“That’s what it’s all about, folks. No boundaries, no limits,” gushed Big Ears Festival founder Ashley Capps after progressive banjo explorer Béla Fleck helped launch the 2018 edition. Fleck, a jazz fusion pioneer best known in bluegrass and jam circles these days, slowly oozed between what sounded like a banjo raga to some classical gas and Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” thrown in with a smile.
The weekend proved to be just as fluid with genre, featuring everything from traditional Moroccan gnawa to German ambient techno to Scandinavian aggro-jazz to a public square-dancing tutorial. Without a clear headliner (though post-rock mood-makers Godspeed You! Black Emperor did fill up the 1,200 capacity Mill & Mine), the fest instead threw more than 100 smaller explorations across Knoxville. Here are some of our favorites.
Bang on a Can All Stars: 30 Years
This Sunday night concert featured three pieces from this year’s composers-in-residence that ranged from the starkly industrial to the totally apocalyptic. Michael Gordon’s “Big Space” opened the night with an absolute circus of sound, with nine horn players and percussionists in the balcony and six flanking the sides, all adding to the group onstage. The volume and dissonance (not to mention the similarity to sirens, alarms and cartoon fire trucks) made the piece feel huge and explosive, like shoegaze or Wagner. Julia Wolfe’s “Big Beautiful Dark & Scary” was a collection of crescendos and Thurston Moore–like guitar skree, and David Lang’s metal-clanking “Cheating, Lying, Stealing” was a martial robot march.
One of the most captivating performers in any musical discipline, Diamanda Galás created a storm on a rainy day. In the first song alone she had her elbow on the piano, bending pitches in her voice from soaring vibrato to rumbling murk. The way she pulls American standards like taffy remains riveting, whether she’s launching off into long held notes and freewheeling soloing as soon as the second syllable of “The Thrill Is Gone” or the fourth of “O Death.”
More than any previous year, Big Ears 2018 was bursting with jazz titans – Roscoe Mitchell, Jason Moran, Craig Taborn, Evan Parker, the Thing, Ned Rothenberg and Tyshawn Sorey among them. Likely, no one got a hero’s welcome like 76-year-old drummer Milford Graves. A free-jazz icon, Graves culled chaos from rhythm, utilizing percussive vocals and flurries of clatter, playing with an almost impossible inverted grip and lurching like he was almost falling on the kit. But the show was about so much more than drumming. The magnetic Graves played the role of musician, stand-up and lecturer, providing his thoughts on the human voice, rhythm and the body, tai chi, acupuncture and gave some heartfelt comments about the renewed interest in his work.
David Hidalgo and Marc Ribot
Los Lobos leader David Hidalgo and journeyman guitarist Marc Ribot proved an inspiring pairing, a theater show with the ragged edges of a loose campfire jam. Hidalgo’s iconic voice didn’t always take the spotlight; Ribot’s bonkers freak-jazz chops didn’t always take the lead. A take on cowboy tune “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” featured a Ribot solo that felt untethered to any bounds of time, key or sanity; a run through Lefty Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors” was a great platform for Hidalgo’s voice, still booming when not fronting his legendary group of Chicano party-punks
The International Contemporary Ensemble
For a night of chamber music under the vaulted ceilings of the Church Street United Methodist Church, percussionist Ross Karre of the New York-based International Contemporary Ensemble had an inauspicious preparation: He sourced a cardboard box from the concierge at the Four Points Sheridan. In the gorgeous setting, Karre squeaked a bow across the box’s flap during a run through American composer Ashley Fure’s “Therefore I Was.” For Pauline Oliveros’ 1965 piece “Applebox Double,” Karre and a fellow musician carefully dragged a comb, sandpaper and fingernails across amplified crates – noises whose closeness and strangeness made them some of the weekend’s most exhilarating sounds.
The night before, five members of ICE performed another piece, this time in a rock club, the Mill & Mine. Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “In the Light of the Air” is an atmospheric piece for piano tinkering, cello, viola, harp, electronics and various percussive clangs and rumbles. It’s sounds more like dark ambient than chamber music at times and – in the brick walls and unfinished ceiling of the Mill & Mine – it felt positively Lynchian.
Kid Koala’s Satellite Turntable Orchestra
Big Ears, rightfully, treats Canadian DJ Kid Koala as an experimental musician. His promise to “play records incorrectly for about an hour” during his Thursday night DJ set was a hilarious reduction of the funky abuse he let loose around the White Stripes, Outkast, Beastie Boys and Autechre. His Turntable Orchestra brings a quirky fun to ambitious experimentalism. The small Square Room was transformed into a glowing space nightclub, as tables were given 50 glowing turntables with three custom picture discs, all for the audience members to scratch along. Part concert, part immersive art exhibit, part game of Simon Says, it required the type of concentration used for solving puzzles instead of listening to ambient music.
Roscoe Mitchell Trios
Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder Roscoe Mitchell and his all-star group of “trios” – including Tyshawn Sorey, Craig Taborn, Hugh Ragin and more – play decidedly difficult music, a collection of sounds that seem to burst from any place at any time, like a jazz interpretation of a Karlheinz Stockhausen piece. A collection of gifted musicians pushing their instruments to do the beautiful and outrageous, his band played in sharp blurts and exclamations that surprised, confounded and intrigued – a blur of percussion from Sorey, a scribble of electronics from James Fei, mind-bending notes from Ragin.
Big Ears 2017 featured many instruments pushed to their edges: ICE pianist Cory Smythe had his hand in his piano a lot, the Thing bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten beat up his upright and during Cyro Baptista’s set Brian Marsella played his keyboard stand. So it was especially rare to see good old-fashioned rock star theatrics like ripping guitar solos and one-handed wheedle. Welcome Niger’s Tal National, a band who has the easygoing sway of psychedelic soul, the complex beats of math rock and the stage presence of a party band – the guitarist Hamadal Issoufou Moumine even made his way into the audience.
Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda: The Ashram Experience
Though Alice Coltrane died in 2007, her devotional music lives on, partially thanks to a recent Luaka Bop reissue – there was a line outside St. John’s Cathedral in the rain, and the venue reached capacity. WYNC’s John Schaefer introduced this performance by 12 members of her ashram, praising the “singular” sound of Coltrane’s tunes: a mix of Indian devotional chants and the gospel of her Detroit upbringing. The performance, however, whether by coincidence or design, also featured the New Age touches of pillowy keyboards and malleted percussion.
Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei
This sparkling collaboration between Americana banjo picker Abigail Washburn and experimental guzheng player Wui Fei brought the similarities between Appalacian and Chinese folk tunes into stark relief, playing pan-continental mashups of traditional music. American folk tunes were gently decorated with the zither’s glissando, and a take on the Coon Creek Girls’ 1938 78 rpm record “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” featured a furious zither solo.