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Dispatches from Big Ears, March 31st

I’m at Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee this weekend with my fiancé Maude and our friend and bandmate Luke. In part I’m here to start some preliminary research for a future thesis project (a project that keeps hewing closer and closer to the type of avant-garde electronic performances that Big Ears is known for), but I’m also here for my own pleasure, to explore a festival that I’ve been curious about attending for years. Big Ears seems positioned uniquely within the American festival milieu for the way it straddles the line between high profile corporate pop music extravaganza and cloistered, avant-garde, academic festival. Over the next three days I’m planning to post brief daily summaries of the concerts we attend, as well as general impressions of the festival – hopefully it will provide a glimpse of the breadth and variety of performances that can be found here.

We started the festival off at a performance by Varispeed Collective of Bob Ashley’s opera Perfect Lives, an opera in seven scenes that takes place over the course of an entire day, with each scene taking place in a different location two hours after the previous. For scene one, “The Park”, the group set up in a sculpture garden in downtown Knoxville, accompanied by the sounds of honking car horns, delivery vehicles, and a flowing waterfall. Afterward I spoke with one of the musicians who showed me the score, which consisted exclusively of a libretto. I was surprised to learn that all the musical decisions, including instrumentation (which consisted of voice, electronics, accordion and tabla), were totally at the discretion of the musicians. Those musical decisions reminded me quite a bit of early La Monte Young compositions – droning pitches, rhythmic cycling, etc. It made for an interesting pairing with a scene whose text reminded of J.D. McClatchy’s libretto for Rorem’s operatic adaptation of Our Town. In a perfect world I would have spent all day following the group around town, ending with the final scene “at the bar”, but instead we had a lot of other performances to catch.

Next up was a performance of Kali Malone’s album Living Torch, mixed live at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The twelve-channel audio setup created an immersive soundscape, at times bearing down on the audience with a visceral immediacy. At the end of the performance, I couldn’t tell if the overarching mood of the audience was one of enraptured reverence or anxiety – the instantaneous applause signaled a group that was eager to get out of there, but the equally immediate standing ovation suggested the opposite. The nature of the performance space, with Malone mixing from the middle of the audience, created a situation where 200 audience members stood and applauded the composer from all sides, as if adulating a prophet.

From there we went to The Standard, a large wedding venue that is transformed into a stage for the festival. Here we saw Ojibwe musician Joe Rainey perform, mixing powwow vocals with noise tracks mixed live by his collaborator Andrew Broder. The performance was extremely powerful, in addition to his vocals Rainey sampled from an assortment of cassette tapes featuring recorded powwow performances and speeches by Ojibwe elders. The artist also didn’t shy away from pointing out the contradictions that arise through his performance of this music in predominantly white spaces. It also pointed sharply to one of the most readily apparent features of this festival and its attendees – this place is overwhelmingly, unbelievably white. Before his final song Rainey pointed to the history of the powwow and its relation to white settler colonialism; “hey, this music is partly yours too, considering powwow music was created by Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows.”

After a brief dinner break, we visited the Mill & Mine venue to see Tank & the Bangas. As always, they put on a great show, bringing the energy for their full 75-minute set. Later that night I wandered over to Old City Performing Arts Center for an electroacoustic set performed by Lesley Flanigan. The intimate venue was the perfect spot for the performance. I could feel the audience’s engagement with her sonic experiments as she pulled more and more sounds out of her homemade instruments, sculpting them into dizzyingly complex textures. Finally, we made our way back to Mill & Mine for a set by Italian electronic music artist Caterina Barbieri. After a brief delay that didn't seem to deter many attendees, the show got underway with selections from her recent album Spirit Exit. Her solo electronic set made for a perfect end to our first day of Big Ears.


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