After a four-year hiatus, Big Ears Festival returned to Knoxville last weekend. The festival is produced by AC Entertainment, the same folks that put on the annual Bonnaroo and Forecastle music festivals. In this family, Big Ears plays the role of red-headed stepchild (albeit one loved enormously by its father/founder, Ashley Capps). With an emphasis on less-commercial musical styles, Big Ears might be the outlier, but it still makes a strong case for itself 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,” as distinguished festival guest Steve Reich put it as he dispensed with genre classifications during his opening remarks 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 restored 1920s 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 with his blend of dubstep and meditative piano musings, supported by an added visual and acoustic goal 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. Holter has an understated but dramatic vocal style that’s bolstered by her band’s versatility: they can groove, create textures and rip into avant-garde improv.
Sunday was ReichFest, so to speak. 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. 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 how he doesn’t really like versions of “Electric Counterpoint” performed by multiple performers live since recording oneself is so easy these days, and about 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 New York).
Louisville’s own Rachel Grimes mixed material from her days in the band Rachel’s and her more recent solo album “Book of Leaves” with ensemble works for her Sunday afternoon set. Cellist Helen Money joined her on a song from “Music for Egon Schiele,” and then saxophonist Jacob Duncan joined them for some newer pieces. Grimes tips her hat both to minimalism and to Satie and rock piano with affection.
The number of newly-created instruments at Big Ears grew exponentially with The National’s Bryce Dessner’s “Music for Wood and Strings,” a commission from Carnegie Hall which So Percussion premiered there last November. Dessner created a new instrument that’s something of a mix between dulcimer and guitar, which Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gase then built. So Percussion played these new “chordsticks” by plucking and strumming and by 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 Reich, to kick off an evening-long Reich tribute. Jonny Greenwood, who may now be 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 the kind of precision and conviction that suggests they’ve lived this score for years, but I learned later that only about half of Signal had ever even performed the work before.
Like most festivals, you have to budget your time and make some hard decisions about overlapping events while hoping that all shows start and end on time. Knoxville has excellent (and 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.
Daniel Gilliam is program director at Classical 90.5 WUOL, Louisville’s classical music and fine arts station.