There is one school of thought that maintains that the nature of music is mystical. The idea is that human beings’ development of music has no grounding in practicality, thus putting it into those nebulous categories of mystical experience. Another school of thought maintains that it mainly serves an important function as community bonding. This is undoubtedly true, though it doesn’t explain the full breadth of human musical experience. Those mystical experiences with sound still linger out there on the frontiers of our understanding, waiting to be explored.
That said, it’s easy to stay on the surface with music. You can put it on in the background at parties and listen to Top 40 radio and perhaps be blissfully and ignorantly happy. But if you’re the exploring type, there are vast worlds of sound out there to discover, new ideas and conceptions that will invite you to skate past traditional ideas of rhythm, chords, and song structure. As you dig even deeper, perhaps listening to atonal noise or ambient soundscapes, you might even discover that there is a music festival custom-made for people questioning popular definitions of music. If, like these brave sonic explorers, you have considered abandoning your concept of musical style, your stranglehold on the meanings of genre and systematical type, or merely want to get a little weird, Big Ears, the springtime music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, might just be your kind of place.
As soon as the acolytes flood into downtown Knoxville on Thursday afternoon, you can feel a noticeable change in the climate. When once there was the stale air of day to day life in a mid-sized southern city, there is now the trembling energy of vagabond musicians from all over the globe. Tumbling and steaming into the city there are South African finger pickers, heady European jazz-heads, Appalachian folk sweethearts, and hyperbolic electronica artists. Containing it all is a sleepy little southern town that has become the unlikely champion of sound experimenters everywhere.
The ethos of Big Ears is to champion music’s cutting edge. It doesn’t concern itself with labels, genres, or trends as much as it obsesses over music’s frontiers, aiming to curate a list of artists that experiment with traditional musical forms or, obversely, have become traditional experimenters in their own fringe genre. One gets a sense of this throughout the festival. Even as there are adorably pristine folk acts such as Mountain Man, there are also ear-splitting jazz experiments such as Sun of Goldfinger, or abstract meditations such as Wadada Leo Smith’s performance of “Divine Love”. Other acts glorify cultural musical traditions around the world. Kayhan Kalhor uses his kamancheh to paint yearning portraits of the scales of Iran and the Middle East even as he abandons them to collaborate with abstract modern classical modes along with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. None of this is surprising at Big Ears.
ECM records, the legendary German jazz label, had a noticeable presence at Big Ears 2019, as many of their artists were performing over the course of the weekend. This would explain the appearance of some of the label’s most venerable jazz legends, such as Carla Bley, who enchanted the audience at The Tennessee Theatre with her somewhat straightforward but curiously pastoral jazz compositions. Mainstays like Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn also made appearances at the festival, as well as the bass wunderkind Larry Grenadier, though I didn’t get a chance to see them due to the tightly packed festival schedule.
One of the ECM highlights at Big Ears was the Ralph Towner concert, which captivated the audience at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Friday afternoon. Alone with just a classical guitar on his lap, his instrumental jazz musings were just as vibrant and playful as his albums have always suggested. It was also amazing to watch Towner’s hands (larger than you’d think) move smoothly across the neck, forming chords that were hard to comprehend in the moment but which made perfect sense in his vast jazz network of associations. As a guitar player myself, it was like seeing into a whole new world of playing style.
Other ECM experiments fell a little flat. Theo Bleckmann and his interpretation of Kate Bush’s catalog was intriguing and theatrical, but lacked a certain something that was hard to place. His voice suggests something out of musical theater, which lent the music a contrived feeling even though it wasn’t that far removed from Bush’s operatic delivery. I came out of it feeling a little unimpressed, and that maybe that there was no one that could really do Kate Bush but Kate Bush herself.
Big Ears also delivered plenty of ambience to bathe in. During the droned folk sounds of Clarice Jensen, I had my first experience of disassociation with my surroundings. A giant projection of an escalator was moving right behind the artist, and as dark cello tones merged, throbbed, and swirled into cacophony, I lost a sense of my own location in space and time. The escalator in the projection could have been moving up or down, though it didn’t seem to matter. The overarching feeling was of slow, persistent change. The ambience of Jensen’s music had overtaken the space completely and trapped us all in a trance.
Later that weekend was another of Big Ears’ all night drones, which this year was named “Dreams of the Whirlwind” after a Terry Riley project. Stretching for 12 hours from midnight to noon on Sunday morning, a lengthy lineup of artists traded spots on stage amidst a constant drone, meaning that the ambience never ended once during the 12 hour stretch. The tradition of “ambient sleepovers” or “all night drones” has become an integral part of the experimental music community.
Consider being transported into this world: As you lay there on the floor, perhaps zoning out to the constant thrum of sounds, or perhaps dreaming about the girl in pinstriped pants across the floor, there is plenty of time to question your own existence, or in turn, to question the meaning of organized sound itself.
What is music anyway? Big Ears doesn’t implicitly ask this question, though all weekend long you can feel it hanging in the air, like a question that seems simple but only becomes more complicated as you dive deeper into it. As music lovers close their eyes and float away into the feeling of an organized set of tones which we call a song, scientists and rational thinkers strive to understand what the function of music is. Oliver Sacks, the great neurologist, even endeavored to writer a whole book about music’s alluring and invigorating effects on the human mind in “Musicophilia,” though in the first few pages he also confesses his own uncertainty about music’s meaning:
“What an odd thing it is to see an entire species–billions of people–playing with, listening to, meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call ‘music’.”
Spending almost ten hours a day sitting in concerts during Big Ears, I couldn’t help but hear Dr Sacks’ words in my brain. Why am I so preoccupied with tonal patterns, broken down into what we call rhythm, melody, or harmony? Why do I dwell on the timbre of each instrument, or the color of sound that it produces? As aware that Big Ears is of music’s mysterious hold on the human species, it also plays with the concept of music itself. Even as the majority of people enjoy the finely tuned sounds of a pop song, what stops the grating, atonal tones and rhythms of free jazz and noise rock from also being music? The border between the two, it seems, is more malleable than we think.
At some point a music writer has to put that question aside and work within the structures of genre and style that have been developed. There’s no point in questioning music while also trying to enjoy a music festival. Eventually this leads to other definitional losses, the whole process gaining steam until the borders of each and every thing begins to blur. At this point everything becomes transitive and temporary – relationships, ideas, art, careers, self. I allow the piano explorations of Nils Frahm to bring me back.
It’s difficult to describe Frahm as anything but a pure delight. Though I knew the artist’s music fairly well going into Big Ears, I was instantly struck by his personality and stage presence, which became clear when he pranced onto stage at the concert’s beginning, like a giddy schoolboy overtaken with joy at the chance to share his craft with others.
His stage setup was a spectacle in itself. Wires, cords, synths, pianos were all stacked on top of each other, equalizers stuffed into cabinets and openings underneath. There were enough flickering lights and moving bars of sound visible from my spot to the right of the stage that I felt constantly distracted by some new gadget or gizmo I hadn’t noticed before. At the far right end of the stage was a grand piano, multiple mics stuffed under its propped hood.
Frahm’s minimalism and Frahm’s thriving personal sound are remedies for the existential music crisis I had fallen into. Dancing and twirling around his infinite smorgasbord of instruments, he exhibits the joy of creation itself, of playing with tones and sound to his heart’s delight. Sometimes music is meaningful just because humans love to make it, finding the technical challenge and process of expression enough to sacrifice their time in music’s effort. As Frahm plays “My Friend the Forest,” I can abandon these thoughts for a few precious moments.
After any festival, it’s not surprising to be a little overstimulated, tired and wrung out from long hours of music and drinking. In practice Big Ears is no different. On Monday morning it was impossible to wrap up the festival experience in a little bow, understanding why it was important or what I had gotten out of it. But maybe that’s not necessary. I can say that music just exists, and that I was there to experience it, whatever it is.