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BUKE AND GASE
Originally, Buke and Gase were that New York duo with the weird handmade instruments—the "buke," a six-string baritone ukulele, and the "gase," a guitar-bass hybrid. By the time Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez released their second album, General Dome, in 2013, the novelty didn't matter—they've mastered their brand of fuzzy, funky chamber art rock.
DAWN OF MIDI
"Is it jazz or not?" is usually a dumb question. But it can be a sign that something interesting is happening, as on Dysnomia, the breakthrough third album from 2013 by this Brooklyn trio. The all-acoustic lineup—pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni, and drummer Qasim Naqvi—renders something that sounds electronic and programmed, a dense and through-composed network of notes that pulses and seethes and will make you forget about whether it's jazz or not.
This side project finds Earth's Dylan Carlson exploring the folk and occult traditions of the British Isles with slow, haunting electrified folk rock.
Seattle's Earth was one of the heaviest bands on the planet in the early '90s; the group's 1993 debut, Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version, made up of three long songs of feedback-drenched, slooow-motion drone metal, has yet to be matched for brown-note intensity, and much of the drone-doom scene of the early '00s owes its existence to Earth. Since the early 2000s, though, Dylan Carlson, the band's founder and mainstay, has taken Earth in a different direction, stripping the band's sound down from cosmic doom to a kind of epic folk jazz inspired by John Fahey, Ennio Morricone, and Neil Young.
New York's Ensemble Signal, established in 2008, is recognized as one of the leading new-music groups in the United States. Led by artistic directors Lauren Radnofsky and Brad Lubman, the group's current season includes performances of works by more than a dozen living composers, as well as music by Elliot Carter and J.S. Bach.
German composer and pianist Nils Frahm's music can sound conventional on a first, casual listen, but there's always a twist—his 2012 album Screws was recorded while one thumb was in a cast, and 2013's Spaces spliced dozens of live recordings together into a collage of improv piano.
DAVID GREENBERGER AND PRIME LENS
Greenberger, an author and NPR contributor, will perform with his new band, Prime Lens. The group's name is a loose anagram for Dennis Palmer, who was one half of the Chattanooga art-rock project the Shaking Ray Levis and one of Greenberger's musical partners until his death last year.
Greenwood, the guitarist for Radiohead, is one of the big marketing draws for this year's Big Ears, but he won't be performing for long—his two performances, on Saturday afternoon and Sunday night, will add up to just a little more than an hour. Still, Greenwood is an important part of the festival; he's playing Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, notably recorded by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny in 1987 and later sampled by the Orb and RJD2, and performing a selection of music from his scores for There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Norwegian Wood and some new works with accompaniment by the Wordless Orchestra.
Julia Holter's 2013 breakthrough album, Loud City, is a bracing conglomeration of jazz, chamber music, and classic art rock.
On her 2013 album Innocence Is Kinky, Norwegian singer/songwriter Jenny Hval, who is also a novelist and critic, explores issues of identity and representation through elegant, slightly chilly chamber pop.
By the time he started playing drums with Wilco in 2000, for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Glenn Kotche already had an impressive music career playing with Jim O'Rourke and Jeff Tweedy in Loose Fur.
Laraaji has recorded dozens of albums over the last 40 years, but the one people know is Day of Radiance, produced by Brian Eno in 1980, after Eno had come across Laraaji playing his electronic zither in Washington Square Park. Laraaji has since become a frequent composer of spiritual music and proponent of laughter—he'll be leading a laughter workshop at Big Ears.
Once known for the delicacy and intimacy of their performances and recordings, Minnesota's Low has become a slightly more conventional rock band over the last decade. The Invisible Way, Low's fourth album for Sub Pop, from 2013, finds the band stripping away the fuzz and volume that had accrued in recent years for a return to sparse, slow, elegant arrangements.
Former Emeralds multi-instrumentalist Mark McGuire was recording and releasing solo material long before that band came to an end last year, but Along the Way, his first album for Dead Oceans, released earlier this year, will serve as his unofficial solo debut for many fans. And that's fitting—the new disc is a coming-of-age story, set to dreamy, new-agey electro-acoustic indie pop.
HAILU MERGIA AND LOW MENTALITY
A year ago, Hailu Mergia's name was known only to the most enthusiastic fans of 1970s Ethiopian music, as a member of the once-famous, at least in East Africa, Walias Band. On a 1981 U.S. tour, Mergia left the Walias Band to settle in Washington, D.C., to escape his home country's military dictatorship. In 1985, he recorded a solo album, Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument, playing traditional songs on accordion, synthesizer, and electric piano, accompanied by a drum machine. It was a hit in Ethiopia; back in Washington, Mergia started driving a cab.
A cassette copy of Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument was discovered last year by Brian Shimkovitz, who runs the blog Awesome Tapes From Africa. Shimkovitz reissued the album on vinyl, CD, and cassette, which led to a European tour, shows in New York, and now to Big Ears, where Mergia will be backed by Nikhil P. Yerawadekar's Low Mentality.
With her electric cello, film scores, and connections to Steve Albini, Bob Mould, and in-demand metal producer Sanford Parker, Alison Chesley, aka Helen Money, occupies a unique space between classical music and heavy rock.
The nief-norf Project, established in 2005, brings together contemporary composers and musicians from around the country, emphasizing scholarship as much as performance.
Even in an era lousy with steel-string acoustic guitarists exploring the roots-based, exploration-minded bent that John Fahey pioneered 50 years ago, Bill Orcutt stands out. Right now, in our lifetimes, Orcutt is doing his part to revolutionize an instrument most thought incapable of new tricks. Don't pass by at least a listen. (Lee Gardner)
This four-piece percussion ensemble will perform Steve Reich's iconic Drumming, from 1970-71, as well as Bryce Dessner's Music for Wood and Strings and a set with Glenn Kotche and Buke and Gase.
Equal parts art-pop and hip-hop, Ryan Lott, aka Son Lux, is one of the oddest and least predictable artists on the odd and unpredictable Anticon label.
The name might be unfamiliar, but it's likely you've heard saxophonist Colin Stetson's work on albums by Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, and Bon Iver. On his own, however, the Michigan-born, Canada-based Stetson has earned comparisons to sax heavyweights like Evan Parker and Mats Gustafson for the raw, physical style he displayed on his three New History Warfare albums, the most recent of which was released in 2013.
For most of the '00s, the tape-trading underground knew Dominick Fernow for his prolific and influential one-man art-noise project Prurient. Lately, however, he's become better known in slightly more mainstream circles for his thudding military-themed techno recordings under the name Vatican Shadow.
WORDLESS MUSIC ORCHESTRA
The Wordless Music Orchestra and its Wordless Music series of concerts in New York have blurred the lines between contemporary classical and pop music; the group has performed works by Jonny Greenwood, Arvo Pärt, John Cale, and William Basinski.
Visit bigearsfestival.com for more info and a complete schedule.