Head Wide Open at Big Ears Festival
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Big Ears is one of the most expansive, eclectic and challenging music festivals in the U.S. In downtown Knoxville Tennessee, musicians from around the world and across genres convene in concerts that test the limits of sound and music. This year’s festival includes Phillip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Yo La Tengo, Andrew Bird, Kiasmos, and dozens more. The composer in residence is John Luther Adams. The festival was created in 2009 by Ashley Capps who also produces the famed Bonnaroo rock festival. In the Echoes Podcast, Ashley Capps, John Luther Adams, and Laurie Anderson open up your ears when they talk about their music and the Big Ears festival.
When I spoke to Ashley Capps about this year’s Big Ears Festival, he mentioned a comment from Jon Pareles of the New York Times, that Big Ears was a festival that was about “mapping connections.” Looking at this year’s eclectic line-up, I asked him what the connections were between the avant-garde jazz group, the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Celtic chamber group, The Gloaming, and new classical composer, John Luther Adams.
“Ohh, you’re trying to trip me up Mr. Diliberto,” Capps jokes. “We are mapping connections, I think, there’s not necessarily one logical degree of separation between one act or the other. The Sun Ra Arkestra, you know, there’s a certain connection there between them and Yo La Tengo.” Yo La Tengo actually covered a Sun Ra song; “Nuclear War.”
“You have Hieroglyphic Being, a Chicago house DJ who’s taking that into a whole different realm,” Capps continues. “His collaboration with Marshal Allen from the Sun Ra Arkestra, it’s a constellation. I would just say it’s all great music. Is that a copout?” Not really, it’s just the dance the modern music lover does in the interconnected, cross-generational, genre-bursting world of Big Ears.
This year’s festival is centered by the works of John Luther Adams, the Pulitzer prize and Grammy award winning composer, whose work is always tied to the environment; sometimes musically, sometimes philosophically, sometimes literally, and often all of the above. “I was very intrigued by his deep affinity for the outdoors, for the environment and the link between… you know, the music that he was writing and the environment,” exudes Capps.
In another connection John Luther Adams says that he maps to the spirit of John Cage. “Absolutely. I often speak of Cage as the first great ecological composer, ” elaborates Adams. “He opened our ears to the music all around us. As Cage pointed out, most of what we hear in the world around us is noise. Well, what happens if we regard that sound, that noise, as music? Well, suddenly the whole world becomes music. That has become a touchstone for really everything I do.”
There will certainly be a lot of noise at Big Ears. Laurie Anderson will be curating a nearly 5 hour performance of music by her late husband, Lou Reed. “It’s an installation called “Drones,” explains Capps. Steward Hurwood, who’s Lou Reed’s longtime guitar tech, basically performs the piece, for lack of a better word, on Lou’s guitars and amplifiers. And then Laurie is also going to curate performers coming in to play with the Drones and we’re also planning on a late night ‘Drone Jam.'”
Laurie Anderson will also be performing with Phillip Glass. Despite being contemporaries and friends in New York’s downtown scene for decades, they only just started working together. Laurie isn’t sure what their Big Ears performance may entail. But it might include the voice of her husband, Lou Reed.
“Phil [Phillip Glass] said ‘is there something that Lou did that is just a vocal that we could play with?'” relates Anderson as she begins to turn this tale into one of her stories. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I mean I’m not sure I want to do that.’ He said, ‘Well, you know… we could play with our dead friends.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you just go to your studio now and see if you have something?’ And I said, ‘Well, you mean run back to my studio?’ ‘Yeah, just run back to your studio, see if you have something.’ So I did, and I found a really beautiful piece in which Lou’s vocal is very prominent, and the other instrumentation is a little bit more in the background. So it’s a hair razing song called “Junior Dad.” So I brought the tape to the rehearsal and we played with it, this kind of very intense recording. The whole time I was playing I was looking down ’cause I was afraid I would look up and I would not see Lou, because it was very very real; It was just like playing with him. So I thought, well, that was really intense. And so, we might do that one again, we’ll see.”
Big Ears remains the most civilized festival in the country and Ashley Capps has gone even further to continue that. The big evening performances at the Tennessee Theater by Phillip Glass and Laurie Anderson, Andrew Bird and John Luther Adams are all separate tickets. It wasn’t necessarily done to make more money. “They’re all shows that we felt like deserved a certain amount of focus and attention,” asserts Capps. “We wanted a certain level of commitment from people who are there and not so much in and out that could distract from the appreciation and experience of the performances.”
Ashley Capps isn’t just a concert promoter; he comes to it as a fan. You’d be hard pressed to find another rock promoter in the country who will cherish the avant-garde rock of the German artists Faust and Tony Conrad. “This year we got the opportunity to do not only Tony Conrad’s solo performances, but also the performance of Outside the Dream Syndicate with Faust. It’s one of those defining records for me as a young music aficionado.”
As it was in last year’s festival, there is sure to be some loud music like there was in 2015 by the post-rock band, the Swans. They left my ears deafened for hours. When I asked Ashley Capps if anything will top that, he doesn’t hesitate saying, “I think we can all be very confident that the loudest show will be Sunn O))). Now it’s possible that it’ll be Outside the Dream Syndicate, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be Sunn O))).”
From dissonant noise to the sounds of nature, ambient chamber music to electronic experiments, Celtic music to free jazz; It’s all part of 2016’s Big Ears festival happening the weekend of March 31st through the 3rd.