I just got back from this event in Knoxville, Tennessee. Big Ears is one of the world’s most diverse “outside” music festivals, with offerings that range from classical to jazz to improv to experimental, to electronica. The focus is on avant-garde, creative artists across all of these genres.
Knoxville is a small city with an outsized arts district. Its downtown features a large number of unique restaurants, as well as several musical venues. Big Ears takes over much of this area. Between the focus of the music and the town, the result is a festival with a polite “artsy-nerdy” crowd with a wide age range.
I attended Big Ears with a few friends for a fun weekend. I did not intend to write about the shows, but I though I’d share a few words and photos. There are often 3-5 shows overlapping throughout most of each day, so you have to be selective. This is not a review of the fest as a whole. In fact, I just want to focus on a few acts.
The highlight of the weekend for me was the Anthony Braxton 10+1tet. Featuring a number of his former students, Braxton led this extended group through a hour of dense, information-rich, structured improvisation. Featuring six horns, two guitars, cello, bass, and percussion, the players used hand signals to “conduct” one another through the piece. This facilitates the 11 members spontaneously breaking off into two or three subgroups for a period of time, each performing their own piece which fits into the music system as a whole. The words “multiphonic” and “intricate” barely begin to describe what was going on. Further, watching the signals and interaction between the players added a unique visual element to the experience.
Other performances of note were the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick performing works of Bryce Dessner and John Luther Adams, a high-power duet between Zeena Parkins and Tony Buck, Chicago’s eighth blackbird performing works of Dessner, Rzewski, Adams, and Lang, Ikue Mori’s audio-visual storytelling, Mary Halvorson on solo guitar, The Necks, and much more.
Steven Schick and John Luther Adams
Zeena Parkins and Tony Buck
eighth blackbird with Phillip Glass, Nico Muhly and Maya Beiser
Faust with Tony Conrad‘s Amplified Drone String musicians
Anthony Braxton, Kyoko Kitamura and Taylor Ho Bynum
Ikue Mori and Zeena Parkins