Despite an almost impossibly diverse lineup of musical artists and styles, there was one constant theme that ran throughout my experience at Big Ears. Whether hearing violinist Yuki Numata Resnick’s awe-inducing take on Bach, the vocal dreamworks of Meredith Monk, or the intoxicating pop music of Yasmine Hamdan, I got lost in the music everywhere I went. In those moments, nothing but the sound itself mattered. What was most remarkable was the wide variety of sounds that presented this paradigm: minimalist drone; dizzying math rock; visceral, ambient noise; ethereal vocals; blistering, down-and-dirty free jazz. All extolled their own distinct virtues–and presented in both casual and formal venues, in front of attentive crowds–became their own kind of gospel truth in sonic form.
It’s difficult to attend a festival like Big Ears and not come away with a deeper appreciation for music you may have once dismissed as “not my thing.” The festival attendee is bound to happen upon something unexpected, even unsought that catches the ear and defies expectation. In that way, the festival seems to have implicitly had its desired impact. It helps to have a plan when deciding which concerts to hear, but in the end, all the preparation in the world does not account for the mystical way music can reach you in the moment. My hope is that the 2018 iteration of the festival will present a new overarching theme that captures the imagination. In the meantime, here are my top five highlights from the festival, and how I got lost:
5. Nief-Norf performing Michael Gordon’s Timber
The very first performance from this year’s festival was among the most memorable. Hometown Nief-Norf percussion ensemble took the center of the floor at The Mill & Mine, where the sextet formed a circle and promptly began playing rolls on simantras–in this case, more specifically, 2×4 wooden planks traditionally used in Eastern Orthodox church services. What followed was a powerful 60-minute meditation, in which the unrelenting drone of mallets on wood provided the listener with a kind of impenetrable and insulated space within the sound. Gordon’s use of accents proved among the most striking compositional tools in the work, as each percussionist took turns, counter-clockwise, emphasizing the syncopation embedded in the drone. The performance was an ideal palate-cleanser with which to enjoy the remainder of the festival.
Perhaps the only concert I attended in which I had no idea what I was walking into, Norwegian musician Helge Sten’s Sunday, March 26th set under his moniker Deathprod was utterly transporting. Occupying his laptop at a solitary table on the stage of the grand Tennessee Theatre, in complete darkness–save for the orange-yellow glow a single dim spotlight–Sten let loose on an hour of near-deafening ambient sounds. What I heard could be compared to what I imagine it would sound like to sit on the wing of an airplane with the engines running. The muted, rumbling bass frequencies gradually got louder and louder, until I could feel the reverberations against my body. Suddenly, shards of sharp noise resembling alarms broke through the din. Like experiencing an abyss, it was otherworldly without being ethereal. The revelation for me was not that I was hearing unusual sounds in a concert setting, but that it was like hearing a physical landscape rather than seeing it.
3. Arrington de Dionyso and Greg Saunier
In a secret show at Pilot Light on Friday, March 24th, avant-garde multi-instrumentalist and free jazz firebrand Arrington de Dionyso unleashed sonic fury on the crowd that had packed itself into the tiny venue. The Olympia, Washington based saxophonist/bassoonist was armed with a self-identified trance punk aesthetic, performing as part of his “This Saxophone Kills Fascists” tour. Imagine Charlie Parker’s lightning licks, played pissed off and on speed, filtered through the gritty prism of grunge, and you’ll get close to de Dionyso’s sound. He was joined by Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, the only musician I know who could have matched de Dionyso in intensity or intuitive improvisation. The result was messy, ecstatic, and full of life.
2. Horse Lords
The Baltimore-based drone band Horse Lords is all riff and no filler. And they were positively stunning in their Saturday, March 25th set at The Standard. With bits of jazz and prog thrown in, Horse Lords delivered the kind of cerebral, mathy rock that fans of minimalism can get behind. Not unlike Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the quartet traded in minute rhythmic changes that occurred gradually over time, amidst dazed repetition. The sound was heavy and unceasing, with sick grooves that sank into my bones.
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1. Theo Bleckmann and Ben Monder
In no other performance at Big Ears was the concept of being lost in sound more in evidence than at Theo Bleckmann and Ben Monder’s set at The Standard on the afternoon of Sunday, March 26th. Monder’s brand of dreamy, ambient shoegaze paired perfectly with Bleckmann’s vocals, which alternated between heavenly and haunting. Wafting in and then drifting way, at times his voice was the musical equivalent of smoke. Meanwhile, Monder noodled insistently, dousing a jazzy chordal vocabulary in heavy reverb. At one point, Bleckmann launched into extended vocal techniques and cartoonish effects, before gradually settling into a hazy, distortion-filled, almost alien cover of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown).” To describe this concert as enthralling doesn’t do it justice.
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