The 2014 edition of Knoxville, Tennessee’s Big Ears Festival began with a performance of a piece for handclaps and ended with the kind of applause usually reserved for famous rock bands. A passion project of Bonnaroo founder Ashley Capps, Big Ears 2014 is the most ambitious avant-garde festival to emerge in America in more than a decade, catering directly to a crowd as passionate about Steve Reich‘s 1976 masterstroke Music for 18 Musicians as Bonnaroo-ers are about Phish. In the six years since the first event, the former audience seems to have grown in both size and passion, as the lines between alternative rock and less accessible strains of experimental music are being drawn in thicker, bolder strokes by people like Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood, the National’s Bryce Dessner, Wilco‘s Glenn Kotche and SunnO)))’s Stephen O’Malley, all of whom were present.
At Friday’s launch party, after Reich and two members of So Percussion launched into 1972’s bustling “Clapping Music,” the composer spoke about how these worlds were blurring, citing Greenwood’s brief stint as a viola student at Oxford and the formal training of Dessner, who has a music master’s degree from Yale. But the next three days revealed the split between the composed and chaotic, between “high art” and “low art,” in far more entertaining ways. A percussion ensemble in a theater is greeted with an audience member’s “Yeah!” like he were at a Rush show. Doom-cellist Helen Money played in the Knoxville Museum of Art underneath Richard Jolley’s DNA-like glass-blown installations, blasting thrash-metal double kicks and distortion-gnarled menace to a seated audience. The savage Bill Orcutt played John Fahey-meets-Vernon-Reid acoustic blues-shred and Japanese noise titan Keijo Haino made a guitar sound like a dumptruck in local club Scruffy City Hall — and both were often greeted with the reverent silence of a concert hall. The mayor of Knoxville said the words “Captain Beefheart.”
It was an event where rock stars covered classical composers instead of, say, throwing a Rolling Stones song in their set. Kotche and So Percussion did a full-kit arrangement of Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood” that sounded like dueling Ringos battling on “The End.” Kotche’s solo set included a cover of one of John Cage’s other silent pieces, 0’00”, to which he performed the “disciplined action” of setting up for his next song. “I can’t believe you’re clapping for that,” he said. Later adding, “Wow, you guys are really weird.” The Wordless Music Orchestra‘s conducter-less performance of Greenwood’s string suites included appearances from the curlicue-ing, speechlike solo violin works of Iannis Xenakis. After a Saturday evening playing creepshow jazz-metal doom-noise as Nazoranai, O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi were up early on Sunday to perform the North American premiere of Alvin Lucier’s Criss-Cross, a gentle but uneasy 14-minute rumble.
The weekend had an undercurrent dedicated to the original menders of classically trained sophistication and rock depravity, the Velvet Underground. Founding member John Cale himself headlined Saturday night, playing set his blocky, moody, off-center solo material — his version of VU’s “Waiting For My Man” emerging like a Devo-tinged creeper for space keyboards and rubberband bass. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips performed original pieces to be played in front of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, mostly playing like variations of VU’s “Waiting,” “Sunday Morning” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” as if they were born in the same side of the world as krautrock and shoegaze. When they hit the four-minute film of Lou Reed, about 24 years old, drinking a Coke with deadly cool, he got cheers without any introduction. “That, of course, is Lou Reed,” said Wareham of the singer, who passed away last October, “the reason many of us are here.” Kim Gordon and Bill Nace’s Body/Head, whose staring projections seemed like the more ominous version of Screen Tests, played a dead-eyed, feedback-heavy zombie blues that seemed indebted to everything from VU’s White Light/White Heat to Albert Ayler’s free jazz to a parody of rock as a whole (instead of Jimmy Page bowing his guitar, Gordon uses her guitar as a bow across the speaker).
But, really, the weekend was masterfully programmed as if to provide many openers for Music for 18 Musicians itself; three days of music inspired by its hypnotic pulse, shimmering textures and interlocking melodic shimmer. It didn’t get any more apparent than Greenwood’s performance of his own Loop, a gorgeous reoccurring motif (we think it was in 11/4) like King Crimson trying to sign to Nonesuch. One of the two most arresting sets of the weekend was Brooklyn’s Dawn of Midi, who played their 46-minute piece Dysnomia, which brings Reich’s additive rhythms to a piano trio format. Their repeating melodies are simplistic, but they combine in complicated, brain-bending, seemingly impossible ways — resulting in hypnosis or disorientation or both — less like jazz and more like solving a math problem. The weekend’s other highlight was power-ambient sound artist Tim Hecker, whose latest album, Virgins, features some nods to classic minimalism, with Reichian piano-pulse pounding emerging from a dark cloud of drone. These pulses were certainly present at his midnight set, performed in almost total darkness, but it was dominated by pulse-quickening rumbles and earthquaking dissonance, played at an eye-crossing volume that vibrated floors, chairs and likely anything else nailed down.
Having already established themselves as punk heroes, the pioneering Television made a strong case to be part of the avant-garde royalty with a two-hour set where guitarists Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip indulged in Branca-style glimmering, plinking on the headstock, blasting blurs of noise, playing an exploratory 15-minute-or-so version of “1880 or So” and of course hitting “Marquee Moon,” whose three interlocking-yet-independent melodic parts could have been borrowed from an 18 Musicians score. Performing some of Kotche’s pieces for four drumkits, So Percussion turned Reich’s phasing techniques into a Doppler Effect experiment, wandering abound the Bijou Theater with handcranked sirens. They quietly collided tiny percussion implements like a toybox come to life, using intense concentration to make sputters and scribbles. Saxophonist Colin Stetson turned Reichian repetition into a full-body operation, sweat-shiny and inflated cheeks, clacking his keys and sucking air like an iron lung. Haino looped his own screams like Pantera covering one of Reich’s tape experiments.
Finally, with no counter-programming to distract, the weekend was closed out by a two-and-a-half-hour celebration of Reich’s music. Greenwood performed Electric Counterpoint like an alt-rock star, with hair in eyes and gaze downward. His casual playing style, far more imperfect and imprecise than Pat Metheny’s recording, brought this piece even closer to the rock and ambient worlds, a new and beautiful way of hearing an old piece. Reich returned the favor with “Radio Rewrite,” a piece inspired by Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” running their familiar and mournful chord changes through his trademark pointillist blender.
After three days, the stage was set for Music For 18 Musicians, performed by New York’s Ensemble Signal cleanly and with conviction — OK, one of the marimba players downright rocked. After hearing all these variations on the Reich sound — not to mention the last thirty years of hip-hop and electronic music owing to minimalist breakthroughs — it seemed almost cruel to have two marimba players pounding away on a mechanical interlocking 16th note pattern at about 108 bpm. But it sent ripples of melody thoughout the theater until the audience responded with enough of their own clapping music to require multiple bows.