MusicNOW (and Then)

For Bryce Dessner, 2015’s MusicNOW Festival is every bit as exhilarating as the first

Mar 11, 2015 at 10:09 am


hen Bryce Dessner, guitarist for international Indie Rock stars The National, founded the MusicNOW Festival in 2006, he didn’t necessarily envision the three-day Indie Rock-meets-experimental/Classical music event’s growth potential. He simply invited some friends to his hometown with a thought toward entertaining himself and like-minded individuals.

Aware that MusicNOW could occur annually, he recognized lasting success would require perseverance.

“One thing I learned from having a music career, or any creative project, is you’ve got to give it time to develop, gestate and become meaningful,” Dessner says from his new half-the-year home in Paris (France, not Kentucky). “To do something ambitious for a year or two or three is one thing, but 10 years is something else entirely. It was always my intention to stick with it, but it became something I really love doing.”

MusicNOW 2015 features several new wrinkles, including MusicNOW - 10 Years, a compilation album of select performances recorded over the event’s history, and the addition of a new venue, the recently revived Woodward Theater.

Since its launch, MusicNOW has become a premiere event in and for Cincinnati, exploding the perception that the city wouldn’t understand or support the esoteric and eclectic festival programming. The classically trained/Indie Rock-forged Dessner was the perfect organizer to prove the doubters wrong.

“It grew out of a family thing. [The National] had been living in New York for 10 years and traveling so much, my parents were getting older and it started as a fun way to think about coming home,” Dessner says. “Cincinnati might not be the first place you imagine for being open-minded, but the truth is there is an amazing tradition of great bands and things like the radio stations and CityBeat and Shake It Records. Whatever it was, for me growing up, it was this cool scene. {MusicNOW] felt like a cool thing to do.”

Dessner knows MusicNOW would move more tickets in a larger, more sophisticated market, but he’s adamant that Cincinnati is the best locale to serve its creative needs.

“Doing it in Cincinnati has allowed people to take risks they might not feel comfortable taking in New York or London or Los Angeles, where you’re under far more media scrutiny than in Cincinnati,” Dessner says. “The audience is very open minded and community oriented and as much about your peers and the artists who are there as the audience, because you’re only playing to 500-600 people.”

Dessner is now well known as The National’s guitarist, but when he founded MusicNOW, the quintet was largely a critically acclaimed, cult-followed band. In many ways, MusicNOW’s local success has paralleled The National’s global rise. Dessner acknowledges the evolution of MusicNOW, pointing out the festival’s collaborative partnership with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which began last year, will likely result in record-breaking attendance this year. He also admits he’s deliberately controlled the festival’s expansion.

“Festivals are good business, but we purposefully decided that this was an intimate, homemade event and we kept it that way rather than blow it out into some monster outdoor event,” Dessner says. “We wanted to keep it about the music, the audiences and the quality of the experience, and that’s what it’s been. I am proud of that. There is a tendency with something successful to make it bigger and bigger; that’s pretty much the only language the music industry understands.”

MusicNOW maintains its presence in historic Memorial Hall, which will host Perfume Genius, The Lone Bellow and Mina Tindle, while entering Music Hall for its second consecutive year and debuting at the Woodward. Music Hall hosts The National in its sophomore MusicNOW appearance for a 25-minute set with the CSO, conducted by Louis Langrée, as well as performances by Pulitzer Prize-winning violinist Caroline Shaw, Dessner, Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, So Percussion and pianist Timo Andres. The Woodward hosts Cloud Nothings, Arcade Fire’s Will Butler and concert:nova with cellist Jeffrey Zeigler.

One hallmark of MusicNOW is new commissions. This year the festival will feature a pair of works making their debuts at the festival. Dessner notes that only the Los Angeles Philharmonic has a similarly adventurous programming perspective.

“We’ve commissioned Caroline Shaw to write a violin concerto which she’ll play with the orchestra,” Dessner says. “And Daniel Bjarnason is an Icelandic composer who writes interesting Classical music. We commissioned him before for the So Percussion quartet, which was incredible, so we asked him to come back. He makes really beautiful scores and is super skilled in what he’s doing, but his music sounds like he’s spent a lot of time in the studio, like he understands Electronic music and how to manipulate sound but he’s processing that through the acoustic instruments of an orchestra.”

As usual, MusicNOW features a visual aspect to accompany the sonic component. Karl Jensen, creator of the mesmerizing light boxes that have traditionally graced Memorial Hall, has crafted a larger scale set for Music Hall. And the Contemporary Arts Center will show the concert film A Lot of Sorrow by Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, featuring The National playing their three-and-a-half minute song “Sorrow” for six hours.

Looking over the past decade of MusicNOW’s astonishing run, Dessner’s diverse creative scope is difficult to define. Flipping through his mental Rolodex for highlights among the festival’s incredible and often improbable performances, Dessner offers choice moments but notes the festival’s very existence and grassroots success in the place where he learned to love and play music may be his most cherished memory and significant accomplishment.

“Some of the most amazing performances I’ve seen anywhere have happened there,” Dessner says. “The Sounds of the South project, which was the band Megafaun, Justin Vernon and Sharon Van Etten … reinterpreting traditionals recorded by Alan Lomax, was a mind-blowing concert. And Tinariwen, this Bedouin band from Mali — there’s a big Bedouin community in Columbus and they all came down, and the band had them dancing for about two hours, so that was amazing. Seeing Philip Glass, playing with Steven Reich onstage, all kinds of exciting stuff like that.”

MusicNOW’s unique structure and position within the festival construct is the biggest source of unending pride for its founder and creative spark plug.

“We’ve never had big budgets. The reason most artists play festivals is they pay better than the average gig; in our case it’s really about the experience,” Dessner says. “The festival has developed a reputation as something people want to do. The main thing we do are collaborations, workshops and developing work, or we do commissions. Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly and St. Vincent have all done commissions. Works that have gone on to be performed at major international festivals, concert halls and opera houses have started at MusicNOW and that’s something I’m particularly proud of. That was part of the priority in making it a home for new work and trying things out. MusicNOW was meant to be a snapshot of contemporary music culture.” ©

MUSICNOW 2015 runs Wednesday-Sunday at various venues around Over-the-Rhine. See below for the full schedule; visit for more info.


2015 Schedule

Wednesday 11

Cloud Nothings

Will Butler

Woodward Theater, 1404 Main St.,


Thursday 12

concert:nova with Jeff Zeigler performing pieces by Caroline Shaw, Richard Reed Parry and Bryce Dessner

Woodward Theater

$25, $30 day of show

The Penny Serfs

MOTR Pub, 1345 Main St., Over-the-Rhine,


Friday 13

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

The National perform selections with the CSO

World premiere by Caroline Shaw

Mina Tindle

Music Hall, 1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine,

$25-$97 (Friday/Saturday Music Hall passes available for $80-$100)

Saturday 14

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner perform selections from Planetarium with the CSO

World premiere by Daniel Bjarnason

So Percussion

Timo Andres


Music Hall, 1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine,

$22-$90 (Friday/Saturday Music Hall passes available for $80-$100)

Sunday 15

Perfume Genius

The Lone Bellow

Mina Tindle

Memorial Hall, 1225 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine,


March 11-20

Ongoing film installation A Lot of Sorrow by Ragnar Kjartansson and featuring The National

Contemporary Arts Center, 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown,