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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).

Halvorson opened the set unaccompanied, soloing with the electronics that characterize her style. The set wasn't long enough to play the entire album, but it opened with the same song: "My Mind I Find in Time." Kidambi's electrifying vocal was followed by a guitar/trumpet duet, then by the first of many powerful Akinmusire trumpet solos. Over the course of the set there was slide guitar, free playing, and falsetto vocal shrieks in addition to Kidambi's serpentine singing (which was frequently doubled on guitar). The instrumental "Off The Record" had an extended unaccompanied double bass introduction from Formanek, an especially fleet guitar solo with whammy pedal (a particular Halvorson trademark), and a trumpet solo that morphed into a strong swing feel.

"Deepest Similar" was the ballad of the set, with arco double bass, and an especially acrobatic unaccompanied trumpet solo. "Possibility of Lightning" broke the pattern of the album tracks—second on the album, moved to the end of the live set. "Drop The Needle" was the concluding song in both, though. It featured a woodblock pulse; a fast, lyrical guitar solo with echo; trumpet and double bass solos; and a full stop before the vocals reentered. A fitting conclusion, spotlighting the band both individually and collectively.

Guitarist/composer Ralph Towner was a model ECM artist even before he joined the label, making prototypical ECM multicultural music with the band Oregon. His solo guitar performances have formed a parallel track, a personal artistic statement which has grown steadily over the course of his career. His solo classical guitar recital opened with "Saunter," which he described as a "newer" composition. It was followed by the standard "My Foolish Heart," the title tune from his 2017 ECM solo album. Towner said his version was inspired by pianist Bill Evans. The irony was that he has recently had heart trouble, which had led to a triple bypass. He said that he felt stronger than ever, and recommended triple bypass surgery highly! "At First Light" was a working title for a new tune: this was the second public performance. "I'll Sing To You" is another original, which Towner described as "one of my more romantic tunes." He also added that no one wanted to hear him actually sing. "Guitarra Picante" is an early tune, titled before he actually knew Italian (he lives in Italy now). "Make Someone Happy" is another favorite standard, which included a nice little coda. "Dolomiti Dance" was an excellent conclusion to the set, a dervish-like piece which featured Towner's dancing fingers.

Towner's solo playing has only deepened over the years: he has never sounded better.

The big draw of Absînt was the first meeting of experimental guitarists Bill Frisell and David Torn. But of course there was more to it than that, as the set was a single four-way improvisation. The set began with Frisell's rhythmic pointillism, joined by Torn's textural improv, with saxophonist Tim Berne (a frequent collaborator) adding squealing sounds, courtesy of a water bottle inserted into the bell of his saxophone. Aurora Nealand initially added percussion, before moving to accordion. Berne's pedal tones were joined by melodic accordion riffs.

There was a cool down about 25 minutes in, with the saxophone and accordion going into a new melodic and harmonic territory. Five minutes later there were fast overlapping guitars. And five minutes after that there was group cacophony. Guitar-based chordal patterns moved into some extreme whammy gestures from Torn, which in turn led into gentle loops, and a saxophone melody. After a brief distorted Torn eruption there were drones, saxophone pedal tones, and a series of glissandos from David Torn to end. Quite a racket! It will be interesting to see what these players do if they meet again.

David Torn followed up this group performance with a solo looped improvisation in the same performance space (The Standard). He has been doing this for many years, documented most recently on only sky (ECM Records, 2015). This set began much more gently, with a lyrical chord progression that he soloed over, featuring some of his trademark whammy bar manipulation. This morphed into a big dense loop—almost certainly built from some of Torn's previous solo lines, but it's always hard to tell, as he values surprise in the process (for player and audience alike). After manipulating this loop (including backwards playback) Torn played some stuttering parts using the HEXE reVOLVER, a favorite effect pedal of his.

There was still time for more textural contrast: the density was pared back to a short guitar loop, which he then added straight-toned guitar arpeggios to, preparing the way for a frenetic noise solo. At this point Torn achieved Absînt-level density all by himself. After building up to a crescendo (including distorted guitar with pitch-shifting), he brought the performance to an end with a rising glissando employing a high, resonant sound that did not much resemble a guitar. Torn's looping employs much more radical real-time processing than average: his technique is about virtuosic sound engineering as much as trademark guitar solos that alternately purr, buzz and soar. Anything can happen, and usually does.
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