The National’s Bryce Dessner: 10 years of the MusicNow festival

MusicNow-compilationPerhaps all rock stars, at some time, get the urge to bring the artists and the musicians they love together in one place and present them to the public. Some are happy to curate established events and use them as kind of living mixtape of favourites. Others – like Bryce Dessner, the guitarist with the US rock band The National – have a larger, longer-term vision which results in the establishment of a completely new festival. Dessner began satisfying his own personal urge ten years ago this month after holding a series of discussions with Murray Sinclaire, an arts benefactor and businessman in his home town of Cincinnati. Those discussions led to the creation of the MusicNow festival.

“It really just started as a conversation about honouring our hometown and the long tradition of great music that we have in Cincinnati,” Dessner says. “Murray acted as a sounding board to my ideas on bringing a really intimate, arts-driven, homemade feeling festival to the city which would combine Cincinnati’s classical traditions with the amazing indie, punk and rock scene that has existed here for a long time. I wanted it to be the antithesis of the huge commercial rock festivals we have here, like Lollapalooza – which are great but are a certain kind of experience, and for MusicNow to act as a kind of alternative space for artists to really develop new work and new collaborations.”

As MusicNow took shape, Dessner held on to an unshakeable tenet at the core of his vision for the festival: artists would be provided with an environment in which they could collaborate and experiment without the pressure they may get from their own big tours and shows. Over the festival’s decade of life, this tenet has provided the basis for eclectic and exclusive performances from artists such as influential American composer Philip Glass, Grammy Award-winning Tuareg troupe Tinariwen, Big Apple troubadour Sharon Van Etten and Burmese musician Kyaw Kyaw Naing.

“MusicNow has always fostered works in progress and given artists the confidence to take risks,” Dessner says. “By keeping it small, using volunteers, creating a family vibe… We’ve built something of a refuge for creativity here. You can almost see the weight fall off the shoulders of some artists who may be expected to perform a certain way on the commercial circuit but who feel free to present radically different works here or allow work to develop organically in front of a live audience.”

As with any experiment, reactions cannot always be predicted and some audiences attending the early days of the festival got more than they bargained for from artists such as Detroit balladeer Sufjan Stevens who arrived with a certain reputation but immediately used MusicNow’s climate to play with perceptions.

“There was always a risk at the start that the audiences could be confused by some performances, especially as we offered them only the most oblique hints of what might happen when they arrive at the show,” says Dessner. “But this became part of the festival’s identity over time. You may think you know Bon Iver but you may not expect him to workshop and perform a whole new album in front of you as he did in 2010. You may know composers David Lang and Nico Muhly but you probably never expected them to unveil world premieres here alongside works by Krzysztof Pendereck, the Polish master, and Alexander Scriabin. But they did, without fanfare, last year. That potential for unexpected magic is now what draws people to MusicNow.”

“I’ve played a bunch of times myself, both as a collaborator and as a solo artist,” says contemporary classical music composer Muhly. “Each time, I have presented things that were not just new to Cincinnati, but new to me: pieces with the ink still drying or pieces in desperate need of a set of ears other than my own.”

music-bryce-dessnerBryce Dessner has high hopes of more magical moments from this year’s anniversary roll call. Sufjan Stevens returns to the festival for a third time, along with Will Butler from Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire, Seattle-based solo artist Perfume Genius and Brooklyn alt-country rockers The Lone Bellow. Dessner’s band The National will also perform, collaborating with the full Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to the alternative music talent on show, Dessner has commissioned works from last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music winner Caroline Shaw and Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center will also play host to Ragner Kjartansson’s film, ‘A Lot of Sorrow’, documenting The National’s MoMA PS1 performance in which they played their song ‘Sorrow’ for six hours straight in front of a live audience, as part of the festival.

Once this ten-year anniversary has passed, Dessner admits that he may finally take stock of what the festival he created a decade ago has truly achieved before moving ahead with future programmes – although what direction these will take is anyone’s guess.

“I always saw it as a ten-year thing so I’m not sure what happens next,” says Dessner. “I’m open to ideas. What I do know is that we’ll continue to champion cutting edge, progressive programming and hope that people will continue to be inspired by that.”

MusicNOW Festival. March 11 – 15, 2015

This article first appeared in The Economist.


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