"I think the unexpected nature (of Knoxville) gives the festival a certain relief that it wouldn't have if it was where everybody expects it to be."
- Ashley Capps, Founder/Artistic Director, Big Ears Festival
When most people think of Knoxville - if they think of this east Tennessee city of less than 200,000 at all - they might think of the University of Tennessee, which has its main campus in town, or of the surrounding Appalachians, which gave us both moonshine and Dolly Parton. But, for some time now, Knoxville has transcended its relative obscurity with its outsized cultural offerings: it has its own orchestra, its own art museum, and in the past year alone, more than two dozen restaurants and breweries have opened downtown.
But, if there's one thing that's put Knoxville on the international map more than anything over the past few years, it's the Big Ears Festival, the ear-bending festival of new and adventurous music that just wrapped up its sixth edition this past weekend. This was my third consecutive Big Ears, and everything seemed both bigger and more accessible this year. Indeed, it was difficult to walk anywhere in downtown Knoxville without feeling that you were in the middle of a musical theme park. I mean, where else can you bounce from jazz pianist Matthew Shipp, to Meredith Monk, to Wilco? And, that was just on Friday.
I was still catching up on work on Friday afternoon, but I did manage to catch the tail end of Matmos' reinterpretation of Robert Ashley's Private Parts at the grand Tennessee Theatre. M.C. Schmidt, in his familiar gray suit, turned out to be even more compelling than Ashley himself as the narrator, while the lab coat-wearing Drew Daniels did his best imitation of "Blue" Gene Tyranny, adding trancelike electronics and a sampled Indian tabla. Matmos also manufactured a series of retro visuals that evoked the spirit of this 1980's made-for-TV opera. (See a brief excerpt here.) One of the hallmarks of Big Ears each year is the presence of a major composer, someone whose accomplishments have helped influence the very direction of music. Two years ago, it was Terry Riley; last year, it was Philip Glass and John Luther Adams. This year's festival featured none other than Meredith Monk, who performed both Friday and Saturday at The Bijou Theatre. Monk, her voice still wild and fluid well into her career's second half-century, performed classics such as Dolmen Music, Panda Chant and Memory Song alongside the excellent Katie Geissinger and Allison Easter. (Theo Bleckmann, who sang with Monk for more than fifteen years, appeared at this year's Big Ears with his quintet and in a convention-defying mash up of jazz standards with guitarist Ben Monder.)
On Friday at The Mill and Mine, ACME showcased Monk's instrumental writing with her driving, intricate Stringsongs (2005), alongside chamber works by Timo Andres, Caroline Shaw, and Charlemagne Palestine, whose droning Strumming Music (arranged by ACME's Clarice Jensen) sounded like the perfect soundtrack for getting high.
Monk wasn't the only big name composer to make the trek to Knoxville. Jóhann Jóhannsson, who has emerged as one of today's most prolific film composers, appeared onstage with his laptop in a performance of his Drone Mass at The Mill and Mine. Along with ACME, who premiered Drone Mass at the Met Museum in 2015, this performance featured the acclaimed British vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices. After the show, I heard one young festivalgoer exclaim, "That was really cool!" Indeed.Frederic Rzewski, perhaps best known for his politically-charged masterpiece Coming Together (which was performed by Eighth Blackbird and Will Oldham at last year's Big Ears), appeared twice over the weekend. On Friday, the 78 year old tore through his solo piano work The People United Shall Never Be Defeated!, a diabolical set of 36 variations based on a Chilean protest song. The following day, Rzewski appeared with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum as Musica Elettronica Viva (a.k.a. MEV), the electroacoustic ensemble they founded in Rome more than fifty years ago. The results were mixed: attempting to cover for Curran's crashing laptop, Rzewski delivered random musings ("We need Revolution. But we also need a Revelation.") while plucking out variations on "Drunken Sailor" and other folk songs. Perhaps most exciting of all was the presence of British composer Gavin Bryars, whose post-minimalist sound has profoundly influenced an entire generation of composers. Inexplicably, this was Bryars' first appearance in the U.S. with his namesake Ensemble, with whom he's performed regularly since the 1970's. Bryars led his ensemble from his own instrument, the double bass, in three concerts, including a Saturday night recital at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral and a Sunday afternoon performance of his seminal 1971 tape piece Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet. In addition, Bryars' hushed, unsettling vocal music was performed by the Philadelphia-based vocal ensemble The Crossing on Friday night, along with the saxophone quartet PRISM.
There was also music by composers who couldn't be in Knoxville for one reason or another. On Sunday afternoon, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, led by their new 31 year old music director Aram Demirjian, performed in-the-round at the The Mill and Mine, with the audience surrounding them on the floor. After Bach's soothing, timeless Air on a G String, they played John Adams' dark, gripping The Wound-Dresser (1989) (featuring the stirring young tenor Mark Diamond) and Matthew Aucoin's ambitious, anxious Evidence (2016). Across town at the Church Street United Methodist Church, The Crossing delivered one of the weekend's absolute highlights with David Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winning the little match girl passion, retaining all of the strange, haunting beauty it had the first time I (or anyone, for that matter) heard it in 2007. Following the Lang, I made my way to the Knoxville Museum of Art for Nief-Norf's epic performance of Michael Pisaro’s A wave and waves for 100 percussionists. Like John Luther Adams' large percussion work Inuksuit - which was performed outdoors at last year's Big Ears - the music felt fairly static for first 20 minutes but then slowly started to build as the musicians dropped pebbles onto drums, tore masking tape off of a board, and bowed old brake drums. Then, after 35 minutes, there was a sudden silence that lasted for a full five minutes, during which all you could hear was the occasional footstep or someone dropping their phone on the floor. (OK, that was me.) Later, I read that Pisaro belongs to the Wandelweiser composing collective, which utilizes Cageian silence to interrupt "an ongoing carpet of never-ending sounds."
For all of its adventurous programming, the one thing Big Ears has seemed to lack in past years is a really big-name act. Which has less to do with the festival's resources - after all, these are the same folks that put on Bonnaroo - than the challenges of finding an anchor band that fits the Big Ears mold. That changed this year with a headlining slot by Wilco, who played to a capacity crowd at the Tennessee Theatre on Friday night. In many ways, Wilco and Big Ears are kindred spirits, as evidenced by the band's own genre-crossing Solid Sound Festival at Mass MoCA. Still, it was clear from the outset that this wasn't a typical Wilco audience.
"You guys are weird," lead singer Jeff Tweedy said from the stage. "I like that."
Playing for more than two hours, the band ripped through what seemed like their entire catalog of hits, showcasing Tweedy's sharp songwriting, Glenn Kotche's fearsome drumming, and Nels Cline's mind-bending guitar solos. As their final encore faded into the gilded ceiling, Wilco made a compelling case that, 20-odd years into their career, they are the Great American Rock Band: equal parts head-bobbing and unconventional.Undoubtedly, part of the appeal of Big Ears was the opportunity for Wilco to present their various side projects, which they embraced with varying degrees of success. Cline, who appeared solo at Big Ears in 2015, displayed his significant improv chops at the intimate Square Space Saturday night as cup (with his wife, Cibo Matto keyboardist Yuka C. Honda), generating a spectrum of sounds ranging from ambient wash to artillery raid. Kotche played a richly layered - if fairly monotonous - solo set at The Standard, while Tweedy indulged in garrulous noise at The Mill and Mine with drummer Chris Corsano and bassist Darin Gray. On Sunday, Gray and Kotche performed together as On Fillmore, while keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen created ambient electronic music as Quindar. Unlike last year, there were hardly any lines at any of the venues this past weekend, which apparently had less to do with low ticket sales than added venues and better scheduling. Even so, the spread-out nature of Big Ears forces you to be selective: as much as I would have liked to have seen more of the Magnetic Fields' two-day, four-hour survey of Stephin Merritt's autobiographical 50 Song Memoir at the Tennessee, that would have meant missing at least four other shows. I did manage to hear the final song of their first set: "Dreaming in Tetris", with a projection of the 1990's video game playing out over Merritt's head. By the time Deerhoof went on well past midnight on Saturday at The Mill and Mine, there were only about 500 people left standing. (Among them was Nels Cline, which made me think: is this where he gets his ideas?) That couldn't have mattered less to drummer Greg Saunier, who attacked his drumkit in his inimitable herky-jerky style. Lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki, who wore a dress that looked like a slice of cream cheese, led the crowd in coordinated arm movements before hopping off into a frenzied dance. It was wild, ecstatic, sloppy fun.Among the handful of electronic music acts at this year's Big Ears, the most interesting and satisfying was Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, who layered her pretty processed voice over the gentle bleeps and sustained drones of her vintage Buchla synthesizer - think Julia Holter or early Grimes. At the other end of the decibel spectrum, Norway's Deathprod (a.k.a. Helge Sten) took full advantage of the cavernous Tennessee Theatre with a deafening set of jet engine doom that threatened to knock the sconces off the walls. I hadn't heard of minimalist composer/provocateur Julius Eastman prior to Jace Clayton's tribute to him at the Bijou on Sunday, but apparently this long-forgotten composer - who was both gay and black - is enjoying a renaissance in large part due to Clayton's advocacy. Here, Clayton presented his thoughtful reinterpretation of Eastman's "Evil Nigger" and "Gay Guerilla", mixing electronics with live performance by pianists David Friend and Emily Manzo, along with occasional vocals by Arooj Aftab. Less compelling was the podcast-like "Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner", which felt like an unnecessary conceit. I mean, do we really need to hear the Equal Opportunity Employer mandate set to music? Most of the jazz at this year's Big Ears (Carla Bley, Henry Grimes, Bobby Kapp) was free and experimental, which tends to attract a dedicated - and exclusive - audience of inveterate jazzheads (more Vision Fest than Blue Note.) Straddling that line is Henry Threadgill, the 73 year old flutist/saxophonist who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his epic album In for a Penny, In for a Pound. Threadgill packed the Bijou on Sunday night for a captivating set with his band Zooid that somehow managed to be simultaneously spiky, dissonant, and approachable; I overheard one audience member compare one of Threadgill's jumping solos, "to a frog in hot water." My only question: why is everyone else in this band so white? Especially considering Threadgill is a charter member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians?The festival ended in grand - if morose - style with Bryars' 1975 classic The Sinking of the Titanic at the Tennessee Theatre. This was the third or fourth time I've heard this minimalist masterpiece, but there was something undeniably powerful about seeing the composer himself perform it with his longtime ensemble. Joining them was the turntablist Philip Jeck, who added the sounds of jarring crashes and disembodied voices to the mix. Projected above the stage was Bill Morrison's 2012 film that incorporated vintage footage of the ship, along with photographs and archival materials such as ship manifests and letters from the passengers. The music was irrepressibly sad and heavy, and as I sat there in that majestic theater, I imagined myself in one of the Titanic's grand staterooms, the music like an anchor pulling me down to the deep. Maybe I was caught up thinking about recent events, but after four days and forty-plus hours of music, this is the one that finally broke the dam for me.
Music festivals can both exhaust and exhilarate, thrill and disappoint. But, the correct frame of mind coming out of Big Ears is one of awe, of being overwhelmed by the searing string of musical and visual experiences that pointed towards our deepest shared emotions. For the third March in a row, I left Knoxville with my heart larger, my eyes wider - and yes, my ears Bigger. I can't wait to do it all over again next year.