The fifth Big Ears, held in Knoxville over the weekend, preserved its status as the most adventurously programmed music festival in America — offering everything from a symphony orchestra playing a Pulitzer Prize–winning John Luther Adams composition to Wolf Eyes playing vomitous Midwest noise, from Anthony Braxton’s defiantly complex jazz formulas to Tony Conrad’s defiantly simple “amplified drone strings.” Local new-music ensemble Nief-Norf filled rooms with the beer-sipping Converse-and-hoodie crowd to hear an 80-year-old Edgard Varèse flute solo. At least three different sets during the weekend featured the live wailing of a hand-cranked air-raid siren.
No one can say for certain if ears were indeed bigger or more open this year, but there were assuredly more of them. Organizer Ashley Capps says 8,000 people attended the festival, easily the biggest turnout yet. Cozy venues like the 150-capacity Scruffy City Hall and the Knoxville Museum of Art were eschewed, as the fest pushed itself from comfy downtown to places like the cavernous Mill & Mine in Old City. The Big Ears app bubbled with notifications that events were at capacity, not just with relatively “big” draws like Braxton, but also for fleet-fingered jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson, cello rock star Maya Beiser, laptop squelcher Ikue Mori and Wolf Eyes, whom even diehard fans would comfortably call “an acquired taste.” The days of cavalier show-hopping were replaced by long lines and strategic queuing. Big Ears is not exactly the drone Coachella — but the secret is definitely out.
One thing that drove much of the weekend was the pursuit of drone. With multiple artists presenting music as time standing still, shows took on the feel of chill-out rooms or endurance tests — occasions for rapt attention, moving to your own internal rhythms or simply shutting your eyes and drifting in and out of sleep.
No one’s dedication to drone and glacial melody was more on display than composer-in-residence John Luther Adams, whose music is informed by nearly 40 years spent in the Alaskan wilderness. He has said his Pulitzer-winning Become Ocean was the culmination of a career of “trying to create a sense of endless space and suspended time,” and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performed its slow, enveloping rumble with measured bowing, making the whole ensemble look like a giant sea anemone. The heaving, slow-boiling work — surprisingly quiet yet nail-bitingly tense — is something no recording can properly capture: the harp strings plucking through on either side of the stage, the violins hanging in the air, the piano bubbling to the surface, the glockenspiel overtones that seem to careen off the walls, the cymbal roll that briefly breaks the tension and transforms it from anxiety to ecstasy. The sheer immensity of the piece made it feel like a high-volume storm occupying all available space, but you could still hear conductor Steven Schick turn the page of his score.
Nief-Norf performed what Adams called one of his “spacious, eventless ‘color field’ pieces,” Dark Wind, basically a shimmer that makes him a copper reflection to Terry Riley’s Day-Glo rainbows, a Kodachrome snapshot to Stars of the Lid’s sepia tone. Steven Schick performed Adams’ The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies, the percussionist — solo and sans sheet music — steadily pounding and rolling at seven different instrument stations, filling the Mill & Mine with roaring bass drum, a tam-tam that exploded into Merzbow-ian white noise and possibly the most passionate triangle playing ever. Big Ears also hosted Adams’ six-hour installation Veils and Vesper inside the former First Christian Church of Knoxville. Featuring tones like the tail end of a rung bell, or the final chord of a hymn held and held and held — it was the site of a lot of closed eyes.
No drone composers outside of Adams were remotely as ambitious as sludge-metal Mark Rothkos SunnO))), who kicked off their 2016 tour with what was basically a one-hour-and-42-minute drone opera. Their music, always oppressively loud and pulsating in stomach-deadening waves, consumes the entire body — seats vibrated, and you with them. An usher stormed off seeking cover. Though they’ve been performing slight variations on loud and low for around 15 years, this is their most dynamic ever, thanks to a cosmic, guitarless bridge where trombonist Steve Moore and vocalist Attila Csihar created an apocalyptic wasteland in between the marathon bouts of vibra-pummel.
One of the original titans of American minimalism, Tony Conrad, skipped the festival to recover from pneumonia, but the performance of his 1973 recording Outside the Dream Syndicate with Faust continued. with Laurie Anderson holding down the violinist’s spot. Here, the drones were lush and loud, sounding at times like a faceful of trumpets. Bassist Jean-Hervé Péron and drummer Werner Diermaier basically performed a short marathon — the former jamming on approximately two notes and the latter hitting with caveman ferociousness until a droplets of sweat pooled by his feet. Despite the high concept, it was unquestionably a rock show, with Péron flubbing notes and the cellists grooving along happily.
Similarly, Laurie Anderson presented Lou Reed’s Drones, an installation for six amps and feebacking guitars monitored by Reed guitar tech, Stewart Hurwood, in five-hour blocks. Saturday afternoon was more of a pretty, melodic “throb” than the Metal Machine Music font on the accompanying artwork would let on, like walking into the tail end of a Deerhunter song. Perennial indie-rock underdogs Yo La Tengo reportedly used their set to perform an extended ambient workout alongside the National’s Bryce Dessner, the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Danny Ray Thompson, the Necks’ Chris Abrahams and harpist Mary Lattimore.
Nief-Norf, lit only by music stands, performed a frigid, desolate piece by contemporary Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir on bowed bass drums and a rubbed tam-tam. Later, they rubbed bows across the bars of vibraphones for American composer Elliot Cole’s PostLudes, creating sparkling icicles of sound. A performance of Morton Feldman’s gently strolling Crippled Symmetry was more pulse-oriented, with a pianist and vibraphonist playing like ripples phasing in a pond — but its 90-minute runtime gave it a meditative, still atmosphere similar to much of the ice-suspended dronework.
Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith played a version of their A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke collaboration, handily the biggest jazz recording of 2016’s first quarter. Known mostly for Monk-indebted piano, Iyer instead worked almost texturally, building warm cascades of chords or playing his Rhodes like the shimmering drips of Brian Eno’s Thursday Morning. Smith basically played shapes — long blasts, flutters, curlicues, wails, silence — made all the more polygonal by his immaculate tone. Similarly, Australian ambient-jazzers the Necks avoided their occasional journeys into groove altogether, embracing the fest’s free-flowing, rhythmless journeys — their piece built up to a drone of sorts via piano flurry, bowed upright and a twittering one-handed ride cymbal that went on for minutes at a time, almost an athletic display as an artistic one.
A festival this diverse clearly wasn’t all drones, sirens and feedback. A mix of sheet music, improv and frantically called-out conductor cues, the Anthony Braxton 10+1tet was like watching a high-stakes competition: a rush of order and chaos, players seeming to work in tandem or in battle. Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass teamed up for an evening where they propped up the other — the multiple Academy Award nominee played the world’s most accomplished bar pianist to an Anderson piece and providing some gentle levity by reading her “One White Whale.” The iconic Anderson plucked along to “Etude No. 10” and bowed to “Facades.” The Sun Ra Arkestra, directed by legendary alto shredder Marshall Allen, took off with giddy delirium in the dubby acoustics of the Mill & Mine. Necks drummer Tony Buck spilled into mellow, simmering improv as Zeena Parkins scribbled on her harp.
The final performance, however, brought everything back into the world of space, resonance, drone and limitlessness. Inuksuit, Adams’ piece for 9 to 99 percussionists is to the orchestra setting what Sleep No More was to theater: a radical, instantly engaging piece that puts the spectator in the center of the action, free to choose their own adventure. Held around Mead’s Quarry Lake, more than 60 percussionists banged, crashed and twinkled as listeners — hundreds of them — wandered around, had picnics, walked dogs and blew bubbles at their children. The effect was like hearing drum animals and glockenspiel insects pounding and chirping in the woods and ricocheting off the rocks, in the true 360-degree surround sound of existence itself. The piece changes as the scenery changes. The drone this time was the rushing waters of the quarry cave stream — it had more people crowding around it than many of the musicians.