Since 2009, the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN has presented complex and challenging programs that place music at the center of performance, visual arts, and film. With over 90 musical performances over four days, my eyes were bigger than my ears at the 2017 Big Ears Festival, which ran from March 23-26. The sheer number of live music options was overwhelming; it wasn’t hard to carve out a full schedule of concert-going. The first two days of the festival featured remarkable performances by Shara Nova, guitarist Gyan Riley, and violin soloist Yuki Numata Resnick.
There was perhaps no better artist than My Brightest Diamond to help kickstart the festival on opening night. My Brightest Diamond front woman Shara Nova has long blended classical sensibilities and operatic vocal abilities with indie rock song settings. The biggest takeaway from her Thursday, March 23rd set was her fiery focus on social justice issues, from the death of Eric Garner in “Say What”–in which she sings “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe/ I am gray/ I hold my sorrow back/ For my own child born black”–to the as-of-yet unreleased “Mama So Mad!” Written in reaction to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Nova intended the song to be in the vein of “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone–one of Nova’s clearest influences. Instead, the sincerity of her delivery and musical clarity of the band–in trio formation–was devoid of partisan politics and made a subtle appeal for empathy.
Some of the most impressive performances that took place the following day, Friday, March 24th, were in The Square Room, an unassuming space in the back of the Café 4 restaurant in Knoxville’s Market Square. In the afternoon, guitarist Gyan Riley–son of legendary minimalist composer Terry Riley–enchanted audiences with the tender lyricism and technical mastery of his instrument. Amidst the flurry of his fingers, it was the intricacy of the rhythmic pulse hidden in Riley’s syncopations that made the magic happen. It was the kind of concert I wish I could have heard twice, in order to catch all the virtuosic nuances. Riley was the architect of a stunning set, combining classical guitar foundation and folk music filigree.
Late into the evening, violin soloist Yuki Numata Resnick delighted The Square Room audience with a brilliant set of movements from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1 in B Minor interspersed with contemporary works by Caleb Burhans, Andrew Greenwald, Clara Iannotta, and Matt Marks. In Resnick’s interpretation of Bach, her tone achieved unity in spite of dichotomy–incisive yet rich, mournful yet resilient. The fourth movement in particular revealed the depth of the violinist’s skill. The speed and dexterity, the effortless deluge of notes were nothing short of breathtaking.
Resnick’s performance of Iannotta’s Dad Wasps in the Jam-jar provided about as stark a contrast as possible, with the slow screeching of the bow against the strings producing an avant-garde air that was both exceedingly tactile and inherently ephemeral. The most whimsical piece of the night was undoubtedly Trunket’s Sarabande by Marks, in which, while playing, Resnick narrated a story about an intelligent if somewhat antisocial inventor monkey living in the town of Saltine. In this impressive display of multitasking, Resnick proved to be an engaging storyteller as well as a phenomenal musician.