“At the heart of a great festival is collaboration,” stated Ashley Capps, President of AC Entertainment, at the opening ceremony of Big Ears Festival 2016. Over four days in late March those words rung true as Big Ears solidified itself as one of the most experimental and avant-garde music experiences in the world. The event gave artists a chance to expand their sounds and creations past the limits of their respected genres, sometimes even their normal mediums. From The National’s Bryce Dessner sitting in with Yo La Tengo, to world-renowned tenor saxophonist Marshall Allen pairing with electronic composer/DJ Hieroglyphic Being, collaborations helped push the festival’s boundaries into beautiful, uncharted territories.
To our surprise and excitement, no set was what was expected. It was as if the festival organizers requested each artist to choose their most unique, left-field track, take that track’s first minute, then stretch that minute out for an hour-long set. Indeed, each act was a truly unique, once-in-a-lifetime performance that simply cannot be duplicated on just any stage in front of just any crowd. In order for it to work, the artists had to know what they were doing would be well-received, and these festival patrons had to want their own “big ears” tested. Art installations blurred the lines between musical and visual performances, some invoking the viewer to question their own definition of what music can become given the right environment, and in the hands of inventive, forward-thinking brilliant minds.
Throughout the weekend, the Dead Audio Team caught jaw-dropping performances at historic locations around downtown Knoxville such as the Tennessee Theatre, The Bijou Theatre and the all new Mill & Mine, AC’s newest venue just down the street from The Standard. The Ijam Nature Center hosted the closing ceremony, John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit, a music installation that turned the entire nature center into a percussion-led performance that left the Dead Audio Team wondering where exactly man, nature and music separate, if at all.
Over the course of the weekend it became apparent that the best collaborations were not only on stage, but between the festival, the city of Knoxville and among the festival-goers, and as Capps put it, that’s what a great festival is really all about.
To recap the eventful weekend Dead Audio Blog has given many of the great shows their own superlatives:
Best Use of Multiple Guitars – Stewart Hurwood Operates Lou Reed’s DRONES
Lou Reed’s DRONES, was set in a smaller room at The Standard. Bean bag chairs, rugs, and blankets were spread about the room encouraging listeners to make themselves comfortable and take in the humming feedback of Lou Reed’s 1975 Metal Machine Music of 7 separate guitars and amplifiers. When asked if there was a plan for the performance Steward Hurwood, Reed’s guitar tech, stated “I have a game plan going into it, but you can never receive the exact same music twice.” The installation was performed for more than 5 hours at a time, allowing viewers to hear Reed’s masterpiece like never before.
Best Father/Son Combination – Kamasi and Rickey Washington
Kamasi Washington and his band took the stage at The Mill & Mine late Saturday evening. Starting with an other-worldly rendition “Change of the Guard,” the band did everything they could to protect the music and push it forward, including a 15-minute dueling drum battle. A few songs into the second half of the show Kamasi invited his flute and saxophone-playing Pop to the stage for the remainder of the set. Still reeling from his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Kamasi and his band have positioned themselves as the premier jazz act in the world at the moment, and to see such a special father/son moment on stage helped make the performance truly “Epic.”
Best Auctioneer -Nicolas Jaar
Nicolas Jaar began his Friday night set at The Mill & Mine with a sample featuring a male British auctioneer. Bids, beginning at 77 million dollars, steadily increased by the million as the performer built the suspense through lights, fog, and sound. This was a perfect example of thinking we knew what was going to happen on stage and then receiving an entirely different show. We expected something similar to Jaar’s DARKSIDE project, however, the Chilean-American DJ’s performance was truly original, live-mixing sounds and samples not found on any of his official releases. This really got us wondering what Jaar has in store for his newly-created record label, Other People.
Best Use of Everyday Objects as Musical Instruments -Anthony Braxton’s trumpet player Taylor Ho Bynum
Bynum used a hat, a ball, and cd as mutes for his trombone while Kyoto Kltamura sang scat and Braxton wailed the sax. Braxton’s sheet music resembled the doodles of a madman with dips and peaks that only those in the know could decipher.
Best Impersonation of a Yellow Warbler –Andrew Bird
At the beautiful, historic Tennessee Theatre Friday, Andrew Bird played his first show since the release of his album Are You Serious, released the same day. The acoustics in the theatre lended themselves wonderfully to Andrew’s calming violin pieces and bird songs. Playing a mix of old songs and new tracks, the sounds that night were very reminiscent of Bird’s 2015 LP Echolocations: Canyon that extends the performer’s trademark sound into long, sweeping soundscapes that belong on your playlist for long sunset hikes in the desert.
Best Venue to Ponder the Meaning of Life – Tie: The Sanctuary & The Ijams Nature Center
Big Ears utilized unconventional venues such as The Sanctuary (the former First Christian Church of Knoxville) and the Ijams Nature Center, brining a solemn, introspective tone to their respective installations. Flooded in bright stained glass, The Sanctuary was home to Composer-in-Residence John Luther Adams’ Veils and Vesper. The installation allowed festival attendees the opportunity to walk freely among the pews, as speakers pumped out a series of immersive, ethereal electronic pieces. The DAB team sat at the alter, facing one another, discussing the saving grace of live music and realizing that maybe the only collaborations happening this weekend were not just on stages, but between everyone and everything we encountered over the weekend.
Perhaps the most impressive thing we participated in at Big Ears was Sunday’s climactic finale, the outdoor performance of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit at the Ijams Nature Center on the outskirts of town. Inuksuit is a composition that uses up to 99 percussionists strategically positioned throughout a natural environment, and Ijam’s sparkling blue quarry was the perfect setting for the event. Starting off as subtly as the wind, and progressively building, building, building into a glorious cacophony of percussion, nature and humans, the installation made you feel like everyone and everything is it’s own instrument. As we walked around the environment we saw performers using minimalist instruments such as conch shells, bathroom tiles being scraped with a kitchen pestle, all the way to full drum sets and gongs a half mile into the woods, high above on a cliff’s edge. As a plane buzzed above we couldn’t help but wonder if the sounds coming from the aircraft were part of the music too. In a very literal sense, yes, it was because it shaped the way we heard the music and thought about the composition. It really was the perfect way to end the weekend pondering the collaboration of man, music and nature.
Best Band Whose Lyrics We Had to Google Translate -Boogarins
Boogarins Friday afternoon set at The Standard was quickly one in/one out. Dinho Almeida (vocals, rhythm guitar), Benke Farraz (solo guitar), Ynaiã Benthroldo (Drums) and Raphael Vaz (Bass) make up the Brazilian psych-rock four piece. Almeida seemed both excited and surprised at the turnout, telling fans they were happy to share this “awesome party” with us. The band has crafted a unique, tropical poppy sound that we’re sure to see grace AC stages for years to come.
Most Fitting Send Off – Tony Conrad’s Amplified Drone Strings
Following the news of the minimalist violinist and composer Tony Conrad’s passing on the Thursday of the festival, the performance of Conrad’s “Amplified Drone Strings” proved to be a perfect funeral dirge sat in the dark, somber Square Room located in Market Square. Recreated with Sally Morgan (violin), Liz Payne (double bass), and Frank Meadows (double bass), one couldn’t help but feel the heaviness of the set, almost as if we were lowering Conrad’s casket to the soundtrack he made for his final moments on Earth.
Not to say these performers and artists don’t deserve their own accolades. Everything we encountered brought something new and world-class to our senses. Here’s a quick rundown of some other awesome things we saw:
- The Gloaming’s intricate storytelling of epic Irish Poems through Celtic Orchestrtal pieces.
- Shambhavi Kaul’s musically-driven visual experiences that were like Animal Collective’s ODDSAC x 70s Godzilla low budget sci-fi x Chinese restaurant decor.
- Wolf Eyes’ industrial, grungy scream punk.
- Bombino’s immaculate, incendiary guitars.
- Shabazz Palaces was the hip-hop dose we needed over the weekend, playing quite a bit from 2011’s Black Up.
- Nief-Norf‘s Steve Reich performed Four Organs by summoning a beautiful piano ballad from a tea kettle like a genie from a bottle.
- I’m pretty sure Yo La Tengo played one song for an entire set on Thursday.
- Goose Island offered the best deal in festival booze, as well as complimentary BBQ, proving to be a great “opener” for Boogarins.
- The Necks’ grooves unraveled slowly into totally new sounds we had never heard before from a piano/drum/bass combo.
- Status Serigraph‘s Justin Helton took time to geek out about posters with us and show us some of his rare prints.
- The city of Knoxville for hosting us, Axis Security for keeping festival-goers safe, and all the sponsors of Big Ears, for whom none of these experiences would be possible without their contribution and support of live music!
Co-written by Jared Lee & Joel Stevens/Photo Credits: Clay Gibson