Big Ears 2017: A Great Music Festival

A second visit to Big Ears and hugely enjoyable it was. Back in Knoxville TN the venues were as warm and welcoming as before.  This post is my thoughts about what I listened to and the reflections triggered by this – a process that continues.

Thursday 23rd March

Nief Norf: Pauline Oliveros’ ‘Single Stroke Roll Meditation’ and Michael Gordon’s ‘Timber’ at The Mill and Mine.

Single Stroke Roll Meditation’ was a quiet start to crescendo to silence work on two cymbals, one wheel hub, one large cow bell and two other instruments that I never saw.  Spaced around the perimeter of a room full of a standing audience, the six musicians must have found it hard to stay in touch.  A long slow build of the tones across the six players, varied slightly in intensity, built from silence, gradually peaked and then slowly ebbed away.  Were I to experience this piece again I would walk around the musicians (here the size of the audience discouraged this).

Timber’ was played on six pieces of wood arranged as a hexagon in the middle of the room.  This was a durational piece in which the musicians slowly exchanged rhythms and tomes across a multitude of variations.  The range of tones, resonances and layering of sounds from six pieces of wood was extraordinary and the young sextet played this physically demanding piece over about an hour.  It was mesmeric with its slowly cycling sound and it was never clear where in the piece we were so there was also a feeling of being lost in the music.

Both pieces rewarded close (deep) listening.

Matana Roberts at The Square Room

A saxophone lament mixed with vocals, all recorded and looped.  The intimate venue helped the work with the almost physical presence of the saxophones tones within the room.  The accompanying collages video played a rapidly cycling selection of black and white, low resolution images that were a mix of random marks and scenes from black Americans’ lives in the early 20th century.


Each of the pieces produced their sonic complexity by layering and repetition of sound.

Without any signposting Timber became a bit of an endurance work; there is merit in letting the audience know how long a work is likely to last.


Friday 24th March

Maya Beiser at The Mill and Mine

Experimental cellist.  The accompanying video piece for one work failed to appear.

Matmos perform Robert Ashley’s ‘Perfect Lives (Private Parts) at The Tennessee Theatre

Spoken opera with rhythm and music.  A surprising amount of activity and a great ‘lead speaker’ – animated of face and hand. Supported by two female chorus, and electronic percussion plus piano bass cello violin and reeds.  A video played on a screen at the back of the stage linking into the text and offering some further clues to interpretation.

Frederic Rzewski (The People United Will Never Be Defeated) at The Mill & Mine

An hour or so, a sprawling, meandering piano work that starts and (almost) ends in the famous song.

Claire Chase at The Standard

Flautist with a touch of Kate Bush.

Stale Storlokken & Arve Henriksen at Church Street United Methodist Church

Mournful organ and trumpet set off magnificently in the huge baptist church.  The music was experienced via the building.

Alvin Curran at The Square Room

A ‘prepared’ electric piano alongside a concert baby-grand.  At first there seemed no obvious structure and the apparent electronic cacophony was confusing, accentuated by Alvin Curran’s playing style which looked like he was getting electric shocks from the keyboard.  However, the emerging similarities between what was played on piano and what was played on keyboard became fascinating.  Ended with a few blows of a goat’s horn that he had pulled across the piano strings.

Carla Bley, Steve Swallow & Andy Sheppard at The Bijou Theatre

More familiar territory.  A relatively brief set and one that felt slightly ‘tame’ by comparison to much that had gone before.  I was startled by Carla Bley’s physical frailty (she is now 80) and this then became the lens through which I viewed the set.


The combination of word and music in Robert Ashley/Matmos was very powerful and there may be some ideas that I can take from this when thinking about my sound works.

Both Rzewski and Matmos demonstrated the performance of slowly evolving durational works.

Storlokken/Henriksen was the best (most obvious) example of hearing the music via the space.


Saturday 25th

Lisa Moore at The Mill & Mine

Performing in the round at The Mill & Mine the Australian born ‘queen of avant-garde piano’ played a one hour set of works by Glass, Stockhausen and Luther Adams.  This was an absorbing short recital.

Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble: The Soul’s Messenger at The Bijou Theatre

Meredith Monk plus two other female vocalists (one also a pianist) and a male reeds player made up the ensemble.  Monk was performing pieces from her back catalogue including from Atlas, Mercy and Dolmen Music.  This was the performance I had come to Knoxville to hear and it didn’t disappoint.  Meredith Monk was fantastic and I can safely say that I have never heard/seen anything like this before.  The sound plus the intense presence and physicality of Monk as a dancer was breathtaking.  The scale of what she has been doing for 50 years is awesome.  The sheer bravado of the route she has followed is inspiring.  The voice as sound – I find this much more interesting than the voice in song.

Colin Stetson ‘Sorrow’: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony at The Mill & Mine

I took against this from an ill-defined but early point in the performance.  The programme notes identified this as a work performed by a 10 piece ensemble that included a rock drummer and an indie-rock violinist to which was added electric lead and bass guitars.  So, it was not surprising that it was loud – but this performance was over amplified to the point of distortion (the sections with the cello and violin alone were too loud, and everything else was in step with this).  The orchestral version makes its impact with controlled clarity of sound (particularly voice and strings) and this rock band sound mush seems rather ‘obvious’ – a bit like shouting “this is emotive ‘cos it is loud” – the trap of the film score.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble at St John’s Cathedral

A quick trip into the cathedral for three pieces by Gavin Bryars ensemble – not really enough to get a good feel.

Frode Haltli: ‘The Border Woods’ (featuring Emelia Amper on nychelharpa) at The Knoxville Museum of Art

The ensemble was Frode Haltli with two percussionists and Emelia Amper.  Having expected a solo accordion the size of the set up was a surprise with cymbals and wine glasses at either end of the auditorium and a central strip of two large xylophones and a central percussion set of wood blocks/boxes.  The performance was a one hour work loosely based on traditional Scandinavian tunes that moved through various stages of definition (in terms of melody) in the form of a musical conversation between the accordion and the nychelharpa both punctuated and underpinned by the percussion.


Meredith Monks performance re-awoke thoughts from the sound/words transcription workshop – the notion that sound could be transcribed and re-vocalised.  Plus larger message from seeing Monk was that what may appear well beyond mainstream is worth pursuing as long as it interests – forget being popular.

From Gavin Stetson I take a particular manifestation of the idea that ‘less is more’ – here I am looking for my use of silence and quiet and take this as a warning about the seductive illusion that amplitude can in some way replace content.


Sunday 26th

The Magnetic Fields ‘Fifty Song Memoir’ (part 2) (Stephen Merritt) at The Tennessee Theatre

A song a year for his 50 years. We lasted three years then left.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble: ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ at The Mill & Mine

A song sung by a vagrant, recorded by Bryars and used as the basis for the piece. A long, slow increase in volume, always of the same accompanying refrain, then a slow fade away. The Ensemble was about a dozen various string instruments.

Oliver Coates at The Mill & Mine

A recital by a young English cellist.

Jace Clayton presents ‘Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner’ at The Bijou Theatre

A reworking and presentation of work by Julius Eastman.  Two pianists played Eastman work(s?) whilst Jace Clayton recorded and re-played them. Very fast, frenetic rhythms.

Deathprod at The Tennessee Theatre

Tissue vibrating ambient drone. Lasted five minutes then left.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble: The Sinking of The Titanic at The Tennessee Theatre

Similar idea to today’s earlier piece (with which it is broadly contemporaneous).  This work was combined with the turntable/synthesiser work of Philip Jeck and accompanied a screening by Bill Morrison.  Again a slow build then fall away.  Philip Jeck’s turntables added to the piece.


Not all ideas are appealing, but most ideas will find someone who is prepared to engage with them.  Slow pace of change can be very effective.

Repetition can be very effective; after a while it can become the main point of a work.