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New Music in the Tennessee Mountains: Big Ears Festival 2015

Tennessee Theatre, Big Ears Festival
KNOXVILLE, TN - It didn't take long after my arrival at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville last weekend for me to realize that this was no run-of-the-mill music festival. After picking up my wristband, I wandered next door to the landmark Tennessee Theatre, where the Kronos Quartet - this year's Artists-in-Residence - were finishing up their all-Terry Riley set with pipa master Wu Man. Then, in one of those magical moments that only seem possible at festivals, they were joined onstage by Riley and Laurie Anderson, each of whom told stories while Kronos improvised. Prior to that moment, I found out later, Riley and Anderson had never met in person, much less performed together. (Anderson was in town to perform Landfall with Kronos the following night.)

As I listened to Riley's rambling story about John Cage at a baseball game, I thought to myself: Where am I? How is it possible this is happening in a place not named New York, L.A., or San Francisco?

Turns out that Knoxville (pop. 180,000), aside from being home to the University of Tennessee and its 30,000 students and faculty, is also the home of AC Entertainment, best known as the co-producer of Bonnaroo in nearby Manchester, TN. AC Entertainment president Ashley Capps, who started Big Ears in 2009 (there was a hiatus from 2011-2013), applies the same basic formula here that he uses at Bonnaroo: pile together as much interesting, wow-inducing music as you can within a set amount of space and time in order to build a critical mass of energy and excitement. Add unannounced DJ sets, jam sessions, and a satellite festival, and you spin the whole thing into a wild frenzy.

Wu Man, Big Ears FestivalPart of the benefit of having Big Ears in Knoxville - aside from far lower costs than one would incur in a place like NYC - is that most of the venues are within easy walking distance of each other. (The one exception was the Knoxville Museum of Art (KMA), about a half mile west of downtown.) It was also a prominent event, with Big Ears banners attached to numerous lamposts throughout the city. While it was colder than normal for late March - temps never rose above 55 - the sun was out, as were the tulips and daffodils. 

Random encounters seemed to happen all around town. After chatting with new music fans from South Carolina over breakfast at my hotel Saturday morning (who knew?), I bumped into Ashley Capps on my way into Wu Man's packed solo show at The Square Room. I asked Capps what motivated him to try pull off such an adventurous festival in Knoxville.

"I love this music," he said. That's it.

Apparently, so do a lot of other people: according to the New York Times, Big Ears attracted some 2,500 patrons per day, up 40 percent from last year. That makes it by default the largest new music festival in America, and one of the largest in the world (not sure if Sonar counts.)

As with the annual Bang on a Can Marathon and Ecstatic Music Festival, not all of the musicians on the Big Ears bill could be neatly classified as "new music" artists. Big name acts like tUnE-yArDs and Jamie XX vied with veteran guitarists Nels Cline, Bill Frisell and Bryce Dessner, each taking advantage of the opportunity to show off their more avant side. 

Kronos Quartet with Rhiannon Giddens
But, the bleeding heart of this year's Big Ears was undoubtedly the Kronos Quartet, who played no fewer than seven shows throughout the weekend. ("Eight, if you count the guest DJ slot I played on Thursday night," David Harrington told me in his dressing room on Saturday night.) In the festival guide, Capps reveals that he had wanted to book Kronos since the very first Big Ears in 2009. "Their questing and omnivorous spirit is the very essence of what Big Ears aspires to celebrate," he wrote.

On Saturday, Kronos was back at the Tennessee Theatre for an afternoon of what Harrington described as "folk music," featuring traditional tunes from Sweden, Mali, India, China and elsewhere. At the end of their first set, folksinger Sam Amidon joined in with his broken voice and banjo, singing folk ballads and shape note hymns, with string quartet arrangements by 802 Tour co-conspirators Nico Muhly and Thomas Bartlett.

In their other set, Kronos was joined by the beautiful and talented Rhiannon Giddens, who has made a name for herself as a champion of the forgotten African-American folk tradition, both as lead singer of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now as a solo artist. Here, she played a bit of banjo, but mostly stuck to her extraordinary voice, combining the roots sensibility of Odetta with the emotional delivery of Audra McDonald. (Giddens trained as an opera singer at Oberlin.) During the traditional Scottish Gaelic "Mouth Music", she sang faster and faster, with barely any time to catch her breath. Then, she blew the roof off with her explosive rendition of the gospel hymn "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away," originally made famous by Mahalia Jackson. 

Kronos Quartet with Tanya Tagaq, Big Ears
On Sunday afternoon, Kronos moved to The Standard: an industrial space on the northern edge of downtown with exposed beams that resembled a western dance hall more than a concert venue. The entire floor and balcony was standing room only, and with the stage barely above the ground, only the first two rows were able to see anything.

Still, there was plenty to hear. After Nicole Lizée's Death to Kosmische, which had each member alternate on various electronic gizmos, Bryce Dessner joined them on guitar for the U.S. Premiere of his 40 Canons (2013). Spread over six movements, the music alternated between driving and pensive, minimalist and modern. 

Following intermission, Kronos was joined by the Inuit-Canadian singer Tanya Tagaq for Derek Charke's Tundra Songs (2007). Tagaq's voice is almost beyond description: part barbaric yawp, part sensuous siren, she writhed uncontrollably onstage, more animal than human. Incorporating samples Clarke made of seals, ravens, and cracking ice sheets in northern Canada, Charke's quartet writing was sonorous, evocative, hypnotic. An extraordinary performance. (Kronos returned to The Standard later that night to close out the festival with Kevin Volans' classic White Man Sleeps (1982) and Nels Cline's Views from Here to the Heavens (2014).

Bill Frisell, The Great Flood, Big Ears
Film was a major component of this year's Big Ears, offering some much-needed relief from the wall-to-wall music. At the downtown Regal Cinema, there was a day-long series of Criterion Collection films curated by director Jim Jarmusch and Swans frontman Michael Gira, while at the KMA there was a retrospective of Bill Morrison's films, including Decasia and The Miners Hymns.

At the 106 year old Bijou Theatre, several vintage films were screened, each with live music. On Friday night, Demdike Stare (Manchester, England's Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker) created a haunting electronic swirl to accompany the bizarre 1922 horror film HÄXAN: Witchcraft Through the Ages. On Saturday, Jarmusch - who is also a trippy guitarist - performed with drummer Carter Logan as SQÜRL, creating drones that served as powerful clarifying agents for a series of surreal Man Ray films. And, on Sunday, Bill Frisell led an all-star quartet (Ron Miles, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen) in his evocative score to Morrison's The Great Flood (2014): a compilation of archival films from the 1927 Mississippi River Flood which displaced more than 600,000 people. Mirroring Morrison's images, Frisell's music ranged from old time jazz, to parlor music, to post rock, ending with Frisell playing a variation of "Old Man River" over shots of 0ld Delta bluesmen with their guitars.

Max Richter, Big Ears
While Terry Riley and Laurie Anderson may have been the big names in Knoxville, it was composer Max Richter who made the biggest splash at this year's Big Ears. Born in Germany but raised in the UK, Richter, 49, has emerged as one of his generation's most prolific and prominent "post-classical" composers, equally at ease writing music for film and stage. (In the latest instance of outsider-turning-insider, Richter now records exclusively for Deutsche Grammophon, classical music's most venerated - and establishment - label.)
On Saturday night, Richter performed at the Bijou Theatre alongside ACME, who were in Knoxville fresh from their performance of Johann Johannsson's Drone Mass at the Met Museum. With Max manning laptop, keyboard and piano, they performed The Blue Notebooks (2004), Infra (2010), and Autumn Music 2 (2006)melancholy music which, in its simple tonality and repetition, comes d
angerously close to New Age - almost Philip Glass-lite. But, it is also undeniably affecting, the most beautiful meditation on loss you've ever heard. ("We're calling this month 'March Sadness,'" ACME artistic director Clarice Jensen told me afterward.)
On Sunday, Richter and ACME were joined by the Knoxville Symphony at the Tennessee Theatre for Vivaldi: Recomposed (2012), Richter's reworking of The Four Seasons. With Max front and center on keyboard and laptop and ACME's Yuki Numata Resnick as the impressive violin soloist, the music was immediately recognizable, but elongated and extended. For all the potential pitfalls (think: Muzak), Richter's reworking was surprisingly thrilling, filled with dramatic builds and delicious subversions that enhanced, rather than altered the music. "It's beautiful, charming music," Richter says of Vivaldi's original, "with a great melody and wonderful colors. I wanted to reclaim the piece, to fall in love with it again."
Max Richter and ACME, Big Ears
After intermission, Richter and ACME performed selections of his music from HBO's The Leftovers. Sitting at the top of the balcony, I had a panoramic view of the Persian-style theater, letting the quiet, contemplative music wash over me. Max played piano and synth - mostly samples of organs and toy pianos - along with electronics that created darker, shifting colors in between Michael Nyman-like flights of tonality. Given the theater's provenance as a former movie palace, Richter's richly cinematic music could not have felt more at home.
But, it would be a mistake to assume that all of the music at Big Ears was quiet and soothing. On the loud - make that deafening - end of the spectrum, there was Ben Frost, who went on early Sunday morning at the Bijou Theater. With Greg Fox and Shahzad Ismaily on dueling drumkits, it was the same pounding set Frost performed at The Wick in October, but louder, more intense. Sitting upstairs with ACME's Clarice Jensen and Caleb Burhans (both of whom had just finished performing with Richter), the floor rumbled beneath us like an echo chamber, with harsh strobes taking out our vision. It was brutal, beautiful, rapturous. 
swans, big ears
The following night, I was back in the Bijou balcony to hear legendary NYC no-wave outfit Swans close out Big Ears 2015. With a sound like a jackhammer outside your bedroom window, I had a hard time understanding what these guys were doing on a festival mostly dedicated to music of texture and subtlety. Still, there was a connection there: you could hear it in the drone, the repeat, the oscillation. Then, just when I thought things couldn't get any louder, the band unleashed a roar like a jet engine, so excruciating I had to cover my ears. Combined with frontman Michael Gira's half-chant/half-wail of a voice here was only one word to describe it: Awesome. 

After three very full days in Knoxville, I was both exhausted and exhilarated. For all the music I did manage to pack in, there were much more I wish I could have seen: Grouper, Silver Apples, ambient pioneer Harold Budd, The Bad Plus performing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Fortunately, there's always next year. 

swans, big ears
More pics on the photo page: Friday, Saturday, Sunday.