Big Ears Makes Some Noise

Last weekend, Knoxville played host to the Big Ears Festival, a three-day program across downtown that featured mostly slow, meditative music. New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff described it in his review as AC Entertainment president Ashley Capps' attempt "to claim the space where vanguardist pop spills over into classical and improvised music."

Hundreds of locals and visitors ran a constant loop from the Knoxville Museum of Art to the Bijou Theatre and the Old City, with stops at smaller venues and bars along the way, between Friday and Sunday. Several Metro Pulse staffers and contributors were among them, providing some sometimes illuminating, sometimes baffling, coverage at Metropulse.com and Twitter.com/metropulse. Here's a sample (misspellings have been corrected to protect the inebriated):

Friday, Feb. 6

Fennesz: pretty transcendent, as you might imagine. not much going on onstage (picking up a tossed guitar pick was the thrilling climax of what I saw) and completely wordless, but Christian Fennesz' hazy, glitchy guitar/laptop soundscapes, simultaneously challenging and accessible, exemplify what's worthwhile about "noise" music, no matter what the lady in the lobby (using the one-two punch of "guess I'm not smart enough" and "my fourteen year old could do that") says.

Nick Huinker, 9:08 p.m.

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In an era which teaches us that festivals are supposed to be ubiquitous things which occasionally spring up from unsuspecting farmlands, the urban festival experience is a stealthy affair by comparison. No signs, no billboards, no 40-foot-high letters of fire in the sky mark Big Ears' coming. It's a self-contained secret society marked by an temporary upward swing in downtown population. If Rowdy Roddy Piper were here, I'd ask to borrow his sunglasses.

Dave Prince, 10:55 p.m.

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DJ Mini Tiger says "spotted Dan deacon! He's here! Right next to us! He has horses butts on the back of his sweatshirt!!!!"

Travis Gray, 11:54 p.m.

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Saturday, Feb. 7

Abby Wintker screamed during Niel Hamburger's set, and in response he said "who was that, one of the avant guard singers?? Get outta here!"

T.G., 12:17 a.m.

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Hamburger was "funny" as ever, his comedy-routine-as-comedy routine and unpredictably terrible (often in two senses) punchlines sharpened for the Big Ears occasion ("okay, we're going to tell a few jokes, and then someone is going to come out and shit in a bowl to high pitched noises") (which i probably just butchered).

Neil started late, but luckily Hello City started even later; perhaps the most impressive crowd of the evening (taking into account the late hour and all-local bill) stood by as a round robin of Knoxville's most accomplished concept-rock bands made as strong a case as any for the question "why Knoxville?" ... genuinely, from the bottom of my heart, the best fifteen minutes of music i've so far heard at Big Ears.

N.H., 2:38 a.m.

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Right now, at this very moment, about 75 people are standing in the middle of the big open room on the top floor of the Woodruff Building downtown, each singing a different song of his or her own choosing very, very, very slowly. It's an impressive effect—a huge, layered tone that sounds more like an organ or synthesizer than a chorus. It's part of composer/theorist Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening workshop.

Matthew Everett, 12:56 p.m.

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Solo jazz clarinetist/saxophonist Ned Rothenberg provided, for me, the first really blissed-out ecstatic moment of Big Ears so far during his short set at the Square Room this afternoon. The third of the three compositions he played, this one on alto sax, started with a lyrical theme, kind of romantic and conventional, but over the next 10 minutes or so he alternated among that motif, heavy riffing, and fiery, flamboyant, virtuosic soloing. Badass.

M.E., 2:53 p.m.

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Philip Glass showed why he's the centerpiece of the weekend with a program of striking musical intelligence. After a short solo intro, Wendy Sutter performed Songs and Poems for Cello, a dark, sonorous, rich, dolorous piece with surprising warmth and emotion. Sutter's a disciplined player with a streak of passion underneath the surface, perfect for the piece. (Glass wrote it specifically for her.)

Then Glass played six etudes from an unfinished collection. The setting was positively cinematic--the dark back curtain lit deep purple and blue, Glass alone at the piano in profile. The pieces were filled with big melodies, memorable enough to be pop songs, punctuated by sharp splinters of glistening high-end notes. The final piece was heavy and rhythmic—it could have been the soundtrack to the climax of a particularly dark psychological thriller. The beat was so strong I tapped my foot through most of it. The highlight so far, and it's hard to imagine it being eclipsed.

M.E., 4:26 p.m.

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Antony says that maybe he'll move to Knoxville, he loves it. And why wouldn't he?

T.G., 9:26 p.m.

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Todd Steed and a semi-rotating panel of associates (sorry, potential musicians of note, but he's the only one I recognize offhand) are giving a Big Ears home to Experimentalus Localus at Java this weekend. Guitars, a few dozen pedals, and a Brian Eno app on an iPod Touch, oh my! Lots of wahs and echoes and layering and prerecorded sound bites from patrons combine to create a certain...you guessed it, ambience!

D.P., 9:59 p.m.

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the word seems to be this: the Square Room objected to a sequence of Matmos' accompanying visuals depicting a well-endowed young man pleasuring himself in a hot tub. explicit? fairly, I guess. but sexual-orientation neutral. (early reports had attributed the switch to qualms over the electronic duo's homosexuality.) it's colossally silly and more than a little embarrassing, especially during Knoxville's big moment in the culture spotlight, but the rumor mill persists in casting the L7 Room as bigots and that's a heavy sort of thing to throw around. a lot of folks have been waiting for them to let their less-than-secular colors really fly, but the issue here is more about obscenity than prejudice, and no matter your thoughts on either, there is obviously a legitimate distinction.

N.H., 11:50 p.m.

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Sunday, Feb. 8

Wow. The first 40 minutes of The Necks' show—one I'd been anticipating greatly—was nice. A little bass, then a little piano, then some shimmering light percussion. And so on. And on. And on some more. Nice; really nice. Then, all of a sudden, drummer Tony Buck goes mad on the high hat and stays at it way longer than any reasonable expectation. And then the bass drum, and then BAM! drums explode. Become the lead instrument, in fact. And it keeps going and going and going. For real—Bonham/Buddy Rich-quality drumming there. A remarkable way to close the night.

M.E., 12:45 a.m.

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Can bignesrs get more amazing? I'm on the verge of tears. As many times dan deacon has played at the pilot light, tonight it is PACKED.

T.G., 12:54 a.m.

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...and the Baltimore Round Robin is still bumping like nuts. (trying not to feel old here...staying out till 3 is a solid start.) let it be remembered, if anything is, that Matmos' migration to the Catalyst did nothing but improve the festival, as their set (controversial video clip and all) was followed shortly afterward by impromptu participation in Dan Deacon's party-rocking Baltimore showcase.

N.H., 2:42 a.m.

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Accordion music is being processed at KMA right now. It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon. For the record, Dan Deacon's been wearing the same sweatshirt for three days.

M.E., 1:56 p.m.

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Also, saw a ny times reporter at yee-haw earlier today. Destination shopping, that is!

T.G., 2:33 p.m.

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bigears is getting to me, here at the end. I will either have an anxiety attack or an asthma attack. Vote on which 1 you want to see most!!

T.G., 7:10 p.m.

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well, it started more than an hour late, but the crowd was patient and there's an energy obscuring any fatigue in here. Larkin Grimm was a little Lilith Fair for my tastes, but the ensemble still impressed. will leave the last two acts and wrap-ups for Matthew & David, but suffice to say the inaugural Big Ears was a great success, and everyone involved should be beaming with pride for some time.

let's do this again next year, folks

N.H., 9:06 p.m.


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