Cover Story: Right Here, Right NOW

MusicNOW festival founder/curator Bryce Dessner explains why Cincinnati is

Apr 4, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Alec Hanley Bemis

Right Here Right Now: MusicNOW Festival a Perfect Fit for Cincinnati

Be honest. When you see the words "Chamber Music" on this page, do you quickly shuffle to another section, the newspaper equivalent of grabbing the remote to flip away from the PBS Classical special?

Does the whole Chamber/Classical music realm fill you with feelings of intimidation, inadequacy and confusion because you just don't understand the history, the motivation and the execution of the music itself? Do you avoid the live Chamber/Classical experience because you don't own a formal evening outfit, white gloves or an appropriate attention span?

Fear not, my tuxless/gownless friends. Your musical ADD is about to drift away on the wings of a soundtrack that's as versed in Rock as it is in Classical, that fuses elements of World, Pop and Chamber music in an atmosphere both casual and austere and that is both traditional and experimental.

Festival founder/curator Bryce Dessner inaugurated MusicNOW, presented by Chamber Music Cincinnati (, in 2006 with an impressive lineup that included Wilco drummer and renowned sonic experimentalist Glenn Kotche and acclaimed Canadian horn/bell/percussion ensemble Bell Orchestre. The festival was held at the ultra-modern setting of the Contemporary Arts Center.

MusicNOW's sophomore year finds Dessner in a similarly cutting-edge curatorial mode, with appearances by Sigur Rós collaborators and multi-faceted string quartet Amiina, Chamber Rock specialists My Brightest Diamond, the U.S. debuts of Flamenco guitarist Pedro Soler and evocative Czech husband-and-wife duo Vojtech and Irena Havel, Dessner's own Chamber Rock ensemble Clogs and a festival opening and closing string-quartet set from Avant Folk superstar Sufjan Stevens, with whom Dessner has toured and collaborated.

Besides some bigger names, the main shift in this year's MusicNOW is its location.

The festival moves from the relatively small CAC performance space to the historic and gorgeous Memorial Hall (the 600-plus seat concert hall next to Music Hall), which should increase its legitimacy without reinforcing the unfounded stereotype of Chamber music as being too highbrow or stuffy for music fans in general to enjoy or appreciate.

Dessner sees Memorial Hall as the perfect venue to further cement the good will and success generated by last year's MusicNOW experience.

"I came home in November and I checked out pretty much every theater in town," Dessner says from his Brooklyn apartment. "I had just come off a tour playing guitar for Sufjan in big, old, beautiful theaters in Europe, and I've got to tell you that Memorial Hall is an amazing, beautiful place. I think there's a set of Classical musicians that, to them, it's old hat, but to me this place has so much character. It's grand but it's intimate.

"I just felt immediately like it was going to happen here. I think this year is going to be even better because the acoustics are really great."

Growing up Cincy
Dessner might well understand some people's trepidation about the Classical/Chamber genres, but he most certainly has never suffered from it himself.

He was raised here in an East Side household where all music was embraced, from the '60s Jazz, Experimental and Rock leanings of his father (who was also a professional drummer) to the Gothic, New Wave and Punk interests of his sister.

As a result, Dessner has explored a broad range of musical expression in his life — flute as a child, guitar as a teenager, Classical guitar lessons at UC's College-Conservatory of Music to broaden his palette.

Dessner's love of Classical music grew from the exposure through his CCM lessons and merely added to the creative foundation that had been laid in his upbringing. It's little surprise, then, that he'd find a way to channel all of his early musical input into his personal musical translation, as evidenced by his dual roles as guitarist for The National (his Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based Indie/Post Rock/Neo Wave quintet) and as guitarist for Clogs (his contemporary Chamber ensemble with a Classical grounding but shades of Rock coloration to infuse the sound).

To Dessner's ear, a lot of this compartmentalization of music is unnecessary because it's all music, but he understands the human need to classify and categorize. To that end, he began MusicNOW to highlight music he felt needed an added boost in order to be recognized.

He also saw the advantages of showcasing that music in a more rarified surrounding.

"The music itself is where I started," Dessner says. "It really needs a special atmosphere to shine because it doesn't quite fit anywhere else. Obviously, some of the artists are better known than the others, but it's all stuff that benefits from an intimate concert setting that you might associate a little more with Classical music. The other side of that (is drawing) an audience that you wouldn't associate with Classical music. So it seemed to me that bringing together those two things in the same place would be unique."

In the simplest context, Dessner conceived MusicNOW as a way to present music that simultaneously reflected his own personal tastes and struck him as something other people might actually be excited about as well. His work with Clogs (featuring divinely inspired multi-instrumentalist Padma Newsome), which has been going on as long as his work with The National, helped to enlighten and inspire his decision to launch MusicNOW last year.

"Clogs in a way is really the archetype of this kind of creative music that brings in a lot of different influences and works in a concert hall or works in a Rock club or maybe it's music that Rock bands might enjoy but that benefits from this festival atmosphere," he says. "I've been fortunate enough to play in a lot of different places with different art festivals and art centers all over the world at this point. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis or the Sydney Arts Festival in Australia were the models for me for really broad programming in really cool cities."

Kick off your gown and pearls and stay a while
The seed for MusicNOW was planted in 2004, when Clogs played a one-off date at the CAC and Dessner saw the potential for bands in that environment. Unfortunately, it didn't necessarily come from personal experience.

"The concert was kind of terrible, to be honest," Dessner says with a laugh. "Not much of an audience, and the museum didn't seem to know what was going on. But being a kid from Cincinnati who grew up during the Mapplethorpe years, I was really psyched learning about that museum and knowing that it was downtown and what that would do for the city. And I was like, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we did some music here, if we brought some really cool music that would be hard to hear in Cincinnati otherwise?' So the original idea was closely linked to that institution."

One of the high points of last year's MusicNOW debut from Dessner's perspective was the integral art installation that gave a visual counterpoint to the music. The installation was particularly complemented by the collaboration of Kotche and percussionist David Cossin, whose highly experimental partnership yielded one of the festival's most thought-provoking presentations.

Because Dessner has experienced these kinds of arts festival appearances with Clogs, he was sensitive to the needs of the visiting artists, but he was also anxious to make MusicNOW a special event and not merely another tour stop among a string of dates. Stevens' appearance, for example, is specifically tailored to the event and not part of an extended tour schedule — it's excited his fans worldwide if fan site message boards are any indication.

"The whole thing is as much about the artist as it is about the audience for me," Dessner says. "In that way, it's really a festival created from an artist's perspective. How are we normally treated? How would we like to be treated? I don't care who you are, if you're going to come to MusicNOW, I ask the artists not to be on tour for those days, meaning everyone's staying the whole weekend.

"There's a lot of collaboration working with different artists, so there's a chance that people can take something away from it that they might not take away from the humdrum of a tour."

In similar fashion, Dessner has structured ticket sales in much the same way for the audience, with the only option being a three-day pass to the entire festival.

"Thus far, we've only sold the festival pass, which is all three days," he says. "I'm asking the artists to do it, I might as well ask the audience to do it."

Only in Cincinnati?
For those who might wonder why Dessner would choose Cincinnati as the host city for MusicNOW, his initial response speaks to the emotional ties that he still has to the city.

"I left Cincinnati when I was 18, 13 years ago now, and I think maybe subconsciously I was looking for an excuse to come back to town more often and to do something — I don't know if I want to call it 'significant' — (but something where) at least I felt was giving back to the town," Dessner says. "And my mom retired last year, so she's been helping volunteer and organize some of it. So it's for all of us, including my siblings. We all come home every year, and basically it's like a big party."

But it's not just for family that Dessner located MusicNOW in his hometown. He still feels a great deal of civic pride for Cincinnati, and placing this cutting-edge concert series here is a way for him to acknowledge his musical debt to the city and pay it forward.

"You wouldn't hear these artists together anywhere, I don't think, on the same festival. It would be rare," he says. "If you're going to hear it anywhere, though, it would be in New York. So it's not unique in New York, but I feel like it is unique in Cincinnati. I also like the small 'big city' of Cincinnati and the people that we've reached out to for help — CityBeat has been a media sponsor and radio stations have been calling me. We don't have a publicist, but people in town seem interested and supportive.

"Shake It (Records in Northside) has printed our posters and helped us sell tickets, and that's a special place. (Shake It) and (local Modern Rock Internet radio station) WOXY are symbolic of a really creative music culture that's happening in the States now and that exists in places like Cincinnati. It may not be a huge audience for music, but it's a great one. If it didn't feel that way, I wouldn't do it."

For the second MusicNOW festival, Dessner briefly flirted with the idea of running two events simultaneously — one here and one in Louisville — but the logistics proved to be daunting. And after just a single festival, he's already fielded offers to move the series from Cincinnati to various other cities, which he flatly opposes.

"I feel like we're going to do it in Cincinnati or we're not going to do it," he says. "I've got to tell you, it's not always easy. There have been some struggles with it, and obviously tickets might not go as fast as they would in L.A. But ultimately I'm just psyched to be doing it at home."

Welcome to America
Dessner's learning curve from last year's MusicNOW included switching to Memorial Hall (for a variety of reasons) and slightly scaling back the number of actual shows within the festival framework.

"Last year we did five concerts, and I nearly collapsed at the end of it," he says. "We sold out a couple of shows and everything was well attended, but it felt like we were spreading ourselves a little thin."

For this year's lineup, Dessner retained the two-concerts-per-night structure while reducing the total number of nights in order to give the audience — and himself — a little break. And while he offered up an absolutely top-notch talent roster last year, the 2007 MusicNOW lineup might prove to be even better.

In addition, Dessner has added the new wrinkle of opening the festival with a marathon concert on the first night.

"I crunched it in, but I made that first night huge," he says enthusiastically. "Pretty much everybody who's involved in the festival is playing that night. It could last three hours. ... It's going to be crazy."

Crazy might not begin to describe the confluence of talent at MusicNOW. As noted, Vojtech and Irena Havel and Pedro Soler are making their American debuts here, an amazing fact considering their long and storied careers. The Havels were introduced to Dessner by his older sister Jess, who saw them playing on a street corner when she studied in Europe in the late '80s. Dessner considers them hugely influential on his Chamber side.

"When I started Clogs, it was the music I had in mind," he says. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if what they're doing on strings I could do on guitar?' It's a really haunting minimal style. It isn't Classical. It has an experimental quality and feels improvised, but I don't think it is. Basically they perform on viola da gamba, which is like a Baroque or Renaissance cello. Their music has a lot in common with Eastern minimalist composers.

"We got a grant to bring them over, and there's probably going to be a sold-out crowd when they open for Sufjan and no one's ever heard of these people. And that's really exciting to me to be able to present a group that no one's ever heard of. I played it for Sufjan and I was like, 'Are you cool with it?' And he was like, 'Totally.' For him, the more out of the ordinary the better."

Dessner likes the idea of including culturally focused music as a part of the festival. Last year it was a Burmese circle drummer and this year it's Flamenco master guitarist Soler.

"He's so celebrated in his own idiom, but he's never played in America," Dessner says. "But (Pedro's) not nuevo Flamenco. It's not cheesy, virtuosic Flamenco. He's really played with the greatest singers in Spain of the last century. He has this very traditional grounding, but what he's been doing recently is exploring contemporary music so his music is very contemporary sounding even if it's Flamenco."

Strings attached
Clearly, Avant Folk poster boy Sufjan Stevens is the biggest name on the festival's marquee and likely to be the event's biggest draw — his opening night set will consist of pieces from his experimental album Enjoy Your Rabbit arranged for string quartet, and his closing set will be his regular show. Fans of this branch of brave new Chamber music, however, will be just as excited about the appearance of Icelandic string quartet Amiina and New York-based underground chamberist Shara Worden and her band My Brightest Diamond.

Amiina has made their reputation primarily through their involvement with fellow countrymen Sigur Rós, a natural alliance as Amiina violinist Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdóttir is the wife of Sigur Rós keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson. Although at a surface level Amiina is essentially a string quartet, the four women play nearly 30 instruments between them on stage in an impressive display of musicianship.

"If I were to say something general about it, it has a lot to do with our instrumentation," Sigfusdóttir says by phone en route from Toronto to Montreal. "They're not the typical Rock & Roll instruments. The style of music or the songs, I'm not sure I'm capable of describing that."

The quartet, music school friends since their teenage years, has played together for more than a decade in various configurations before finally gelling as Amiina three years ago. (They played with Sigur Rós at their Taft Theatre concert in February 2006.)

"It's been a dream for us for a really long time," Sigfusdóttir says. "We always had the dream of doing our own music, so we got the time and this is the outcome of that."

As Amiina is in the midst of their first proper tour of North America, it's difficult for Sigfusdóttir to identify a typical venue for the group.

"Our first gig was in a cafe in Madison (Wisc.), and it was really, really small," she says. "The stage was the size of a queen-sized bed, and we have all these instruments and we had a time fitting it all in. But the crowd was really good, and it was really intimate. So we've played cafes and theaters and seated venues and Rock & Roll venues."

Like Amiina, My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden is greatly anticipating her appearance at MusicNOW. She already has a working relationship with a good many of the festival's participants; she learned string arrangement from Newsome several years ago, she was Stevens' "cheerleading captain" on his Illinois tour and she released MBD's Rock-oriented album, Bring Me the Workhorse, last year on Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label.

Between the artists she knows well and has worked with previously and the ones she'll be meeting for the first time, Worden is excited by the potential presented by their collaboration at MusicNOW.

"Clogs and I did a concert together in February of last year, and they are absolutely amazing musicians," Worden says. "To collaborate with them and just being around those guys excites me, and I find the idea of collaborating between the bands really stimulating. I'm getting to do things that in my own work I'm not able to do, and it's an opportunity to see the inner workings of another band. It's a chance to get on the inside of somebody else's music, and you always learn in a different way than if you're just listening to it. That's an exciting element for me. Plus it's an absolutely gorgeous room."

Like Dessner, Worden is equally comfortable in a Chamber or Rock setting — the difference being that Worden's range is accomplished totally within the context of My Brightest Diamond, which she describes as "P.J. Harvey meets Henry Mancini," and further cites everything from Edith Piaf and Tori Amos to Radiohead and Portishead as influences. Currently, she and MBD are opening for The Decemberists, clearly a function of her Rock side, but the trained Opera singer is looking forward to switching to Chamber mode for MusicNOW.

"It's still Pop music, but it's leaning more toward like art songs," Worden says of her fluctuating sound. "At this point, it depends on what the event is."

Worden is currently at work on an album of more Chamber-slanted material, but she notes that anything could happen before she's completed the project.

"I know in my head what I think it's going to be, but I won't actually know until it all comes out," she says.

One of a kind
That sentiment could well serve as the mantra for the MusicNOW festival. All of the event's participants — whether they're familiar with each other, have worked together in the past or are meeting for the first time — have at least some inkling of what they hope to contribute to the others.

The actual outcome will remain a mystery until the musicians come together and weave their individual creative strands into the sonic tapestry of MusicNOW.

Perhaps the single most important aspect of MusicNOW is its singularity. No other festival is colliding these musical worlds in quite the same way as Bryce Dessner's brainchild. It's a point that Worden drives home enthusiastically.

"I don't know anything of its kind that exists," she says. "In the Classical world, I'm trying to think of Carnegie or what I know of other halls where people are cross-pollinating, but I seriously don't know of anything else that's going on where you're bringing Classical music and songwriting and all these elements of collaboration. I can't think of anything that exists like that."

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

7:30 p.m.

Opening "marathon" concert featuring the U.S. debut of Flamenco guitarist Pedro Soler and world premieres by Padma Newsome and Bryce Dessner with Clogs and percussionist David Cossin. Plus world premiere selections from Sufjan Stevens' Enjoy Your Rabbit album for string quartet and a new composition by Maria Huld Markan from Amiina.

8 p.m.

Sets by Amiina and My Brightest Diamond.

8 p.m.

Sets by Irena and Vojtech Havel and Sufjan Stevens.

TICKETS: Passes for MusicNOW are $60, which includes admission to all three days. Tickets can be purchased at Shake It Records in Northside and at There is a four-pass limit per customer. Each day, limited single-day tickets might be made available 30 minutes before show time for $25, depending on availability. MUSICNOW takes place Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine. See schedule above. For more information, visit