BY STEVEN ROSEN
Photos by Melinda Wallis-Rosen
As the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville has grown during its six installments since 2009, bringing a mind-bogglingly large mix of cross-pollinating modernist rock, classical, jazz, international and other types of music, one increasingly wonders where Ashley Capps — its founder and artistic director — got his interest in something so culturally cutting-edge.
After all, he runs Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, the company that puts on the giant summer outdoor Bonnaroo, Forecastle and other contemporary rock festivals. These are known for their innovative mixes of performers, but there are limits. One would not expect Bonnaroo, for instance, to feature the 78-year-old American New Music composer Frederic Rzewski rigorously, forcefully playing the piano for more than an hour straight in a performance of his 1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” It consists of 36 probing, exploratory variations of a Chilean folk song, and is meant to remember the murdered Salvador Allende and serve as an inspiration for resistance.
But there he was on a Friday afternoon at this year’s recently concluded Big Ears (which ran from a Thursday through Sunday), playing a Steinway & Sons grand piano in the center of a large nightclub called The Mill & Mine, as a crowd sat on the floor or stood to watch and listen to this impressive exhibition of stamina. (Below: Matmos)
In the past, Capps and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero have wisecracked that his interest in such unconventional music is related to him once owning a Knoxville club called Ella Guru’s, named after a Captain Beefheart song. That running joke continued at the Thursday-afternoon kick-off reception this year, when Rogero introduced Capps by calling him “a man who needs no trout mask replica, a man who is as safe as milk, a man who is our very own doc at the radar station.”
And that’s all well and good, but there’s something else at work here. Capps revealed some of that when introducing Rzewski (pronounced “zev-sky”) by telling about the time in 1977 he picked up him, pianist Ursula Oppens and saxophonist Lee Konitz at a New York airport to take then to Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio, where Capps was a student. There, Capps remembers, Rzewski played “The People United…,” a recent composition commissioned by Oppens, that had yet to be recorded. He knew at the time it was destined to be a major work, he says.
So Capps has a personal connection to this kind of work. (He also remembered driving Don Cherry to Woodstock.) And he definitely still has an ear for it.
When introducing the contemporary classical pianist Lisa Moore at the same venue, with the same in-the-round set-up on Saturday, he said that when he first heard her 2016 Stone People album, he knew it was one of the year’s strongest.
Imagine how many records in a year he must listen to, or at least be aware of, to stay atop of his vast festival and concert business. Yet he picks one, on the niche New Music label Cantaloupe Music, that features recordings of compositions by the likes of Rzewski, Missy Mazzoli and John Luther Adams.
But Moore did not disappoint. By turns lyrical and pounding in her choice of material and approach to the keyboard, and wearing a distinguishing white jacket, she began with one of Philip Glass’ most melodic and downright sweet compositions ever, 1979’s “Mad Rush.” There were times when Moore made it echo with snatches from “Over the Rainbow.” Her concert then featured works by other big names — Rzewski, Mazzoli, Adams, Julia Wolfe. But the standout besides “Mad Rush” was a work called “Sliabh Beagh” that she had commissioned from an Australian composer, Kate Moore, in order to explore Irish roots. Starting off like an introspective art song — Lisa Moore sang at the beginning — it evolved into a thunderously powerful work for piano that just kept building. Her concert was thrilling.
A couple years ago, the roaring, avant-garde bass saxophonist Colin Stetson played a Big Ears gig at a small bar so crowded I had to jump up and down every now and then just to catch a glimpse of his head. But there was no problem hearing then — the sound he got from that gigantic woodwind, large enough to double as a piece of public sculpture, could cut through a baseball park filled with fans cheering a grand slam.
This year, Stetson had a venue where he was easily seen — onstage at the large Mill & Mine. Believe it or not, it was reasonably hard to hear him. But it didn’t matter. With an ensemble of horn and string players, plus a singer, he was performing his reimagining of Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s 1977 3rd Symphony (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), which became famous when a 1992 recording sold a million copies. Because one of the three songs contained within the symphony used a message found on a Gestapo cell wall, it conjures World War II and the Holocaust. Stetson calls his adaptation Sorrow, and he means for the saxophone to wail not so much in the Illinois Jacquet sense of the word, but rather in the “weeping” sense.
Amid the wave-like comings and goings of repetitive phrases from the other horns, Stetson’s playing fit in rather than stood out. And it sounded like an ominously rumbling bass. But the overall arrangement of Sorrow sucked everyone into its slowly building undertow and then cathartically brought them along. And when the music quieted to let Stetson’s sister, Megan, sing the songs, it was like Jefferson Airplane subsiding its playing for Grace Slick to solo on “Someone to Love.” Megan Stetson had a magnificently rich mezzo-soprano voice.
Stetson is a restless talent — on his new song, “Into the Clinches,” he hits his sax’s keys like he’s hammering out an electronic backbeat while blowing into the instrument. The result is as unexpectedly infectious as Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” and it could be a dance club hit.
While Big Ears is way too eclectic to pigeonhole its approach to booking, the rock or pop acts who played the two major venues — the luxurious 1928 Tennessee Theatre (the official state theater), and the 1909 Bijou — tend to be either experimentalist or to be using Big Ears for a conceptualist venture. (The event’s biggest act, Wilco, maybe doesn’t fit that description, but band members Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy also used the festival for separate concerts.)
One such example was the toughly intellectualized Matmos, consisting of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt, whose austerely theatrical take on the late Robert Ashley’s television opera Private Parts made for an invigorating noontime show at the Tennessee on Friday. Musically, it has an understated drone punctuated with electronica touches. Schmidt, in the first part looking Mr. Rogers-like in brown sweater and bowtie, provided the odd, casually upbeat recitation that Ashley himself used to do at his shows. Behind him, two women faced each other and provided an occasional encouraging “that’s right” in accompaniment. Ashley isn’t an easy composer to understand, but Matmos did make him and his music accessible — and hip.
But Matmos didn’t have anything on Xiu Xiu (above), who presented on Saturday at the Tennessee their tribute to David Lynch’s and Angelo Badalamenti’s music for the eerily meta Twin Peaks television series from 1990-91. Mostly instrumental but with a few vocals, like on the drifting and chilling “Into the Night,” the project allowed a fierce Jamie Stewart to play guitar or drums to Angela Seo’s keyboards and Shayna Dunkelman’s smashing, riveting percussion. She whacked mallets on vibes or slammed drums. With Twin Peaks slated to return to television on Showtime this year, Xiu Xiu has a hot concept more cutting-edge than retro, and knew it. It was a show infused with currency.
Compared to these two, the Magnetic Fields concerts at the Tennessee, presenting composer/singer Stephin Merritt’s year-by-year autobiographical songs on the band/art project’s new 50 Song Memoir, were more traditional. Merritt, after all, writes impossibly catchy pop tunes with witty lyrics that make you smile and laugh. What’s that doing at Big Ears?
But Merritt was downright subversive on stage, beginning with that low baritone/bass voice that can add such gravitas to even his lightest, loveliest songs. There was also, in new material like “Come Back as a Cockroach,” “I Think I’ll Make Another World” and “Eye Contact,” real bite and irony. He wasn’t just skimming the surface of his early years (I was only able to catch the first of his two Big Ears shows) for material, he was also humorously but resolvedly plumbing the emotional depths. He was being confessional yet novelistic.
He also was a very conceptual performer — in that regard, a natural fit at Big Ears. The stage set-up for his concert reminded me of the Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone. He sat inside a fanciful room-like set, maybe based on a childhood bedroom, wearing a garishly checked sweater and a mac. He made amusingly snarky between-song patter — he was the middle-aged man looking back with mixed emotions.
The five other musicians were positioned around and behind this prop, in an arc formation. They played an array of instruments that gave the sound satisfying coloration and power. Merritt, too, played instruments or otherwise manipulated sounds, and sometimes would do something surprising, like sing the unabashedly silly but joyful tune “Hustle 76.” This brought out the “bumpity bump” (as Merritt hailed it) in the Magnetic Fields’ sound. The second set, which got Merritt through year 25 in his life, was just as strong. This is a great album, probably one of the year’s best when final polls come out, and Merritt’s performance made you realize its quality.
By now, Merritt is an old pro. He’s 52, after all. But a couple truly old pros, both women, were the performers I’ll remember most.
The jazz composer and pianist Carla Bley, at age 80 looking as snazzy and stylish, with the same assured posture and black outfit as a decades-younger fashionable orchestra conductor, on Thursday night led the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra at the Tennessee Theatre through her big-band compositions. Her longtime bassist Steve Swallow and tenor saxophonist Andy Sheppard augmented the group, and the result for the most part was swinging yet prickly, as burrs and detours kept cropping up in the straight-aheadness. Her final composition, “The National Anthem,” was prefaced by her comment, “What better time?” (to play it). But despite its unorthodox yet welcome funkiness, it didn’t seem to leave as strong an impression as I desired. Maybe the times and the current president call out for the kind of state-of-emergency defiant approach Hendrix took to patriotic music at Woodstock. This wasn’t quite fiery enough — maybe Bley needs to compose an Escalator Over the Trump.
And the 74-year-old, pigtailed Meredith Monk (above) was spry and delightful enough a presence at the Bijou on Friday night to play Puck in a staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as if her career and talents aren’t already varied enough). And her ever-present gracious smile could have illuminated even the top row of the theater’s otherwise-dark balcony.
Appearing with her Vocal Ensemble, her voice was in synch and in pitch with anything else on stage. She could duet with a revved-up monster truck if she wanted to. It is a marvelous instrument, whether she uses it for wordless vocalization or to comically, exaggeratingly lampoon in song a privileged older woman not prepared to die yet whose time has come.
Her concert included material from throughout her career. Her ease with “Click Song #1,” which she described as a “duet for solo voice” and which found her humming, clicking and puckering simultaneously, would make Tuvan throat singers envious.
And on “Choosing Companions” — from an opera, Atlas, that she composed in 1991 — Monk sat at the piano and sang haunting variations on the sound “day-o” by herself for a while. Then, Vocal Ensemble member Katie Geissinger came out, knocked on the piano to introduce herself, and began a short recitation of what I took to be an interpretation of Monk’s musical message. She soon joined Monk in singing, and the two communicated a call-and-response, point-and-counterpoint sensitivity to each other that elegantly pushed the song toward emotional breakthrough.
At one point, Monk told the audience about sitting in the New Mexican hot sun waiting for a musical idea, and you can see how that state’s artistic New Age exoticism could play a role in her vision. But there’s also a New Music progressivism, not unlike John Cage or Steve Reich, which incorporates Contemporary Art notions of modernism. She deserves all the recognition she can get as one of America’s singular composers and composers.
In past coverage, and at the beginning of this review, I’ve mentioned the Big Ears-Captain Beefheart connection. And also how Capps, at Big Ears, seems to be closer to someone like Rzewski than a raucous blues-rock iconoclast like Beefheart.
But another experimentalist whose name cropped up this year was Arthur Russell, an early proponent/practitioner of the kind of open-minded approach to music the festival favors.
He was a cellist drawn to experimentalism and minimalism, a friend of such other New York City classical music boundary pushers of the 1970s as Glass, Reich and Julius Eastman who also became interested in the conceptual rock of Talking Heads and Modern Lovers and the multi-rhythmic funkiness of disco. And he composed, sang and played cello on fragile, Nick Drake-like chamber-folk love songs like “A Little Lost.”
Always ahead of the curve, his death in 1992 passed with little attention. (He was just 40.) But his reputation has since grown — he was the subject of a 2008 documentary called Wild Combination. He was truly an artist with “big ears.” This festival, as it evolves, seems to be modeled on his vision of music.