At the Big Ears Festival...

What to say about a festival that, over the course of three days, offers performances and workshops by Pauline Oliveros, The Shaking Ray Levis, The Necks, Philip Glass, Michael Gira, Dan Deacon, Neil Hamburger, Fennesz, Jon Hassell, Ned Rothenberg, Nicolas Collins and Matmos, among others? Sensory overload, to say the least. And sore feet, walking back and forth between the venues of Knoxville's downtown and "Old City" where the performances took place.

The workshops held by the Oliveros, the Shaking Rays [Dennnis Palmer and Bob Stagner], and Collins deserve special notice for allowing their participants to step away from being mere spectators. I'd attended one of Oliveros's deep-listening workshops nine years ago, at Agnes Scott College. There, sitting in a circle, each person said their name, and every other person then repeated the name, in unison, copying the person's tone, volume, and phrasing as exactly as they could. At the time, I was surprised that everyone said my name back more quietly than anyone else's. Alas, growing up entails becoming aware of your quirks, and hopefully learning to appreciate and exploit them. Now quite nonplussed by my soft voice and tendency to mumble, and indeed having adapted to the ensuing difficulty of trying to make that voice singable, I find that the task Oliveros asks of her peers this time around matches a strategy I'd used in my own recordings (
click here): slowing down one's performance of a song as much as possible (or, to be frank, as much as one would like to). We were asked to pick a popular song whose lyrics we know by heart, then to stretch out every syllable or phoneme. Never being good at memorizing others' words (or my own) I sang a portion of a song to be included on the second People Under the Sun record. The result: a semi-circle of, roughly, fifty individuals emitting quiet droning sounds, creating one whole pulsating drone that Oliveros sat quietly deep-listening to.

Collins's workshop immediately brought to mind the rare chance I had to attend a Voice Crack gig in Atlanta in 2000. Like that legendary duo and their "cracked everyday electronics," Collins likes to make electronic instruments from batteries, loudspeakers, and radios - or, rather, deconstructed radios. He gave the participants a crash course in these homemade instruments. The details would not best be described by a technologically-retarded individual like myself, but Collins has a book on the subject (Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking) that would, in an ideal world, be as common in households as automobile manuals and cook books.

On Sunday, the Shaking Rays discussed the history of their Shaking Ray Society, focusing on the difficulties of presenting Improvised music and other experimental artists in a Southeastern city of middling size like Chattanooga, their home for life. For most of the workshop though, Bob Stagner led communal drumming exercises much like he does with children and the elderly, especially those overcoming physical disabilities. "Not a drum circle!" Stagner and Palmer quickly, half-jokingly assured us almost as soon as they asked participants to come forward to form a semi-circle of bongo players. Instead, we engaged in improvisational exercises, either call-and-response or all-together, meant to foster an appreciation of every movement of the fingers and the hands, and of every sound thus produced. In short, an effective re-routing of experimentalist techniques away from the elitism often unfairly associated with them toward holistic, therapeutic concerns.

Jon Hassell and his group, Maarifa Street, presented what we could crudely called Improvised Ambient music. The subtlety and discipline required of the five musicians involved was compelling at first, but the performance soon became a chore, too bland timbrally speaking to warrant any further attention.

In contrast, The Necks [pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton, and drummer Tony Buck] exceeded my high expectations. Seeing them live, the primary role played by Buck becomes exceedingly clear. Given their emphasis on the gradual meticulous development of a few motifs, and on the repetition of elements withing these larger developments, rhythm is certainly king when it comes to The Necks. The stamina and control that Buck displayed was a marvel to behold. They nearly topped themselves the day after with a quartet performance featuring Ned Rothenberg, who'd already played a fine solo set at the festival.

Fennesz's performances, both solo and a trio with Tony Buck and David Daniell [of San Agustin, the improvising Rock trio that also played the festival], at their peak achieved piercing crescendos of beautiful noise. Buck's style especially worked well with the splinters of high-pitched digital sound we expect from Fennesz, though the solo gig stood out most of all. While one would assume that Knoxville's Bijou Theatre (where many of the festival's biggest shows took place) known its excellent acoustics, is ideal for non-electronic, or even non-amplified, sound, the chance to hear such wide-ranging dissonant sounds in a sound environment that could handle them was one neither the audience nor Fennesz wanted to pass unexploited. Thus, few complained when the encore went on too long.

Negativland, no strangers to exhaustive performances, presented a radiophonic work more than two hours long, called It's All in Your Head F M, centering around the faulty logic of monotheism, a summation of sorts of the decade now finally (thankfully) coming to a close. Before the intermission, the band's humorous side prevailed, especially when they pretended, in classic radio-play fashion, to shave off all the hair of an unfortunate monkey, to show just how similar its body is to a human's, and thus prove the theory of evolution. The second half delved into subjects more serious, and more macabre: radical Islam, suicide bombings, September 11. The snippets of observation about those forced to jump from the burning World Trade Center, especially those who did so together, to partake in their certain deaths in the company of a stranger, offered the most poignancy. But in this case remembrance of the tragic event was not used to bolster calls for war and imperialism, as has been the wont of even "liberal" Americans, but to reflect on the real solace that does help us through the near-death moments. While our fabled Christianity would tell us suicide is wrong no matter what, that one should allow the flames to engulf us as we ponder the promises of the afterlife, others know better. Overall, the variety of samples Negativland used - from the believers themselves, from observers both skeptical and sympathetic, as well as musical bits ["God Only Knows" as apparently sung by a children's choir, a perfect choice] - plus their own spoken contributions maintaining the facade of a real radio program, flowed well into the electronic sounds, which of course resemble disturbances of broadcast signals. But of the intellectual disturbances forced upon us by religious thought as well?

The Shaking Ray Levis and Neil Hamburger both found Knoxville's Pilot Light club (the city's regular spot for experimental music) to be comfy abodes. Unfortunately, since their gig was sandwiched between Fennesz and Hassell, and with the Pilot Light a considerable walk away from the Bijou, few made the trek to see the Shaking Rays on Friday night. Of the half-hour I saw, they were at their reliable best, with Dennis Palmer especially letting loose with some fine vocal performances. On Saturday night, at the same time Mr. Hamburger offered up his stand-up routine, Dan Deacon and the Baltimore Round Robin captivated the throng of kids that filled up the dance floor of the nearby Catalyst nightclub. Having heard about 10 or so different numbers from Deacon's diverse gang, then going two blocks west to join a small crowd guffawing at Hamburger's jokes, I was - perhaps needless to say - a little disoriented. Pleasantly so.

And yet, there was still on Sunday Oliveros playing her accordion through varied effects, the resulting sounds coming out of loudspeakers encircling her and the audience: the ideal set-up for listening to electro-acoustic music, yet so rarely embarked upon; the aforementioned Negativland and Necks/Ned Rothenberg concerts; a finale show featuring an unlikely double billing of Michael Gira and a trio of Fennesz with two members of Sparklehorse [remember them?]; and a closing party featuring Burning Star Core and more. These last two events I missed, driving home to Athens, Georgia, listening to Judas Priest and the automobile and the wind to try to attain the necessary decompression. Alas, it'll take a long time for me to exceed this particular listening excursion.