(This final article in our Big Ears coverage is by guest writer Luke Frazier who experienced his first Big Ears as a volunteer.)
Additional Big Ears 2023 Coverage:
Big Ears 2023: Many Rivers to Cross
Big Ears 2023: Emerging From the Other Side
Big Ears Festival and the People Who Love It
I decided to volunteer at the Big Ears Festival (BE), figuring I would meet some people and maybe get exposed to new music. Since moving here last Fall, BE had been mentioned a couple of times by people in casual conversation, and I had definitely picked up on the mystique surrounding it. It was described as eclectic, challenging, conceptual . . . almost like it was something that had sharp edges and needed to be handled carefully. Evidently there was an Avant Garde and “new music” element, soundscapes and such, along with the more straightforward musical acts. Cultural significance seemed a theme.
My intellectual pretension meter went on alert, but the truth is I carry my own baggage in that regard. I decided to just take it at face value—music and art—and welcome whatever I ended up seeing and listening to as a result of any random volunteer assignment. I just didn’t expect to have my mind blown and heart touched by an ambient sound artist who looked like a soccer mom in conservative work clothes.
The artist in question is Lesley Flanigan. The BE program identifies her as a New York sound artist, vocalist, and composer who has, “spent her career exploring liminal spaces of music making.” I first laid eyes on her when an SUV pulled up to the curb outside the Old City Performing Arts Center shortly before 9 pm on Friday night. She hopped out with two kids and a husband in tow, popping the back hatch to unload equipment (which ended up including handcrafted wooden speakers she builds and uses in her performance). In my volunteer role I connected her to the onsite BE representative for the official greeting. She thought she was there to set up right then, but there was a musical act before her own set, so she and family were escorted to the green room.
Soon it was time for the sound check. Lesley’s husband was busy setting up a camera and her 10-ish year old daughter read a book while sitting in the front row. Her slightly younger brother explored the stage. Lesley worked with the sound engineers to get things right, she set up her mixer and speakers and asked for more master volume. The sound check gave me a clue, but I still wasn’t prepared when the lights went down and she began. I was transfixed from the get go.
I guess one way to put it is to ask this question, “When does a rush of rumbling, grating, harmonic distortion with a bit of menace sound like a wave of meaning and clarification of essential life truths worthy of reflection and ingestion?” Answer: when Lesley Flanigan sits on stage in a spotlight, surrounded by homemade speakers and uses her microphone like a magic wand. She actively swings the mic in front of the different speakers to generate unique effects and beautiful, well, noise. Then when she adds her voice, look out.
Lesley sings wordless harmonies and emotes plaintive wails, loops them back over the rest of the feedback sound and the effect is enrapturing. At some point time warped and 30 minutes had passed in a blink. I was aware of the utter focus of artist and audience together, late at night, in a black box environment, traveling together through crescendos and pauses. I felt engulfed by a “this-ness,” rich moments of sound-tones that evoked random memories that somehow filled my heart with gladness. I rode along and tried to resist wanting to understand what was happening, telling myself to just take it in.
After it ended, I thanked her and finished up my volunteer responsibilities, still kind of stunned. I’ve told a few people about it since then, but find it hard to convey what happened. Maybe I should just say I got Big-Eared, and leave it at that.