We are entering the season of music festivals, so it’s easy to feel fatigued at the glut of multi-day showcases packed to the max with wall-to-wall “so-hot-right-now” blog bands (often, crammed in between industry conferences and huge Doritos advertisements). Sometimes the more interesting approach is to execute the whole idea of a festival from a constrained, specific perspective. This is the approach the organizers of Cincinnati, Ohio’s MusicNOW festival take by focusing on unexpected artist interactions and settings to present refined displays of art. Since its inception in 2006, the yearly event has featured performances by the likes of Grizzly Bear, The Books, Dirty Projectors, St. Vincent, Justin Vernon, Tim Hecker, and Kronos Quartet.
Creator and artistic director Bryce Dessner (a Cincinnati native and guitarist for The National) focused on a neo-classical bent to this year’s proceedings, with everything from an experimental organ performance by the former Assistant Organist of Westminster Abbey, to a new collaboration featuring Sufjan Stevens, to an appearance by Philip Glass. The festival took place over three days in two separate Cincinnati locations. Here are some thoughts I accumulated while attending.
Day One: Christ Church Cathedral
THE FIRST THING I NOTICED when I entered the main lobby of the downtown Cincinnati church was mild embarrassment at being there in jeans and a hoodie. When I threw open an outer door, only to stumble into a fellowship area brimming with well-dressed parishioners milling about at what was obviously some important church event unrelated to MusicNOW, I felt a bit like a scruffy college kid who accidentally walks in on his parents’ nice dinner party. But a kind lady pointed me to the right direction: the church’s main sanctuary, which sits off to the side of the central structure. The interior was beautiful, with wooden pews, a giant suspended cross, and ornate stained glass windows that were detailed enough to give you the impression of religiosity but vague enough not to leave you feeling guilty.
I GOT MAJOR JUSTIN VERNON DÉJÀ VU when I saw opener Sam Amidon take the stage, an endearingly slight-of-frame singer/songwriter from Vermont. Alternating between parlor guitar, fiddle, and banjo, Amidon howled out fragile songs of walking alone in the woods, saying goodbye to one’s parents as you hit the road, and love in general with occasional accompaniment from violist Nadia Sirota, composer Nico Muhly on piano, and organist James McVinnie. The resulting sonic collage was occasionally messy as the musicians entered and left the fray, but coalesced nicely in the end when all four musicians played together.
IMAGINE MY SURPRISE when I looked at my program and realized James McVinnie, in his role at Westminster Abbey, performed at the recent Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton for an audience of more than two billion! My God! He seemed more than excited, though, to crank through a set of wildly experimental organ pieces for the comparatively puny audience of a few-hundred or so in the cathedral. I will say the church’s organ, with pipes that dominated an entire wall to the left of the altar, made the new-music compositions come alive with sonic immensity.
Day Two: Memorial Hall
Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall has stood for more than 100 years. While the interior is in immaculate condition, its fixtures and style clearly hearken to a more formal and gentile time. The beautifully ornate light boxes, created specifically for MusicNOW, which framed the stage still permitted glimpses of the auditorium’s turn-of-the-century trim. Carved in relief around the curved upper lip of the stage’s ceiling were the words “Unity,” “Wisdom,” “Martyrdom,” “Patriotism,” “Philanthropy,” “Integrity,” “Manliness,” “Equity,” and “Will.” Heady stuff.
I WAS PRETTY BORED with openers Sandro Perri, whose mild brand of calypso lounge pop was breezy and pleasant, but ultimately forgettable.
HOWEVER, I TOTALLY LOST MY SHIT when Philip Glass (pictured above) took the stage with Chicago-based neo-classical collective eighth blackbird (sic). There’s not enough room here to write about the admiration and respect I have for Glass’ work, so I was disappointed when he congenially waved his hands to the audience and exited stage right after performing during only one piece.
The rest of the evening, however, was devoted to paying tribute to Glass, with performances of his work (including a classic selection from Einstein on the Beach) and new pieces written as a tribute to him. So while the man was mostly absent from the stage, his influence was consistently front and center.
Day Three: Memorial Hall (again)
I DON’T HAVE A LOT TO SAY about Day 3 openers This Is The Kit. They’re pretty standard button-down indie fare. It was exciting to see Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, who I had noticed intermittently haunting the previous days’ performances, actually take the stage and play guitar. He and The National guitarist Aaron Dessner provided dual six-string backup to This Is The Kit’s banjo-and-bass English pop folk. They’re both obviously masters of creating tasteful atmosphere with their guitar chimes, and their participation was the best thing about the set.
I have to say, after I read the background for Pedro Soler and Gaspar Claus, a father/son musical partnership combining rigidly classical flamenco guitar (Soler) and avant-garde cello (Claus) into a surprising coherent and affecting mix, I WAS SUPER PISSED AT MY OWN DAD FOR NOT BEING A WORLD-RENOWNED FLAMENCO GUITARIST AND BUYING ME A CELLO AT AN EARLY AGE. THANKS FOR NOTHING, OLD MAN. Seriously though, there seemed to be real warmth and connection between these two as they performed their unconventional blend of styles. (Fully describing the music would take far too long to put into words here. Do yourself a favor and take a listen for yourself.) When the audience’s overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to their finale caused a visible tear of joy to come into Soler’s eye, I almost bawled.
SUFJAN STEVENS WAS AS ALOOF AS EVER when he took the stage with Nic Muhly, Bryce Dessner, and a backing ensemble with a four-piece string section and a sizable section from the Cincinnati Conservatory-College of Music Trombone Choir. Although he occupied the center of the stage and was probably the artist many had come to see, he stayed relatively hidden behind his music stand, synthesizer, and other electronics.
This collaboration between Stevens, Muhly, and Dessner was a multiple-part reflection on our solar system, titled after the planets. “Jupiter” was a big, fat, synth-driven power thumper. “Mars” was surprisingly eerie and subtle. The closer, “Earth,” was filled with beautifully celestial strings and synth pads. The pieces were part of a workshop the trio informed the audience they had only very recently composed, so a few technical and performance roadblocks presented themselves. Most notably, the group had to stop in the middle of “Earth” because Stevens’ mic cut out. They picked up the piece adeptly, though, with the kind of superior nonchalance Stevens has perfected over his career.
For all its warts, the presentation of these new, off-the-cuff songs was dynamic and engaging. Speaking as someone who was a bit let down by the bloated and stagnant feel of Stevens’ latest full length, The Age of Adz, I have to say the setting suited him. It seemed to force him to perform in a more immediate manner, producing the kind of compelling work often forged through limitations and improvisation, while still maintaining the kinds of flourishes and focuses that drew people to Stevens’ music in the first place. Collaborating with compositional voices as strong as Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner couldn’t have hurt, either.
REALLY, THE BEST PART OF MUSICNOW IS THE EFFECT IT HAS ON THE ARTISTS THEMSELVES. By providing a setting and context that inspires artists to push themselves beyond their customary boundaries, outside the bubble of circumstance and career branding that can silently encapsulate an artists’ progression, the structure of the yearly event can, as it did with the celestial Stevens-Muhly-Dessner epic, yield transcendent results.