Big Ears Festival 2018: Pushing the Boundaries

Unlike the programming in years previous, the Big Ears 2018 lineup was particularly jazz- and Appalachian music-focused, limiting the offerings of contemporary art music or experimental-leaning pop. While the spirit of the festival encourages attendees to engage with music with which they typically might not, the new music-forward lineups of years past were missed.

Thankfully, the contemporary classical acts that were programmed this year did a great deal of work that should be celebrated. Bang on a Can All-Stars, Nief-Norf, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and others performed two or more concerts each, showcasing versatility in performing a gamut of styles in their programs.

On the evening of Saturday, March 24, Nashville-based a-cappella vocal ensemble, SONUS, gave a program in the sanctuary of the United Methodist Church. Earlier that day, SONUS joined the BOAC All-Stars to perform Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, which was both well-attended and well-received. In contrast to the experimental nature of Wolfe’s piece, SONUS’ evening concert was a more traditional choral event. Their program was ambitious, and a balanced selection of steadfast, classic pieces and trendier works, all for a-cappella choir.

SONUS’ performance style is understated and without vibrato, allowing the voices to merge into enveloping sound. The concert began with a rendition of Ola Gjeilo’s setting of Sanctus, sung from the church’s choir loft. The audience in attendance–almost surprisingly, the most diverse of the weekend so far–seemed to appreciate the voices washing over them, reveling in the near-impenetrable harmonies. Gjeilo’s composition is full of tone clusters and surprising modulations, making each cadence a bear to tune. SONUS navigated the piece with only minor intonation issues, and the sopranos brought their lines out with particular grace.

Ola Gjeilo

Ola Gjeilo

The rest of the program was sung, mostly un-memorized by the 20 (or so) member choir, from the church’s altar. Pieces included works by Rachmaninov, Lauridsen, Rutter, and Whitacre, among others. Throughout, conducting duties switched between a few choristers, and while the conducting style generally tended to lack sensitivity–and thus dynamic variation in the choir–the conductor for Blake Henson’s My Flight for Heaven coaxed a lovely, balanced color out of the voices. The composition’s many unresolved suspensions provide the basis for a shimmery sound, and on this piece, SONUS delivered a complex density of tone–it was the highlight of the concert.

Sunday, March 25, the last day of Big Ears, included programs that went late into the evening. Early in the afternoon at the Bijou Theater, however, members of the Knoxville Symphony string section, with bass-baritone Davóne Tines, pianist Michael Schachter, and the American Modern Opera Company presented Were You There. This, the most important performance of the festival, was an earthquake of a piece performed by outstanding musicians. Were You There blends modern arrangements of spirituals with baroque and contemporary art music into a stunning, theatrical work that memorializes black individuals murdered by police since 2012. While eleven of the murders are referenced in the piece, at no point is it assumed that the piece pays tribute to only those victims.

Davóne Tines performs WERE YOU HERE at Big Ears 2018

Davóne Tines performs WERE YOU HERE at Big Ears 2018–Photo by Eli Johnson Photography

Tines, a Harvard graduate with a very full schedule, has a big, rich bass-baritone instrument that is at once weighty and ethereal, buttery and assertive. Unafraid of committing to the emotion of the piece, Tines let his gentle face contort in pain without a bit of tension in the voice. At times, the bass-baritone interacted with the minimalist set pieces: notably, ten light bulbs arranged in a wide circle, hanging from the Bijou’s fly system and hovering just above Tine’s head. The lightbulbs symbolized ten of the murdered victims, and the eleventh victim referenced in Were You There was Stephon Clark, who was shot and killed by police on March 18, 2018–just before Big Ears began. Tragically, this work remains relevant week after week. It poignantly demands that its audience acknowledge their own participation in police brutality by ending with a somber sing along of Amazing Grace. With hope, the Were You There will meaningfully remain with its Big Ears audience.

In stark contrast, on Sunday evening, Peter Evans Ensemble presented an intimate, hour-long program of riotous, experimental free-jazz at the Standard, a smallish venue. The audience, the most diverse in demographics seen at Big Ears 2018, was eager with anticipation, but for what, exactly, was unclear. Evans, a trumpeter and member of the ICE, and his ensemble, made up of percussion, live electronics, violin, bass, piano/synthesizer, and brass made heavy use of improvisation during their exciting, through-composed piece.

Peter Evans

Peter Evans

The set started with a flurry of percussion, the musician sounding every instrument in his arsenal (including a big gong), and the Peter Evans Ensemble were off. The piece spread in countless but controlled directions: sometimes each musician played their own musical lines simultaneously in a dense cacophony. Other times the texture reduced to a solo–a somber trumpet, a percussive bass. Peter Evans Ensemble explored every combination of instruments possible, weaving and oscillating among each other. Even in sonic discord, the expert musicians played with unwavering unity, a testament to the seeming, collective goal to push the boundaries of sound and genre.

Big Ears 2018 was very largely another success for the ambitious festival. The meticulously-scheduled performances went smoothly and were engineered well, and surely there will be repeat festival-goers in years to come. With hope, the future programming will strive to attract a wider audience, so that diverse musical acts will be represented in diverse spectators, as well.