One thing I’ve been working on in my life over the past several years is being more disciplined with my work, hobbies and interests. Society has given us such a leisurely and nonchalant approach to [modern] music that it’s hard to treat it as anything other than filler. It plays as background noise in the supermarket, provides ambiance in the elevator, or even fills the void in between musical acts playing at a festival, which I find to be incredibly ironic. All of this allows us to enjoy music easily, but not fully. What happens if I focus in? That is a question I asked myself five years ago, and focus in I did. Curiosity is inspiration in its own right, and that was all I needed.
So began a journey to seek out that which requires great effort. It was no longer a question of asking myself if I enjoy something, but rather what did it take in order for me to enjoy that very thing—That is the enjoyment for me. I began asking how? My favorite question. There wasn’t a single tone on a synthesizer, thump of the bass or strike of a snare that would leave me satisfied if I understood it right away. Music became a puzzle for me; the longer it took to solve, the more rewarding it felt. This was a major paradigm shift in my approach to listening. It was no longer good enough to sit down and listen. The imperative was now to sit down and think. Leisure or not, what a man is able to get out of a hobby is strictly determined by the effort he is willing [and able] to put in. Nevertheless, I can’t solve it all; I’m no polymath, after all. The scope of music alone is far too much for any one man to tackle over a lifetime, but I will try.
Roughly six months ago, my friend Chris Caver asked me if I wanted to go to Big Ears Festival which is held in Knoxville, TN. The festival was founded and produced in 2009 by Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment, who also co-founded Bonnaroo. I hadn’t attended either festival, but seeing Deathprod as well as an inexhaustible list of modern avant-garde musicians on the lineup had me sold. I bought my ticket within an hour of receiving the text and marked my imaginary calendar instantly. Out of a lineup of nearly 150 musical and multimedia presentations, we attended performances by the following (in chronological order): Dave Harrington Group, My Brightest Diamond, Blonde Redhead, Gyan Riley, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Wilco, Tortoise, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Gavin Bryars Ensemble, The Magnetic Fields, Henry Grimes, Philip Jeck, Supersilent, Oliver Coates, Deathprod and Xiu Xiu.
Dave Harrington Group | The Mill & Mine
Highly melodic free improvisational/avant-prog. The group released their only album, Become Alive, in 2016 and played several extended versions of its tracks, most notably a 15+ minute version of “All I Can Do.”
My Brightest Diamond | The Bijou Theatre
Electrifying chamber pop/art pop. Shara Nova has incredibly versatile vocals and she’s from Arkansas, too. Highlights included the rousing “This Is My Hand” as an opener and the somber “I Have Never Loved Someone.”
Blonde Redhead | The Mill & Mine
Exuberant dream pop/indie rock. Blonde Redhead was probably the most unmemorable act of the entire week, which isn’t saying much given the prestige of some of the other acts. Regardless, their lush melodies are intense and the shoegaze and noise influences can’t be ignored, so I’ll give them respect for that.
Gyan Riley | The Square Room
Solo guitar. The son of progressive electronic powerhouse Terry Riley pieced together some very flexible, flowing guitar and had a great sense of humor to complement it.
Jóhann Jóhannsson, American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Theatre of Voices | The Mill & Mine
Modern classical/drone. Conducted by Donato Cabrera, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and Theatre of Voices performed Jóhann Jóhannsson’s 2015 composition Drone Mass, which is based off of a manuscript found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Jóhannsson’s interpretation of the wordless drone piece was contemplative and solemn.
Wilco | Tennesse Theatre
My second time seeing the acclaimed alt-country/indie rock/alt rock band, with my first time being at the Arkansas Music Pavilion in 2012. Wilco’s set list was invigorating and included seven tracks from 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Wilco’s last two albums were two unmemorable blips on their otherwise remarkable timeline, so it was good to see a more refreshing set, even if just for nostalgia alone. We had to cut out early in order to make Tortoise in time and a later conversation with someone mentioned that I missed an extended version of “Spiders,” which was not performed in its entirety the first time round. Oh well.
Tortoise | The Mill & Mine
Medicinal post-rock/math rock. I’ve always revered Tortoise for the laid back, groovy vibes of TNT, but this performance really highlighted the duality of precision and improvisation that I had overlooked in my thousands of listens leading up to it. Highlights for me were the relaxing “The Suspension Bridge at Iguazú Falls” and the maddeningly claustrophobic “Shake Hands With Danger.” Tortoise is imperative for anyone looking to check into the heart of post-rock’s formative years.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius | St. John’s Cathedral
Lethargic ambient/modern classical. Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ performance was the first one that I was tempted to close my eyes at, and that is a massive compliment seeing as it started at 2 p.m. and I had just had a large coffee. Roedelius lit up the beautiful St. John’s Cathedral with lush, alluring electronic atmosphere that was interluded with graceful, meandering piano melodies. As the music faded out for the final time, tears streamed down his face as he brought one more performance to an end. The audience erupted. Few musical journeys have been as far-reaching or eclectic as Roedelius’ career has, and at the tender age of 82, those tears have been earned.
Gavin Bryars Ensemble | St. John’s Cathedral
Minimalism/modern classical. Gavin Bryars performs a level of classical music that is lightyears beyond my own wisdom, but serves as a sobering reminder of just how far we all have to go.
The Magnetic Fields | Tennessee Theatre
I walked in about halfway through this performance (cut short by both the end of the Gavin Bryars Ensemble and the start of Henry Grimes) and caught three tracks. My tastes still aren’t attuned to the likes of indie rock, but 69 Love Songs still has a few highlights. Honestly, the least stomachable portion of this band for me is frontman Stephin Merritt, so it makes sense that all of the tracks I like by them don’t include the monotony of his vocals.
Henry Grimes | Bijou Theatre
Free jazz. Seeing Henry Grimes was sublime given how little I knew about him going in. After building up a solid reputation over the 50s and 60s, Grimes moved to San Francisco and was presumed dead for over four decades. In 2002, he was discovered by a social worker who promptly returned him to the jazz scene. Grimes suffers from Parkinson’s but remains incredibly dexterous despite the harsh debilitation of the disease.
Philip Jeck | The Square Room
Ethereal turntable music/ambient. Jeck’s performance was strongly reminiscent of one of my favorite acts in ambient music, Troum. Jeck utilized two cheap turntables and a synth in order to create a beautiful, soaring atmosphere with fuzzy static that gave the performance an incredible jolt of energy.
Supersilent | Bijou Theatre
EAI/ambient/electronic. Supersilent’s esoteric music is anything but silent. The volume alone was enough to make your ears ring, but the improvisational element made it face-melting.
Oliver Coates | The Mill & Mine
Avant-garde cello. Oliver Coates pays a massive amount of respect to classical cellists and recent avant-garde composers. His most interesting piece was entitled “Song for Losers” by an Andrew Hamilton, neither of which have I been able to locate since the festival ended. The sheer discipline and respect he gives to his instrument are nothing short of remarkable.
Deathprod | Tennessee Theatre
Dark ambient/drone. My arrival at Big Ears 2017 is owed to Helge Sten AKA Deathprod. His 2004 album Morals and Dogma resides near the top of my favorite albums of all-time and his brooding atmosphere carries with it some incredible psychological weight. So many people are put off by music of this nature, but I live for it. Deathprod’s performance began with the opener from Morals and Dogma, “Tron,” before fading to nothing. As the audience yearned for applause, Deathprod hit us with the noisy blowout that begins “Treetop Drive Part 2” from 1994’s Treetop Drive 1-3, Towboat, a song that showcases the duality of a loud, white noise blowout with a low, ground-shaking bass. The volume was pushed to its abolute limit and so was the audience, but not a single person moved. Deathprod’s atmosphere breeds musical subservience.
Xiu Xiu | The Mill & Mine
Experimental rock. Xiu Xiu’s music is so varied it’s hard to determine what classification it exclusively falls under. When I think about talent versus creativity, I typically believe that a group must first be talented before they can be creative, but Xiu Xiu has flipped that concept, conceiving diverse and innovative rock music for over a decade that continues to reach new heights, but is not afraid to slow down.
I was a little hesitant about going to a music festival at first, given the negative reputations of some of the larger ones, but Big Ears was incredible. The amount of dedication each musician has for their work and the respect the audience was willing to give them was nothing short of consummate professionalism.
See you next year, Knoxville.