Friday, March 19, 2010

Ruminations on Big Ears 2010

Posted By on Fri, Mar 19, 2010 at 6:04 AM

By Omar Khalid

click to enlarge Terry Riley
  • Terry Riley

When the preliminary schedule for the 2010 Big Ears festival was announced late last year, more than a few negative reactions popped up on their Facebook page questioning the avant-garde credibility of the fledgling festival. In its second year, Big Ears curators had quite a task following up 2009's stellar line-up including Antony & the Johnsons, Michael Gira (Swans), Negativeland, Fennesz, Matmos, Jon Hassell, Dan Deacon, Burning Star Core, and many other acts lying outside the boundaries of mainstream music.

While the early version of this year's line-up featured such experimental powerhouses as Godfather of drone Terry Riley and Dutch punk experimentalists The Ex, the inclusion of other acts, such as ultra popular Vampire Weekend, seemed to dull the edge of the previous year's sharp adventurousness. Some fans – myself included - eagerly awaiting some kind of fantasy bill of out music were asking, 'Where's the improv? Where's the electronic? Where's the noise? What happened to the exciting schedule from 2009?'

Well, months later, with the expanded schedule boasting many more acts of incredible musical diversity, those hypothetical questions seem to have been answered in typically dynamic Big Ears fashion. At this point, the schedule for 2010 may be even more encompassing and eclectic than that from 2009. Overall, the acts may lie a little closer to the perimeter of mainstream music, but the spectrum of out-approved genres and styles is still well-covered. There is simply more from which to chose.

Representing the field of electronic music, Tim Hecker, Ben Frost, William Basinski, and DJ/Rupture now grace the schedule, with all performing on multiple occasions in various configurations. For those with an interest in Throbbing Gristle or Panasonic, Ben Frost will be of interest. His recent release “By the Throat” pulsates and soars over dour soundscapes, landing in the favor of reviewers from BBC, Pitchfork, and The WIRE. And the level of genre incorporation part-time WFMU maestro DJ/Rupture employs can only be described as “mind-blowing.” His solo set as well as his odd, but fluid collaboration with The Ex guitarist Andy Moor should be among the highlights of the festival. Other notables should include the Bang on a Can All-stars' performances of Terry Riley's epic In C composition and Brian Eno's Music for Airports, as well as the collaboration between Chattanooga's own Shaking Ray Levis and Shelley Hirsch, an improviser capable of covering the widest possible range for a human voice.

Perhaps it's cliché to write, but there really is something for everyone at Big Ears. Personally, I'm only interested in approximately half of the music being presented, but I still won't be able to see everything I want. That's how vibrantly active the schedule is. At some points during the weekend of March 26-28, as many as four shows of varying musical styles will take place simultaneously, with the biggest draws taking place at the beautiful Tennessee Theatre (akin to Atlanta's Fox) and Bijou Theatre. So it literally is possible for festival-goers with very little if anything in common with their musical tastes to co-exist here. Ultimately, the discussion of what kind of music festival is Big Ears trying to be is rendered irrelevant by the level of collaboration and discovery encouraged by its organizers. Not only are one-time-only pairings being presented, but in the case of Artist-in-Residence Terry Riley, festival-goers will have the opportunity to experience his talents in four different settings including a rare chance to see him playing a fully operational pipe organ at the University of Tennessee's Cox Auditorium.

In my review of last years Big Ears festival, I gushed over how perfect the festival was for the city of Knoxville, and as a geezer for convenience, I don't mind doing so again. With the exception of two shows during the full weekend, over forty others take place at five venues within a half mile radius, which also includes plenty of bars and restaurants for periodic stops for non-audio-visual-related nourishment. It's just easy to have a good time here. While it's true that I am one of a few who would like to see more improv/free jazz-related acts at the festival (cheers to organizers for adding supreme improvising trio Konk Pack last minute, by the way), I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited.

(Photo of Terry Riley courtesy The Daily Swarm)

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