BIG EARS 2017: Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Music Director Aram Demirjian

In Classical Music, Music Stories by Matthew Everettleave a COMMENT

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra has become an essential part of Big Ears—the orchestra’s opening-night performance of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean was one of the most memorable events of the 2016 festival. But the KSO takes on an expanded role this year, with new music director Aram Demirjian creating a 45-minute program of music specifically for the festival. Reflecting the adventuresome spirit of Big Ears, the concert will include an 18th-century violin suite as well as an orchestral piece, by one of the most promising American composers under the age of 30, that premiered less than a year ago. In this interview, Demirjian discusses how classical programming is changing, what traditional classical-music listeners can find at Big Ears, and Bach.

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When did you first hear about Big Ears?
I became aware of Big Ears when I came here to guest conduct for my audition back in January 2016. Everybody was talking about the KSO’s participation and the performance of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, and it sounded very cool. The presence of Big Ears in Knoxville became just one additional credit to the city, credit to the symphony, one additional appeal of coming here and being music director.

Once Big Ears was on my map, I began to hear about it in other places. After I was appointed music director, over the summer, I would travel around to music festivals and occasionally I’d get asked the question, “So what do you know about Big Ears? I’m really curious about what they do there.”

What’s the impression of the festival in the traditional classical music community?
There’s a lot of excitement, particularly from people who are interested in contemporary music. There’s a lot of overlap between what’s going on in the experimental rock corner of the music world and what’s going on in the classical contemporary corner of the music world. I think they learn a lot from each other, if not in purely musical terms then at least in the philosophical approach to trying new things.

There’s also a lot of excitement among those who are interested in experimental performance, experimental concert formats, breaking the mold of what we do a little bit, which is a conversation that’s happening industry-wide in the orchestra world. That was one of the appeals of the festival to me—the opportunity to program the sort of concert that may not necessarily be right for any of the series that KSO presents, or may not necessarily be music that has been introduced to the KSO audience, but may be very familiar to the Big Ears audience.

Big Ears represents the chance to do on an extreme level, programmatically, what we’re starting to do on a more moderate, gradual level on our main programs.

Imagine that you’re trying to sell Big Ears to a fairly conservative classical-music concertgoer. How would you describe it?
I think there are a few big draws to Big Ears. The first is, it’s an increasingly significant musical event on a national level, or even an international level, and it’s happening here in Knoxville. Knoxville is becoming a destination spot for the music world in a variety of genres, and anybody who has pride in Knoxville and pride in their home will appreciate being a participant in this truly unique event.

On a musical level, the great part about an experience like Big Ears is that it’s actually a very safe space to try out sounds that you may not be familiar with—unlike your typical classical concert, where, if you’re sitting in your seat and you hear a piece of music that doesn’t really resonate with you, you are stuck in that seat. There is nowhere you can go, whereas with a place like Big Ears, you’ve got your pass, you can go from event to event to event until you find something that you like, that’s right for you.

The John Adams piece that we’re playing, The Wound-Dresser, is already a classic. It’s 30 years old and has entered the canon, and a piece like that, even though it’s new, it’s very easy to identify with. There’s a very familiar element to it, because it’s a setting of Walt Whitman’s poetry. But we’re also playing Bach, and you can also find Brahms on the Big Ears festival.

The Bach has a very intentional purpose on our program. When Ashley described the festival to me, he said there was a loose theme of spirituality. I had just recently been introduced to Evidence, a piece by a friend of mine, Matthew Aucoin, who is the resident composer at the Los Angeles Opera right now. He and I went to college together. It treats the music-making experience as a spiritual experience, and that led me to think of Bach.

The piece we’re playing, the Air on the G String, is one of Bach’s secular works. And yet it’s a secular work that has taken on such a spiritual role in our society—you hear it played at weddings and memorial services. It’s a piece that’s whatever you want it to be, whatever you need it to be.

In my conversations with Ashley, I learned that as long as Big Ears has been going on, apparently nothing of John Adams’ has been played, which was shocking to me, because of the minimalist roots of the festival.

People have speculated that he’d be a composer in residence eventually, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The Wound-Dresser is not what I would describe as one of Adams’ minimalist pieces, but it’s a wonderful representation of him as a composer. It’s a piece I’ve had a chance to conduct before, under Adams’ supervision, back in 2009, which was an experience I’ll never forget.

And there’s even a spiritual element to this. It’s a setting of a poem by Walt Whitman. He was writing about his experience working in the hospital ward in the Civil War. The poem brings together the physical and the emotional and the spiritual, in terms of his observations and the damage that’s been inflicted on these young men—and also Whitman’s emotional connection to them as he treats them. There’s a spiritual connection that happens in the piece. It’s incredibly powerful.

There’s another connection, too—Matthew Aucoin has written an opera based on Whitman’s diaries from that period.
Yes, Matthew wrote Crossing, for the American Repertory Theatre, a year and a half ago. We were actually hoping to include some of Matthew’s music for Crossing as well, but for a number of reasons that are way too boring to get into, it couldn’t happen. You don’t need to have heard Crossing to enjoy this performance, but connections abound throughout this very concise 45-minute program.

This was all a roundabout way of pitching Big Ears to your traditional audience member. I would say, first of all, anybody who comes to Big Ears is going to like what they hear, or at least something, and I think that’s because of the performers. You have a world-class lineup of performers—human beings who are easy to have an affinity for. If you have a sense of connection to the performer, you’re one step closer to having a connection to the music they’re presenting.

Premieres and unique collaborations are a big part of the Big Ears programming every year. I had never thought about how that parallels the way that some classical ensembles are trying to break out of or shake up the traditional concertgoing experience.
I know that ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, has been involved before. The Knights are involved this year—they’re a New York-based orchestra that fits the mold you’re talking about. The quote unquote traditional orchestras are really learning from what the smaller, I guess you would call them independent, ensembles are doing.

Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with tradition. The thing about tradition is, there’s a connotation that makes you think tradition is the past, tradition is old, when in fact tradition is the present act of renewing something.

Tradition is an evolving thing that has reverence for the past but isn’t beholden to it, necessarily. My musical mission in life—which may be a foolhardy one—is that I’m trying to both preserve musical traditions but also bring musical traditions into the present. I feel like it’s very easy to get put in a box—this person is a traditionalist or that person is an innovator, when I think you can be both at the same time.

I love a good Brahms symphony as much as anybody. I really do. I also love conducting whatever contemporary piece for 15 players in a warehouse or whatever. Just because you love one doesn’t mean you can’t love the other. Just because you love classical music doesn’t mean you can’t love hip-hop, etc.

I would like to see people who have an affinity for music try out other genres, including classical, including the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. And regardless of genre, the responsibility falls on us as performers to create the right setting, to create an atmosphere that a neophyte feels welcome in and feels comfortable in—feels at peace in.

What I’ve just laid out is not the kind of thing you can achieve just by snapping your fingers. It takes time and it’s gradual. And again, that whole dipping into a variety of genres as a consumer of art is another exciting aspect of Big Ears. I’m really excited not only to perform at Big Ears but to attend, because I know I’m going to get a ton of ideas from what I hear. Not just from the classical performances that are happening but from all the other genres—either a musical idea or a collaborative idea or just a performance format. It’ll give me a chance to see a bunch of different performance spaces in Knoxville. There’s so much opportunity to just do a deep dive and not limit yourself.

For the first few years of the festival, minimalism was the main thread connecting the different performers and styles of music. This year, especially, the whole concept seems to have expanded.
There was certainly a time when minimalism was the dominant force in contemporary classical music. But now, as with all music, it’s harder to define what the core style is. I can’t speak with any expertise on any genres besides classical music, but there are so many different voices out there now—we have an abundance of riches in terms of the living composers who are out there.

Actually, the KSO season next year features seven different living composers.

Wow. Is that a record?
I’m not sure if it’s a record. Our mission wasn’t, “We need to play more music by living composers.” But as the programs evolved, and once the season was done, I took a look at it and said, “Okay, what are the commonalities between these programs?” I counted up and was like, whoa.

The goal was to program music that the KSO had never played before or hadn’t played in a long time. So we have a number of pieces by your traditional dead composers that just haven’ tbeen played, at least not as far back as our archives go. One example of something KSO has never played before is Ginastera’s Four Dances From Estancia, which we’re choreographing with the Appalachian Ballet Company.

Can you talk a little more about programming Bach for Big Ears?
Bach is a timeless composer. The thing about Bach is that he was groundbreaking when he was alive and his music continues to sound new.

In the classical world, we tend to canonize Beethoven above everything else. But if you talk to most performers, Bach tends to stand above all. The language of harmony we use, he essentially created that. Almost every classical musician will tell you that Bach is among the most indispensable of composers. You’ll be surprised, if you probe even nonclassical musicians on Bach, how much they’ll have to say.

Bach was the first everything. He was the first Romantic, I think. He was the first modernist. He’s the ultimate experimental composer, I would argue, which is why I think he’s perfectly in place at something like Big Ears. He was able to take something that was technical and basic and turn it into genius, turn it into something transcendent.

The Art of Fugue alone—you want to talk about a challenging piece to the ear. As I’m sitting here talking now, it occurs to me that the entire Art of Fugue should be played on Big Ears, with a variety of ensembles and a variety of combinations of instruments. Because it is that ear-bending.

Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performs music by John Adams, Matthew Aucoin, and J.S. Bach at the Mill and Mine (227 W. Depot Ave.) on Sunday, March 26, at 1 p.m. 


Senior Editor Matthew Everett manages the Knoxville Mercury's arts & entertainment section, including the comprehensive calendar section—Knoxville’s go-to guide for everything worth doing in the area. You can reach Matthew at

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