You Want It All? You Want MusicNOW!

Festival Offers Rare Convergence of Music’s Best and Most Adventurous

By Tim Anderl

Creating an annual music festival designed to bring the world’s most creative composers and artists together for never — or rarely — before seen collaborations is an undertaking of incredible magnitude.  For Bryce Dessner, a former Cincinnati boy, composer and guitarist for The National, this kind of thing is par-for-course.

For the seventh consecutive year, the MusicNOW festival is a convergence of the musically adventurous performing pieces that can be heard few other places in world, let alone the country.  This year’s festival, which takes place March 28 to March 30 in Cincinnati, is a doozy: composers Philip Glass and Nico Muhly will be performing, as will eighth blackbird, former Westminster Abbey organist James McVinnie, Pedro Soler and Gaspar Claus, and a collaboration between Muhly, Sufjan Stevens and festival organizer/curator Dessner.

“Originally, I just had the idea of creating a snapshot of what living music is now,” explained Dessner.  “It is always creative music that pays attention to detail as opposed to booking super popular things.  We’ll have a composer, a folk singer, maybe some kind of world music thing.  The thing that binds this all together is that it is music that is created with a lot of care and attention to detail.”

2012’s lineup maintains the festival’s reputation for risk-taking and attention to detail.  Those who’ve been among the sold out audiences in past MusicNOWs have witnessed performances from Sharon Van Etten, The National, Justin Vernon, Joanna Newsome, Andrew Bird, Toumani Diabate, Bang on a Can, Grizzly Bear, Sufjan Stevens, Glenn Kotche and Kyaw Kyaw Naing, among others.

“We don’t pay anybody a whole lot of money,” said Dessner.  “But, we do have a lot of artists that enjoy coming back and consider this home now.  They come and they workshop new music.  People like Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens, Justin Vernon has been three times, Richard Reed Parry has been four times.  So we’ve had luck I guess with having people enjoy it and come back.

“What’s different about this year is that we have a slightly more classical concert happening [because] eighth blackbird, one of the best new contemporary music ensembles in the world, are playing, Phillip Glass is going to play and Nico Muhly, who is probably the most important young American composer, is presenting music on three different nights,” said Dessner.  “The first night of the festival is actually an organ concert by the organist from the Westminster Abbey.  He’s the same guy that played the Royal Wedding.  He is doing a concert of new works on the organ.  So it is going to be very diverse, and there are a bunch of other interesting things happening.”

On March 28, MusicNOW will present a free organ concert at Christchurch Cathedral featuring James McVinnie formerly of Westminster Abbey in London.  The organ program includes a new composition by Richard Reed Parry and a new composition from Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang, along with pieces by Philip Glass, Bach and Arvo Part.  McVinnie will also perform Nico Muhly’s O Antiphon Prelude.

Eighth blackbird, who the New York Times describes as “a dexterous sextet that balances trills and tempos” will be joined by special guest Philip Glass to perform Music in Similar Motion, and will also premiere Muhly’s new, yet-to-be-titled commission.  This performance takes place at Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall on March 29.

Muhly, a prolific composer and collaborator, premiered two operas, Dark Sisters, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, and Two Boys, a commission from the English National Opera, in 2011.  His pop-oriented work includes collaborations with Antony and the Johnsons, Bjørk, Jonsi (Sigur Ros) and Grizzly Bear. Two new works from Muhly will be premiered at the festival — a commission for eighth blackbird and a workshop presentation of a new song cycle collaboration between Muhly, Sufjan Stevens and Dessner.

“We wrote the songs together, we all wrote music,” explained Dessner about the collaboration.  “Sufjan is writing words and then they’ll be arranged for a large ensemble of strings that will be playing with us.  I’ll be playing guitar on stage, Sufjan will be playing some keyboards and singing, and Nico will be up there as well playing piano.”

“They are pop songs, but they don’t conform to what you might expect from a song,” he added.  “There are some surprising harmonies and things.”

Pedro Soler also returns to the festival this year and will be joined by his son Gaspar Claus to share work from their recent, Bryce Dessner-produced recording, Barlande, an improvisation combining traditional flamenco guitar and cello.

While this type of event would monopolize most regular people’s time and attention, this is merely one of the activities Dessner is currently undertaking.  Not only is he actively writing for the next National record (which is expected to see the light of day in 2013), but he is also the co-founder and owner of the Brassland record label, is organizing another AIDS charity compilation (the last was the widely popular Dark was the Night), and he serves on the board of The Kitchen in New York City (where he currently resides).  But for now, MusicNOW remains his temporary focus.

“This festival is so small and special,” boasted Dessner.  “While we could sell this out in five seconds in New York City, in Cincinnati these are really special events.  I think the reason that I’m able to commit to this and do it is that it is such a small town that performers can come out and try something they wouldn’t normally do in a big city.  This is very much, specifically about doing it in Ohio.”

(For more information about MusicNOW, which takes place in Cincinnati on Wednesday, March 28, Thursday, March 29, and Friday, March 30, visit  Ticketing information for the event is available at or by calling Memorial Hall’s box office at 1-800-838-3006.)

Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at

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