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Sufjan Stevens and friends @ MusicNow

I’ve thought about number 50 even more than our recent anniversary, which we celebrated a couple of weeks ago. 50 video sessions and 50 bands (at least!) already filmed and dispersed. The energy of the earliest moments fused with the numerous and positive episodes of the past few months, plus the countless demands from bands and labels; all this pushing and transforming turned into a certain routine, a kind of ease of execution and learned preparation. But within this factory-like transformation was the difficulty of the unforeseen (because, to tell the truth, we didn’t know how to do it). Here is where the brilliance emerged and, for Chryde, me, and the whole team that supports us, it’s also where the most overwhelming memories reside.

We’re always trying something new, going further, moving beyond, or evolving without the fear of mislaying our tracks or making poor decisions along the way…Just as long as the effort tempts novelty and opens new doors. So, at the end of the 30-minute film we’re offering today, you can’t reproach me for not having tried, not having attempted…

And when one has the chance to find himrself in the situation I was in for a couple of days (April 5, 6, and 7, 2007), it would be a shame not to take advantage of it in the most communal way possible. I was invited to the second annual MusicNOW festival in Cincinnati. The festival took place in the superb, yet slightly improbable, Memorial Hall, which dates back to the Civil War and awards its visitors with an interior decked out in historical scraps and relics. It’s a bizarre way to put it, I know, but the place was even stranger than it sounds.

Bryce Dessner, hailing from Cincinnati, was the curator of the event, and thus simply decided to invite all his friends. Bryce, the blessed musician whose name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, moves people across certain boundaries that rarely rub elbows with one another. Bryce is the guitarist for The National, which is successfully growing by the minute. But he’s also a versed improv musician, notably with his magnificent collaboration with Padma Newsome for The Clogs. The praise continues with the mention of his renowned compositional work for the most demanding musical circles, from Bang and Can to Sufjan Stevens. It appears that Dessner is on his way to becoming one of the most remarkable musicians of the past decade.

A couple days before the festival, Bryce had asked me to think out a plan for some kind of film to document the event. Just something simple to trace the special encounter of friends and musicians in an environment that continually grew to resemble summer camp–the managers and label people, who were cordially left out, seeming to play the role of the overprotective parents. There was an air of freshness that passed through the venue, where everyone gathered for an intimate embrace and collective musical exchange.

The festival’s line-up was absolutely stunning, and especially unique to a city like Cincinnati: an extraordinary opportunity, but only three days to make a video with so many talented and admirable musicians isn’t that much. It was quite a task to figure out an adequate and controlled formula for the shot sequences and the problem of capturing everything within the cacophony of a music festival. Fortunately, my friend Gaspard Claus assisted me throughout the whole thing. Many thanks to him.

The fact that both of us found ourselves together in the States at that moment wasn’t just because of Bryce, Cincinnati, or the wonderful Pedro. It was because of the Havels. Vojtech and Irena Havel, or Havlovi, are a Czech duet, discovered a couple of years ago through a Bryce intermediary. The music had haunted us to the point that we decided to write a film about it, which we hope to make next fall on the roads of Eastern Europe. The couple opens the film in the Memorial Hall Attic. We had met them for the first time a several hours before, after spending such a long time imagining their story. The apprehension of speaking with them quickly turned into immense admiration for two people with an inexplicable gentleness, both of whom are among the most gifted musicians I’ve ever encountered. Watching them play the viola de gamba for an hour in front of a floor of eager Sufjan fans, who later go on to give them a unanimous standing ovation, was truly a moment of rare delight. A victorious sensation to which we could only bring a small gasp of air.

I never thought I would be able to film Sufjan. I had tried my luck one time before, but the good man needs his time, a kind of slow build into a calm moment of rare revelation. And so it was no surprise that, 10 minutes before filming him, he kind a freaked out, saying, with fleeing and frightened eyes, like an animal being hunted, “No, no, I don’t want to be filmed anymore, leave me be.” Ok, so we’ll do it calmly, letting the camera roll as discreetly as possible, one take, with no time or patience for errors. Sufjan finishes by descending the staircase, whistling (phew!) with the kind air of appreciation (take note of the bonus video in the open air, found below).

I had only known David Cossin from afar, from the simple spectatorship of the New York show Bang on a Can at Le Theatre de Ville in Paris. The performance was marked by an amazing Cossin percussion solo coupled with a superimposed video of his movements and Steve Reich’s Piano Phase added on top. Completely stunning. So it was obvious that we had to ask him to launch into an improv session in Sufjan’s dressing room, which became even more chaotic with the laughing radiators responding. It was this moment that kind of pitted David against American history. Perhaps the battle lasted longer, but the camera didn’t quite catch it all.

Pedro is my friend Gaspard’s father. He’s a monument of flamenco guitar, a vibrant character with a past full of astounding encounters, including a long friendships with Altahualpa Yupanqui, Caetano, and Paco (sorry for shortening the story, Pedro, but you know how it is with internet, blogs, attention dispersion, etc). This should all seem pretty strange to him, being projected on film as such; I think he took it well, seated in his armchair as if he were lost in a prestigious salon like a king. He would also have his standing ovation the first evening. It was a moving moment, to say the least.

The Clogs performed, in the midst of the festival, a slew of new songs that you’ll hear people chattering about very soon: “Clogs Songs” seems to be the name of the project that has already made rapid advancements. Each song is going to involve a singer that’s close to Bryce and Padma’s worlds, such as Matt Berninger, or, in this case, Shara “My Brightest Diamond” Worden. (The rest of the cast however, shall remain unknown).

And anyway, we’d be content to have a string album accompanied by Shara’s marvelous voice. A month before, My Brightest Diamond had played in Paris with a guitar/bass/drums trio. It was a concert that saddened me to the point of near outrage, listening to heavy rock mix with her songs, which, for me, seem to be tied to and blessed by the sun. The second night of the festival, Shara played with the stringed Osso Quartet, whom we’ll later encounter in the basement of Memorial Hall. This act, left a spell over the festival, and was one of the most enchanting moments that most people present had ever witnessed. The Kurt Weill cover finished the night, and even left the venue empty with spectators at the back of the hall looking for shoulders to cry on. Shara, if you ever read this, thanks again.

An essential character in the festival, the Osso Quaret brings together four extremely strong musicians from diverse backgrounds. (Rob plays primarily with Antony, Olivier frequents various clubs and theaters in New York, Maria played with Polyphonic Spree, and we’ll discover Marla Hansen soon enough with Inlets on an upcoming Take Away Show). The group came to work as support for Shara and Sufjan, with whom they provided the cords on the electronic tracks off his astonishing album Enjoy Your Rabbit. This is the amazing result of this collaboration, arranged primarily by Michael Atkinson. At the time of the festival, with everyone stricken by the quartet, there was talk of a potential album. Let’s hope that’s still in the making.

What better way to finish than with the four fairy elves from Amiina? The former quartet for Sigur Ros, which may at times rack people with their affected poses, seemed to fit right at home at this festival. They provided this last, euphoric touch, which resembles a dream from which one emerges calmly–after nearly half an hour of being enclosed in a small space and breathing in the music, it was a relief to finally fall out and into open air. And to run through the night in search for even more vibrancy and sound with the past behind us. The music remains strong.

And by the way, thanks Bryce.