Big Ears 2017 was already under way by the time Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero officially kicked things off at the Mill and Mine, at 5 p.m., by introducing festival founder Ashley Capps with some loving but labored references to Captain Beefheart album titles; screenings of Jonathan Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia and Jem Cohen’s Benjamin Smoke earlier in the afternoon attest to just how jam-packed this year’s schedule is, and to the fact that the organizers seem committed to creating a first-rate film program alongside the world-class music lineup.
A handful of local performers entertained the large kickoff audience before Nief-Norf presented its tribute to Big Ears 2009 performer Pauline Oliveros, one of the most important figures of 20th-century American avant-garde music, who died in 2016. Another testament to the jam-packed schedule: I skipped this first set by one of my favorite local groups—the first of four the Knoxville-based percussion ensemble is scheduled to play—for the Brooklyn new music/folk trio the Quavers at the Square Room. (The schedule was a little behind, which forced me to make a decision I wasn’t anticipating.)
Big Ears is full of scheduling challenges. It’s impossible to see and hear everything. (It’s impossible to see and hear everything you want to, unless you have a very limited interest in the festival.) I’ve learned that the best approach is to remain flexible and don’t regret anything. Tough choices are inevitable. You will almost certainly miss something that you would have remembered for the rest of your life; but you also have many opportunities for profound musical experiences you never expected.
As Capps said in our interview in this week’s issue: “The beautiful thing about any festival to me is, while you don’t want to miss the things that you’re excited to see, often the highlight is something you had no idea you wanted to see because you didn’t know what it was. …
“There are festivals within the festival, and then there’s just the sheer reality that you can’t do everything. Everybody’s festival experience tends to be unique from everyone else’s.
“But that’s like life. That’s how the festival becomes a little bit of a microcosm for life itself.”
The Quavers—a trio that was reduced to a duo here—was a gentle if underwhelming introduction to this year’s festival: polite bedroom folk with violin/fiddle and banjo, augmented by electronic pedals and loops. The general effect was like a postmodern version of the Handsome Family. Pleasant, but not enough to hold my attention for more than 20 minutes. No regrets.
After dinner, I returned to the Square Room for saxophonist/sound artist Matana Roberts. Roberts is still in her 30s, but she’s already created an imposing body of work that includes guest appearances with Godspeed! You Black Emperor, 2016 Big Ears alum Vijay Iyer, and TV on the Radio and a residency at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (She wore a Godflesh T-shirt last night.) Roberts’ most ambitious project is COIN COIN, a planned 12-part musical work exploring her relationship to Marie-Thérèse Coincoin, a freed slave woman and entrepreneur around the turn of the 19th century in Louisiana. The first two chapters of COIN COIN, from 2011 and 2013, were recorded with large ensembles. The third, released in 2015, is a solo sax/electronics/vocal/spoken word piece, which Roberts presented here with a loop of still images, mostly archival photos. It’s a dense and overwhelming piece about race, history, memory, and the legacy of slavery in America. Her presentation of it was a virtuoso performance—she’s a fine saxophone player and maybe a better singer, combining jazz and classical technique in an arresting way. It was a performance I’ll be thinking about for a long time, and I look forward to hearing it fit into the full COIN COIN project over the next several years.
Lisa Moore’s exquisite solo piano performance at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral was a new dimension for Big Ears. Not exactly new, perhaps—Moore is a founder of the New York new-music ensemble Bang on a Can, an offshoot of which performed at Big Ears in 2010, and she played music by Philip Glass, who was composer in residence at the first festival, back in 2009.
But the setting, in the sanctuary of the 125-year-old downtown church, lent a sacred mood to the hour-long concert. Big Ears often feels loosely spiritual, but hearing Mad Rush, Metamorphosis, Etude No. 2, and excerpts from Glassworks and Satyagraha—music that’s both intense and meditative, and all of it played with grace and quiet intelligence—in that space was unlike any previous Big Ears experiences I’ve had. The room was full of people, many of them with their eyes closed and heads bowed. In some ways it resembled a traditional piano recital; it also felt ceremonial and beatific.
Moore’s set was followed, back at the Square Room, by an altogether different kind of piano performance. Matthew Shipp and Bobby Kapp presented two very different personalities: Shipp, a lean, middle-aged, and fit-looking pianist, was dressed casually in sneakers, jeans, and a sweatshirt; Kapp, a septuagenarian jazz vet whose career stretches back to the 1960s, wore a sequined aqua sports jacket, daring or garish, perhaps both.
Their hour of improv, loosely based on their 2016 album, Cactus, was a wonder. Shipp played with startling speed and facility, occasionally pounding out ragged heavy chords; sometimes traditional jazz harmonies were evident, but often Shipp played with such speed that his performance felt almost unmusical, or outside of music, as if he were on a plane where melody, rhythm, and harmony give way to pure, shimmering, glass-like tone. Kapp, meanwhile, maintained a measured pace, but equally intense, in its own way—a deliberate, disciplined midtempo shuffle to balance Shipp’s athletic playing. Kapp employed the full range of his small kit and a complement of sticks and mallets. Shipp may have seemed like he was in charge of the set, but I suspect Kapp was doing quite a bit of steering himself.
And then DakhaBrakha, the Ukrainian theatrical folk troupe/band, to close out the evening. Late-night international dance and party music is a staple of the festival—Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos in 2014, Hailu Mergia in 2015, and Omar Souleyman last year—and the crowd at the Standard enthusiastically responded to DB’s folk rock performance. It was hard to resist—thumping hard-rock percussion topped by accordion, frantic vocals (and some strange vocalizations that seemed to mimic animal sounds), and sweeping cello runs. There was something strikingly performative about it that I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around, as if a dramatic narrative that I couldn’t understand (conceivably one with contemporary political relevance) was being acted out.
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