To Cincinnati, with love

MusicNOW Festival thinks forward

By Gary Spencer
Photo: Composer Steve Reich performs at the MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati; photo credit Jeffrey Herman

Local musicians moving out of the state of Ohio and going on to success and fame in a bigger city isn’t a new story in the slightest. It’s also not totally out of character for said musicians to try to give back to the places in Ohio where they grew up and cut their musical teeth. Such is the case with Cincinnati expatriate Bryce Dessner, an indie rocker gone international with his Brooklyn-based band, The National. But Dessner didn’t pay tribute to the city of his youth by merely throwing a free hometown show or something equally obvious. Instead, Dessner dreamed big with the creation of the MusicNOW Festival in 2006, which takes place annually in the heart of Cincinnati.

“I grew up in Cincinnati, so the festival was an opportunity to do something meaningful in my hometown,” Dessner said.

MusicNOW isn’t just some nondescript, run-of-the-mill festival like many others that seem to multiply ad nauseam every year. On the contrary, MusicNOW is a creative, forward-thinking festival that is both musically and conceptually fresh and challenging.

“MusicNOW is a community driven, intimate festival,” said Dessner. “It was created as an anti-big stage, big name, big corporation festival. It’s kind of an antidote to the Readings and Leeds and Glastonburys of the world because this festival is a chance for artists and the audience to commune in a beautiful, small theater. We have had totally unknown performers and very famous ones play on the same stage. There is no hierarchy in the billing and everyone has equal set times. We encourage artists to try out new material and take risks. Part of the beauty of doing this in a small city is that artists feel comfortable because they are away from the intense media scrutiny in big cities.”

So what of the music and artists that Bryce Dessner curates at MusicNOW? Dessner prefers to keep things eclectic and intriguing by inviting genre-defying musical acts all over the musical map, often times performing in collaboration with other artist pairings that have never happened before. Some of the more notable artists and composers gracing previous MusicNOW stages have included Joanna Newsom, Phillip Glass, Bang on a Can, Kronos Quartet and Sufjan Stevens.

“We like to focus on detailed, creative music,” said Dessner. “This can be rock bands like Grizzly Bear or it can be African bands like Tinariwen. We have had lots of contemporary composition. I try to create interesting pairings of artists that somehow bring a new dimension to each other and that expose audiences to something new (as well).”

The 2013 edition of MusicNOW continues the festival’s modus operandi of being experimental and adventurous with a musically diverse lineup for the entire weekend of April 12-14, featuring the aforementioned Tinariwen, The Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, Buke and Gase, Glen Hansard, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, The Ariel Quartet, Shara Worden and So Percussion. But perhaps the most impressive feature in this year’s festival is the appearance of critically-acclaimed, award-winning American minimalist composer Steve Reich. Reich’s staggering body of work has earned him Grammys and Pulitzer Prizes, influenced artists in both the classical and rock music worlds and was once described by music critic Andrew Clements of The Guardian as one of “a handful of composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of music history.” Audiences for Reich’s collaboration with the Brooklyn-based collective So Percussion should expect the unexpected.

“I hope (the audience) love it,” Reich said via telephone. “(So Percussion and I) have worked very closely and this is yet another chapter in our long-going story together.”

Despite the festival’s name, MusicNOW isn’t solely focused on just musical artists, but visual artists as well. “We’ve had a long-running collaboration with Karl Jensen who created the beautiful stage installation we have every year,” Dessner said.

In addition to Jensen’s contributions to MusicNOW, this year’s festivities will also include the visual crafts of two fellow Cincinnati natives gone Brooklyn, Jessie Henson and Nathlie Provosty, who specialize in installation art and large-scale painting respectively.

The festival just keeps growing, attracting attention not just from southwest Ohio, but all over the country, across an array of audience demographics, which perhaps displays the surprisingly broad appeal of MusicNOW. “I love it when we have a young audience, but many different age groups attend,” said Dessner. “I’ve also noticed that we have more and more people traveling to the festival, which is great.”

For all Bryce Dessner has accomplished in such a short period of time with the MusicNOW festival, he still considers MusicNOW to still be an intimate, community- and artist-driven entity. “This festival is really all about collaboration and community”, Dessner said. “Through it, I have discovered so many amazing people in (Cincinnati) and have formed a new relationship to the place I grew up.”

Chamber Music Cincinnati presents the 2013 MusicNOW Festival April 12-14 at Memorial Hall, 1225 Elm St. in Cincinnati. Admission is $25 for day passes and $65 for the entire weekend. For more information, visit  


Reach DCP freelance writer Gary Spencer at

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Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at

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