Posted April 22, 2018 by Jeff in Tunes

Bryce Dessner on Homecoming, MusicNOW and Music Across the Spectrum

The National, photo by Graham MacIndoe
The National, photo by Graham MacIndoe

Now in its 13th year, Cincinnati’s MusicNOW, a festival organized by founder and artistic director Bryce Dessner (who’s also the guitarist in the indie rock act The National) has become known around the country for its “eclectic and thoughtful combinations of contemporary music, world premiere commissions, and visual art installations.” Past festivals have featured artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Kronos Quartet, Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, Steve Reich, eighth blackbird, Caroline Shaw, Andrew Norman and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. This year’s festival, which takes place on April 27, 28 and 29, coincides with performances by The National, who is launching its outdoor Homecoming festival in Cincinnati. The event will feature over 20 artists across two stages at Smale Riverfront Park, in addition to venues throughout the city. The National will perform two completely different shows over two evenings (April 28 and 29). Dessner recently phoned us from Paris to talk about being involved with the diverse creativity the two festivals will be bringing to southern Ohio.

What’s the history behind MusicNOW?
MusicNOW started in 2006. It originally started at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, which at the time had a new building and a small performance space. They asked me to organize a weekend event. It immediately took on the identity that it always has. It’s broad, big tent picture of music as it is in the world now with a focus in particular on new collaboration and works-in-progress. It’s what I like to call creative music. It’s non-genre music. We do things across the spectrum with a focus on contemporary classical and avant-garde music. We’ve done electronic music and we’ve done some bands with singer-songwriters. The last few years, we’ve been working with the symphony and done orchestral music. It’s become this great way for me to spend time in my hometown and give back to what is actually a really great cultural scene there.

Why is it important that it takes place in Cincinnati?
This year, we are collaborating with the Contemporary Arts Center and the Cincinnati Art Museum on the visuals.  The Cincinnati Ballet has a piece and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is participating. It’s a city-wide event. It’s outside of music too. We’ve always wanted to include visual artists and filmmakers.

What is the “Signals for Immediate Music” piece?
That’s a program with a composer in the original space where we started. I don’t know that much about it other than that it’s a super interesting composer and a premiere of a work he’s been working on for some time.

Can you talk about the Graham MacIndoe photo exhibit?
Graham is a Scottish photographer. He came up while living in Glasgow at the height of punk. He’s a huge music fan and has published some books. We met him in the late ’90s through Scott, our bassist who’s a graphic designer. He designed most of our records. Scott and Graham had worked together on a project. At the time, he published in the New York Times. Graham shot of the earliest portraits of the band. The earliest press photos were by him. He has an interesting story. He went through a shaky time in life where he struggled with addiction and spent some time in prison and then was able to get clean and went through recovery. He did a set of photos while he was in trouble that document that and are really powerful and amazing. They’re at the Royal Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh now. We lost touch with him and then reconnected years later after he’d been through all of this. With the last album, he took some studio shots. It’s an important story about a talented artist who’s been able to get through addiction. This exhibition focuses on his shots of the band that span that time from early in the decade to now. He followed us on the recent tour and shot the cover of our recent album.

What do you expect from the Cincinnati Ballet’s performance based on “Murder Ballades”?
That’s one of my pieces. The music will be performed by a group called eighth blackbird who are from Chicago. They have a Cincinnati connection as well. They’ve won several Grammys and “Murder Ballades” won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music. That work is choreographed by a NYC choreographer [Justin Peck]. He calls it a sneaker ballet. It’s ballet dancers but they’re not in points. They wear gym shoes. It’s very athletic. The music is inspired by traditional American folk songs. That will be great. There are three or four other dance works. I don’t think we’ve done something this ambitious with dance. It’s an exciting element and lends to the idea that this festival is becoming a mini Edinburgh festival with other institutions involved. I hope it continues to grow in that way.

How did the concept for the Homecoming come about?
MusicNOW is in its thirteenth or fourteenth year. Since then, my brother Aaron worked on the festival with Justin from Bloody Bear. Bryan [Devendorf] our drummer moved home a couple of years ago. Bryan is now in town and he and I started talking about this. In a way, it started as an antidote or in contrast to the giant rock festivals that we normally play. It’s a more intimate idea of presenting music. This year, that has developed into the idea behind it. We didn’t know where we would do it before. And now we feel like we have so much music that we could build a festival around our music and get bands to play and combine that with the more intimate sets we do at MusicNOW. I’m excited about it. I’ve dreamed of doing an outdoor component. It feels good so far. It’s small in comparison to other festivals. It’ll be like 10,000 people each day.

What’s it been like revisiting Boxer?
We actually performed Boxer in Brussels in November in its entirety. We never played it straight through when it came out. We’ve become more adventurous in our later years. To be honest, the songs hold up. It’s a really important for the band. It was the moment the band graduated to a larger audience. “Fake Empire” was used in Obama’s first campaign. It’s appropriate. Had Sleep Well Beast not gone as well as it did, we would have felt more nervous about doing that, but the two records stand together in a weird way. They’re like twins. It’s nice to do it. Definitely that music feels good to play.

You must feel really fulfilled.
I’m really lucky to have the diverse life I have. Even more than that, it’s having found the band. They’re strong individuals who work well together—the core of that is being with my brother. That we can do projects together or separately is great. When you’re young and in the hard years of touring, you search for relief outside of it. It’s such a pressure cooker, and it’s damaging to relationships. Keeping our interest outside the band has been good, and we have been able to survive and grow. The important message with the festival is that all this music is important to us and really different from us. If you scratch beneath the surface and look at what’s on the bill, you can see these are essential musicians and composers. It’s rare that a band like The National listens to bands that sound like The National. We search music that is much further afield, and that’s where we find our most exciting ideas. That’s what I hope the audience will take away from it.

The National photo by Graham MacIndoe


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].