I’ve studied my schedule for Big Ears and begun the process of acquainting myself with the artists. There are familiar faces and sounds: Kronos Quartet serves as the glue for this year’s festival, collaborating with numerous artists through the festival. I’m somewhat familiar with Max Richter and Bill Frisell, as well as Laurie Anderson. Of course, I’m familiar with Rhiannon Giddens. But beyond that short list is a lengthy list of celebrated musicians and music with which I am not familiar.
That’s the challenge of Big Ears for me. Taking my major chord mind and wrapping it around sounds and combinations of sounds well out of my experience. But exposure to ideas challenging our understanding of our world is what art is supposed to do, right? Last night in the square room, Ashley Capps introduced the festival and David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet. He launched excitedly into a tour of sounds he loves.
He noted that when he was twelve-years-old a single chord captured his attention. In 1961 while reading a biography of Beethoven he purchased a recording of the Budapest Quartet playing a “late quartet.” Something about the way the quartet played the Eb major chord captivated his attention. He wanted to replicate that sound. He went to the Seattle Public Library, checked out the music to the piece, gathered three friends and began a quest for that sound. He said, “Everything I’ve done since comes from that.” He called it, “grounded, beautiful, human.”
He feels a connection with that chord in other sounds he loves. He took the audience on a tour of sounds he loves beginning with the sound of beetles eating a pine tree. We heard Mahalia Jackson, an elemental string recording from 1973, table harp, guttural vocalizations, an Australian recording of musicians bowing rabbit fences, an Armenian singer from 1915, barking tree frogs, an Italian noise box recording from 1913, “House of the Rising Sun” as recorded by the Everly Brothers, a Schubert improvisation which was preserved by the family without notation for 120 years, recordings of unknown sounds via numbers stations and Weddell seal sounds. Of the seal sounds he said, “I hope that one day Kronos will be able to sound like this.”
Does it sound overwhelming? It was, in a sense, but it began to give me a window through which I’ll enter this fabulous weekend of music. A member of the audience asked a question about distinctions between sounds, noise and music. He said he’d stop short of what John Cage might say – that all sounds are music. But it was clear that he hears musical possibilities in a very wide range of sound. And that’s what I’ll open my mind to this weekend. I won’t understand everything I hear. I probably won’t like everything I hear. But perhaps it will help me hear more musical possibilities in the sounds of my world. That can’t be a bad thing.
The night had one final touch of humor when an audience member asked if there was an instrument he simply didn’t like. After some hesitation, he replied, “One instrument I am prejudiced against – and it has to do with a girlfriend in high school – is the flute. It takes me back to a bad patch. Other than that, I’m pretty easy to please.”
And so the festival begins.
I should add a programming note for the blog: My systematic posting may be disrupted a bit over the next few days and it may persist for a while. I may miss a day. I may post more than once some days. With over 30 hours of music in the next three days and all the notes and photographs that will produce, I’ll be hard-pressed to sift through all the content and keep the uniformity of my regular schedule. So hang with me and I’ll try to share what I discover as quickly and as well as I’m able. I will also report live from the event on WVLZ, 1180 AM, somewhere around 4:00 PM on Saturday on the Big Knox Show.