Big Ears 2015: On the Ground at America’s Biggest Avant-Garde Party

A full recap from the ambitious Knoxville event: Swans, Tanya Tagaq, Kronos Quartet and a new emphasis on eyes

This year's Big Ears festival (featuring Swans, pictured here) seemed intent on expanding more than just ears. Credit: Nick LeTellier

"Festivals like to say that they're diverse," said particularly eclectic folk imagineer Rhiannon Giddens onstage at the fourth edition of Knoxville's Big Ears Festival, "but this is a diverse festival."

In one evening at Big Ears 2015, you could see a full-bodied, often eerily precise Knoxville Symphony Orchestra interpreting Max Richter's "recomposed" version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons — interrupted by an applauding crowd too enamored with violinist Yuki Numata Resnick's blazing solo. Then walk two blocks and see art-rock bludgeoneers Swans play at deafening volumes, vibrating the floor and chairs of the Bijou with "Frankie M," an opening number that sounded like firing a shotgun at a running motorcycle, their set looking like they were literally shaking dustballs from the rafters. An ambitious avant-garde festival with toe-dipping stations for 20th-century composition, contemporary indie-rock, abstract electronics, jazz, folk, ambient and Syrian pop, the mayor herself talked about not knowing where to start. She detailed her own Big Ears strategy of just wandering in to shows, quoting Tune-Yards' "Look Around": "You wouldn't believe what I saw in the city tonight."

Though the sounds came from different arenas, there were through-lines — repetition, dissonance, interlocking melodies — and this year the festival seemed intent on expanding more than just ears, with a large number of acts exploring visual elements, soundtracking movies and bringing multi-media presentations.

Demdike Stare used the digital sounds of their decidedly modern horrortronica — rumbling drones, booming bass and dubby crackles — to add ominous atmosphere to 1922 folklore-sploitation film Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. Director Jim Jarmusch and his band Sqürl gave dreamy, blurry Man Ray films some bleary shimmer, watching his monitor intently while gently pushing his guitar into an amp, coaxing out soft feedback. For further extra-sensory adventures, you could take a trolley to the Big Ears Brunch, where a cooking station in the corner turned the Public House bar into an ad hoc restaurant complete with a DJ spinning Talking Heads on vinyl and decadent pastrami hash contrasted by black olives.

Tyondai Braxton turned a pocket of rock club the Standard into a stand-alone art exhibit with Hive, five trypophobia-welcoming podiums for five performers to play a squishy clatter somewhere between Steve Reich, Black Dice and Willy Wonka. Lights flickered and splayed, smoke poured and three percussionists clacked woodblocks: the sound seemingly connected to house music but the feeling more like being inside a pachinko machine. Guitarist Bill Frisell and his tight four-piece played their original score to William Morrison's The Great Flood, a lyrical documentary of the Mississippi Flood of 1927 edited from old news reels. Slow-rolling aerial footage of flooded neighborhoods, people on roofs, dynamited levees and cattle barely able to keep their head above water were given full songs that treated these meditative, poignant images to a wide array of emotion. Somewhere between country blues and New Orleans jazz, the flowing water was matched with mournful music, the politicians coming in to survey the damage with a jaunty, ironic swing. 

Though Frisell's performance — subtle but stunning — was probably the best intersection between music and visual, Stained Radiance, a collaboration between guitarist Nels Cline and painter Norton Wisdom, was easily the most engaging. Cline and Wisdom felt like a live action Brothers Quay movie, the guitarist's dark ambient drones buzzing as the painter smeared and squeegied paint along a lighted screen. Unlike, say, Joseph Arthur or Janelle Monáe, where an onstage painting yields a finished result, Wisdom's slick surface meant erasing, soaking with water, drips, re-painting, overlapping — a painting whose constantly evolving shapes and ephemeral nature actually matched how music works. In primitive, Rauschenbergian lines, he painted a sex act that turned into a guitar solo, to which Cline responded with an avant-Zepplin riff.

This year, for the first time, the Knoxville Museum of Art was turned into a venue in earnest. Said Big Ears founder Ashley Capps, "One of the inspirations was music that would work beautifully in this environment." That environment was underneath the "Sky" portion of Richard Jolley's sculptural work Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity — a series of reflective and transluscent orbs that looks like a zephyr of molecules. In turn, a lot of the music was primordial, transcendent and patient. Icelandic cello manipulator Hildur Guðnadóttir sang long, low notes, filling the room with layers of her icy voice, clashing and swarming until it resembled a doom-sludge sine wave. Drone duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen, augmented by three string players, offered the "Wicked Game"-style chords of "ATOMOS I" to a packed room — so packed that Adam Wiltzie eventually had to stop the show and get all the sitting-down, vibing fans to stand up to make room. Their music was like the skeleton of an anthemic rock outro — simple, repetitive chords played with patience for maximum heart-string tugging. The Cycle of Life sculpture really took on a new special look at night time, its shadows casting across the ceiling, as NYC's Bing & Ruth triangulated Sixties minimalism, Seventies ambient and Nineties post-rock — a small crowd, almost entirely on the floor, awash in a tender wisp of a band.

Despite the emphasis on the visual components, the most-show stopping performances of the weekend didn't even have much atmosphere to speak of. Tanya Tagaq's brand of Inuit throat singing and avant-rock improv came with a warning — "I'm always OK. Don't be concerned. It's actually very peaceful what's going on inside me" — and quickly seemed like the talk of the fest. Barefoot with seal-fur leggings, she worked herself into a crescendo of gasps and growls, a kinetic, can't-look-away performance that often looked like just a tangle of hair with a mic cord. As her band worked in some dub-jazz, her voice took on so many shapes, evoking Diamanda Galas, Jane's Addiction, Björk and politicized death metal as she rasped out, "Colonizer! Colonizer! Colonizer!" 

Rhiannon Giddens and her band kicked off a tour with little more than some blue light, some Southern gothic attitude and bold, explosive arrangements that pulled from all over the last century of American music. She performed two songs she wrote to Bob Dylan lyrics for the New Basement Tapes project, but they sounded as booming as techno thanks to having an upright bass player and a cellist. An R&B-flecked version of "She's Got You," a song made famous by Patsy Cline, took on an avant feel when cellist Malcolm Parsons took a squealing solo. Giddens controlled Odetta's work-song-influenced "Waterboy" with James Brown stabs, and a performance of blues enigma Geeshie Wiley's "Last Words" sounded like Fleetwood Mac.

Freewheeling trio the Bad Plus (who, to be fair, also brought some film — footage of lens flare, branches and deer) performed a seemingly impossible jazz reading of Stravinsky's riot-inducing Rite of Spring. Drummer David King translated orchestral melodies to his trap kit, tapping through them with a mischievous smile and nailing the delayed rhythms with rock energy. At approximately 40 minutes with no breaks, the most dynamic piece of the weekend moved from bumps and scrapes to hard-crashed fury — ending with a standing ovation and a wry joke from bassist Reid Anderson that illuminated the unique Venn diagram of contemporary classical, avant-garde and rock music that Big Ears settles in: "Thank you. Thank you very much. That was a song by Igor Stravinsky." 

The weekend's hardest working band, without question, was long-running, ever-resilient new music diplomats the Kronos Quartet, the artists in residence, who played a whopping six shows, their performances kicking off and closing out the fest. Alongside pipa-shredder and composer Wu Man, they opened the kick-off ceremony at the KMA with an unannounced, unplugged pop-up concert where they played the "China" movement from Philip Glass's 2004 piece Orion, chugging away on bars of 3/4 as the lute prickled. Mostly wearing printed button-down shirts, they set a tone for the weekend — more sophisticated than "rock," less stodgy than "classical," though they clearly aren't strangers to either.

Later that evening Kronos and Wu Man did a lively rendition of Terry Riley collaboration The Cusp of Magic, the group in deep concentration as a minimalist trance-out led to stages of whacked strings and a squeaked rubber chicken. Closing a second set of Riley tunes, the esteemed composer and Laurie Anderson joined Wu Man and Kronos for a "jam." While he's made his career on American minimalist, it seemed Riley secretly wants to be a Blues Brother, vamping on a Roland keyboard, playing with the pitch bend and allowing everyone to follow him — making for moments of both confusion and bliss. He even told a story about introducing John Cage to his football coach at Shasta High School. (He recommended chance operations in the calling of plays.)

"We didn't have any rehearsal with Laurie, because she didn't get there in time," Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington says about the rare improv session from a group usually seen with sheet music. "We didn't even run it, once. We talked about it backstage. It started a few weeks ago, 'cause Terry said, 'Well, gee, if Laurie's gonna be there why don't we do a jam? They had never met in all these years. All I said was, 'It's gonna be in D. You can't go wrong if you play in D.'"

Kronos truly showed their versatility on Saturday night when they joined Anderson for Landfall, her recent multimedia piece about Hurricane Sandy. After an arch tale of Dutch karaoke (only Anderson can make sense of using the word "Netflix" in a classical piece) John Sherba stood up, took the front of the stage and seemed to control a flow of projected text with his dissonant strokes. He approached it all with the same seriousness as they approached everything this weekend.

Joining Bryce Dessner and Tanya Tagaq on Sunday, they invaded the Standard's tiny stage like a punk band — at certain places in the at-capacity club you could only see the tops of their heads and a bow. For their Derek Charke collaboration Tundra Songs, Tagaq's breathy throat singing held down the rhythm while Kronos played flurries of prismatic curlicues, a piece awash with both beauty and dissonance. For their final set of the weekend, they joined Nels Cline at the same club for a microtone-heavy piece that sounded like Branca-gone-Zappa. By the end of their set, the pooped crowd had to get up off the floor to stand for the ovations. Shockingly, the band didn't seem nearly as tired.

"Bryce's piece we hadn't played for seven or eight months together until this morning — and that's a very tough piece," says Harrington. "Nels' piece we also hadn’t played for even longer, I think, until late this afternoon. We were in fresco mode. We were trying to put wet paint on fresh fresco."

But the most difficult part of the weekend?

"I'll tell you what the hardest thing is. It's that I wanted to go to everybody else's show. I've never been at a festival where I looked at the lineup, I wanted to go to every bill. And I simply wasn't able to."