Bryce Dessner is a busy man. The beginning of March saw the release of his chamber-rock ensemble Clogs' years-in-the-making The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton, while his primary gig as guitarist for Brooklyn indie rockers the National has found him gearing up for the May release of High Violet, the long-awaited follow-up to 2007's acclaimed Boxer. Amid the recording and promotion of both records he's also been prepping his annual MusicNow Festival in Cincinnati, the fifth installment of which begins March 30. And over the weekend leading up to MusicNow, Dessner will see the fruits of a year's work in a new role as co-curator of Big Ears 2010.
"Ashley Capps called me just after last year's festival and asked if I wanted to be involved," says Dessner, who has turned down similar offers in the past. "So we met up in New York and just talked about ideas, which is really the fun part."
Dessner's experience organizing his own festival prepared him for the less fun parts of putting Big Ears together, and he remains enthusiastic about the special challenges and advantages of Big Ears. While MusicNow shares ideals with Knoxville's bigger, younger festival, Dessner is quick to point out the distinct differences in execution. Taking place over three or four evenings at Cincinnati's Memorial Hall, MusicNow focuses in many cases on commissioned pieces, and though it shares Big Ears' emphasis on collaborative performances, the single venue and time constraints limit the diversity. Big Ears, on the other hand, seems to Dessner like a hybrid of smaller events like MusicNow and grand multimedia bashes like the long-running All Tomorrow's Parties festival series.
"It's a new model for a multi-stage festival," he figures. "It's all there, but it's set in a way that's more intimate."
Many of Big Ears' 2010 performers, in fact, are MusicNow alumni, including the Books, Dirty Projectors, and Bang on a Can All-Stars. (Both Joanna Newsom and St. Vincent will head north following Big Ears to join Bon Iver's Justin Vernon for MusicNow 2010.)
"A lot of them are friends, but they're also really some of the most interesting music that's happening around," he says.
Still, Dessner and Capps' choice to lure more prominent, accessible indie acts like Vampire Weekend and the xx—or Dessner's own the National, one of the weekend's most mainstream rock acts—has led to considerable grumbling that Big Ears 2010 looks to be too much fun, at the supposed expense of both smaller artists and more out-there selections. Dessner is mum on the commercial implications of the lineup, but offers a convincing argument for these artists' place in the festival.
"It's important that there's advocates for non-commercial music," he says. "But at pretty much any point in the festival you can go see something freaky and cool or you can go see something where maybe you're tapping your foot. I think audiences really benefit from having both, and we've tried to pair smaller acts opening for bigger ones, to maybe reach a new audience."
As to what Dessner himself is looking forward to—aside from a star-studded Clogs set and a large-venue debut of new National material—there's first and foremost the Big Ears Film Program at Knoxville Museum of Art, which will be overseen by Dessner's sister Jessica and feature a collection of art films ranging from famous to virtually unseen, accompanied live by festival musicians. He also mentions the likes of Buke & Gass (he describes them as "strange" and "infectious"), Tim Hecker, and venerable Dutch art-punks the Ex—"They were at the top of my wish list," he says. And then, of course, there's Terry Riley.
"He really is the godfather of pretty much all of this music," Dessner says. "At 75 years old, he's still more adventurous in spirit than most of us could ever hope to be. He's a force of nature."