Big Ears shifts mindset

Harold DuckettArts 865

During the first two years (2009-2010) of the Big Ears Festival, I heard a lot of musicians and music lovers around town talk about it as some strange weirdness that descended on downtown for a few days. Too strange to even think about going. Not many local people, professional musicians or otherwise, did go.


Vocalist Joan La Barbara at St. John’s Cathedral

Then, during the four-year break before Big Ears started up again in 2014, I began to hear from local people that they wished they had gone. As more and more Knoxville-area residents join the visitors coming from around the world, the sense of weirdness has been replaced with a sense of wonder at the absolutely amazing music that is made here in the scope of four days. The international musicians who come here to perform and just hang around are impressed by the creative energy, too.

Big Ears has an international reputation. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world. And music lovers around the world know all about it. This year, visitors are coming from at least 21 countries and every state except Idaho and Nebraska. Nebraska has all it can handle with weather disasters right now. Idahoans apparently still think we are too weird.

As always, this year’s festival has the enormous scope of music and ideas that have captivated festival founder Ashley Capps, whose big ears must be bigger than an elephant’s. But if I’ve noticed one thing that’s a little new this year, it’s an emphasis on the voice as an instrument. There have been amazing vocal performers in past festivals, of course. And it still requires a mind-shift to get ready to hear what can only be described as astonishingly fantastic music.

Theo Bleckmann, with his band, at the Bijou Theatre

It’s impossible to get to all of the more than 100 shows over four days, but here is a sampling from last night.

At the Knoxville Museum of Art, the jam-packed Great Hall and the big staircase, with people standing three to four deep, was treated to the almost-indescribable sounds of Roomful of Teeth, which includes their own Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, Caroline Shaw.

The four woman-four man vocal ensemble began the program with a movement from Shaw’s 2013 prize-winning a cappella piece, “Partita for 8 Voices,” a wordless piece with sounds that cover the range of human-voice capabilities.

Among the pieces they sang that did include words was “The Isle,” based on speeches of Ariel, Caliban and Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

Clockwise from bottom: Knoxville cellists Andy Bryenton, Theodore Kartal, Stacy Nickell, D. Scot Williams and Cecilia Miller rehearse with British cellist Peter Gregson, on the right. (Photo by Sean Claire)

At St. John’s Cathedral, a voice artist of a different kind, Joan La Barbara, presented her own unique sound world in a program she called “Voice Is the Original Instrument.” Sometimes with the assistance of a computer soundscape, La Barbara made sounds from just air moving across the vocal cords to squeaks, wails and luminous humming that filled the room with warm sound.

At the Bijou Theatre, Kentucky composer Rachel Grimes presented her work for orchestra, “The Way Forth,” with visual images projected above the stage. Guitarists Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan played music from their recent album. The second performance of Nashville Ballet’s wonderful “Lucy Negro Redux” was being performed at the Tennessee Theatre.

Later at the Bijou, jazz singer Theo Bleckmann and his band presented “Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush.”

Beyond all of this, there were more than 30 other shows yesterday, along with rehearsal gatherings for events the rest of the weekend, including one at local cellist D. Scot Williams’ house where five of our own professional cellists rehearsed with British cellist Peter Gregson for his Friday evening performance of his “Bach Cello Suites Recomposed.”

More information about Big Ears can be found here.

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