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Big Ears Festival 2019

Mark Sullivan By

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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.

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