AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Big Ears 2023 Part 2

If you missed Part 1, you can reach it here.

Day 3-Saturday

John Zorn’s Nove Cantici per Francesco d’Assisi-Tennessee Theater:

An excellent way to start the day with this crack acoustic guitar trio of Julian Lage, Gyan Riley, and Bill Frisell. Zorn gave this performance an epithet of “music for Christian mysticism” and it had the ability to bring one’s thoughts back to middle/late antiquity wandering around French and Spanish pastoral countrysides with a stop at the occasional monastery for both physical and spiritual sustenance. (Or maybe I just felt like I was LARPING in a Zelda game.) Lage seemed to carry this trio the most in terms of being the lead solo voice, but Riley also delivered as well. Frisell seemed much more subdued. All in all, a wonderful early show and certainly one of the finest Zorn performances of the fest (but there were so many)!

JACK Quartet performs Catherine Lamb-St. Johns Cathedral:

I was very regretful that I had to leave this show after 20 minutes or so (to get to the next one…damn scheduling!!!!) because the JACK Quartet was giving this very large audience an opportunity to appreciate what it means to experience sound in an acousmatic fashion. Close your eyes, try and clear your mind of everything but the sound and just listen. The piece, divisio spiralis consisted (of what I heard) of gentle, fragile but extremely precise bowed lines of violins and cello. Not labyrinthian per se but layered somehow to form a tapestry of sounds working in perfect sympatico with each other. It was stunning and beautiful and, if the listener was willing to put in some work, extremely rewarding.

Stephen O’Malley: This Is How You Will Disappear-Knoxville Museum of Art

If I only saw (or rather listened in 13 channel sound YOW!!!) this performance, it would have made attending Big Ears worthwhile for me. This was a 65-minute mixed media sound diffusion, mixed live by O’Malley that just destroyed me. The piece, composed by O’Malley and the late Peter Rehberg back in 2009-2010 was originally created for a live performing arts group with choreography and voices along with the taped material. The work is as dark and disturbing as anything from your worst nightmares and there were even trigger warnings posted and reiterated by O’Malley before it was played. The narrated segments were quite depraved and emotionally upsetting to deal with during its course. The sounds themselves were varied and they included some field recordings, female singing, heavy percussion strikes doused in reverb, and either bass or guitar or other electronic sound sources that couldn’t be identified. The dynamics ran the gamut and, for a long 20-minute stretch the electronics were so loud, crunchy, and pummeling that it felt like I could chew and swallow the sound coming out of the museum’s hefty 13-channel system. This performance is the closest I have ever come to experiencing what I think it would be like to hear the Acousmonium at the GRM in Paris…something I dream of doing someday. I’m still thinking about it days later and it’s still leaving a stain on my psyche.

William Parker: Mayan Space Station-The Standard:

MSS was described to me as Parker’s version of a jazz/rock band and that was kinda accurate. I would also add jam-band-esqe to that description. The trio was Parker, Ava Mendoza on heavily affected electric guitar, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. I was enthralled for about 15 minutes and somewhat bored for the remaining 45. Mendoza was the lead voice here and she is no doubt an amazing player…not only technically but she obviously knows her way around an electronic effects pedal board. She sometimes reminded me of pre-Wilco Nels Cline with more reverb. My issue was the set was one long continuous jam that basically stayed at high volume, even during the slower, less groove-oriented free parts. Unfortunately, it all started sounding very samey and noodly to me and I left a little underwhelmed.

John Zorn: Bagatelles Part 2-Tennessee Theater:

This 1-hour show was split up into two thirty-minute sets of two different configurations. The first half was The Mary Halvorson Quartet with MH on electric Guitar, Miles Okazaki on electric Guitar, Jorge Roeder on acoustic bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on Drums. As you would expect, with this kind of lineup they smoked with everyone getting their chance to step out and strut their stuff…which they did of course! (Personally, I can’t get enough of Halvorson’s patented volume pedal electric sound!). The second set was a band called Trigger which was a trio of electric guitar (Will Greene), electric bass (Simon Hanes), and drums (Aaron Edgcomb). They were heavy, loud, and raw, totally nailed the stop/start on a dime Zorn style of writing, but I couldn’t help but think they sounded like a much less polished version of Torture Garden era Naked City (maybe that’s a good thing).

John Zorn: Bagatelles Part 1-Tennessee Theater:

Organized the same way as Part 2 above. The first 30-minute set was Nova Quartet with John Medeski on piano, Kenny Wollesen on vibes, Trevor Dunn on acoustic bass, and Ches Smith on drums. Excellent, entertaining set…especially watching Wollesen who was very animated. Ches Smith was slammin, Dunn delivered a thick stew of heavy bass and Medeski was on fire. Superb! The second 30-minute segment was one of my favorites of the fest. Asmodeus was Marc Ribot on electric guitar, Trevor Dunn on electric bass, Ches Smith on drums with John Zorn conducting. WOW! Ribot was killer. (Warning, overused comparison coming up.) This was the closest I’ve ever heard Zorn music come to King Crimson. Ribot’s tone was Frippian…it had that saturated metallic bite with just the right amount of high end that was unmistakably (in my head) Larks and later KC. Phenomenal set and watching Zorn conducting is always an entertaining experience.

John Zorn: New Masada Quartet-Tennessee Theater:

This show started at midnight, and I was fading so I only stayed for 2 or 3 songs. I later heard they only played for about 30 minutes, so I didn’t miss much. I saw the NMQ last year at Big Ears but, getting the chance to hear Julian Lage go electric is always a treat. The guy is always a precise and emotive player and if you ever get the chance to see him live, you should seize it with both hands. JZ of course was playing his Middle-Eastern-inflected melodies and squonkin’ solos on sax while Jorge Roeder on acoustic bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums provided the rhythm section to die for.

Saturday was in the books, and it was one helluva day!

Day 4-Sunday

Essential Tremors Live with Stephen O’Malley-Visit Knoxville Visitors Center:

Essential Tremors is a podcast in which musicians and other creators talk about the songs that shaped who they are. I would have completely missed this if I wasn’t notified by a buddy who apparently is an early riser.  I’m forever grateful he did…even though the 10am start time was completely uncivilized. This show was almost 1.5 hours of Stephen O’Malley reminiscing about music that was important in his life. He was asked to pick three artists and a representative song from each and say a few words about them. A track from Fugazi was first (of which I forgot the name of…sorry) and then he continued by picking Acid Udon by Pita (Peter Rehberg), and Pierres Sacrées by Iancu Dumitrescu. He told some great stories about working with these artists and there were some laugh-out-loud moments, especially about Pita and Dumistrescu. Being fans of both, especially ID, I found this chat to be riveting and was glad I attended, regardless of the hour. Great start to the day!

Morton Subotnick-Old City PAC:

Ah yes, a show high on my “most anticipated” list and… I was not disappointed. Subotnick, armed with laptop and various other tabletop electronic devices was joined on stage by Berlin-based visual artist Lillevan. The interactive piece, called As I Live and Breathe was about 50 minutes and was split up into two discernable parts. The first half was MS live sampling his voice (monosyllabic utterances and exclamations) and then proceeding to twist, bend, mutilate, fold, spindle, chop, puree, and deconstruct to his heart’s content. It was a multi-channel set up in the smallish room and the sound was shifting, swirling, and perpetually on the move. He then segued the sounds and mood into more of a somewhat melodic direction that was reminiscent of some of Steve Roach’s or Robert Rich’s more blissful chill excursions. I was allowed to ascend to the tenth sphere, which I shall proclaim Morton Heaven! Throughout, Lillevan was tweaking the tripped-out visuals displayed behind them on a big screen. I don’t know enough adjectives to say how awesome this show was.

The Music of Éliane Radigue-St. Johns Cathedral:

This was a solo trumpet performance by Nate Wooley of the piece OCCAM X. Radigue previously composed electronic and very minimal works but, starting around 2005 began to write for acoustic instruments. There are several pieces in her OCCAM series and the ones that are meant for solo performances are only played by one musician for which it was composed. Wooley was extremely grateful to be chosen to play this 30-minute piece. The packed Cathedral was dead silent as Wooley brought forth sounds going from straight breath to extended tone drones. Like the JACK Quartet/Catherine Lamb performance the day before, this was all about allowing yourself to be transported and transcended by the pure sound. Eyes closed…see you on the other side. Exquisite!

John Zorn: Chamber Music-Tennessee Theater:

This was performed by the insanely talented JACK Quartet, and they were augmented by different configs of additional violas, cellos, and vibes. The complex pieces were very abstract and performed seemingly with ease by the artists. I must pick up recordings of these works because I couldn’t even begin to grok the intricacies within the music that were flying by seemingly at random. Speaking as a non-musician, I have to believe this performance was the most rehearsal-intensive set that I saw. I would love to see this again so I can begin to dig deep into this music. All I could do is sit back and marvel at both the writing and the artists’ skill at interpreting. Bravo!

John Zorn with Trevor Dunn and Dave Lombardo-Tennessee Theater:

Oye!!! Double-kick drum madness! Alto Sax pandemonium! Five string (?) electric Bass hysteria!  Last Exit (without Sonny) that’s been goosed in the keister and left to sizzle, spurt and pop on a 400-degree fry pan! OYE!!! Getting the picture yet? I don’t know where this trio got this from (and by “this”, I mean the gumption to conjure these sounds) but…I can safely say it wasn’t terrestrial. I don’t know, maybe they followed Orpheus into a cave somewhere and instead of following him out, looked back and admired themselves in the roomful of mirrors that was kindly placed behind them. See??? This is what happens when you challenge the gods! I could barely walk out of the Tennessee after this 45-minute set of Proxima Centauri produced fusion. It was like I was being battered by a 50-foot Steely Dan and left to writhe in pain and ecstasy on Vlad the Impaler’s front lawn. Shall I continue?


John Zorn: Cobra-Tennessee Theater:

WTAF!! Thirteen players, I guess I’ll list them:

Mary Halvorson, Wendy Eisenberg, Will Green all on electric guitars / Brian Marsella on piano / John Medeski on organ / Mike Nicolas on cello / Trevor Dunn on acoustic bass / Simon Hanes on electric bass / Sae Hashimoto on percussion and vibes / Ches Smith, Aaron Edgcomb, Kenny Wollesen, and Dave Lombardo all on drums and, of course, John Zorn as prompter.

For those that may not know, Cobra was an early experiment by Zorn in finding new ways to improvise. Briefly, the ensemble was arranged in a giant semi-circle that spanned the whole length of the stage. Standing in front of them behind a large table was JZ with many stacks of red, yellow, and green flashcards with numbers on them. These cards were raised, lowered, and moved from side to side by Zorn to cue various players, or subsets of players to do certain things in certain ways. I’m guessing there was/is a lot of leeway in this regard. In addition, this esoteric code was augmented by Zorn constantly putting on and taking off a baseball billed hat. I don’t know what that meant, but I bet Pythagoras did!!! Oh, there were also several Day-Glo green headbands that various ensemble members put on and took off and threw around to each other. Wonder what that was all about? Did I mention the hand signals and pointing everyone was doing. It was like they were trying to “out” each other when they missed a cue or something. And then there was the raising of hands by various members at various times…I betcha this harkened back to their high school days when the teacher asked them a question. When they knew the answer, they were dying to be called on to show their knowledge as pertaining to the initiatory regimen of becoming an adept of this Mystery Cult. And so, it goes…the resulting sound was surprisingly coherent for the most part…till it wasn’t…and that’s when the fun started!!! The crescendos of sound could wash away (insert coastal city), and the control of dynamics was masterful. All players shined like the Hope Diamond, and they were all given their space. I have never seen, and never will again see such a stupidly entertaining spectacle.

Ok, that’s a wrap.  For me personally, the 2023 edition of Big Ears did not reach the stratospheric levels of last year’s program but, c’mon…that’s a big ask.  This is a fantastic festival with something (no…many things) for every adventurous music fan.  I can’t recommend attending highly enough.  Hope to see you next year.

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999

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