So, here we are, it’s June and festival season is in high gear. I’ve been to three and I’ve already got my sights set on Airwaves, trying to work out just how I can swing a week in Reykjavik come mid-October. One of my UK counterparts recently told me about a dream she’d had in which I had scored media passes to The Great Escape and was texting her updates as her jealously and disappointment mounted. This was pure fantasy, of course. (I only do that sort of thing to people who have treated me horribly in the past and I bear no such ill will towards her.) Moreover, and more importantly, come the weekend of The Great Escape, I was thousands of miles away at another, much smaller festival, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Now, I call MusicNOW a “small” festival. And in terms of seating capacity and the shear number of bands slated to perform, it is. But one look at the lineup curated this (and every) year by Bryce Dessner of The National, it’s a wonder that MusicNOW—this year including The National, Owen Pallett, Sharon Van Etten, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), and Megafaun among others—isn’t at the top of everyone’s list. My only regret being that I could only attend the opening night of the festival, but, in the immortal words of Frankie Valli: oh, what a night!

It looks straightforward enough on the surface. Three bands on the bill: Sounds of the South, Shara Worden, and yMusic. (I’m going to take them out of order, if it’s alright with you.) But it’s not so simple as that.

MusicNOW bills itself as a “festival of contemporary music” and is, in every sense, the embodiment of that ideal (opening night featured, almost exclusively, unrecorded music). It’s a festival about more than a string of bands taking the stage to play the hits. From the moment that yMusic took the stage, it was clear (as I’ve heard from so many people) that MusicNOW is a special festival. I first met yMusic (well, half of them, anyway) at String Theory Festival in Minneapolis in April. Now being a New York native, I had never seen them before, though I’d long heard tell of their impeccable performances. And it’s all true.

My first impression of yMusic was one of complete astonishment—like the shock of recovering the memory of something I never knew I’d forgotten. And with every subsequent performance (four in the last two months), I’ve come away thinking the same thing: that this is why I ever studied music in the first place. And MusicNOW was no different. From the opening moments of Judd Greenstein’s Clearing, Dawn, Dance (which you can download here) through the premiere of a new work by Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) and their set with Shara Worden it is, as always, abundantly clear that yMusic are one of the brightest lights in whatever the hell we’ve decided to call the current state of music.

Now, a word about the Parry premiere: one of the main focal points of each MusicNOW festival is the commissioning of a new piece of music. Past contributors have included Tyondai Braxton (Battles) and Annie Clark (St. Vincent). This year, the honor fell to Richard Reed Parry (or, as he was introduced by Bryce Dessner, “my friend from a band that no one has ever heard of who recently won a Grammy”.) For the piece, half of yMusic, seated at the piano with stethoscopes bound tightly to them, played to the tempo of their respective heartbeats while their three counterparts played in what might be called “the traditional manner”. The resulting pseudo-aleatory—always out of step, never out of phase—produces a beautiful haunting effect and will likely serve as a useful metaphor about stylistic diversity in future posts. It’s musica humana in its truest form.

And while yMusic may have played, quite literally, to their hearts’ content, the evening’s headliner, Sounds of the South took their organic cues from another source entirely. The performance, commissioned by Duke Performances finds its origins in the field recordings of Alan Lomax, appropriately enough, from the collection entitled Sound of the South. Through a series of new arrangements, reinterpretations, and reimaginings, the members of Megafaun and Fight the Big Bull breathe new life into Lomax’s legendary field recordings at once removing them from their native context to a whole new setting (the concert hall) and redefining the sound of concert music. All while enlisting the help of some very special friends along the way.

If you had told me two months ago that I would spend an evening listening to Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Sharon Van Etten singing blues backed by full New Orleans style jazz band, I would have—well, you probably wouldn’t have told me that, so this is a useless metaphor, but the point is, I did. And it was incredible. With intricate (and occasionally cerebral) jam sessions the rule for the night and a constantly rotating cast of singers to keep things interesting, Sounds of the South also highlights the transcendent nature of the source material (and folk music in general) – more than just songs, they are a launching point for a flurry of ideas and ingenuity. And as midnight approached 90 minutes into the performance, the only conceivable downside was that it would eventually have to end.

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