But outside of that, I always say when we started the festival there was more of a need for a certain kind of space for creative music, for music that maybe didn’t quite fit in a concert hall or a Rock club. MusicNOW was started in a way to service those artists — bands like The Books or a singer/songwriter like Sufjan Stevens. I think that, to varying degrees, the festival was able to play a role for people like that.
Obviously things have shifted in a way in that a lot of artists we’ve presented in the early days have gone on to big careers and are kind of in-demand to the degree that it doesn’t feel as necessary (to highlight them), because there’s quite a lot of opportunity for artists out there. But, that said, we remain really committed to trying to present younger, up-and-coming artists who, for them, it might be a place to play for a more intimate listening audience.
CB: I see you’ve brought Nico Muhly back again. What makes him unique as a composer?
BD: Nico is … just a voraciously collaborative artist. He’s done opera, he’s worked with Björk and Antony (and the Johnsons) and he’s done arrangements for The National. And then, on the other side, he’s just a really, really skilled Classical composer. He’s a master orchestrator and a fantastic pianist. I would call him a musical genius. He’s just a master of output.
In many ways he’s kind of the leading sort of member of a generation of musicians that have reinvigorated the Classical tradition, actively writing a lot of music and touring it and working with people like Hilary Hahn or Emanuel Ax, who are really high-level Classical musicians. But then he’s also doing projects with non-Classical singers. So in a way I think his work is symbolic of the mission of the festival.
CB: How important is it to you to highlight that the Classical genre is alive and well, with new composers like you, Nico and David Lang doing interesting work?
BD: It’s something that I’m very much involved in obviously as a writer, or in this case presenting music for the festival. It’s very much a living tradition of music, and I think that it’s been important for me to be a part of it. Every year there are so many amazing musicians coming out of schools who spent their lives training to play this music. And then there are really interesting young composers.
I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that it’s very much a living, cultured music. There are tons of interesting things about it. The doors have really opened in terms of the kind of institutional side of it that we might have seen as reactionary or conservative, but in actual fact there’s a pretty healthy environment for taking risks. People are open-minded about adventurous music.
CB: Speaking of which, what’s it been like for you to collaborate with Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra?
BD: Louis and I have had several meetings where we get together and we talk about musically what we want to happen and the program we chose together. He’s really such a talented, seasoned conductor. He’s so open-minded and fun. He’s been really great to work with and really courageous about adding rehearsal times so that we could really make sure we had enough time to do all the new works and have two different programs, when normally what they do would be one program for the weekend. In that sense, it’s been an amazing process.
MUSICNOW FESTIVAL takes place Friday and Saturday at Over-the-Rhine’s Music Hall. For tickets and full programming details, visit musicnowfestival.org.