7 Big Ears Performances That Blew Our Minds

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Team 3A recently spent an unforgettable four days at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN, where we soaked up music from almost every imaginable genre—contemporary classical, electronic, English space rock, bluegrass, jazz, and world music, to name a few.

The place was teeming with some of our favorite musical friends. We had a great time eating fried pickles with Caroline Shaw, Brad Wells, Jonathan McCargar, and Sarah Brailey of Roomful of Teeth; caught a flight with Sean Connors from Third Coast Percussion, and read tarot cards with violist Wendy Richman from ICE and The Rhythm Method.

Big Ears is the manic pixie dream girl of festivals, pulling you in every direction with a half-dozen shows you’re dying to see overlapping at every moment between noon and midnight. There’s a freedom born of necessity, as people attend portions of shows and then race across downtown to catch some of the next show on their list. A few times I ended up in three shows over the course of an hour. You love some, you hate some, and as my flute teacher Michel Debost used to say, “You learn at least as much from the performances you hate as the ones you love.”

But the ones we loved, we LOVED. Fiery inspiration flowed all weekend, and I can’t wait to share with you some of our favorite shows. Spoiler alert: many of them were surprises to us. Here are seven acts that left us raving (in no particular order, except for #1):

  1. Triptych (Eyes of One Another), featuring Roomful of Teeth, composed by Bryce Dessner.

I’ll let you read the long version in this excellent article from the LA Times. The short version is that Triptych is an oratorio based on controversial American photographer Robert Mappelthorpe, whose works depicting homoeroticism and sadomasochism set off a firestorm a few decades ago about art, pornography, and censorship. The performance included a screen artfully interweaving his photographs and the libretto at a varying pace and with one starkly shocking shift to a gleaming white emptiness (or fullness?). The images were part of the somewhat unrelenting pace of the work; while the tempo wasn’t necessarily fast, the piece was so constantly engaging and had such momentum that I found myself enthralled from the opening notes—a very Monteverdi intro sung with spotless intonation—to the end. To Roomful of Teeth and Dessner’s credit, the blend was perfect throughout while each vocalist’s uniqueness came through. One of the vocalists was so overcome at one point that he took an extended pause before a solo section, gathering himself silently in what was one of the most breathtaking moments of the show. If you can see Triptych anywhere anytime, DO.


2. Peter Gregson: Bach: The Cello Suites Recomposed

The video below speaks to the imagination contained within the double bars of Peter Gregson’s reimagined Bach, which took the well-known Cello Suites into the 21st century. My main takeaway from this performance, besides just reveling in the beauty and originality, is that no matter how distant the treatment of a recomposed work, an audience member can feel the reverence when an artist deeply loves the original material. The melodies were present, as was the affection for these timeless works. There is nothing better in the morning than tea, a croissant, and Cello Suites, and these will make a fun substitute to spice up Sunday brunches.


3. Mosaic Interactive:

I don’t even know where to begin with this three-act work of beauty and joy. 3A Executive Director Lisa Volle and I had been planning to attend the first act and then check out something else. We made eye contact at one point and it was clear we weren’t going anywhere. Mosaic is a creation of found sound nation and brings together a team of artists from Morocco, Kurdistan, Indonesia, West Virginia, and New York in a suite of interdisciplinary works that are everything good in humanity. Hearing the music of these different lands interweave so that each nation’s influence was always clear but the sum was greater than its parts took our breath away. There was palpable adoration and respect between the two front men—Ben Townsend (fiddle, banjo, and voice) of West Virginia and Mehdi Nassouli (guembri and voice) of Morocco. Peni Candra Rini of Indonesia stole the show with her unbelievable vocals and elegant movements—think an Indonesian version of The Fifth Element. This, too, is a must-see.


4. Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones

I almost didn’t attend this performance because Saturday afternoon I was hitting the wall, but the recent education into Hindustani music that I received programming and performing Third Angle’s Indian Music Now concert had left me hungry to learn more about Carnatic music. Elder Ones is led by Amirtha Kidambi and influenced by her experience with Carnatic music. The group includes four kickass musicians on vocals, harmonium, soprano sax, bass, percussion, and synthesizer. Giovanni Russonello of the NY Times said about them, “Sometimes the eye of a storm can draw upon the chaos around it, taking on its energy and consolidating it for use. Something like that is going on in Elder Ones…” They played with the intensity of four whirling Tasmanian devils and absolutely mad talent, which was delightfully juxtaposed with the stone St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in which they performed. I would have stayed for the full concert, but it was so loud—so, SO loud. I was honestly a little devastated to leave, so just bring some heavy-duty earplugs and get yourself to a show.


5. Carla Kihlstedt with ICE

I’ve been a fan of Carla Kihlstedt since the days of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. In her latest show with the famed International Contemporary Ensemble, she’s gone gentler and more acoustic, with a Bjork-meets-Kate Havnevik-meets-violin vibe. This performance of her 2013 piece At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire, created as part of the ICElab commissioning program, delved into the dreams of herself and ICE members. It was equally dreamy for the audience.


I would have loved to drift off to sleep after this concert, but Bill Frisell and The Mesmerists were coming up (and probably should be on the list), and one of my favorite surprises of the festival happened between those shows—Chris Eldridge from Punch Brothers’ live score to an old Fatty Arbuckle movie that had me in stitches. That should probably be on the list, too. I should have made this a longer list…

6. Tatsuya Nakatani

Tatsuya Nakatani’s website describes him as “an avant-garde sound artist, composer, and master percussionist. Utilizing his adapted bowed gong, drums, cymbals, singing bowls, metal objects and bells, as well as various sticks, kitchen tools, and his breath…his approach is steeped in the sensibilities of free improvisation, experimental music, jazz, metal and noise, and yet retains the sense of space and quiet beauty found in traditional Japanese folk music.”

Space and beauty, yes, but I wouldn’t say quiet, since the 30-minute improvisation ended when he’d repeatedly hit the gong so hard it was falling off its stand. It was an intriguing concert, though, for sure. The acoustic at the venue, The Pilot Light, was the nicest at the festival—warm and clear at the same time—but it was a standing-only rock club setup, and I couldn’t see a thing. I know he had gongs and bows. Beyond that? No idea. But whatever invisible percussion he was using, he was like a man possessed, creating a constantly oscillating set of colorful and unique sounds. He was also absolutely drenched with sweat by the end. It was already a great show, and he definitely gets bonus points for physical exertion.


7. Mountain Man

I missed this show, but Lisa was totally blown away by this three-woman group. Their sound was pure, perfectly in tune, raw, simple—what society is craving right now given the state of the state. They were authentic, ethereal; she loved their original songs, lyrics, and voice control. I watched some videos myself when we got back to PDX, and they remind me a bit of and updated version of The Wailin’ Jennys with more hipster cred.


The best news about Mountain Man is that you can check them out live in Portland this summer at Pickathon! I’d bet you good money Lisa will be there.

Third Angle