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Dispatches from Big Ears, April 2nd

Etran de L’aïr was so much fun on Saturday that we started our final day of the festival by catching them again at The Standard. After acquiring much merch we left and headed to the Jackson Terminal for a set by tubist Theon Cross, who was accompanied in between virtuosic solos by guitar and drum machine. Cross is known for collaborating with clarinetist/saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings in the band Sons of Kemet but seeing him perform as the main event was a real treat. If you haven’t heard him play the tuba, I would check out some of the videos on YouTube; his incredible range, dynamic control, timbral effects and use of extended techniques is amazing to hear live.

After Theon Cross we headed over to the Southern Railway Station, another free venue and the only outdoor stage at Big Ears. Performing on Sunday afternoon was Rica Chicha, a local Latin brass band playing original material as well as Peruvian folk tunes and some Dolly Parton covers for good measure. The anti-queer and trans bills that recently passed the Tennessee state legislature were top of mind for many of the artists at Big Ears, especially with Knoxville based groups like Rica Chicha. The group dedicated their last song to Tennessee queer and trans youth, adding “this one’s for you, Mr. Lee” (Tennessee governor Bill Lee) before launching into a punk-inflected anti-fascist anthem. Later that evening the Atlanta-based band Algiers finished off their excellently heavy, sample-inflected set on a similar note – calling a poet and collaborator to the stage who read a spoken word tribute to queer, trans and marginalized folks fighting back against increasingly vocal white nationalist reactionaries within Southern state houses.

Next it was back to Jackson Terminal where we caught a bit of the melancholic tunes of British DIY band caroline. The eight-piece group reminded of Black Country, New Road, with every bit as expansive a sonic palette. What was most striking to me was the group’s setup; arranged in a circle in the middle of the venue, they performed their tracks for one another as if set up in a living room. It just so happened that there were about 300 onlookers taking in the performance as well, arranged around the group on three sides, many of which seated in chairs arranged in tidy rings around the ensemble.

Sunday at Big Ears was dedicated to legendary New York composer/improviser John Zorn, with about a dozen concerts of his works arranged throughout the day and night. We took in just one Zorn concert, a performance of his free improvisation work Cobra, conducted by the composer and performed by a sixteen-member supergroup made up of artists who had performed throughout the weekend. I’m admittedly not super familiar with Zorn’s work beyond a cursory understanding of the downtown New York scene he came up in during the 1970s and 80s.

A combination free improv and aleatoric composition, Cobra is conducted, or “prompted” by a leader who holds up cards that cue players to enter, indicate transitions between sections, refrains that will come back later, and other compositional decisions. Performers are free to “call their own number” or indicate to the prompter a section or group that they would like to hear. All of this leads to a fascinating unfolding of social relations during the performance, and I found myself just as interested in determining who is trying to do what or communicate with whom as I was the sounds being played. Just as interesting was watching the audience laugh, clap, giggle, and shout as the performers swerved from one section to the next and back again. Despite all this, I felt a little ambivalent about the whole thing. Is this method of conduction really “redefining what free improvisation can be” as the Big Ears program note described it? And at times it was clear as day that some personalities on stage were dominating others, and I longed to hear from some of the less brash musicians, who undoubtedly had something interesting to say. I came to wonder if the entire thing could be boiled down to men playing loudly and other men loudly cheering them on, all while incredible musicians (mostly women) sat idly by, waiting for a chance to get a word in edgewise.

Yet despite all that, I absolutely loved that a seated performance rooted in heady/academic music traditions could actually deliver that much energy – I’m curious what Chris Small would have had to say about it. Additionally, it was thrilling to see legitimate participatory interaction between performers and listeners at a concert like this. So, on one hand I was in awe of the power of the performance, while on the other left feeling that it reinscribed some of the unsavory aspects of a performance practice with which I personally hold so much cognitive dissonance. But perhaps this is a perfect microcosm of Big Ears festival, and I’m left hoping that I’ll be able to make it back here again soon.


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