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Like several artists who will be performing double or triple duty during the Big Ears festival, Stephen O’Malley will have a busy weekend. He will be performing all three days of the festival, in three different venues: a solo show at Scruffy City Hall; with improv-rock trio Nazoranai at the Bijou Theatre; and a show at the Knoxville Museum of Art with his friend and frequent collaborator Oren Ambarchi, featuring compositions from American composer Alvin Lucier (Criss Cross) and Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu (South Pole), each composed specifically for the duo.
“Criss Cross is very linear and controlled, and South Pole is very titanic and explosive,” O’Malley says over the phone from Paris, where’s he’s made his home for the last seven years. “Lucier’s work from the ’70s and ’80s are fundamental works for drone, experimental, and even noise music. He’s one of the elders and it’s a pleasure to even talk to the guy, much less have a piece written for us. Dumitrescu’s approach is much different than Lucier’s, but the thing they might have in common is pushing the edge of their perception. Dumitrescu’s language is a lot more visceral and colorful, very metaphorical, very cosmic, very volcanic.”
O’Malley is best known for his band Sunn O))), a drone-summoning duo that slows down the elements of doom metal to an extreme ebb. Though their recent output has included orchestral and choral music and other grand gestures (O’Malley says their next record is going to be “f--king insane”), the heart of the duo’s sound remains drawn-out, low-end drones. O’Malley’s solo show will highlight this element of his oeuvre, which he finds continually fascinating.
“Yeah, drone’s a major part of my music, and I’m not sure why that is, actually,” he says. “I think it has to do with that notion of elasticity of time and this very subjective state you get in when you’re hearing a sound. It can be really evocative for the imagination. The whole notion of flexibility of time within music is really interesting for the listener and performer.
“But drone is just an element of music, like harmony, just another aspect of how humans put together their ideas about music. The solo show will be a loud drone-guitar piece based around a structuralist piece of music. People who are fans of my bands will probably enjoy it and people looking for something beautiful and musical might not enjoy it. It can be interesting for people who are in that state of mind. It’s not meant to be entertainment, I’ll put it that way.”
O’Malley’s ruminations on drone lead to a discussion of Nazoranai, his fiery improv-rock trio with Ambarchi and Japanese guitar god Keiji Haino. The group released its self-titled debut album in 2012.
“Nazoranai, on the other hand, can be quite entertaining,” he says. “Mr. Haino is quite a performer. He’s very powerful. He’s one of my heroes as far as guitar-playing goes, a master improviser, so playing with him is like having a master class. Nazoranai is coming from more of a rock direction, but it’s also wide open because it’s all based on improvisation.”
Lucier, Dumitrescu, and Haino are just a few of the figures in a growing and impressive list of musicians that spans the world of modern composition, metal, noise, electronic, and other types of avant-garde and experimental music. Although even his early bands had a conceptual bent that went beyond the typical metal trappings, as someone who was a self-confessed metalhead in his teens and early 20s, these opportunities continue to amaze him.
“Man, I feel so lucky to be able to play with any of these musicians,” he says. “I don’t consider myself a great musician, but something I’m doing must be interesting for these people to want to work with me.”
Stephen O’Malley performs solo at Scruffy City Hall on Friday, March 28, at 7 p.m.; with Nazoranai at the Bijou Theatre on Saturday, March 29, at 12:15 a.m.; and with Oren Ambarchi at Knoxville Museum of Art on Sunday, March 30, at noon.