Big Ears Festival 2019

Mark Sullivan By

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Big Ears Festival
Knoxville, TN
March 21-24, 2019

The major focus of this year's Big Ears Festival was a celebration of ECM Records' 50th anniversary, which included a number of live performances (representing both the main label and the classical music imprint ECM New Series) as well as a panel discussion "ECM @ 50" (covered in a separate article here). There were about 20 concerts, the largest group of ECM artists under one banner in the United States (and one of the largest in the world) during this celebratory 50th year.

Even if he did not receive the traditional "composer in residence" title, ambient music pioneer Harold Budd (who hates the "ambient" label, it must be said) was featured in three concerts as both composer and performer. Opening night has usually begun with a big kickoff event. Nashville Ballet's "Lucy Negro Redux" occupied that slot in the grand Tennessee Theatre—but there was somewhat above average counter-programming on the schedule, and by all accounts the event was far from capacity.

March 21, 2019 (Thursday)

Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan/Mathias Eick Quintet/Tim Story Presents The Roedelius Cells

Guitarist Bill Frisell and double bassist Thomas Morgan have developed a splendid rapport playing duets, which was on full display on the festival's opening night. They opened with Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," which is also the title of their most recent 2019 ECM release. The entire set was heavily weighted towards tunes from that album. But the versions they played often diverged from the ones previously recorded. The second piece began with rubato electric guitar looping (including backwards sounds)—which turned out to be an introduction to "Save The Last Dance For Me," a song played in a medley with "Wildwood Flower" on the album.

Billy Strayhorn's stately ballad "Lush Life" was played very freely, but still recognizable, which lead into "Alice In Wonderland." That standard featured a guitar solo with octaves, as well as a beautiful extended double bass solo (with quiet, minimal guitar accompaniment). This time "Wildwood Flower" stood alone, with a long guitar loop ending. The set concluded with the James Bond movie theme "You Only Live Twice," with a complex multi-voice looped ending. A wonderful way to begin the weekend of music.

Norwegian trumpeter/composer/vocalist/keyboardist Mathias Eick and his quintet concentrated on the music from his album Ravensburg (ECM Records, 2018). But despite Eick's joke about jet lag the band sounded sharp, and frequently put out a higher, more extroverted energy than the recorded versions. They opened with "Family" and "Children." Pianist Erlend Slettvoll (who was not on the album) began with arpeggios before being joined by the full band. Eick's vocalise and synthesizer was doubled by Hakon Aases violin. Eick's falsetto vocalizing (and his breathy trumpet tone) both recall fellow Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen.

"Friends" moved firmly into a Miles Davis-style rock beat. Drummer Torstein Lofthus was leading the charge here—as he did throughout the set— abetted by substitute electric bassist Nikolai Eilertsen. This tune had a quiet ending, but there was no denying the electric energy that pervaded the set. Lofthus took a big unaccompanied solo to begin "Oslo" from Skala (ECM Records, 2011)—"where we all live," as the leader explained. He also spoke about his awe at being on the stage where Bill Frisell had just played: Frisell was a huge influence. The set ended as Ravensburg had, with "For My Grandmothers." Eick's high falsetto vocals accompanied by only violin and piano was a haunting ending.

"Roedelius Cells" is a sound installation by composer/musician Tim Story which draws from the work of German electronic music pioneer Hans-Joachim Roedelius (known for his work with Cluster, Harmonia and Brian Eno). The installation played music improvised by Roedelius on piano and synthesizer through an eight-channel circle of speakers. It created a 360-degree surround sound environment which was different each time. There were numerous opportunities throughout the festival to experience the installation at the Knoxville Museum of Art (which also hosted several other events). A fascinating experience for ambient music fans.

March 22, 2019 (Friday)

Joan La Barbara, Alvin Lucier & The Ever Present Orchestra/Mary Halvorson's Code Girl/Ralph Towner/Absînt (Aurora Nealand, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell & David Torn)/David Torn

Veteran experimental composer Alvin Lucier is best known for his membership in the Sonic Arts Union (with fellow composer/performers Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma). His work has investigated physical properties of sound, such as phase interference between closely tuned pitches and the resonance of spaces, both well represented in this program. Legendary avant-garde vocalist Joan La Barbara opened the concert with "Double Rainbow," a very minimal piece in which her long-tone singing produced beating effects against an electronic drone.

"Braid" brought on The Ever Present Orchestra, initially only electronics and three saxophones, which produced a denser web of difference tones. "Two Circles" added four violins and a piano to the mix, producing a shifting, slow-moving timbre which also utilized spatial elements as the sound moved from one side of the stage to the other. "Tilted Arc" featured a bowed xylophone with the strings and horns (plus the ever-present electronic drones): an interesting timbral shift. How ever minimal the music was, the programming still kept it from becoming completely static. There was a brief intermission, which unfortunately signaled a significant audience exit. Lucier himself came onstage and performed his 1969 minimalist classic "I am sitting in a room." The piece consists of a short recitation which is recorded and played back. That playback is recorded again. The process is repeated until the recording has taken on the resonant frequencies of the room, the words completely obliterated. It is a simple process, but one which is still fascinating and surprising in action.

Guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson has an extremely busy playing schedule, but Code Girl represents her most personal work. Built around a unique collection of songs penned by Halvorson, Code Girl features powerful young singer Amirtha Kidambi, along with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and the empathetic rhythm section of bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara (colleagues in the trio Thumbscrew, which also played during the festival).
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