Regional Music Review: MUSICNOW FESTIVAL (Cincinnati Memorial Hall)

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by Sarah Taylor Ellis on April 19, 2013

in Theater-Regional


“You came all the way to Cincinnati for this?” several Ohioans asked me during the eighth annual MusicNOW Festival. I may have access to great contemporary music any night of the week in New York City, but rarely does the concert lineup include such a diverse juxtaposition of musicians, impromptu collaborations, and multiple world premieres in a single intimate space. In short, Bryce Dessner curates a festival worthy of a musical pilgrimage.

The first night of MusicNOW kicked off with Brooklyn-based duo Buke and Gase, whose electronically manipulated vocals and unique instruments (such as the “buke,” a modified six-string baritone ukulele, and the “gase,” a guitar-bass) make for a wholly unexpected sound. Think of Buke and Gase as two one-man bands; combined, Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez sound more like a five-man band or more. Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema review of the MusicNOW Festival 2013 in CincinnatiCatchy hooks, surprising meter shifts, and curious distortions and effects craft an endlessly fascinating and infectious set of indie pop songs.

Richard Reed Parry next gave the US premiere of Quiet River of Dust, an earthy song cycle infused with nostalgia for times and places past. Enhanced with harmonies and atmospheric sound effects by Laurel Sprengelmeyer, as well as grounding beats by Stefan Schneider, each of Parry’s long narrative songs draws the listener into a wondrous world. These expansive songs gradually build the soundscape layer by layer, repetition by repetition, attuning the audiences’ ears to the rich texture of the earth, seas, and skies.

The evening ended with the entire crowd on their feet for Tinariwen, a band formed in Mali by young Touareg soldiers in the early 1990s. Through a sonic juxtaposition of traditional instruments and electric guitars, Tinariwen strove to promote the rights of nomadic peoples while rebelling against a repressive central government. Simply put, Tinariwen’s music is entrancing. Each extended song features sung verses followed by long instrumental breaks. Friday night, their fans swayed and Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema review of the MusicNOW Festival 2013 in Cincinnaticlapped along to the unison drone vocals, improvised guitar riffs, and pulsing beats for hours.

The second night of MusicNOW could not have been more different, opening with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus encircling the audience to perform a stunning a cappella selection: John King’s “Light,” which bridges from complex harmonies into crystalline clear unisons. Under the sharp direction of Dianne Berkun-Menaker, the forty-three teenage performers offered a diverse program of music, including several songs from the upcoming collaborative song cycle Black Mountain Songs. It seems the singers could not hear the piano during a few numbers; however, the a cappella and more fully orchestrated songs with The Ariel Quartet were pitch perfect.

Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema review of the MusicNOW Festival 2013 in CincinnatiIt was a particular treat to see the chorus joined by the composers on stage. Bryce Dessner’s “Black Mountain Song” sets a Robert Creeley poem to a gentle guitar strain, and Richard Reed Parry’s “Their Passing in Time,” based on John Cage’s rules for students and teachers, begins with a simple unison refrain that kicks into an infectious groove. Shara Worden also brought a peppy energy to the stage with her a cappella set of The Pyramid Songs.

Yet I have never seen an audience quite as rapt as when Glen Hansard entered stage for the second half of the night, featuring songs from his solo debut album Rhythm and Repose. From the sparse piano chords of “Bird of Sorrow” to the choked intensity of “Philander” (which also showcased the masterful Thomas Bartlett on piano), Hansard’s rich musical textures, incisive lyrics, and blistering vocals held the audience captive for a two hour set that felt like an impromptu jam session. Hansard regaled the audience with stories of drunken adventures on the high seas before launching into “Talking with the Wolves” with by Bryce Dessner on guitar and Shara Worden on backup vocals. Joined by the dusky-toned Raquel Klein of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Hansard revisited the wistful longing of his Grammy Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema review of the MusicNOW Festival 2013 in CincinnatiAward-winning hit “Falling Slowly.” After breaking a guitar string during a blazing cover of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” Hansard led the audience in a sing along of “Devil Town.” The full Brooklyn Youth Chorus joined the growing group of musicians on stage for the final few songs, including an encore of Leonard Cohen’s “Passing Through.”

Although the last night of the MusicNOW Festival was perhaps the most conventionally structured of the concerts, So Percussion’s performance of the MusicNOW Esme Kenney Commission and a selection of Steve Reich’s work for percussion made for an invigorating end to the weekend. Daniel Bjarnason’s Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema review of the MusicNOW Festival 2013 in Cincinnaticommissioned piece played with the multiple textures of the marimba; beginning with an ethereal patter in the upper register, the piece kicks into a dynamic off-beat rhythm before gradually fading out in the deep harmonies of bowed vibes.

The selection of Steve Reich’s work for percussion began with “Music for Pieces of Wood,” a playful argument among wood blocks; each musician’s entrance takes up an attitude towards the rhythms of the other wood blocks, sometimes joining in synchronicity, sometimes turning the beat around. The intricate patterns of these percussion pieces demand that the music be seen as well as heard. The astonishing rhythmic control of the performers was best showcased in “Marimba Phase,” one of Reich’s best known phase pieces; and as metrically complex as Reich’s work often is, his “Mallet Quartet” offered complex harmonies with satisfying snatches of melody.

The MusicNOW Festival also featured the art installation Atlas Points at the Emery Theater, currently undergoing rather incommodious renovations. Cincinnati natives Nathlie Provosty’s and Jessie Henson’s artistic meditations on time and space were the backdrop for a well-attended gallery party on Sunday afternoon, where Bryce Dessner also offered an all-too-brief performance on electric guitar. This chance to Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema review of the MusicNOW Festival 2013 in Cincinnatimingle outside the concert hall and discuss the weekend’s events was a welcome addition to the festival, and hopefully this visual arts collaboration can be expanded in future years.

For a weekend each April, Memorial Hall in Cincinnati becomes a flexible space of artistic innovation, collaboration, and discovery. MusicNOW 2014 has already announced collaborations with Louis Langree and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Nico Muhly, David Lang, eighth blackbird, and The National. And I am ready to book my flight.

MusicNOW Festival 2013
Memorial Hall in Cincinnati
played April 12 – 14, 2013
for more info, visit

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