After a four-year hiatus, Big Ears Festival returned to Knoxville last weekend, presented by AC Entertainment, the same folks that present Bonnaroo and Forecastle. And in this festival family, Big Ears plays the role of red-headed, stepchild (but, one loved enormously by its father/founder, Ashley Capps). It’s the stylistic outlier, but makes a strong case that a festival devoted to weird music, in a small, southern city, can be successful.
If there was a stylistic thread, it was minimalism and its various permutations as applied to “notated and non-notated music.” That quoted fragment comes from Steve Reich, the distinguished guest for the festival, who used those words to dispense with genre classifications in his opening proclamation at the Knoxville Museum of Art. With this blessing, and a performance of Clapping Music by Reich and two members of So Percussion, we were sent forth to listen.
So Percussion christened the Bijou Theater with Reich and Glenn Kotche’s Drumkit Quartets. Glenn Kotche and Jason Treuting (of So) delivered an olympic performance of Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, adapted by Kotche for two kits, and finally the duo Buke and Gase (Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez) played an electrifying set with So Percussion.
The Tennessee Theatre, a 1920s restored movie house, hosted the Wordless Music Orchestra (a string septet, in this iteration) playing film cues by Jonny Greenwood from his work on There Will Be Blood, Norwegian Wood and The Master, oddly interspersed with solo and duo string pieces by Xenakis and Scelsi. The highlight was Greenwood joining Wordless Music for two of his works, including Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, a rich, enveloping score for electric guitar, strings and electronics that channeled Messiaen.
Nils Frahm shook the Tennessee Theatre blending his dubstep and meditative piano musings, with the added visual and acoustic aesthetic of exposing as much of the inner pianos as possible (sounds of hammers, felt, dampening, etc). Julia Holter and her band (she on keyboard, with a violinist, cellist, saxophonist and drummer) gave an intense performance. She has an understated, but dramatic, vocal style that’s outlined by her band’s versatility: they can groove, create textures and rip into avant-garde improv.
Sunday was Reichfest. Big Ears founder, Ashley Capps, interviewed Steve Reich at the Knoxville Museum of Art, and they talked about Reich’s background and other interview-y type things, but it’s always illuminating and entertaining to hear someone with a tremendous career, like Reich, drop as many anecdotes as possible in 30 minutes, like: “If you think you’re doing something no one else has done before, you’re screwed up,” and the time Reich told Ransom Wilson he didn’t want to write him a concerto , but instead wrote him Vermont Counterpoint (which was mostly written in NYC), and how he doesn’t really like versions of Electric Counterpoint when performed by multiple performers live, since recording oneself is so easy these days.
Rachel Grimes’ Sunday afternoon set, mixed material from her days in the band Rachel’s and her more recent solo album Book of Leaves and ensemble works, with cellist Helen Money playing on a song from Music for Egon Schiele, and then together with saxophonist Jacob Duncan on newer music. Grimes tips her hat to minimalism, and to Satie and rock piano with affection.
The number of newly-created instruments at Big Ears grew exponentially with Bryce Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings, a commission from Carnegie Hall and premiered there last November by So Percussion. Dessner conceived of a new instrument that is something of a mix between dulcimer and guitar, and built by Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gase. So Percussion played these new “chordsticks” by plucking and strumming, and using bows and dowel rods, creating sounds that were reminiscent of six string and steel guitars, dulcimers and other bowed, string instruments.
The weekend concluded, as it began, with a reprise of Clapping Music (this time with Brad Lubman joining Mr. Reich) to kick off an evening-long Reich tribute. Jonny Greenwood, who may becoming more associated with Electric Counterpoint than Pat Metheny, played the guitar work with intimate knowledge. Reich returned the favor with Radio Rewrite, his 2012 Radiohead-inspired opus, which Lubman led with his Ensemble Signal. The crowning achievement of the festival was Reich’s seminal, 55-minute Music for 18 Musicians. Ensemble Signal hypnotized the audience with precision and conviction, like they’ve lived this score for years. In fact, as I learned later, only about half of Signal had ever performed Music for 18 Musicians before.
Here’s what some of Big Ears sounded like:
Like most festivals, you have to budget your time and make some hard decisions with overlapping events, and hope that all shows start and end on time. Knoxville has excellent (affordable) restaurants, bars and cafes, and they’re all within a mile of the festival venues. I hear Big Ears 2015 is already scheduled for March 27-29. Pencil it in.