Big Ears Festival 2015

Big Ears Festival High Notes & Low Roars

Big Ears FestivalFrom 1979 to 1990, New Music America was a sprawling, nomadic festival that moved from city to city, presenting new American music with roots in the avant-garde and New York downtown scenes, but embracing sounds from across genres. Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Rhys Chatham, George Russell, John Zorn and Alvin Curran were NMA stalwarts. That spirit has been reborn in the Big Ears Festival whose fourth edition took place this past weekend. It’s not nomadic, burying its roots in the venues of downtown Knoxville, Tennessee where producers AC Entertainment, of Bonnaroo fame, are based. But it shares many of the same artists like Laurie Anderson, Kronos Quartet and Terry Riley and an even more wide-ranging aesthetic. For this edition of Big Ears, they embraced folk singers Sam Amidon and Rhiannon Giddons, jazz strategists The Bad Plus and electronic dance grooves of Nosaj Thing. It was all tied together by the Kronos Quartet, who performed in 7 different events in seven different configurations.

It was pretty much impossible to catch everything at Big Ears, and definitely impossible to catch complete sets of anything as events overlapped in five different venues with walking distances of 15 to 20 minutes between some. Throw in interviews I conducted with Bing & Ruth, Nels Cline and Wu Man and it was definitely impossible. So this is a random journey through Big Ears where many highlights might be left out, and that just shows you want an astounding festival it was..

Tanya Tagaq
tanya_web__largeDressed down from her press photos, Tanya Tagaq looks like the girl next door until this native Inuk throat singer from Cambridge Bay, Canada opens her mouth. Then she acts as if she’s possessed, shouting, screaming then dropping into guttural “Exorcist” growls. I missed her solo set but caught her playing with Kronos at The Standard, a rock club where all I could see were the tops of their heads, occasionally getting a glimpse of Tagaq through momentary partings of the crowd. She counterpointed and bisected Kronos’ more melodic lines and merged with the cello when she dipped low.  A woman passed out on the floor.  I thought she might be overcome by the music, but it turns out she was just shit-faced.

Tuneyards-percussion-1000Tanya Tagaq acts shamanic. Merrill Garbus acts ecstatic. She is tUnE-yArDs. Accompanied by an extraordinary percussionist/singer, two backing vocalists and bassist, Garbus deftly employs live looping, layering voice, fuzz-tone ukulele, drums and keyboard into tribal performances that are like the B-52’s in an African drum circle. Like the surrealist Joan Miro-style backdrop, her approach is both whimsical and provocative with a voice that is at once joyous and wild. And fun. Did I say fun?

From Vivaldi to Swans
Swans-1000Moving from Max Richter’s re-imagining of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra to Swans sonic bludgeoning was exhilarating. I’d enjoyed Richter’s recording, Recomposed By Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, but live with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and ACME string players as ringers, they reached transcendence. Richter finds the icey, celestial moods of Vivaldi’s work, scoring them into minimalist cadences and topping them with searing violin solos from ACME’s Yuki Numata Resnick.

Destruction followed decorum as I walked down a block for the sonic assault and battery of Swans, a New York noise band from the early 1980s. Fronted by guitarist and singer Michael Gira they were the meanest looking assemblage of the festival with their grimacing expressions. They came on like a meeting of The Ramones and Metallica, only louder and with more distortion than both combined. For Richter’s Vivaldi, the magic is in the melodies. For Swans, the magic is in the overtones. Even when Gira wasn’t shouting his vocals, it sounded like someone was screaming and I swore I heard monks chanting a distressed “Ommm.” It was dark and glorious and energized. I’m glad it was the last show I caught, because it was the last thing I could hear for about 5 hours.

Max Richter
Richter-Hans_Blue-1000In addition to his Vivaldi performance he also performed his The Blue Notebooks and Infra recordings straight through and played music from his soundtrack to HBO’s The Leftovers. Some might call it homage, others might call it derivative, but Max Richter is tapped into a melancholy spirit that soundtracks films and moods.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen
AWVFTSLed by keyboardist Dustin O’Halloran and guitarist/keyboardists Adam Wiltzie, AWVFTS essayed the moody terrain of their Atomos CD, sculpting the slow moving arcs and subharmonic rhythms of this work whose introspective darkness could not be overcome by the sunshine streaming through the Knoxville Museum of Art’s glass-sided ballroom.

WuMan-Cusp-1000Kronos Quartet’s performance of Terry Riley’s epic Cusp of Magic
Written for Chinese pipa player Wu Man who performed with them, Riley, in his typical fashion, took Kronos beyond “world music” into their own, unique sound world accompanied that was ceremonial, tribal and elated. That was followed by single movements from Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace and the brilliant, still unrecorded “Sun Rings,” both played to sublime and illuminating effect.

Kronos, Terry Riley, Wu-Man & Laurie Anderson Jamming
Kronos-Wuman-1000Following their set of Terry Riley’s music, Kronos invited the composer on stage where he sang and played keyboards.  That was followed by a “Jam in D” with Riley, Wu Man and Laurie Anderson. Both performances were throw-away messes that were partly tongue-in-cheek, but nevertheless that tarnished the preceding glory although Riley had a an amusing story about inviting John Cage to his high school, where Cage told Riley’s football coach that “he should use chance operations in calling the plays.”


Well, the only bare chested performance as Swans’ percussionist Thor Harris stripped off his tank-top revealing his almost buff chest. Perhaps the Knoxville Symphony or ACME might want to try it.

Nels Cline & Norton Wisdom’s Stained Radiance
Wsdom-Norton-1000Wilco guitarist Nels Cline had a guitar around his neck, but the sound was pure noise and distortion as he accompanied painter Norton Wisdom’s live painting on a lighted screen. Wisdom would dab and wash colors across the screen, somehow making figures emerge out of abstraction. As soon as a tableau was finished he’d wipe it away with a squeegee blade and begin anew or morph it into something else. At one point a wild guitarist had a nude woman pleasuring herself at his feet and the set ended with a lion going down on a reclining female nude. Cline brought a suitably heavy metal edge to his solo there.

Laurie Anderson’s Landfall
Anderson-Laurie-1000The acclaimed performance artist brought her sprawling post-Hurricane Sandy inspired work to Big Ears, performing it with the Kronos Quartet. There were moments, but there wasn’t enough of Anderson’s incisive word-play and observations and too much of fairly redundant string writing for Kronos. There were a few of Anderson’s “what is that?” moments, like Kronos violinist John Sherba taking center stage and seeming to trigger a flow of words on screen with his staccato playing. But too much of this meditation on mortality and transience is given over to unmoored strings, which might possibly be the metaphor she was going for. The most poignant moment was the end, as she talked about seeing years of her memorabilia floating in her hurricane flooded basement. “How beautiful. How magic,” she reflected, before dropping, after a perfect Laurie Anderson pause, “And how catastrophic.”

Demdike StareDemdike Stare: Häxan Witchcraft Through the Ages
Miles Whitaker and Sean Canty named themselves for a witch. They performed a live score to the 1922 silent film, Häxan Witchcraft Through the Ages, which depicted torture and Satanism. Their soundtrack full of dark clanks and reverbed bumps wore thin and lay heavy as the films graphic (for 1922) atrocities piled on.

Bing & Ruth, Tanya Tagaq solo, Rachel Grimes, The Bad Plus, William Tyler, Rhiannon Giddens, Silver Apples

Ashley Capps
Capps is the creator of Bonnaroo, a festival that attracts nearly 100,000 people a year. Yet he put just as much energy, maybe even more passion, and certainly greater risk into Big Ears, a Festival scaled for a few thousand in attendance. It’s a brave and intense undertaking and like Moogfest & Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit, hich he also produced, expertly curated and presented in a classy and civilized fashion.