Big Ears Expands to Four Days, Announces 64 Performances - Rolling Stone
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Big Ears Festival Expands to Four Days, Announces 64 Performances

Lineup features composer Gavin Bryars, Wilco, Carla Bley, Meredith Monk, many avant-garde icons

Big Ears, Big Ears Festival, Big Ears lineup, Gavin Bryars, Meredith Monk, WilcoBig Ears, Big Ears Festival, Big Ears lineup, Gavin Bryars, Meredith Monk, Wilco

Carla Bley and Gavin Bryars will perform at the annual Knoxville avant-garde festival Big Ears.

Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty, Eamonn McCabe/Redferns/Getty

Big Ears Festival – America’s premiere avant-garde music gathering for six non-consecutive years running – is expanding to four days starting in 2017, and the organizers have announced the first 64 performers. The fest, which runs March 23rd to March 26th in Knoxville, Tennessee, is breaking from their long tradition of having a “composer in residence” for the weekend. Instead, it will explode with a huge and diverse lineup that reaches back to heroes of Sixties and Seventies counterculture up to today’s most boundary-pushing art-rockers.

The coup of the weekend is British composer Gavin Bryars, best known for swooning, goosebump-ready works like Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and the 1975 recording of indeterminate work The Sinking of the Titanic. The artist – adored by Brian Eno, Tom Waits and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood – will be playing his first American show ever with his own ensemble. Other iconic musicians include free-jazz innovator Carla Bley performing with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Sixties “fire music” pioneer Henry Grimes, vocal chameleon Meredith Monk, 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner Henry Threadgill with Zooid and celebrated Italian improv-jazz-noise-electroacoustic trailblazers Musica Elettronica Viva.

“I discovered each of them when I was in my late teens or early 20s, and their music was a revelation,” festival organizer Ashley Capps tells Rolling Stone of the six headliners. “They sound nothing like one another, but the music that they made – like all great art – made the world seem more alive and filled with possibility. Each artist had the power to bring me into their musical world. It was often beautiful, always unique, usually a bit mysterious but also open, and playful and free. I’ve been listening to all of them ever since, and for me their music has never lost that sense of wonder and excitement.”  

The more out-there reaches of indie rock will be represented by Gold-certified alt-country weirdos Wilco, Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields performing the singer’s upcoming 50 Song Memoir over two nights, “outsider folk” hero Michael Hurley of the critically acclaimed 1976 LP Have Moicy!, unstoppable post-rock institution Tortoise, Blonde Redhead performing their 2004 album Misery Is a Butterfly, Deerhoof, Colin Stetson, Xiu Xiu, Kaitlyn Aurealia Smith, Six Organs of Admittance, Rangda and more.

Most notably, the increasingly popular strain of 21th Century Classical and “new music” will be represented by what may be its largest cast yet: Jóhann Jóhannson perfoming Drone Mass; cellist Maya Beiser performing David Lang’s World to Come; Radiohead cellist Oliver Coates, choral group Theatre of Voices, flautist Claire Chase, pianist Lisa Moore, cellist Maya Beiser, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, choral groups the Crossing and Theatre of Voices and Knoxville’s own new music ensemble Nief-Norf, who were a surprise highlight of 2016 with a masterfully curated selection of contemporary pieces.

“ACME and Nief-Norf are outstanding ensembles,” says Capps. “They have omnivorous tastes and a broad repertoire and it’s fun and inspiring to work with them. The human voice also [seemed to] emerge as a theme for this year’s festival, so having these two amazing vocal groups, Theatre of Voices and the Crossing, join us this year also made sense.”

A Big Ears press release promises “more musical additions, an extraordinary film program plus installations, exhibitions, talks, discussions, interactive experiences, food, wine, beer and countless surprises to share in the coming weeks.”

Big Ears 2017 Lineup

American Contemporary Music Ensemble
Emilia Amper
Maya Beiser
Theo Bleckmann
Carla Bley Trio with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard
Carla Bley with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra
Blonde Redhead featuring American Contemporary Music Ensemble
Gavin Bryars Ensemble
Claire Chase
Jace Clayton presents Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner
Oliver Coates
The Crossing
Alvin Curran
DJ Rupture
Henry Grimes
Rachel Grimes “The Way Forth” Featuring Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg
Dave Harrington Group
Frode Haltli: The Border Woods
Yasmine Hamdan
Horse Lords
Michael Hurley
Philip Jeck
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass featuring American Contemporary Music Ensemble
Junun featuring Shye Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Express
Sarah Kirkland Snider Unremembered: DM Stith, Shara Worden, Padma Newsome
Knoxville Jazz Orchestra
Glenn Kotche
Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge | Aoife O’Donovan
Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone
The Magnetic Fields: Fifty Song Memoir
Matmos perform Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives (Private Parts)
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble: The Soul’s Messenger
Lisa Moore
Musica Elettronica Viva (Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, & Frederic Rzewski)
My Brightest Diamond
Nils Økland Band
On Fillmore
Shane Parish
Yuki Numata Resnick
Frederic Rzewski
Lætitia Sadier
Joan Shelley
Sir Richard Bishop
Six Organs of Admittance
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Colin Stetson presents Sorrow: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony
Ståle Storløkken
Ståle Storløkken & Arve Henriksen
Theatre of Voices
Henry Threadgill’s Zooid
Richard Teitelbaum
Wu Fei
Xiu Xiu


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