MusicNOW festival goes orchestral at Cincinnati Music Hall
By Kyle Melton
In 2006, Bryce Dessner – of critically acclaimed indie outfit The National – perceived a disconnect in modern music. In his view, there were some incredible musical advances being made by his contemporaries, both in the indie music realm and in the orchestral world. However, it seemed to Dessner more could be done to find a suitable forum in which to better connect these artists on the fringes of their respective fields with audiences that – if given the opportunity – would appreciate their work. Thus, in 2006, Dessner presented the first MusicNOW festival in his hometown of Cincinnati.
“We started in 2006 as a multi-day event at the CAC [Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati],” Dessner explained. “I originally created the festival as a home for creative music that at the time was on the margins of most venues that didn’t fit, that wasn’t home in the concert halls or the rock clubs; groups like the electronic duo The Books and singer-songwriters like Sufjan Stevens and Shara Worden, bands like Clogs – a lot of idiosyncratic, very personal music. MusicNOW was created as a place for that kind of detailed music and also for collaborations between musicians that hadn’t worked together before.”
While the event has spotlighted emerging talents in both the indie and orchestral circuits, MusicNOW has also sought out some iconic 20th century compositional heavyweights such as Philip Glass  and Steve Reich  to perform. The list of indie notables is likewise impressive: St. Vincent, Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, The Books and Dessner’s The National have all taken to the stage at MusicNOW, a decidedly different environment from the typical indie festival appearance.
“I decided to keep it as an intimate festival that was, in many ways, an antidote to the large commercial rock festival – and that’s why it has remained a pretty small event that the audiences come for that intimate concert experience,” Dessner said. “In terms of the artists that come, it’s awesome to try out new work or new collaborations or new friendships and that kind of thing. So, it’s remained true to that all through the years.”
While the 2014 edition of MusicNOW holds to the ideals of collaboration, premiering new work and exploring the frontiers of modern music, this year Dessner is excited to add a new component. For the first time, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra will perform, under the direction of Music Director Louis Langrée, as part of the MusicNOW program.
“Louis and I met and we talked about our musical interests and put together all these plans to feature new orchestral music,” Dessner explained, “as MusicNOW this year is really kind of like an orchestral festival, which in the past we presented smaller chamber music or bands or singer-songwriters, and this year we’re focusing on the orchestra. In many ways, the orchestra is like the great historical precedent of a lot of music that is in large forces and working in a bigger palette.”
Among the highlights of this year’s program will be world premieres from renowned composers Nico Muhly and Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang. Additionally, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood will present his recent release, “48 Responses to Polymorphia,” alongside its antecedent, the 1960s composition “Polymorphia” by avant garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Dessner will also take the stage with his brother Aaron and the CSO to present his composition, “St. Carolyn by the Sea.” Dessner seemed decidedly excited about this year’s program and the trajectory of MusicNOW.
“I think MusicNOW, the festival itself, is kind of spreading its wings to larger forces,” Dessner said. “Stylistically … we’ve always sat in between these various strands of contemporary music, and in this case, it’s really allowing the deeper exploration of this orchestral music.”
With current trends continuing to subdivide musical classifications into increasingly meaningless monikers, Dessner and MusicNOW instead look to bridge perceived differences, choosing to find common musical ground for performers and audiences alike who still seek the vanguard of modern music.
“I think what is unique about MusicNOW remains an intimacy of the actual audience and performers are able to interact with each other and to really make it a homemade feeling event, so that’s something very specific to MusicNOW,” Dessner concluded. “In addition to that, the commitment to new work, commissioning new work and often collaboration with an emphasis on exploring new territory. I think allowing the artist to look deeper into what their own voice is. I think so much has been done with music and there’s been so much experimentation and there’s so much amazing pop music, ultimately what is interesting in art now is finding your own voice and I think MusicNOW is created a place to do that, and regardless of the outcome it’s something we support.”
The 2014 MusicNOW Festival takes place Friday, March 21 and Saturday, March 22 at the Cincinnati Music Hall, 1241 Elm St. Festival passes are $40. Opening acts begin each night at 7 p.m. Program begins at 8 p.m. For more information, please visit musicnowfestival.org.
Reach DCP music editor Kyle Melton at musiceditor@DaytonCityPaper.com.