This past Spring Break, seven Rock Show DJs ventured into the heart of Knoxville, TN for Big Ears music festival. Check out these recaps of their experiences!
Kronos Quartet: 40 Canons with Bryce Dessner
The official Big Ears schedule for Sunday early afternoon told us to expect Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq at The Square Room, so when Bryce Dessner walked on stage instead, a large portion of the crowd was genuinely surprised. It took us all a minute to accept the fact that we were about to watch a meticulously composed arrangement rather than a visceral, bodily performance. Despite the initial shock, I was enthusiastic about seeing Dessner.
The first piece sounded disappointingly like a string quartet covering a National song, but other pieces ventured into territories not explored on any National record. While his compositional style still shone through in his use of repetitious phrases and a minimalism-inspired climatic song structure, ‘40 canons’ showed a playful side of Dessner usually masked by the sombre vibes of The National. Dessner joined the quartet on stage with his guitar to play this piece. The five of them exchanged shy smiles of friendship throughout the show. This was quite a charming performance. -JPM
Terry Riley with Gyan Riley & Tracy Silverman
Time was short on Sunday, so our final hours were carefully planned out: we’d catch the first 30 minutes of Kronos Quartet’s intimate performance with Tanya Tagaq at the Standard–those of us who missed Tagaq’s mind-boggling solo show on Saturday were eager to see what we were missing–before travelling swiftly across town to witness the rare talents of composer and legend Terry Riley.
Riley was scheduled for a two hour set from 4pm to 6pm at the Knoxville Museum of Art. With a strict departure time of 5pm and a ten hour drive ahead, our schedule was tight and anticipation was high. Of course, Kronos pulled a fast one at the last minute and switched the ordering of their set times without announcement: it became clear as they took the stage that Bryce Dessner would join the quartet for the first half, and Tagaq would follow.
If our intuitions were correct, Tagaq and Riley now filled directly conflicting time slots. And as the final notes of Dessner and Kronos resounded through the auditorium, the seven of us were confronted with an existential crisis: Riley’s performance would begin in minutes, Kronos had exited stage temporarily (with Tagaq’s presence still uncertain), and our departure time loomed ever nearer. Which performance to attend?
This was a question to be individually determined, of course, and the consensus was split. I concluded that Riley would probably pass away before I had the opportunity to see him perform again. Intrigued as I was by Tagaq’s throat singing, I have a history with Riley’s music and infinite admiration for his influential work. I scurried over to the KMA with Stephen and Jenna while the rest waited for Kronos to reappear with Tagaq.
Gentle cycles of piano, guitar, and violin washed over us as we entered the museum. We descended into a cavernous hall, towards the sound source, and I felt comforted by the familiar minimalism cascading down the stairs with us. A shiver flowed through my body as we approached the stage. Riley sat at the piano clad in a tunic, vest, Taqiyah cap, and his ever-magnificent beard. The audience was composed primarily of older folks and more children than we had seen all weekend, but the overall turnout was surprisingly sparse. Listeners sat quietly at the foot of the stage, some standing in the back or on the sides, dispersed loosely throughout the space. As we took a seat on the floor and settled into the present moment, my extremities tingled with mixed emotion–an effect I sometimes experience when listening to Riley’s compositions. Piano riffs meandered meaningfully over the walls and back over themselves and I was enveloped in sound. I closed my eyes. Lost in relaxed concentration, I didn’t notice the tingling sensation migrate from my extremities to my throat and up into my head until it began seeping out of my eyes. All the memories and mindsets I’ve come to associate with Riley’s music struggled to the surface, fighting for air, and I drifted with them on a conceptual journey through the soundscapes.
The first movement drew to a close. I dried my eyes as Riley introduced his colleagues, including his son, Gyan, on guitar. When it came time to introduce himself, he concluded: “And I’m an old man,” with a soft-spoken chuckle. Riley briefly spoke about the next piece, a movement inspired by the California desert, as the three musicians settled into their places. A drone creeped warily into the atmosphere. Riley lifted his left hand and began chanting in the tradition of classical Indian music, letting his fingers rise and fall and tremble with the vibrations. Again enveloped in the moment, I bowed my head and prepared to float through time indefinitely, obediently following the trace of Riley’s rasping voice–I had no idea how long the movement would last, but it didn’t matter. I had reached a rare and temporary state of equilibrium that resisted the intrusion of external thought. And I still haven’t fully processed it. -Maddie Higgins
Tyondai Braxton: HIVE
so many drummers. the sounds made me feel like crimes were taking place all around me. one dood played the drums like a gargoyle and it was awesome. -Jay Smith
Max Richter: The Blue Notebooks & Infra with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble
I settled into a middle seat in the balcony of the Bijou Theatre, creating precisely the same vantage point from which I watched Jonny Greenwood’s and Iannis Xenakis’s pieces performed the previous year. “Infra” confined most of the fast-paced movement up to the treble range, complemented by slowly-evolving droning harmonies and textural sounds. His pieces have the effect of confusing the listener’s perception of time by drawing attention to the dramatic foreground while subtler elements of the piece continue to evolve. I kept finding myself completely absorbed in the feeling of one moment of the piece, then suddenly, with no recollection of how it got there, I’d realize the piece had entered a different stage entirely. Richter has an interesting compositional ear that is creative at the least and downright extraterrestrial when in full force. -JPM
I’m writing this re/+/cap as if it contains a typog/+/raphic strobe light because by /+/far the most mem/+/orable sensation from F/+/rost’s show was the incessant fl/+/ickering of a collection of str/+/obes. Ben Frost’s sh/+/ow was one of t/+/he more energetic performa/+/nces of the weeke/+/nd. Frost himself coolly/+/ let the music guide his moveme/+/nts and a continual head bob rippled t/+/hrough the crowd. Frost’s fu/+/zzes, tings, and glitches some/+/times took on the persona of IDM, so/+/metimes ethereal soundscapes, and s/+/ometimes mechanical ind/+/ustrialism–most of the time all/+/ three simultaneously. Similar to his strag/+/gly yet sculpted beard, his /+/music is in many ways fr/+/ee yet structured. The quietly confide/+/nt Ben Frost is a powerf/+/ul force in the experimental elect//ronic world and it w/+/as a real pleasure to get to see him in s/+/uch an intimate ven/+/ue. -JPM
Jamie XX reminded us that WNUR knows how to shake its groove thang.
yoo this performance was WILD. probably my favorite of the weekend. I wasn’t sure if Tanya was an exorcist or an exorcisee or somewhere in between, but this set was DOWNRIGHT ANIMALISTIC. That shit was primal af. WOW. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more psychedelic performance (and I’ve seen String Cheese Incident like twice!!) Tanya’s one of the illest throat singers in the game right now. all the way turnt 10/10 -Jay Smith
Maddie had the gnarly opportunity to interview Clark! Check it out here.
Nels Cline & Norton Wisdom: Stained Radiance
My only exposure to Nels Cline before this performance was through his work with Wilco, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. We joined a seemingly aimless line that wound back into a long, narrow amphitheater with no windows. All the seats were filled, so we lined up along the stairs, one of us on each stair. Cline began the set by requesting that audience members look at painter Norton Wisdom, not at him. The duo blew us away with Cline’s seemingly effortless ability to reflect the mood and tone of Wisdom’s painting in real time. This was a “whole is bigger than the sum of its parts” situation–Cline’s strands of ambient electric guitar dictated how the audience perceived the figures spewing from the tip of Wisdom’s brush. The two had obvious chemistry with each other and with their respective media. Wisdom’s wizardry with a paint brush awed the audience, while Cline’s reflective drones tied the artwork to their hearts. A once-in-a-lifetime experience I’m feelin’ lucky to have witnessed once in my lifetime! -JPM
“Once a song has left me I want it to belong to whoever finds it”
“Everything subjective, which due to its dialectical inwardness eludes a direct form of expression, is an essential secret”
So an impasse. I thought really that Grouper’s performance suggested that she would not, could not escape the fundamental inwardness of her art and offer something readily available to the audience. I would have said that of all the artists we deem confessional, the music that is called so deeply personal, Grouper and her performance stand out in taking seriously the claim that this type of expression is necessarily not for the taking. Any attempt by Grouper to directly express the kind of really inner things she has in mind will only mislead, and the performance indicates an awareness of this difficulty. Phrases bleed into one another and sounds collapse into noise just as they become discernable. She almost hides herself on stage, sitting on the ground surrounded her gear. I thought it was stunning despite my being necessarily outside her world.
Kierkegaard describes his “knight of faith” as admirable but not comprehensible. We can watch the truly subjective person dance between infinity and materiality, but in doing so gain no knowledge of how we ourselves might emulate the motion. The direct relationship between the individual and God, or for Grouper between herself and Love, is something for which observation offers no education, as everyone must work out their salvation in radical isolation. If all of this seems ridiculous then everything is in order, because gleaning anything other than awe and mystification from the story of Abraham or a live set by Grouper is the highest of comedic paradox. Two thumbs up. -Brian Campbell
Lovely midday set in Knoxville’s Modern Art museum. Loscil provided subdued, watery vibes whilst surrounded by some sweet glass sculptures. Pleasing sub-bass tones. Heavy low pass filter. Grainy textures. Contemplative. Everything you’d want from an ambient set. It was hot. -Stephen Antonoplis
this guy’s gnarly. no better place to listen to Steve Gunn than Knoxville. Hints of Appalachia bleed through Steve’s pensive guitar licks and weathered vocals. It’s impossible to overstate how phenomenal this performance was. Fans of Kurt Vile look no further; a former Violator himself, Steve’s melancholic melodies hit at the same feels. Me and Emai got to meet Jim Jarmusch after the show which was also cool. Sweet dood, former Wildcat (meow).
These gents are righteous. Big Ears was kind of light on the traditional bands (at least traditional for me: guitar, bass, drums… discernible melodies), but Amen Dunes hit the spot and provided a nice dose of downright listenable grooves. LISTEN: you gotta listen to these guys.
Stephen interviewed Herndon! Checkout the killer feature here.