Knoxville’s 2016 Big Ears Festival, a three-day marathon of the experimental sides of pop, jazz, and classical, kicked off with a performance by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Guest conducting was Steven Schick, who performed on his own later in the weekend. The program was not usual fare for the orchestra–which primarily presents classical masterworks and tributes to classic rock bands–but if this performance was any indication, it should strongly consider making contemporary concert music a regular offering.
The first piece was the least interesting. Bryce Dessner is one composer no one can seem to avoid in the less avant-garde side of the contemporary music world. (Case and point: he appeared on stage at Yo La Tengo’s late night show/ambient drone jam.) His Lachrimae for string orchestra is heavy music, just as one would expect from a man who’s been writing for National frontman Matt Berninger’s craggy, perpetually mournful baritone. It built through soft sighs and keening solos from concertmaster Gordon Tsai into a final dissonant haze, lifting to resigned, unison resolution. It did all it was supposed to, and very prettily, yet never got off the ground.
If Dessner’s piece was a preview, the night’s main events were a double feature. Philip Glass’s Cello Concerto No. 2 is based on his score for Naqoyqatsi, the third film in Godfrey Reggio’s “Qatsi trilogy.” Because Koyaanisqatsi, the first, is the only one that got any mainstream attention, some context would have been helpful for members of the audience who didn’t Google it beforehand. However, no programs were given out. The three films are made of montages of time-lapsed footage and archived images, illustrating the unbalanced lives of humans in modern society and the damage we have inflicted on the earth. It follows that the cello, the instrument closest in range to the human voice, was the natural choice to represent our species in the score.
Glass’s repetitive melodic cells only rarely sounded punch-pressed through Schick’s expressive baton, and soloist Maya Beiser displayed a rare and sublime understanding that sameness does not always equal Sameness. Her cadenzas yearned and burned, sliding across the strata of the cello, leading the orchestra through some of the composer’s thorniest harmonic material. Like many of Glass’s longer works, it felt too long by the end, but even in the weary last movement some moments cut through the fog. Beiser’s cello, growling on a single note punctuated with col legno strikes, repeating an ascending octave at the very end, almost imperceptibly shifted in color moment to moment.
The Glass concerto represented our terrifying present, and John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer prize-winning Become Ocean imagined a possible future. If you’ve ever been on a boat in the open sea, seen nothing but water horizon to horizon, then you may begin to comprehend the depth and breadth of Become Ocean. There are no downbeats, and no distinct melodic ideas perceptible from a first listen. Time loses its shape, its demarcations. Unless you have access to audiophile-friendly equipment, the recording from the Seattle Symphony is to the live experience as flying in a 747 over the ocean is to being submerged in it. The strings surrounded us, dark, low brass tones look down into the abyss, and fragments of melody from winds and watery marimbas darted in and out of view like little fish. Schick, and the crisp acoustics of the Tennessee Theater, created a sea of sound teeming with life. This performance was proof, if any proof was needed, that large contemporary orchestral works are not just for the Big Five.
Light, subtle harp arpeggios gently penetrated the surface. Sound, in massive, mostly diatonic chords, swelled and receded. The waves never broke, just washed over our heads, endless. True wildness, and humans’ submission to it, has seldom been illustrated in music so well. From ocean we came, and if things keep warming the way they are, to ocean we shall return.