Big Ears Festival 2016

Mark Sullivan By

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Since its beginning in 2009, the Big Ears Festival has always been willfully, unapologetically eclectic. —Mark Sullivan
Big Ears Festival
Knoxville, TN
March 31-April 2, 2016

Since its beginning in 2009, the Big Ears Festival has always been willfully, unapologetically eclectic. Their own self-description is "a dynamic, interactive experience that explores connections between musicians and artists, crossing all musical genres while interfacing with film, performance and the visual arts." Named for an especially perceptive listener—one who may hear things others would miss—it offers interactive workshops, installations, exhibitions, film screenings and surprise collaborations, in addition to a vast array of musical performances.

New Music is the heart of the programming. This year's Composer-in-Residence was Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams. Past guests have included composers
Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich; and performers like Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, and So Percussion. But past festivals have also hosted alternative rock artists like The National, Swans, and St. Vincent; icons like Television, John Cale, and Silver Apples; and experimental artists such as Pauline Oliveros, Tanya Tagaq, Jon Hassell, Antony & the Johnsons, Fennesz, Tim Hecker, and Marc Ribot. Jazz isn't neglected, but here also the programming leans toward the avant-garde. Despite the intention of crossing musical genres there were a number of shows with a clear genre focus: e.g. Celtic (The Gloaming); Noise Rock ( Sunn O))), Wolf Eyes); and Electronica (Andy Stott, Kiasmos). Not everything is edgy, and it would be possible to have an experience similar to a more mainstream festival.

Day One (Thursday)

Bryce Dessner/Philip Glass/John Luther Adams

The festival begins on Thursday night.The opening event was a concert by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick in the grand Tennessee Theatre, an ornate 1920s-era movie palace. Lachrimae , a string orchestra piece composed by The National's Bryce Dessner, was a beautiful, dense, layered piece. It was followed by Philip Glass' Cello Concerto No. 2 "Naqoyqatsi," with soloist Maya Beiser. Beiser gave a riveting performance, but the most striking thing was the wide dynamic range—which recordings rarely capture. After intermission John Luther Adams's Become Ocean occupied the entire second half. The piece won both the 2014 Pulizer Prize and a 2015 Grammy Award for "Best Contemporary Classical Composition." It's easy to hear why: hearing it is a hypnotic, immersive experience, as rich layers of sound wash over you. It ebbs and flows like a natural process, rather than traditional thematic development.

Meanwhile, the Sun Ra Arkestra directed by Marshall Allen had begun their show at a venue nearly a mile away, making hearing even part of it impractical—the first of many unresolvable programming conflicts.


The Square Room (the most intimate venue at the festival) hosted the ensemble Nief-Norf, New Music chamber music specialists who took the ensemble's name from a descriptor of strange sounds. This was the first of four performances, a program of Judd Greenstein's A Moment of Clarity; John Luther Adams Dark Wind; Edgard Varèse's Density 21.5; Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Aura; and Steve Reich's Four Organs. A varied program, with Varèse's classic flute solo, Thorvaldsdottir's percussion piece in the round, and the Reich special standouts. The group did not try to round up four Farfisa combo organs, using software organ emulators instead, which probably sounded better than vintage organs would have. It's a minimalist classic, mesmerizing in its simplicity.

Day Two (Friday)

Marc Ribot

Guitarist Marc Ribot played his first show solo at "The Sanctuary," a former church. The stage was set with an electric guitar, amplifier, electronic effects, and balloons on the floor—more on that later. Ribot entered the stage with an acoustic guitar, and devoted the first half of his set to pieces from his mentor, Haitian guitarist Frantz Casséus. He mentioned that the music was written for classical guitar, but he was playing it on steel-string guitar, which was the first and last time anyone in the audience would likely have noticed. In Ribot's hands the music sounded as if it was intended to be performed this way. The selections included the "Haitian Suite," "On Sunday," and another suite Ribot arranged from two published pieces and two manuscripts found in Casséus's notebooks. Beautiful music, brought to life with obvious love.

Ribot moved to electric guitar for selections from John Zorn's The Book of Heads, condensed from roughly 80 other compositions and originally composed for improviser, guitarist and banjoist Eugene Chadbourne. Ribot joked that he had recorded them a long time ago, and we'd see how well he remembered them. They opened with a popping balloon, and the first piece ("No. 27") was punctuated with that sound, along with wild slide playing. Pretty much the polar opposite of the Casséus music, and the remaining pieces included a wide variety of unconventional playing techniques: harmonics, playing with a violin bow, scratching, slapping on the guitar body, and rubbing a balloon over the guitar pickup, to name a few. A lovely racket, and fun to watch.

The last selection was an arrangement of John Cage's organ composition Some of 'The Harmony of Maine,' which was adapted from a Maine hymnbook. Ribot joked that he did not seem to be able to play anything on the instrument it was written for. The hymn structures were audible—albeit with alterations—and Ribot used feedback to simulate an organ's sustain, although he did not try to duplicate the manipulation of the organ stops in the Cage score. The entire show was an early festival highlight for me, and it remains one of my favorites.

Zeena Parkins & Tony Buck

Veteran avant-garde harpist Zeena Parkins and drummer/percussionist Tony Buck (of The Necks) played a duet set at the Mill & Mine, a large dance hall space with a freshly finished wood floor. Parkins used the electronic harp she designed, which is a harp only in the general design: it's a triangle with some strings stretched across it (much smaller than a concert harp, and mounted on a raised stand), along with several electronic features manipulated on the frame. Between her non-traditional playing techniques and the purely electronic effects, it could often just as easily been a guitar—and it was loud. Buck had a more open-ended setting than he has in The Necks, and used it to provide an impressive combination of textural playing with an amazing ability to find a groove in a somewhat abstract setting. The set was a single continuous improvisation.

Chris Abrahams

From one member of The Necks to another: a solo set from pianist Chris Abrahams (back at the intimate space The Square Room). An hour-long continuous performance, a mesmerizing exploration of a single chord (with extensions and variations). Acoustic effects from the repetitions provided what was effectively another part, a shimmering, pulsing accompaniment to what Abrahams was playing on the piano keyboard. Like The Necks stripped down to the essentials, if that makes any sense.

Anthony Braxton 10+1tet

The first show I attended at the Bijou Theatre, another renovated theater space, slightly smaller and less decorative than the Tennessee Theatre. Anthony Braxton led a large band, although it notably did not include a drummer, only a percussionist who specialized in mallet instruments. In addition to Braxton's saxophones, the group also included avant-garde stalwarts like cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, trumpeter Nate Wooley, and guitarist Mary Halvorson. A continuous performance, characterized by simultaneous planes of musical activity. Regardless of how cacophonous it may have sounded, there was audible and visual evidence of organization. On the broad level, one could see Braxton directing changes for whole sections of the band. At a smaller level, pairs of players could be seen cuing each other. They would indicate section numbers with their fingers, and shortly afterward they could be heard playing the same part in unison. Braxton claims that his music is not jazz at all. After closer exposure to his working methods, I think I see what he means.

eighth blackbird With Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Bryce Dessner

Noted contemporary classical ensemble eighth blackbird occupied the ticketed theater slot on the second night. After opening with David Lang's learn to fly the group launched into Bryce Dessner's Murder Ballades, a set of pieces inspired by American folk music and commissioned by eighth blackbird. For this performance two additional Ballades were added, the last featuring Dessner on guitar and Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy) on vocals. These pieces make effective use of American idiomatic music in the concert setting: thoroughly enjoyable. Oldham stuck around to do the narration on Frederic Rzewski's strikingly original Coming Together, a setting of letters from Sam Melville, an inmate at Attica State Prison at the time of the famous 1971 riots. At this point I was forced to leave early to catch the next performance.

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith

Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith played a set of pieces recently documented on their ECM album a cosmic rhythm with each stroke. Like the album the centerpiece was the magnetic seven-part title suite, dedicated to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990). Though the musical form of the suite was largely shaped in the moment in the studio, the recording was preceded by studying and discussing Mohamedi's work and reading her journals. Given the frequent use of visual art in festival performances I thought there was an opportunity lost: it would have been illuminating to see projections of the art and writing that had helped to inspire the music. But the performance was beautiful, full of quiet intensity. Iyer (who considers Smith a mentor) and Smith have performed together many times, and this work documents a deeply felt musical kinship. The occasional electronics Iyer employed were noticeably louder in the mix than on the recording. I don't know if this was intentional or a live performance artifact, but it was effective, making for a bigger sound as well as greater contrast between the electronics and the live acoustic instruments.

Outside the Dream Syndicate (Tony Conrad With Faust)

Outside the Dream Syndicate , the 1973 collaboration between American avant-garde violinist and filmmaker Tony Conrad and the German experimental "Krautrock" band Faust (Jean-Hervé Péron & Zappi Diermaier) has achieved legendary status as a classic of minimalist drone music. It's one of those experimental works that achieved far more in influence than it ever did in sales. Conrad had to cancel his appearance at the last minute due to health reasons, but his string ensemble was there, augmented by Laurie Anderson's electric violin (she stood offstage so as not to distract from the featured performers). Standing on stage with a gray plaid projection behind them, the musicians created a massive drone, accompanied by throbbing bass and simple tribal-sounding drumming. After a short build up the sound grew to maximum intensity and stayed there—the bright spotlights that erupted after about 45 minutes were the only significant change during the hour-long performance. I heard some melodic material weaving through the drone that I have to attribute to Anderson, unless I was hearing things due to the harmonics and acoustic effects produced by the prolonged high volume sound.

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