By now, the word is firmly out: the annual Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, Tenn., is the most adventurous and stimulating—both mentally and physically—such event in the continental United States. Per the BLURT tradition, we bundled up Steven Rosen, put him on a Greyhound bus with a one-way ticket to Knoxville, and left him to the winds of fate. Somehow he made it back to his home in Cincinnati to write about seeing everyone from the Sun Ra Arkestra, Anthony Braxton and the Knoxville Symphony (doing Phillip Glass and Led Zep, no less) to Yo La Tengo, the Necks and Angel Olsen. He has since recovered and doing quite nicely, we understand. His musings can be found below. Meanwhile, go HERE to read Dr. Rosen’s report from the 2015 Big Ears and HERE for his 2014 coverage. R.I.P. Tony Conrad.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
If Knoxville wants to adopt a musical patron saint like Memphis (Elvis) or Nashville (Johnny Cash), it should be Captain Beefheart.
Not that the good captain is from Tennessee. But he inspired Knoxville’s Big Ears music festival, an improbable mixture of avant-garde jazz, New Music, noise bands, inventive rock and all things in between that even more improbably seems to be becoming a major success. Its fifth edition occurred at indoor venues from March 31-April 2, with an April 3 outdoor event at a nature center that involved about 100 percussionists scattered throughout the area.
Big Ears’ creator and artistic director is Ashley Capps, who started his long career as a concert/festival producer (Bonnaroo; Forecastle) with a Knoxville club named after a Beefheart song, Ella Guru.
He’s kept the faith. As Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, who used to attend that club, said at the Big Ears opening reception inside a Market Square club called the Square Room, “As Captain Beefheart once said, ‘I never want to do what everyone else does. I’d just be contributing to the sameness of everything.’ None of the artists here want to contribute to that sameness.” [Below: Angel Olsen performs during the festival.]
That said, it’d be hard to draw a straight line from Beefheart’s clangorous, anarchically expressionistic work to that of the festival’s principal guest this year, composer-in-residence John Luther Adams. (Six of his works were performed during Big Ears.)
Adams, 63, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2014 Become Ocean and who lived for many years in Alaska striving to match music with nature, can work up some fury – his mentor was the challenging composer Lou Harrison. But Become Ocean, the centerpiece of a Thursday night concert by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra under conductor Steven Schick in the bejeweled and luxurious Tennessee Theater, was different.
The entire orchestra played in a controlled but never uptight manner as if it was one. It wasn’t just a case of all the musicians and instruments seeming to be one with each other, without soloists or specific instruments or sections taking the forefront. The orchestra seemed to be one with the sea; the music was the waves rolling in. This took discipline and control by the musicians to stay in time playing in unison, with small intentional diversions, and also by the composer to make the imagist promise of the title work.
We in the audience felt we had become ocean – become egoless and one – for the piece’s duration. That’s what the best live musical experience is supposed to be about.
The orchestra, by the way, preceded that with a terrific performance of Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto No. 2 (Naqoyqatsi) featuring a visceral, tumultuously riveting performance from the Israeli-born cellist Maya Beiser, who also did a showy concert on Saturday at Downtown’s lovely 117-year-old Bijou Theater that impressed many. Her talent is indisputable but I found that performance overly emphasized background visual imagery, and her closing version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” was gimmicky.
While Become Ocean showed one way that audience and performers may experience a kind of selfless communion, there are others. One different approach engages bodies in full-force shakin’-and-rockin’ action.
Case in point: The Sun Ra Arkestra, under the leadership of the remarkable 91-year-old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen. They had a transporting effect on the crowd gathered at a new, large, standing-called The Mill and Mine, which Capps’ AC Entertainment books.
The Arkestra was the “yang” to Become Ocean’s “yin.” The large celebratory troupe, a mixture of veterans who played with the late Sun Ra and newer recruits, effortless mixed the funk with the skronk (to paraphrase a friend). In their colorful, glittering outfits with their ancient Egyptian sci-fi motif, the Arkestra played with joyously eruptive force on their woodwind, brass, string and percussion instruments.
They can be a pure party band, the ultimate Mardi Gras parade krewe – especially when members danced through the hall in a snaking line. Yet there are other times that they just lift off to that place where avant-garde jazz becomes a spotlight shining through the cosmos, making bright what seemed so dark. When the sterling vocalist Tara Middleton led the band members, many of them substantially older men, through the singing/chanting of “Rocket Number Nine” or “Space Is the Place,” you knew they were lifting off.
The great Sun Ra died in 1993, but his Arkestra under Allen’s leadership carries on. They are an American – make that an interstellar – treasure and their music called out from its big heart to all those with “big ears.”
New Jersey’s alt-rock pioneers Yo La Tengo, attending their first Big Ears, followed Sun Ra Arkestra at the venue with a late-night/early-morning attempt at simmering, controlled, minimalistic spacy experimentation that seemed to be working off the lovely loping guitar riff of the band’s “Nowhere Near.” They were aided by such guests as guitarist Bryce Dessner and Arkestra member Danny Ray Thompson on flute. But it never really went anywhere and was a disappointing show.
Yet Yo La Tengo recovered big-time Friday night/Saturday morning at the Bijou. That was where they did another late show, this time with Nashville-based Lambchop as a combined octet. It was a true in-the-wee-small-hours collaboration
Relaxed but committed, the two groups played mostly Yo La Tengo songs but passed lead vocals around and in general treated the set and each other with affection. Lambchop pianist Tony Crow even told some jokes from his bench at one point, and Ira Kaplan made an Estes Kefauver reference that went way over most people’s heads. (He was a Tennessee senator in the 1950s.)
Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner sometimes electronically altered his vocals to give his mournfully plainspoken voice an aching, distancing, vocoder-like effect. That increased the haunting melancholy in Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater” and “Today Is the Day.”
The enlarged band supported Georgia Hubley’s quiet singing on “Nowhere Near” with delicate complexity. And Ira Kaplan enriched “Nowhere Near” with an invigorating but disciplined guitar-feedback solo.
The show built to a climactic version of Yo La Tengo’s epic about their hometown, “Night Falls on Hoboken.” Kaplan sang with high, lonesome fragility while others provided harmonies. The dreamy song ended with members of both bands providing an eerie electro-acoustic sound collage, very avant-garde yet also with jazzy piano interludes and an overall sense of 1960s-era folk-rock innocence.
It slowly faded out with a repeated electronic signaling – like an invisible man saying “Yeah” over and over. It was if someone was contacting us from beyond. My friends and I walked out into the cool late-night air thinking we’d seen one of the best rock concerts ever. It was certainly the highlight of the Big Ears rock offerings that I saw.
But there was another performance Friday night just as remarkable in its way – a rediscovery of a major work by a little-known contemporary American composer that packed a tremendous wallop. It was during the Tennessee Theater show by Eighth Blackbird (above),, a Grammy-winning Chicago-based classical-music sextet that has moved small-ensemble New Music performances beyond the prevalent all-string quartets or all-percussion groups by featuring piano, clarinet, flute and percussion along with violin, viola and cello.
The group also has been daringly progressive in its championing of composers – the members premiered Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet in 2008. At Big Ears, Eighth Blackbird elected to revive a piece that, to me, expanded the notion of what American avant-garde music is capable of and has accomplished.
It was emotional and experimental, capturing in its spoken-word recitation and its ominously dark music an unsentimental, distressing story about the 1960s counter-culture as tragic and sorrowful as Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral.
The piece, called “Coming Together” (the irony is bitter), is by Frederic Rzewski. Written in 1972, when he was 33, it excerpts passages from correspondence written by the imprisoned anti-Vietnam War radical Sam Melville, who had been convicted of bombing government facilities in 1969. At Attica Prison, he helped organize the 1971 rebellion and was among those shot to death by New York troopers.
Rzewski had used a letter Melville wrote on May 16, 1970 (not long after the Kent State killings) and adapted two excerpts from it for oratorio-like recitation. At Big Ears, Will Oldham performed that part. An accomplished actor as well as singer-songwriter, Oldham slowly repeated the two phrases as Eighth Blackbird let its music build.
One passage was especially chilling, and gave the piece its title: “I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It’s six months now and I can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but I feel secure and ready.”
Oldham slowly let his voice rise and varied his emphasis as he repeated the phrases, growing from calmness to being more emphatic and then beyond that, entering into the realm of shouting, unhinged obsession. He made his “character” seem possibly delusional and possibly prophetic, like when Michael Shannon in the film Take Shelter screamed a warning to those at a community dinner that an apocalyptic storm was coming. You knew what was coming for Melville and all the others killed at Attica.
Rzewski’s bracing, uncompromisingly honest composition itself shook us out of whatever “purple haze” nostalgia we might have for that era of the late 1960s/early 1970s and its popular music (like the Beatles’ “Come Together”). “Coming Together” didn’t let us forget the losses, failures and unresolved dreams of something better.
The cheering ovation that followed wasn’t complacently de rigueur. People were shocked by the strength of the work and the performance. And everyone was thankful for Eighth Blackbird’s championing of it.
Contemporary avant-garde jazz provided for two other superb shows on Friday. Anthony Braxton (above), the bracing 70-year-old composer, improviser and player of alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones, brought his 10+1 Tet to Bijou Theater for a rigorous workout that was as much fun to watch as to hear.
He and his younger players used a special sign language to message each other during a set. They were cueing each other when to improvise or take a solo, and it was a little like watching a play or mime act. From their facial expressions, they seemed to enjoy the challenge of participating in two levels of non-verbal communication simultaneously, under the stewardship of not only a master conductor but also a virtuosic principal player.
(Braxton also did an artier set with his trio on Saturday at an open-space club called the Standard, not the most ideal setting for those who wanted to see and weren’t at least six feet tall. But the music was just as good in a different way, with Braxton’s fiery playing making room for Kyoko Kitamura’s mostly wordless vocals and Taylor Ho Bynum’s cornet, flugelhorn and trombone.)
At both of these crowded shows, Braxton received tremendous applause after his shows – he seemed moved to tears after the Bijou performance. He seems finally to be a culture hero in arts and music circles beyond the somewhat rarified world of avant-garde jazz (being the father of musician Tyree Braxton has helped). He’s an elder statesman of principled iconoclastic music, one whose music still communicates strength and exhilarating possibilities.
Another elder statesman of avant-garde jazz is 74-year-old Wadada Leo Smith, a trumpeter and composer who was an early member of Chicago’s influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. He came to Big Ears to perform at the Bijou with pianist Vijay Iyer, with whom he has recorded the new album A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke.
Wearing a white suit and playing trumpet with a slow, spare introspection that recalled Miles Davis’s playing on In a Silent Way, he radiated both humility and assuredness. His timing was deliberate; his tone so clear and direct it was like he was projecting light as well as sounds in the darkened theater. And Ijay expertly accompanied him.
I had to wait at least thirty minutes to get inside the packed Bijou on Saturday afternoon to see the Necks, the Australian trio whose instrumental music could as easily be classified as rock, jazz or contemporary classical. So I missed watching pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck slowly build up their one long composition from the beginning. When I arrived, their lockstep playing of a ferociously repetitive rhythm sounded both like a Steve Reich piece for percussion and the Velvet Underground stretching out on “Sister Ray.”
Saturday night brought one of Big Ears’ most eagerly awaited acts, Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington (above) with his ensemble the Next Step. They closed down The Mill and Mine. Based on last year’s three-disc album The Epic, I had gone expecting shrieking, crying avant-jazz played with uninterrupted stamina and a deeply spiritual underpinning, like A Love Supreme or Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma from the 1960s.
But that was my reading of The Epic. I failed to realize that the sprawling album isn’t just one type of jazz – which maybe explains the title. It’s an epic journey through that music.
Wearing a colorful serape with an African-print design, Washington did have many explosive moments when his saxophone solos cascaded like an onrushing waterfall. You could hear his youthful power in his playing and it was wildly gripping.
But the show also stressed something more accessible – contemporary yet entertaining. As a result, it was a jazz revue with room to showcase every player’s soloing and with an insistence on move-your-body rhythm, especially when drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. dueled in an extended set piece.
Washington let his father play flute on “Henrietta Our Hero,” a composition about his (Kamasi’s) grandmother. The singer Patrice Quinn was a compelling presence on that song and others – she moved her hands and head a little bit like a marionette and you weren’t quite sure where they’d land next.
Like Maceo Parker or Fred Wesley, Washington might find a huge following among jam-band aficionados as well as respect within the jazz world, if the response at Big Ears was any indication.
Much earlier in this review I paraphrased a friend when I pointed out how Sun Ra Arkestra effortlessly combined funk and skronk. That friend had made his actual comment in reference to Washington’s show, when he said how much he liked it because there was “more funk, less skronk.”
I must say I was a little disappointed with that. But I clearly get why so many loved him because of that.
The three days of club and theater shows did have a couple disappointments for me. Joe Henry’s strangulated vocals and self-consciously complex lyrics made his set of alt-Americana songs (with Marc Ribot on guitar) drag once he got beyond his most truly catchy number, “Trampoline.” Angel Olsen and her Americana/alt-rock band didn’t seem prepared for a venue as large as the Bijou or a crowd as serious about the listening experience as the Big Ears audience.
And the Saturday-afternoon subdued, low-concept Laurie Anderson/Philip Glass performance, while it had strong moments, was anticlimactic compared to her earlier heartfelt Q&A session following a screening of her wonderful Heart of a Dog film. That seemed too short; Big Ears should consider scheduling more Q&A sessions.
I stayed busy until 2 a.m. each of the festival’s three nights and also got early starts each day. Yet I still missed far more acts than I saw, since there were seven venues showing live music (plus one showing films). Those I missed included Andrew Bird, Sam Amidon with Nico Muhly and Nadia Sirotta, Mary Halvorson and the Gloaming.
The festival’s single fourth-day event could have been called Sunday in the Park with John Luther Adams (with apologies to Stephen Sondheim, who has not yet been a Big Ears performer but could be if the event expands to include progressive Broadway).
The park was the Ijams Nature Center, a 300-acre wildlife preserve and recreational area on the rural outskirts of town that includes two former quarries on its grounds. It seemed a natural setting – literally – for a performance of Adams’ 70-minute Inuksuit, which incorporates yet isolates percussionists into an outdoor space to make music that is in synch with the setting.
Since he composed it in 2009 (for nine to 99 percussionists), Inuksuit has developed an international reputation as a revelatory combination of contemporary music and conceptual environmental art, with many music groups and cultural institutions organizing performances.
For this, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra conductor Schick – himself a percussionist – co-directed with University of Tennessee’s Andrew Bliss, who leads the neif-norf New Music ensemble that played extremely well at its own Big Ears set.
The weather was sunny and warm. Because of that, and the fact this event was free to the general public, some 1,000 people turned out to roam the grounds, watch and listen, according to a local TV station’s website.
Iniksuit started seductively, almost surreptitiously, just after noon when individual musicians along a trailhead started making sounds by breathing, whistling or creating other noises into rolled paper cones and also whipping tubes into the air to produce a rippling sound.
Slowly, measuredly, other performers took their places and began playing throughout the forested area – ringing hand bells or chimes, striking gongs and hitting cymbals, playing drums and vibes, getting sounds from the edges of a metal bowl or from wind-up toy noisemakers. They were too spread out to play in concert with each other, but it wasn’t random – players had written scores and seemed to take cues from those nearest to them.
One musician was atop an old tower, a remnant of the space’s previous industrial use. Another was camped out near the edge of a lake near a full trash container and my eyes struggled between staring at the water or the garbage. Such choices made this mean more – it gave me heightened awareness.
Taking everything together, there was harmoniousness at work here. Musicians, nature, the strolling spectators, the history of the place, the possibilities for the future – everything merged to create one unified event with willing participants.
When it was finished, and with it Big Ears 2016, a happy Adams briefly talked to me and several others about the work. He explained how the idea of Inuksuit started when he lived in Alaska and was influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s time alone at Walden Pond.
“I thought when I composed Inuksuit that it was a piece about solitude,” he said. “I imagined the musician and the listener each in their own place. But the trick was on me – it turned out it’s a piece about community.”
Regrettably, this year’s Big Ears came too late for a giant of minimalism and drone, Tony Conrad, a violinist (among other things) who had worked with La Monte Young in the New York of the early 1960s and also helped inspire John Cale’s approach to playing viola with the Velvet Underground. He was scheduled to perform Outside the Dream Syndicate with Faust – they had recorded that album together in 1973. But he had to cancel due to prostate cancer, and on April 9 he died.
For those pioneers of avant-garde music who are getting on in years, Big Ears is a chance to enjoy the spotlight and see just how admired they are not only by older fans who have kept the faith, but also by younger ones just coming to the music. It’s also a place to realize there are musicians of all types and ages interested in composing and performing new, challenging music.
Big Ears is courageous to feature them. Courageous like Captain Beefheart.
Photos courtesy Tim VonderBrink.