Big Ears Sets a Big Weekend

Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

I’ll admit I was a little discouraged and pretty much put the event out of my mind. I’d asked for press credentials to the Big Ears Music Festival and didn’t get a response of any kind. Sure, I knew the national media – and probably international media – would be in town, but wasn’t there room between Rolling Stone and the New York Times for your local, downtown connection? Apparently not.

So, Friday night I re-introduced myself to Urban Woman whom I had not seen very much recently. It turned out I had to work out of town all day and all evening Saturday, so Big Ears fell off my radar. Sunday shaped up to be very busy and, in fact, I’d already gotten swept up into the Knoxville Marathon (taking photographs, not running!) when I got a call that put Big Ears back on my agenda.

A friend, to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude, offered me a ticket and press pass for the final show. Billed as the culminating event of the entire festival, it featured the music of Steve Reich. I made arrangements, secured the pass and made my plans.

Steve Reich may not be a name with which many of you are familiar. It’s amazing how big someone can be in certain circles while remaining anonymous outside that arena. Steve Reich is a composer who has won both a Grammy Award and a Pulitzer Prize for music. He’s considered a major composer whose minimalist work altered the course of modern music. I had no idea.

 

I should have planned better. I thought the show started at 8:00 and as I was strolling in that direction around 7:38, I realized the show started at 7:30. How big a deal is that? Well, the rules for the festival stated that photographs could only be taken for the first fifteen minutes. I’d probably missed the window. I got to the door and learned I had not. The program had three sections and the third was the restricted one, so I’d not missed the window. That was the good news.

Jonny Greenwood, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2013

Jonny Greenwood, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Jonny Greenwood, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2013

Jonny Greenwood, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

The bad news was that photographers were given a two minute window at the beginning of that section and that was it. I took my seat and from there was able to get photographs of Jonny Greenwood, a guitar virtuoso, who used loops to layer his guitar and essentially played two songs, if I recall correctly, in about a twenty minute set.

Interior of the Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Interior of the Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Interior of the Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Interior of the Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Interior of the Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Interior of the Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

A smaller collective from musicians who would later perform the primary piece performed a selection as the second portion of the program. As their set ended, photographers began to stake their spots for the two minute burst that would follow. The stage change took thirty minutes, which gave me time to admire the Tennessee Theatre all over again. What a jewel. I’m so grateful to the people  who saved it from its neglected status. It’s always been beautiful, to me, but since the renovations and refurbishing a few years ago, it really sparkles.

Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

I also had a chance to consider the festival itself. I spoke with my friend Larry, who pointed out that he’d met people over the course of the weekend shows from Austin, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Canada, all in town just for this event. The Tennessee Theatre was packed for the final show. I listened to two gentlemen seated on the first row converse in French. The impact of such a high-profile event, lasting several days just can’t be overstated.

The featured performers took the stage and in my two minutes I got sixteen photographs. None were spectacular, but only a few were completely useless. It seems to me a policy like that only serves to assure a lot of hurried, half-done photographs of the artists will circulate. I understand the thinking, but that seems to restrictive, to me.

Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

 

A performance of a single composition comprised the entire final portion of the program. Mr. Reich’s “Music for Eighteen Musicians” featured about the number of musicians you might expect. Included were two playing baritone clarinet, one violinist, one cellist, four vocalists, six vibraphone players and four pianists. The produced a very large sound, though at times they brought the sound way down.

What kind of music did they play? Well, I’m not your best source for describing the indescribable. I’ve included a youtube video below of the entire piece as performed by a different ensemble a year ago, so you can listen, if you like – and I think you should. The parallels that presented themselves to me as I listened, which was before I’d read anything about the composer or the music, covered the spectrum. Elements of traditional classical music abutted elements of Pink Floyd – think “The Great Gig in the Sky” from “Dark Side of the Moon.” I think the vocals are what sent me there. I thought of how the repetitive riffs might be something, on different instrumentation, similar to a jam band, though the piece is not improvisational.

Through use of the various layers of the same instruments, the simple musical themes became layered with rich textures not attainable in their absence. In that way it reminded me of the production work of Phil Spector with his Wall of Sound. The superb musicians worked in perfect synchronization as the themes recurred, richer with each passage until seemingly every element, every possible tone had been deconstructed and put together again. It was exhilarating and the audience responded to the fifty-four minute composition accordingly.

Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

I could imagine that some people left the auditorium having been bored. After all, many people present had likely never heard the music and we are trained to expect a tidy three-minute pop song when we hear music. I’d bet there were many others who left declaring it to be one of the best musical experiences of their lives. I fall in between, but closer to the latter. Now that I’ve listened to the piece again, I like it even more.

Sometimes it’s not a question of whether we “like” a piece of art. Maybe the better question is whether a work leaves us changed. Does it somehow stretch what we understand or give us a window of awareness into a world with which we were unfamiliar? Does it shed a little light where there was darkness or ignorance before. On that count, I would say this concert was a very good one for me. I suspect the entire festival was that for many, many people.

Steve Reich with Musicians, Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Steve Reich with Musicians, Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Steve Reich with Musicians, Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

Steve Reich with Musicians, Music of Steve Reich, Big Ears Festival, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2014

A special thanks should go to the Aslan Foundation who made this event financially possible through a donation specifically for this purpose which was directed through the CBID. The Aslan Foundation also purchased historic Westwood as a new home for Knox Heritage, so this is a group for whom we have multiple reasons to be thankful.

Thanks also goes to Ashley Capps whose vision through Ella Guru’s to Bonaroo to Big Ears has made our city and our state a better place and helped continue the musical significance of each. Now, Ashley, about that press pass for next time . . .

Comments

  1. Danielle Roos says

    “Does it somehow stretch what we understand or give us a window of awareness into a world with which we were unfamiliar?”

    I am glad you are asking this question, and I have to say that is definitely the case with the music I experienced this weekend. Many of the performers were new to me, but Big Ears offered such a high quality of performances and music that I left the live shows feeling privileged to have gotten to be a part of them. The festival has made an impact on not only the type of music I appreciate, but also reminded me of the irreplaceable experience that live music, performed by incredibly rehearsed artists, can award.

  2. I love that piece you embedded. It reminds me very much of the orchestral compositions from the later SimCity games, composed by Jerry Martin I think. I feel almost certain that he was directly influenced by Reich.

  3. I actually couldn’t let go of this intuition so I did a little digging and found this quote from the audio director from the games. Notice the 3 big influences are the 3 headliners of each of the Big Ears.

    “With this version of SimCity, we definitely wanted to do something new while also paying respect to previous versions,” SimCity audio director Kent Jolly told Polygon. “One big influence on the music is minimalism, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley who are all composers that had a big influence on the music direction of it since SimCity 3000”

    I also found a podcast where Jerry Martin responded that the minimalism part of the soundtrack was definitely influenced by Glass and Reich.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      That settles it. You get the Good Ears Award for the day. Thanks for the digging. It makes what we just heard even more impressive – and I cannot get “Music for 18 Musicians” out of my head.

  4. Bonny Pendleton says

    “Maybe the better question is whether a work leaves us changed. Does it somehow stretch what we understand or give us a window of awareness into a world with which we were unfamiliar? Does it shed a little light where there was darkness or ignorance before.”
    What a wonderful way to view a new experience, be it music or any other endeavor, artistic or not. How much easier would it be to relate to others if we all followed this idea. Good work, Urban Guy.

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