Big Ears, Big Sounds

Day 1: First of much to come

Went downtown to check in, where they had some neat gadgets on display and for interaction. One a VR-CAD program, where the user could build in, interact with, and compose music using this 3D interface similar to Minecraft or the like; the other a motion sensing jam and instrument rack, to better visualize and freely interact with music composition. Grabbed some tapas and beer in Market Square and we’re ready to catch the first show.



What a phenomenal performance for us to kick off the weekend. Starting with a dull roar, growing, building, warping into a deafening screech of guitar feedback and low-end rumble. Seamlessly transitioning into a piano ballad, soaring with rich vocals and harmonies, kicking in with the distorted guitars to complement. At one point, I closed my eyes and drifted…upwards, slowly at first, then rocketing up to the heavens, but all just to come plummeting down and through to the earth’s fiery core, embracing its force and raw power, arms outstretched.

Olivia Cheney

Hailing from across the pond, the brit’s songs are classic, soulful, and melodic, accompanied by simply a violinist at the Bijou Theater. Subtly lit and center stage, Olivia belts out her heart in each word, bearing her remorseful self into the Ears of the audience.


The Gloaming

Also from the UK, this quintet does modern takes on old Irish Gaelic tales, as well as jigs (jams songs) and ballads of their own diction. Pianist Thomas Bartlett wouldn’t be still, moved by the music and emotion he would put into the keys. Violinist Caoimhim O Raghallaigh, Fiddler Marin Hayes, Dennis Cahill on guitar, and Iarla O Lionaird with vocals round out the music that seemed to bring you directly to a lush green hillside, sheep meandering about, and then to surround a communal fire, families gathered, reminiscing and bonding.

Yo la Tengo

Being the least familiar with this group incited interest for this final show of my night. Known far as an influential Indie band, they amassed a full house at the Mill and Mine and presented back a full stage, guests included; Bryce Dessner, Flutist in the Sun Ra Arkestra, harpist Mary Lattimore, and pianist of The Necks Chris Abrahams. Together, they added to what at points became a wall of sound. Expecting more of a show of known track, the audience was shown a long, droning, harmonics driven, seemingly uncoordinated 40 some minute playing session Taking a day to really reflect because I think it was lost on me at first, it seemed like they took some advice to heart. The guitarist conveyed that the trio had been approached, and told they could be walking into a venue where everyone would know what to expect. So they tried something unexpected. Taking these words and running off the cliffs of Dover with it, they took a performance and turned the commentary on its ass, begging a very casual listener to perhaps open their ears and minds eyes, to see that not all music shall be linear, cut and dry, and immediately pleasing to everyone.

Day 2- Dive Back In

Marc Ribot

Actually most pleased with this man’s venue. An old church, this smaller building, almost like a light on a hill, was lined inside with wooden chairs and pews, stained glass windows letting the noonday sun to beam through to the sole guitarist center stage. Opening with beautifully played classical pieces, one might mistake their locale as amongst the Italian countryside, or a century past in the southwest US, sitting on a battered wooden porch listening to the ‘old man storytelling.’ Then Mr. Ribot introduced his own music, bringing his electric, breaking balloons with his feet, and warping conventional ideas of a one-man guitar performance.

Lou Reed’s Drones

Set at the Standard, but transformed into a meditation chamber, the echoes of Lou himself were onstage, several of his old aces were set just so, and his tech would place and alter them just so, in a droning yet soothing guitar feedback loop. What felt like 15 minutes only, ended up being an hour, after I had drifted through the cosmos to the sound of harmonies, and sweeping crunches and squeals. I would first come to Mercury, chaotic and dense, passing and circling each planet and heavenly body on my way outwards from the Sun, as the sound would encompass my entirety.

Anthony Braxton 12+1tet

Known for decades as an innovator of jazz musicianship, Braxton would take the audience to a whole new existence of avant-garde jazz. Combining the sound of several saxophones, trumpets, French horn, dual guitars, bass, cell, and xylophone the group would flutter from sound to sound, rhythm to rhythm. Braxton would conduct at certain points, and keep the band in line, but letting the audience travel to a headspace that, like the music being performed, lay outside the normal parameters of what combinations of simple jazz instruments can become.

Hieroglyphic Being and Marshall Allen

I had almost no point of reference for these two performers coming in. Hieroglyphic Being; Chicago native and club/underground rave legend of the past decade or so, his beats were unique and spacey, but pulsing at the same time. Marshall Allen; current leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra and legendary saxist, Allen would vehemently sweep his fingers across the sac, stroking it in a way that made me think of the 60s or 70s, where stage presence was to be loud and sexy, but in a non-deplored manner. His motions could not distract from his actual playing, though, rising high in pitch, haunting and howling alongside a future-set beat.

Shabazz Palaces

Representing an all-too-underappreciated hip-hop scene at Big Ears, this duo came out with gusto. Initiating their own beats with their hand crafted accent sounds, their songs were both accessible and unique for those who would intently listen. I was only able to stay for about half the set, however, on my way to Andrew Bird.

Andrew Bird

Performing in the classic Tennessee Theater, Bird came out with his fiddle on fire, sowing his works all at once soulful and intricate. Using a looper pedal, a backing band, and a light set that torched even the upper deck, Andrew belted his heart out, giving us a good in-depth look at some memoirs of his life. Touching on subjects of hope, love and love lost, and even existential breakdowns in a CostCo, his music drove into the crowd.


From the high hills of desert Morocco, this guitar virtuoso was only here to spread his love for the music he makes, to play to unite the souls around him. With jumping middle-east beats, and a guitar style that could be compared to none I know, touched on subjects of community, folklore, and personal growth and union, the language divide fell apart and the Mine and Mill was wholehearted into the music’s embrace.


Nicolas Jaar

Last show of the night, and one of our collective favorite artists of the weekend, Jaar comes out and immediately goes out of sight, behind his stand, amid huge outpours of smoke, yet a single white light pierces the air. The sound of our own cheering and whooping, perhaps unnoticed by the majority, were warped and played back at us. Long, slow, heavy builds gave way to bouncing backdrops and atmospherics, until the bass kicks in, saturated with low-end, as well as industrial textures. More Smoke Please! To capture the lights that follow, cascading around the performer, one would look up and perspective was lost, as if to touch the light one would have to be inter-dimensional. Thematically drifting to the deconstruction of the conventional club scene, samples about the founding of our country on death, and the disillusioned individuals of our time.

Day 3- It’s Saturday!

Veils and Vesper

Have you ever started your morning in complete serenity? Go into the Sanctuary, an old church in old Knoxville, hear the harmonies of John Luther Adams’ piece Veils and Vesper, and let every other detail of the world outside be washed away. The installation as a free roaming audio environment let each individual hear a unique version of this piece, as several speakers laid around the lower church level emphasized different aspects of his complex, yet serene music.

Phantom Orchard

The pair known as Phantom Orchards are Ikue Mori, effects specialist in this particular duo, with likenesses to Bjork et al; and Zeena Parkins an experimental, part organic/part electric harpist. Using placements of fingers, and sounds of otherworldly escape, this duo has changed the structure of harp musicianship.

The Necks

Australian jazz trio, The Necks comprise of pianist Chris Abrahams, drummer Tony Buck, and bassist Lloyd Swanton, and eschew the conventional description of jazz, playing repetitively but evolving and complex, entrancing the listener to feel as if they have spaced too long and forgot that music was playing.


Previously unscheduled trio Big|Brave came into the Tennessee Theater with a simplistic setup to start, and having little reference for their overall sound, I had nothing but curiosity. Loud and heavy, but minimal and heart-wrenching at once and throughout, vocalist Robin Wattie would wail cate-cadence from the heavy hits of toms and guitar crunches. Possibly no better opener at Big Ears for the next act, as they built into a short intense climax and ended.

Sun ((O))

How to describe perfectly the metal drone quintet Sun((O))? Epitomizes macabre perhaps; a demonic-druidic tribe maybe; or an underworld has gone blacker and turned to sounds bursting forth from even the bones inside your body. Slow motion is too hasty a descriptor, as the sounds wavered and echoed, hooded figures matched the slow, under smokescreens reminiscent of a heavy Scottish fog and dim, ethereal lights. Even the small amount of their set I did see shook every part of my mind and body.

Circuit des Yeux

Composing one of the best records of last year, Haley Fohr’s songs are haunting. Enamoring in her personal, guarded way, her lyrics would emote heavily of despair. Her use of guitar melodies, and vocal manipulations that are drenched in the feeling of a spiritual, emotional low, take the listener to the most intimate niches of () mind and heart.

Kamasi Washington

Compton-born, son of flutist Ricky Washington, sax-playing, an envisioning pure soul that is Kamasi Washington, takes the stage with a smile Ear to Ear, and a handful of jazz pioneers. Opening boldly with Change of the Guard, the songs each, in turn, might accentuate each individual, shining a spotlight onto what turned out to be more of a showcase for eight separate greats, as oppose to simply accompanying Kamasi there. The drums were precise, keys groovy, all horns sweeping and again shining, bass thumping, and vocals soaring. The set would touch on his grandmother, his take on Linus and Lucy, and speaking of how his group came together as a neighborhood family of like-minded individuals. Those who respect a person’s soul, their individual light, with an unconditional love, just happen to gather onstage for some eternally great jazz.


Day 4- Inuksuit and Home

The final day and installation of our Big Ears weekend would bring us to the Ijams Nature Center. Outside the city limits, located next to a quarry and riddled with miles and miles of trails. Finding a clearing across from said quarry would be the focal point of Inuksuit, written as a commentary about man’s exploration into the wilderness, and using inspiration from the Inuksuit’s symbols of travel and communication. Spread out among trees, bushes, on ridges and shore side, were nearly sixty percussion performers, who would seemingly communicate with far-off but adjacent players. Using deep drums, gongs, bells, woodwinds, and even air sirens, the sounds guided the listener from place to place, as if being transported to nomadic humans’ time of interest and discovery. As the piece went on, patrons were encouraged to drift along trails as they pleased, passing by increasing intensity sounds, with more frequency and duress as they went. Picturing or more feeling that the sounds were becoming passive, the listeners drew back inwards to the point of origin. As the surrounding sounds finally died down, the single piccolo was heard clear and alone to finish.


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