Cincinnati's Bryce Dessner Expands Our Artistic Palette with MusicNow

Though he's been gone for more than a decade and has long called New York home, when he decided to launch the avant rock festival MusicNow, Bryce Dessner says there was no question it would take place in Cincinnati.

"I have that relationship one has their hometown, a connection that runs pretty deep," says Dessner, guitarist for rock band the National and founder of the five-year-old MusicNow Festival, which runs from March 30-April 1 at Over-the-Rhine's century-old Memorial Hall.

"Having grown up going to shows at Music Hall, seeing the Ballet do the 'Nutcracker' and going to local museums, playing the clubs in Clifton during and after college … in a way, the festival and Cincinnati are linked in that it couldn't exist anywhere else."

He knows this because other cities have offered to host his unique mash-up of indie rock and chamber music he founded in 2006, but Dessner has chosen to make the Queen City its home because of the love and respect he has for his hometown and its music scene, as well as his belief that these kinds of cultural happenings belong in an urban setting.

"Plus, Memorial Hall is one of my favorite places in the world to play," he explains. "Having played in pretty much every major opera house in Europe, there's just something about that small, intimate room with grand acoustics and a balcony and a lot of the original details."

The fifth year of MusicNow will feature one of the handful of dates from freak folk figurehead Joanna Newsom, an avant folk artist who has just released an ambitious 3-CD set called "Have One On Me," as well as singer St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), the chamber ensemble Ymusic (who have played with everyone from Jay-Z to Yo Yo Ma) and indie darling Justin Vernon, frontman for Bon Iver, playing one of his only solo shows of the year.

After hosting the first year's event in the small basement performance space at the Contemporary Arts Center downtown, Dessner visited Memorial Hall and, according to venue manager Ray Henry, instantly fell in love with the building. "He just said, 'this is it!' It was love at first site," Henry says of the refurbished 610-seat venue next door to Music Hall, which was designed by the famed Cincinnati architecture firm Samuel Hannaford & Sons, who also designed Music Hall. "It's definitely created a higher profile for the area, especially for the future of the theater district."

Most importantly from Henry's perspective, the shows have brought in a group of music fans who are not used to going downtown to see shows and who might not have visited the OTR area before except to go to classical concerts at Music Hall. "Sixty percent of the people who come to these show are in their early 20s and by combining classical and alternative music I feel it's created a vibe down there," he says. "I think it also changes minds about coming down, people that don't generally come downtown for functions because they don't have a lot of places for pop culture to see shows here are coming down for MusicNow."

And though Music Hall patrons tend to be dressed in their Sunday finest, Henry says there's something comforting about the sight of young kids in faded jeans and ragged Converse high tops hanging out on the steps of an ornate hall that is on the National Register of Historic Places. "It's beautiful to think that a crowd like that is coming down to enjoy music on that level."

That incongruity and sense of adventure was also one of the allures for Dessner, who loves the architecture and vibe of OTR. "Every time we come to town, promoters say people are reluctant to come downtown, but I'm stubborn," says the well-respected contemporary chamber composer, who also produces and performs music with his twin brother, Aaron. "It's important to do exciting, cutting edge cultural events downtown."

In his mind, MusicNow's origin springs from the memories Dessner has as a child of going to see the controversial photos of Robert Mapplethorpe at the old CAC in 1990, a defining moment that left an indelible mark on him as an artist. "That culture we grew up with in the 1980s in Cincinnati … it was such a vibrant community, but also so fraught. Something about that experience made me committed to doing this," he says of the festival, which is collaboration with the Chamber Music Cincinnati organization, which calls Memorial Hall home.

"I definitely feel some allegiance to the arts scene in Cincinnati, which is why it feels like it has to be downtown. It's such a suburban community and there are other places we could do it, because there are some people with safety issues who might come then, but downtown is traditionally where something like this would happen in any other city."

Dessner's mother, Sally, became a board member of Chamber Music Cincinnati so she could act as a liaison between the Chamber and her son, but in the years since she's become MusicNow's cheerleader-in-chief and one of the fundraising powerhouses behind the event.

"The key role I've been playing with the festival is going out to get people in the community interested through fundraising letters and word-of-mouth," says Sally Dessner. Depending on the amount of artists involved from year-to-year, she says the budget has varied from as low as $50,000 to more than $100,000. "It's remarkable what we've been able to do with very little corporate backing." So far, most of the funding for the MusicNow concert has come from local private individuals and music lovers, with a handful of small banks and area businesses chipping in as well, though Dessner says no major corporate sponsors have been approached so far.

Growing up in Cincinnati and playing music all over town, Dessner says her son developed a deep appreciation for the wealth of classical talent at the University of Cincinnati's CCM program and the Cincinnati Symphony and Opera and felt that there was a need to highlight some of the more cutting edge classical music being played by younger contemporary musicians.

The charm and warmth of Memorial Hall and the intimacy of the space has definitely left its mark on the musicians who've played the festival over the years, a list that includes avant garde guitar legend Bill Frisell and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, as well as the bands the Dirty Projectors, the Books, Bell Orchestre, My Brightest Diamond, Kronos Quartet and singers Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens.

"The musicians who've played there have loved it," Sally says. "They love the space, the acoustics and the romantic feel of it. After each festival we've gotten wonderful thank you notes and emails from the artists and they have spread the word and told other people about it." Stevens enjoyed playing the festival so much in 2007, Bryce says the folk pop songwriter has tried to come every year since on his own dime.

All year long, Henry says he gets a constant stream of fans contacting him on Facebook asking when the next show is. Those new friends are also helping to pump some revenue into the building, which hosts chamber shows by the CSO Chamber Players as well as the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and dozens of corporate functions, children's theater shows, weddings and other events during the year. To date, Henry estimated that the building has gotten more than a dozen bookings thanks to the MusicNow patrons who discovered Memorial Hall after attending the festival.

"There is nothing else in the city like it," he says of the building that was renovated in the 1990s and which retains the original glamour of a turn-of-the-century music hall. "There's not a bad seat in the place and the acoustics are perfect. In a city our size it's the perfect sized venue and unless it's something really mainstream you're lucky in some halls this size to fill it halfway with this economy." Henry also says the buzz around MusicNow is helping to bring more young music patrons downtown and demystify and area that has been often painted as "challenged" in the local media.

That proselytizing about the beauty of Cincinnati and Memorial Hall is augmented by Bryce's professional boosterism, which makes use of his deep connections in the indie rock scene from coast-to-coast to stack the talent roster. The result has been one-of-a-kind collaborations at MusicNow that have made national headlines on a number of well-respected music blogs such as You Ain't No Picasso and Stereogum, as well as the French site La Blogotheque, which in 2007 posted a 30-minute movie that takes viewers on a musical journey through Memorial Hall, from rooftop to basement.

Another unique touch is the commissioning of new pieces of music each year. This year's festival will feature two commissions, one named in honor of Cincinnati teen Esme Kenney, whose brutal murder occurred during the 2009 MusicNow gathering, as well as a piece named in honor of longtime festival supporter and music fan David Cohen, whose wife wanted to honor his name by debuting a new piece of music this year.

Each festival also features some neighborhood outreach in the form of a special show for the students of Rothenberg Elementary, a piece of the puzzle Dessner says is vital. "That's the most moving and exciting part of what we do, inviting all those kids in and having the performers come and do a show for them on the second day," he says.

For Dessner, the fact that her son has come back home to honor his upbringing and hometown is a gift in itself.

"I've lived here most of my life and I think it's fabulous that Bryce is doing it here," she says. "There are so many beautiful buildings when you walk around in Over-the-Rhine and so much potential. Yet I understand and so does Bryce, who lives in Brooklyn, that the question in revitalizing areas like this is, 'how do you do it and not displace the people who live there now?' He's very sensitive to those issues and that's one of his concerns."

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Photography by Scott Beseler
All photos taken at Memorial Hall
Bryce Dessner photo provided
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