Big Ears Festival, America’s biggest musical gathering of the ambitious and avant-leaning, has announced the formidable lineup to their 2016 edition, which takes place March 31 to April 2 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Having already announced Pulitzer-prize winner John Luther Adams as this year’s “Composer in Residence,” the festival has added more than 40 more performances to the three-day event. Artists include visionary composer-conceptualist Anthony Braxton, krautrock pioneers Faust, drone-metal crew Sunn 0))), exploratory indie rockers Yo La Tengo, ethereal Irish melancholists the Gloaming, bass spelunker Andy Stott, Tuareg guitar sensation Bombino, experimental hip-hop crew Shabazz Palaces and noise gurglers Wolf Eyes.
Most notable is the American premiere of the recent collaboration between multi-disciplinary art icon Laurie Anderson and minimalist master Philip Glass.
“It’s a performance that will most likely only take place at Big Ears during 2016,” festival founder and curator Ashley Capps tells Rolling Stone. “They’ve only done it once before, in Italy this past summer. Laurie was so excited about it. She was just like, ‘We’ve gotta do this at Big Ears.’ Not that I would want to say no, but how could you say no?”
Tony Conrad and Faust will be joining a festival already steeped with titans of American minimalism with the only North American performance of their 1973 meditation Outside the Dream Syndicate, which Capps says is “quite possibly its final performance anywhere in the world.”
“That feels like a coup,” he adds. “That record was such a touchstone for many musicians back in the early 1970s. It just kinda came out of nowhere and gave a lot of people a lot to grapple with on a musical and philosophical level.”
Capps also adds that jazz representation is “at the highest level that it’s ever been before,” including performances from Anthony Braxton in both trio and tentet forms, veteran Australian ambient-improv crew the Necks, critically acclaimed pianist Vijay Iyer teaming with Pulitzer-nominated trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, downtown free-form guitarist Mark Ribot, Brooklyn shredder Mary Halvorson and saxophone wunderkind Kamasi Washington, whose three-disc The Epic has been the rare fusion statement to cross over to hipsters and the NPR crowd alike.
But the festival will ultimately be anchored by the music of John Luther Adams, a decision two years in the making. Adams, whose glacially paced, pastoral symphony pieces are informed by natural surroundings, especially those of his decades spent living in Alaska, has seen an uptick in interest in his work. His 2014 piece, “Become Ocean” is nearly 43 minutes of slow-churning orchestral shimmer and surge, both beautiful and suffocating. It took home the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music and the 2015 Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.
“What’s that about? It took me totally by surprise,” Adams tells Rolling Stone. “In the last few years I’ve had several such surprises. The first was ‘Inuksuit.’ I think my commission fee for ‘Inuksuit’ was $3,000. It didn’t pay for the preperation of the performance materials. And what an absurd proposition, right? A piece for 99 percussionists to be performed outside? That’s just patently ridiculous. And now, guess, what — it’s performed all the time everywhere. That took me completely by surprise. But ‘Become Ocean’ is something different. I can’t explain it. It seemed outrageous to have this 45 minutes ocean of continuous orchestral music. It seems to touch people in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I can’t explain it, but I’m amazed by it.”
Adams can’t yet say for certain what the program as “composer-in-residence” will entail, but says he and Capps have been plotting for several months. He’s “fairly confident” that Steven Schick of Bang on a Can will perform the 2002 Adams-penned solo percussion piece “The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies.” Capps and Adams are currently looking into the logistics of staging an outdoor piece like “Inuksuit” at a place like Mead’s Quarry Lake, where Capps saw Adams perform in 2014. They are looking at one of Knoxville’s many stone churches for a presentation of “Veils” and “Vesper,” a sound installation of four six-hour soundscapes “to be heard successively or concurrently.” However, it is certain that Big Ears will feature a performance of “Become Ocean.”
“We’re just finishing a weeklong residency at the University of Michigan and last night the symphony orchestra played ‘Become Ocean,'” says Adams. “I was knocked out, they really played it. When the piece ended, the audience sat in silence. I swear to you, it went on for two . . . full . . . minutes. And I can’t tell you happy that made me. Everyone had been listening and no one wanted to break the stillness. That was so beautiful.”
Big Ears 2016 Lineup
John Luther Adams: Composer-in-Residence
Laurie Anderson & Philip Glass
Knoxville Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Steven Schick performing the Music of John Luther Adams, Bryce Dessner and Philip Glass with guest cellist Maya Beiser
Yo La Tengo
Nicolas Jaar (DJ)
Outside the Dream Syndicate (Tony Conrad with Faust)
Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith
Eighth Blackbird with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Bryce Dessner
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Bedroom Community 10th Anniversary: Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, Sam Amidon & Valgeir Sigurðsson
Kiasmos (Ólafur Arnalds & Janus Rasmussen)
Zeena Parkins & Tony Buck
Circuit Des Yeux