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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.

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