field report no.0323-2518

LOCATION: various sites, Knoxville TN
SUBJECT: Big Ears Festival

OBSERVATIONS:
Last year, I only dipped my toe in, testing the waters of the Big Ears Festival. Going for one day, I crammed in as much as possible and left overwhelmed. I was all in this year (though, circumstances necessitated I skip the opening night, Thursday). Arriving for the opening bell on Friday, I dove in, catching 10 performances in the first day alone. By the time I left, early Sunday evening, the final tally was up to 23. I set off for the long drive home, exhausted (in the best possible way).

Without trying to detail every experience, what follows are some of the highlights, as I saw them.

There was no better way to start than catching Roscoe Mitchell's Trio Five. Mitchell's presence and performance served testament to the advanced programming at Big Ears—their ability to attract artists of stature. The Art Ensemble of Chicago founder has remained, since the mid-60s a restless artist. These Trios, the first of which are documented on the ECM album, Bells for the South Side, are mature, searching works. The group was well-versed, each member, though some at least 2 generations Mitchell's junior, were patient and knew when to sit back or lean in. Roscoe's extended solos were searing—especially on soprano saxophone—filled with intervalic leaps and exploding, multi-phonic extended techniques.

Quite unintentionally, I ended up organizing my experience each day into loose groupings. Friday contained, by far, the most jazz-oriented of shows. Throughout the rest of the day, I saw the ebullient Cyro Baptista, Rocket Science (featuring Evan Parker and Peter Evans), as well as Jenny Scheinmann's Mayhem & Mischief (featuring Nels Cline). There was a powerhouse solo performance by Milford Graves—who's experiencing a coronation into elder statesman status of late. Luckily, The Thing's excoriating set made up for a rather staid and mildly disappointing turn by Medeski Martin & Wood.

Even still, I mixed it up, catching Ikue Mori,  and ending the night with a sublime presentation by Wolfgang Voigt as Gas—previewing his new work, Rausch. Along the way I caught an Arto Lindsay set that was by far the best I have seen. His band—lead by the stalwart bassist, Melvin Gibbs— featured two drummers this go 'round, giving his samba inflected art rock witha . powerful, polyrhythmic punch.

Saturday ended up leaning more towards electronica acts. I started the day with an early morning performance by Kid Koala. I didn't know at the time how lucky I was to get in to this show. Over the course of the weekend, Kid Koala would lead a series of interactive performances based on his album Satellite: Music to Draw to, that ended up the biggest draw of the Fest—consistently at capacity, turning people away. In the small Square Room venue, each table was set up with custom mini-turntables along with a collection of color-coded 45s. During the performance, a light on the turntable would give you hued cues as to which record to put on, and a conductor would guide the audience to raise the volume, add effects or scratch.

While Kid Koala's music is not stylistically advanced, he excels at making live experiences that leave you feeling as if you've witnessed—even participated—in something truly special.

I went on from there to see a hypnotic all-oboe chamber piece composed by Michael Gordon, in an Art Museum and Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble in a cathedral. Yuka Honda gave a rare solo performance and Laurel Halo drove her set well past its scheduled end-time, supported by experimental percussionist, Eli Keszler.

I ended the night at the Mill & the Mine, catching Four Tet with Kelly Lee Owens warming up. Four Tet has been on a years-long hot streak that's cemented him as one of the pivotal electricians of the early 21st century. He moves with dynamics in opposition to themselves. It has all the structure and release of classic techno but maintains the loose-limbed unpredictability of improvised music.

Kelly Lee Owens was a shocker, though. Her self-titled debut from last year (which I loved) was no preparation for her live set. Bits and pieces from the album showed up, but only as markers in her continuous slow build to a jaw-dropping display of hard acid house. If any one other than Four Tet was on after her, I would have called it a night then and there.

Sunday was like any Sunday after you've partied for two days in a row. I was weary and a bit hungover, musically. I caught what I could, Tyshawn Sorey's music is impressive and luminous. I'd be lying if I said I've found a way to fully connect with it, but I am no less than impressed by it.

I went on to see a set by the rock band Suuns, which I found a bit of a let-down. I'd say they reminded me of Joy Division, but really it's more like reminding me of Interpol reminding me of Joy Division. It never really lifted off—I eventually found a chair in a corner and dozed off a bit. Later I caught pianist Jason Moran with Ron Miles and Mary Halvorson. While Ron Miles has the longest resume of all three, it's Halvorson who has the buzz. I'd seen her play dozens of times while I lived in New York, so it was a treat to see her on stage again.  

Despite my somewhat disengaged state, the improvised set on Sunday afternoon by Keiran Hebden (aka Four Tet) and Mats Gustafsson (of the Thing) was possibly the best of the entire weekend. Their musical spheres have little to do with each other—yet you could hear each one reaching to the other to find a common ground, in the moment. This was not their first meeting, but like their album with the sadly departed drummer, Steve Reid, I hope this set sees the light of day on record, as it was fucking stellar.

With one more show tucked in—a performance of Steve Reich's newer work, Quartet as performed by Nief-Norf—I was back on the road to North Carolina, overwhelmed (again). Already, I'm pleased to see the Big Ears 2019 lineup taking sahpe, as for the foreseeable future, I plan on making the Big Ears Festival an annual trek.

NOTES: Roscoe Mitchell; Cyro Baptista's Vira Locos; Ikue Mori; Rocket Science; Milford Graves; Arto Lindsay; Jenny Sheinman's Mischief & Mayhem; Medeski Martin & Wood; The Thing; Gas; Kid Koala; Rushes Ensemble performing Michael Gordon; Evan Parker Electro-acoustic Ensemble; Yuka Honda; Sonus Ensemble; Laurel Halo featuring Eli Keszler; Kelly Lee Owens; Four Tet; Tyshawn Sorey; Suuns; Kieren Hebden & Mats Gustafsson; Bangs; Nief Norf performing Steve Reich
PRESENT: AMS

field report no.032517

LOCATION: KNX.TN
SUBJECT: Big Ears Festival

OBSERVATIONS:
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
PRESENT: AMS