Big Ears 2016 Gathers Thousands in Pursuit of Drone
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.
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