Big Ears Festival

Knoxville, Tennessee, was one weird place this past weekend. I can only assume this charming Southern city isn’t so avant-garde most of the time, but for three days, it hosted a new celebration of experimental music called the Big Ears Festival. I made the drive from Chicago because I was so intrigued by the diverse lineup. Where else could you see Philip Glass playing piano in the afternoon, with Dan Deacon sitting in the second row – and then see Deacon doing his Baltimore Round Robin dance party at the end of the night?

As far as music fests go, this one was pretty small-scale, with just a few venues and fairly small audience, but that coziness helped to make it special. Audiences actually listened to the music in nearly complete silence, even during the shows that took place in bars. And the festival featured several one-time collaborations between the artists who had traveled to Knoxville for the festival. That’s the sort of thing I’d love to see happen more often at other fests.

One of the highlights was the Saturday night concert at the Bijou Theatre by Antony and the Johnsons, with string players and rock band backing up this remarkable singer with arrangements that ranged from delicate chamber music to swinging, soulful pop. Antony’s idiosyncratic sense of humor came through in his stage banter – as well as one remarkable pause, with Antony sitting silently at the piano bench while everyone else waited and waited and waited for him to say something or play something. After some nervous tittering in the crowd, Antony finally launched into his song, “Twilight.” It was one of the most oddly dramatic moments I’ve seen in a concert. At another point, Antony remarked about Big Ears: “I wish we had something like this in New York. We don’t. It’s nice to have something like this in – ” He paused, as if hesitating to use the phrase he had in mind for Knoxville, then blurted it out ” – a chicken village.”

Ned Rothenburg made a similar remark during his set at the Square Room: “It’s amazing to be at a festival celebrating this kind of music in the middle of the United States.” But what exactly is “this kind of music”? Big Ears was not really about any one musical genre. It was like more like the Island of Misfit Musicians – stuff that just doesn’t fit in anywhere else.

Several of the acts play music that either drones or tends to stay in place, building on single chords or even single notes. Or just on the textures of sound. The acts in this category include Fennesz (aka Christian Fennesz), who played solo and then sat in with David Daniell and Tony Buck of the Necks for an improvisation. Fennesz also teamed up with Mark Linkous and Scott Minor of Sparklehorse for the festival finale on Sunday, which surrounded Linkous’ singing with walls of sound.

Daniell was all over the festival, too, also playing a solo set and a show with his band San Agustin, as well as a jam session at the closing-night party. Each time, he coaxed some amazing tones out of his guitar – amorphous chords and notes rather than typical guitar riffs and solos – that built up from placid beauty to fierce intensity.

There was also an element of jazz in the festival – or maybe it would be more accurate to say it was free-form improvisation on instruments typically associated with jazz. Rothenburg played clarinets and saxophones with a real sense of physicality, as if he were wrestling with the instruments to force them to make noises they’re not supposed to make. He also performed a set in collaboration with the Necks, who played piano, bass and drums with a similar sense of uninhibited musical exploration. Another mostly jazz artist at Big Ears was Jon Hassell, but even his music felt different from most jazz, with a sense of space and air in the intervals between Hassell’s trumpet and the notes of his backup players.

Pauline Oliveros, a pioneer in experimental music, showed how she has moved on from analog tape delay to laptop. She sent almost random notes from her accordion through the computer to eight channels of sound all around a gallery at the Knoxville Museum of Art. As they twisted into new shapes, the notes drifted around the museum.

A few of the performers at Big Ears played more traditional word-and-melody songs – the aforementioned Antony, as well as Larkin Grimm and Michael Gira. Even though their music came in a more conventional form, it fit in with the festival. All of these performers seemed like artists who lay their intentions bare whenever they do their songs in front of a microphone.

Dan Deacon and his collaborators in the Baltimore Round Robin basically put on a party by taking turns at spinning music, performing songs and goading the audience into dance moves. The participants included Matmos, who also played a set before Deacon, bridging the gap between the more experimental sonic texture crowd and the song crowd.

Philip Glass played several etudes for solo piano, his fingers almost effortlessly rolling into those patterns that are so familiar from his recordings. The slight imperfections in his playing were actually what made it so perfect. The theories behind Glass’ minimalism can be easily programmed into a synthesizer or MIDI program, but creating those patterns the old-fashioned way, one note at a time on a piano, and making them breathe with life, is another thing altogether. Wendy Sutter played the Glass composition “Songs and Poems for Cello” solo, and she also joined together with Glass on “The Orchard.” I was delighted to hear Glass play “Closing” from the album Glassworks, which was my original introduction to his music, during the encore.

In a separate category all their own, Negativland performed “It’s All in Your Head,” which is essentially a two-hour radio show – or audio collage. Or performance-art piece. The theme was God’s nonexistence, and Negativland plucked countless clips from radio and TV interviews, commercials, songs and movies to illustrate their theme, putting it all together in front of the audience with tapes, CDs, microphones and various electronic noise-making devices.

Big Ears was the sort of musical event that makes you wonder what music is, exactly. I’m sure some people wandering in off the street into some of these shows would have been baffled by some of the noises being made. Even if you didn’t appreciate or understand every single sound, it was interesting from beginning to end.

NOTES ON PHOTOGRAPHY: Oh, the travails of the concert photographer. A few minutes into the first set I was shooting Friday night (Fennesz), my Canon EOS 40D stopped working altogether. “Error 99.” That’s basically a message telling you that the camera won’t take any pictures and needs to go in for repairs. Thankfully, my friend Gavin Miller had a new camera, which he loaned me. This was one of the new point-and-shoots from Canon, the PowerShot SX110 IS. This camera worked pretty well whenever the lighting was halfway bright, but a lot of the Big Ears shows were dimly lit – and would have been challenging even with the 40D. So I did not end up with any Antony or Matmos photos at all that I care to share. Those shows were just too dark for photography. I did the best I could at other shows during the fest, and now I’m going to see about getting that 40D fixed.

Photos from the Big Ears Festival.

UPDATE (2/11/09): You can also see some of my photos from the Big Ears festival at Pitchfork, along with Grayson Currin’s review. See