• Interview

Bryce Dessner Interview - MusicNOW 2014

MusicNOW Festival kicks off its ninth annual weekend of music this Friday March 20th at 8 PM in the historic Music Hall. This year’s festival features a convergence of classical music and contemporary music with performances and collaborations by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, David Lang, Louis Langree, Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead), Aaron Dessner, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

I recently spoke with festival founder and member of The National, Bryce Dessner about this year’s festival. 

CincyMusic.com: Let’s talk about MusicNOW as an event first and after I’d like to talk about your ventures in classical music. How did MusicNOW come about? What was the inspiration to create such an event?

Bryce Dessner: Well, it’s been 9 years so it’s been something that’s really developed a lot over the years. Originally it was a partnership between myself and the Contemporary Arts Center (where it started), a local chamber music presenter called Chamber Music Cincinnati and Murray Sinclair who is on the board of NPR and is a super interesting guy. Largely it was just a conversation between me and him about bringing a really intimate, arts-driven, homemade feeling festival to Cincinnati kind of honoring my hometown and the long tradition great music that we have in Cincinnati. With something like the CSO which is such an important orchestra and an amazing indie rock and rock and punk rock scene that has existed for a long time. So the idea was to create a kind of antidote, a respite from the huge commercial rock festivals. You know, you have a couple of those in Cincinnati, and certainly there are things like Lollapalooza which are amazing and a certain kind of experience. But really MusicNOW was created as a kind of alternative space for artists to really develop new work and new collaborations and to do things in a more intimate environment that they might not be able to do in the bigger cities and the bigger festivals. It developed that way and I kept it very small, it’s still run by volunteers, and it’s something that we really enjoy doing every year.


CM: MusicNow has for years defined as an event that pushes the musical boundaries and asks people to think outside of their musical comfort zone, having unique and very interesting collaborations. How do you go about planning such a diverse lineup for each year? Is it more organic in that you plan one act and then you think “this act will go well with this act” and so on, or do you come in with a big picture of what you want the festival to be that year?

BD: I’ve had a kind of wish list of artists that I wanted to invite that I’ve had almost since the beginning. Originally the festival was created because there’s the music that doesn’t really quite fit in the rock venue and then maybe also doesn’t fit in the classical concert hall; it’s all very detailed and creative music. It can be songs, it can be new contemporary music, it can be electronic, we’ve had African musicians, flamenco guitarists… We’ve had a really broad range of artists and what they have in common is an ambition to challenge, to subvert the form that they’re working in and an attention to creative detail that I think is kind of a binding factor for all of these artists. As far as how we pair them, I like to do things that juxtapose. You know, maybe two different things like something a bit more challenging and something a bit more song-driven or something like that. That’s been typically how we work. That said, we have no real headliners. We like to give everyone the same amount of time to play. This year is very different in that it’s basically a collaborative orchestral festival with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. For us it’s a real new challenge and a kind of exciting frontier. It felt like we’d done a lot in the other area after 9 years and explored a lot of territory and for what’s happening in music now. New orchestral music is kind of a new frontier, it’s a world that is very much a vibrant and vital, living culture but very much still based in historical works. But, there are a lot of new composers who are writing great music for orchestra and the Cincinnati Symphony is committed to opening up those doors and being part of this conversation about what does orchestra music become in the future.


CM: The 2014 festival is moving from Memorial Hall to Music Hall, is the change just based on space requirements?

BD: Yeah, the orchestra can be between 50-80 people and they just work better in the bigger hall. We’ve really partnered with them completely and worked directly with Louis Langrée, the new director of the orchestra, to create the program and we commissioned two new, big pieces. One from Nico Muhly and one from David Lang, both of whom have been to Music Now before as collaborators, and also very important, probably two leading voices in America as far as writing that kind of music. So it’s very prestigious to have both of them coming and for where the festival is headed it felt like a great year for us to try something new.


CM: Was there a moment or a composer in particular who inspired you to start working on concert music?

BD: All of this is kind of the part of the same conversation. MusicNOW is a way for me to kind of connect with my hometown where I grew up and in fact that’s where I fell in love with classical music. Before I ever played rock music, as a kid I studied flute with local teachers, people who were in the symphony. I got pretty good at it until I kind of caught the rock and roll bug and started playing electric guitar in my teenage years.


CM: How do the challenges of writing and playing in a rock band and with an orchestra compare?

BD: It’s just as challenging to write a good pop song as a good classical song. Classical music is written music, it lives on the page, and it’s timeless. In the same way songwriters like Paul McCartney and Lou Reed strive to create something timeless just like in classical music.


CM: Lastly, MusicNOW festival is its 9th year… do you have a favorite moment from the previous 8 events?

BD: Obviously there have a lot of amazing moments but one of my favorites would have to be last year. We had a group of musicians from Mali called Tinarwen. They had people out of their seats, dancing in the aisles for 2.5 hours straight. Another would be Justin Vernon of Bon Iver doing Sounds of the South (old folk and blues music) from the Alan Lomax songbook.


CM: You seem to always be busy or one project or another, anything exciting on the horizon we can look forward to?

BD: I’m working on collaboration with the LA philharmonic that should be out next May.


CM: Great, we’ll look forward to hearing more about that. Thanks for your time and we’re really looking forward to this year’s event.

BD: Me too, thanks.

More information and tickets are available by calling the CSO Box Office at (513) 381-3300 or visiting www.cincinnatisymphony.org/musicnow


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