Music: The Maestro

Cincinnati native Bryce Dessner discusses his role in this week's MusicNOW Festival


Bryce Dessner (seated) returns to his hometown this week to perform with Clogs and helm the eclectic MusicNOW Festival at the Contemporary Arts Center.

Bryce Dessner has a soft spot for Cincinnati: It's where he grew up, where he grew to love music in all its multifaceted states.

As co-curator of the MusicNOW Festival, the East Side native brings his passion for contemporary Chamber music to his hometown — specifically the Contemporary Arts Center — for five days of sonic adventure that ranges from the semi-Classical to the exotic.

Dessner, along with presenter Chamber Music Cincinnati, has assembled an impressively diverse array of artists, from acclaimed pianist/CCM professor Awadagin Pratt's opening night performance to festival closers Bell Orchestre, a cadre of Canadians who offer up a swirling, swelling blend of horns, bells and percussion that's as playful as it is forceful. (For a complete schedule of artists, see sidebar on page 41.)

Dessner is best known in these parts as the guitarist for The National, a Brooklyn-based group of Cincinnati natives who play mood-altering Rock songs anchored by a frontman whose voice is so deep he makes Leonard Cohen sound like a wuss.

But Dessner's also a member of Clogs, a "side project" that's actually much more.

"I love playing in a Rock band, that's really what I did first as a musician," Dessner says by cell phone from the streets of Brooklyn. "But, that said, I think Clogs is kind of a more open environment for me, it's more free. Part of it is that the music we make doesn't really fit into a genre. In a way it's like anything goes, I guess.

Whereas in The National we don't really break out a steel drum."

Clogs recently released fourth album, Lantern, is an intimate collection of songs that range from hushed, acoustic-based meditations to robust, bassoon-fueled Post Rock. Example? Take a listen to the brisk, richly textured "Voisins," which sounds like something Tortoise might conjure after a night of gorging on amphetamines and Pedro Almodovar movies.

"Clogs music seems more ephemeral to me," he says. "We don't take anything too seriously. There are beautiful pieces that last and last and last, but we don't behave like composers with a capital 'C,' where it's like I'm writing this piece for an orchestra and it's so incredible. Well, no, it's just music, and it's either good or it isn't."

Clogs origins date back to Dessner's days at Yale School of Music where he met Padma Newsome, the quartet's main songwriter and multi-instrumentalist extrodinaire. (Bassoonist Rachael Elliott and percussionist Thomas Kozumplik round out the quartet.)

While their classical leanings are a major part of the equation, Clogs are equally interested in exploring the improvisational elements of what they do.

"Something like the faster part of 'Death and the Maiden' (an early track on Lantern), which the first part of that song is a direct quote from Schubert, then we kind of improvise over it," he says, clearly getting excited at describing the song's construction. "The second half is kind of minimalistic, very fast 16th notes. Padma is playing in groups of four and I'm playing in groups of seven against him. It's pretty tightly arranged. Music like that only works if tightly arranged."

Such talk might sound foreign to traditional Pop music fans, but Clogs were actually viewed as an oddity within the Chamber music community.

"Coming out of grad school we were seen as kind of like an anomaly. Not that people weren't supportive of it, but it was definitely not your standard string quartet or something. But it's been a really creative experience."

That experience has deepened in recent months as Clogs have collaborated with The Books, a duo known for electronically-rendered beats, samples and found sounds.

For the uninitiated, The Books' (Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto) latest, Lost and Safe, finds the New England-based two-piece inching away from its previous output — harmonized vocals are much more prevalent — while at the same time reveling in its blissfully unique union of acoustic instrumentation and glitchy electronics.

The seemingly disparate Books/Clogs union came to fruition via a grant a from the UK Arts Council, which led to a collaborative tour of England this past January. The pairing anchors MusicNOW's Friday lineup.

"When I heard their music I just found it really inspiring, and more than anything I found that we were drawing on some similar influences," Dessner says of The Books. "They seem to have a huge Folk influence in their music as there is in Clogs. And then also the kind of contemporary Classical side of it as far as the compositions, some of the rhythms they use, that sort of thing. There's a similarity there, but it's interesting and different enough that when put next to each other it's a challenging concert."

Dessner's diverse musical tastes were nurtured at an early age.

"My dad played professional drums up until his early thirties and he had a really amazing vinyl collection with a lot of Jazz and experimental music and like all the great '60s bands," he says. "So I basically grew up listening to a combination of that music and my sister's music, who was obsessed with The Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen and (Ohio) bands like Afghan Whigs or Guided by Voices."

Dessner initially played the flute as a child before turning to guitar in junior high school.

"I actually took lessons down at CCM on Classical guitar as a way of learning another style," he says. "I thought the technique would open up some doors to me musically and what happened was that I sort of fell in love with the classical repertory itself."

That love has resulted in MusicNOW, a festival he hopes to bring back to the CAC on an annual basis.

"The Wexner (Columbus' contemporary art center) is one of the places that I thought like, 'Wow, they have such cool music going on, wouldn't be cool to get something at the CAC," he says. "And for me growing up in Cincinnati during the Mapplethorpe era, and then to see a building like this built, which has such and amazing reputation in other parts of the country, it just seemed like an exciting time to try to do something in Cincinnati.

"I don't think I would have done it anywhere else."

The MusicNOW Festival takes place Wednesday-Sunday at the Contemporary Arts Center.

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