SUBJECT: Big Ears Festival
Work and life conspired to keep me to just one day of the 4-day Big Ears Festival in Knoxville. I poured over the early schedules, debating which day to choose—no easy task with lineups that were both eclectic and packed with experimental star power. Ultimately it made sense to choose Saturday, the 25th.
I wanted to arrive early, so as to not miss anything due to unforeseen logistics. I needn't have worried. Big Ears proved to be a well-organized and expertly managed event. Picking up my pass as the proverbial gates opened, I had time to catch the showing of Jonathan Demme's late-90s documentary on Robyn Hitchcock. As an avid Hitchcock fan, I've seen the movie (repeatedly), but never on the big screen. Robyn himself was there to give a cheeky introduction. The theatre was enormous (especially for the small, early-riser crowd) and lavishly baroque.
From there, it was just down the street to the next theatre to see Meredith Monk. For Monk's revered status, I'd yet to spend much time with her repertoire, so this hour-and-a-half presentation was something of an immersion course. My first impression was sheer bravery: a small woman, alone on stage, commanding a good-sized room of fans and curious onlookers with wordless, a cappella songs and strange ululations. Her songs were playfully challenging, wrapping NYC, avant garde formalism in sing song nursery patterns. She has a commanding knowledge of musics of the world—displaying techniques from Southwestern Native Cultures as well as Chinese and Indonesian flourishes. I'm not 'woke' enough to gauge if these strains in her music constitute learned influence or appropriation.
Then a few blocks up to standing-room only room, to see Xylouris White. The duo of Greek-born lutist, Giorgis Xylouris, and the legendary Australian post-punk drummer, Jim White, are often lauded for merging Mediterranean folk with a driving krautrock motorik. Their range is much more dynamic than their press—taking in atmospheric chants and tunes with a far more subtle, jazz-tinged percussion—but it's understandable. Those wild flights of abandon that music feel transcendent: White chasing an ever-higher crescendo and Xylouris giving a full-throated rallying cries.
Just across the tracks, in a cavernous, modern event space, Musica Elettronica Viva gathered a crowd for a concert in the round. The trio of Richard Tietelbaum, Alvin Curran and Frederic Rzewski are elder statesmen of experimentalism, playing together on and off for over 50 years. While MEV's pops and fizzles of improvised electronic sounds are no longer quite as alien, their restraint and broad palette belie a wizened experience. It's hard to imagine any young, Brooklyn synth group incorporating Biblical passages in their work without a heavy dose of ironic detachment. In Rzewski's hands, these Abrahamic fragments were a springboard for calls to Freedom and Resistance.
I couldn't get into see a folk performance by Joan Shelley, but honestly, it was the only thing that felt like filler in my schedule for the day. I had only read about her music, and have a narrow interest in folk forms. Instead I took the opportunity to catch a lunch. The cafe where Shelley performed seemed to be only space small enough to regularly run out of room, which speaks again to the festival's planning. Big Ears by no means seemed sparsely attended but nor did it seem oversold, devolving into a line-cutting mob-scene.
Back to the club to see Horse Lords. I'd heard them first at a Pioneer Works showcase, in Brooklyn. Since then, I've more thoroughly explored their mash-up of King Crimson's dextrous bravado and Steve Reich's pattern-based minimalism. Their infusion of process music with raw rock muscle is riveting at full-force volume.
The main reason I chose Saturday, and made the two hour drive to Knoxville, was Gavin Bryars. I first heard his music in the early 90s, because Tom Waits was a featured soloist on the Point Records release of Bryars' Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet. I quickly became a devoted follower. While the performances of Jesus Blood… and his Sinking of the Titanic on Sunday were surely going to be divine, I wanted a chance to dwell in his works I wasn't quite as familiar with.
Where his early work split the difference between classical minimalism and Brian Eno's Discrete Music, his newer material draws more heavily on ancient songforms. Many of the pieces were 'Laudas', which he described as small chorales sung outside churches, to coax people in, "who would otherwise be on their way to the pub". Even still, he has a patience as a composer to include only what is absolutely necessary. The chamber group performed in a small cathedral just off the old-town square. The stone church provided appropriately stately and reverberant acoustics for the atmospheric performances.
I snuck out of Bryars' show a touch early to catch a Steve Lehman and his Sélébéyone group. Their abstract combination of hip hop and spiky, downtown jazz had been on repeat for months and I was keen to squeeze one last show in before I drove home to Asheville. I shouldn't have bothered. Their set started nearly one hour late (due to some technical difficulty or other). The crowd sat impatiently through repeated sound checks (that all sounded the same to us), increasingly worried we were going to miss something else if this dragged on. It was hard not to let that anxious impatience spill into actually listening experience. They seemed a little put off too, dispirited but not disinterested. The performance seemed flat, and overly reliant on pre-recorded material. Entire sections saw the whole septet standing around listening to Lehman's laptop with the audience. The album is phenomenal, but there's definitely distance left to run for the live set, yet.
There was much more, even that one day, I left to early to see Phillip Jeck, Deerhoof, Roedelius, Nels Cline and Yuka Honda, or Supersilent. Alas, safety first. Next year I am definitely going to make a weekend of it.
NOTES: Robyn Hitchcock (film); Meredith Monk; Xylouris White; MEV; Horse Lords; Gavin Bryars Ensemble; Steve Lehman Sélébéyone