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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.

Nief-Norf

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.

Laurie Anderson Hosts Late Night Lou Reed: DRONES Jam

Lou Reed: DRONES was installed for several hours each day during the festival at The Standard, another warehouse-style dance hall with wood floors and no seats. The drones are produced by several of Lou Reed's guitars leaning against his amplifiers. The resulting feedback was manipulated by his longtime guitar tech, making it more varied than the description may sound. The approach recalls Reed's ambient, industrial Metal Machine Music, as well as the powerful sonic backbone of the early Velvet Underground. With Anderson's violin added to the mix (again playing offstage) it was a potent hum indeed. But above all else, it was loud, a powerful wave of sound strong enough to feel in your body. Which made the instructions to prospective jammers to bring portable, acoustic instruments puzzling. My acoustic guitar was completely inaudible even to me, so it didn't matter if I was moving around or not. However, I could see the guitar strings vibrating sympathetically when I took my hands off them! So the good news is: I played guitar with Laurie Anderson. The bad news: no one could hear me. I heard a few horn and percussion players over the din, but that was about it. A great idea, but it didn't feel much like a jam.

Day Three (Saturday)

Mary Halvorson

Guitarist Mary Halvorson played a solo set at the Square Room. The program was "all covers," as she announced a little ways in: most of the selections from her recent solo album Meltframe (Firehouse 12 Records, 2015). The sequence was different: she opened with Ornette Coleman's "Sadness," an idiosyncratic arrangement using an unusual mixture of slide and fretted playing. "Cheshire Hotel" was next, introducing the whammy pedal pitch bending effect that has become such an integral part of her style, as well as electronic delay. Halvorson is not a showy performer, but the visual element of seeing her produce the sounds definitely added an element missing when just hearing the recording. She rendered Carla Bley's lovely "Ida Lupino" in a fairly straight chord-melody style, but used fuzz distortion for the climax of McCoy Tyner's "Aisha." Shortly after that she played frequent band mate Tomas Fujiwara's "When" completely acoustically—a wonderful surprise in that intimate space—then closed the set with Duke Ellington's "Solitude." Halvorson is a totally contemporary player (as evidenced by her liberal use of electronic effects), yet she plays a traditional archtop guitar, and her repertoire encompassed a full range of jazz. There's no one else quite like her.

Maya Beiser

Cellist Maya Beiser took the Bijou Theatre stage for a solo recital, albeit one heavily augmented by electronics and film projections. The most stunning example of this was Steve Reich's Cello Counterpoint, which was composed for Beiser and premiered by her. It is scored for eight cellos, seven of which Beiser had pre-recorded. They were displayed behind her in split screen film projections (by Bill Morrison), which she jokingly called her "backup band." It's a dramatic piece, and the visual effect was fascinating. Morrison also provided elaborate historical film backing for Michael Harrison's Just Ancient Loops, which also featured live looping by Beiser.

Two other works on the program had connections with rock music. David Lang's composition using the Lou Reed song "Heroin" subverted expectations by setting Reed's lyrics to new music, which Beiser sang as well as played. I think employing Reed's tune as well would have been more effective, but perhaps that is just due to familiarity. The final selection was an arrangement of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." Played with wild abandon against a backing track—Beiser's bow took some serious punishment—it was an exciting conclusion to an extremely varied program.

An Evening with Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass

An intimate, Unplugged-style acoustic performance with Philip Glass on piano and Laurie Anderson on violin.This was the North American premier of a show that had taken place only once before, in Italy. It was a kind of acoustic greatest hits, a blend of music by both composers. They opened with Anderson's "Her Last Words" about the death of her mother. Before performing Wichita Vortex Sutra, Glass' collaboration with the late poet Allen Ginsberg, Glass commented on the value of having a recorded recitation of the poem. "I really miss him, but" working with Ginsberg live was "a nightmare, like chasing rabbits" as Ginsberg would make changes every time. Another departed poet was present in recorded form as Lou Reed contributed a recorded narrative from "Junior Dad," taken from his final studio recording Lulu, with Metallica. At one point both performers alternated recitation, like two singers taking successive verses in a duet. The whole performance had that tone: a warm, low-key collaboration between two old friends. The final selection, "Another Day in America" found Anderson reciting over Glass's piano, a fitting ending to the concert.

The Necks

Australian free improvisation trio The Necks have performed at Big Ears several times. They could almost be the poster child for the festival: an acoustic piano trio that makes music that completely defies genre labels. Their performance consisted of a single hour-long improvisation—a few chords rumbling and rolling, building in intensity, briefly exploding into a climax then subsiding again. Sublime, mesmerizing, minimal and beautiful.

Marc Ribot

Guitarist Marc Ribot's second solo show was an acoustic guitar set at The Standard, not the usual venue for acoustic music. At one point he commended the audience for being able to listen to this music standing up: "usually I'm lying down when I listen to it," he joked. The repertoire was more jazz-oriented this time, including tunes by Albert Ayler, Louis Armstrong, and John Coltrane, ending with a version of "Old Man River."

Kamasi Washington

Saxophonist/composer Kamasi Washington brought his band The Next Step, a modern spin on a big band. For this late-night performance at the Mill & Mine it was a septet: Washington on tenor sax; trombone, female vocalist (who usually sang vocalise on the songs without words), keyboards, double bass, and two drummers. It is the same band featured on his groundbreaking solo album The Epic, an ambitious 172-minute, triple-disc collection. Washington's compositions are dynamic, multi-part affairs, full of shifting rhythms. There's plenty of jazz swing, as well as other influences like pop. hip-hop and funk—one tune even featured a double bass solo with wah-wah pedal. Washington introduced the song "Henrietta Our Hero" as being about the family matriarch. Fittingly he brought his father out on flute—"the man who taught me everything I know"—making the band an octet for the rest of the night. It's a great band, with an energy and joy in playing that is infectious: serious jazz that is also fun to listen to.

Day Four (Sunday)

John Luther Adams' Inuksuit

Inuksuit is an epic, outdoor work for 9-99 percussionists (this performance had about 60). Inspired by the Inuit stone structures of the same name, the work evokes a sense of place by calling upon the performers to shape the music around the physical space of its outdoor location, in this case Knoxville's Ijams Nature Center. Walking along the multilevel nature paths, the listener was surrounded by sound: some percussionists nearby, others who could be heard in the distance. Players of small, portable instruments like the triangle were free to take up different positions in the space as the performance progressed, and all of the players had a set of parts which could be played at their discretion (similar to Terry Riley's seminal minimalist work In C). So it was a rich, ever-changing environment whether you stayed in one place or moved around.

The sound was dominated by loud drums, cymbal washes, and tinkling small percussion. But mallet instruments could be heard playing dreamlike melodies as well—it was a rich and varied soundscape. The piece has been recorded, but it's hard to imagine a recording that could capture the complexity of actually experiencing it outdoors.

John Luther Adams' Veils and Vesper

Veils and Vesper is a series of distinct but related electronic pieces written by Adams in 2005, meant to be heard successively or concurrently. When installed together, the listener is able to create their own "mix" by moving through the space, basking in the harmonic colors of each individual piece or to taking in the more oceanic experience of the whole. The entire cycle takes six hours, and the piece ran in The Sanctuary from Thursday through Sunday. I spent time with it on Sunday, having not found enough free time previously during the festival.

This installation employed six speakers in the main sanctuary, four speakers in the choir loft at the front of the church, and subwoofers. The music is a slowly changing harmonic cloud. It wasn't even necessary to walk around the space to hear a change in the harmonic content: just moving your head was enough. It was a beautiful, time-stopping experience. I would certainly have stopped in more than once if the location was more accessible.

Conclusions

Marvelous musical variety (not to mention the film presentations): Big Ears is a true feast, with far too much on offer to hear it all. The distance between some of the venues made jumping from one show to another potentially difficult. A review of the festival would not be complete without mentioning the capacity issues. Capacity warnings started going out on Thursday night: notice to festival attendees that a show at one of the venues was at capacity, and new audience members would only be admitted as people exited the hall. The big evening shows in the Tennessee Theatre (capacity about 1500) were ticketed, but everything else was first come, first serve, and a great many of the shows were full to capacity. It seems that the festival may have grown too quickly, and needs either larger venues or fewer ticket sales.

Photo Credit: Zita Gillis

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