Michael Gira / Big Ears Music Festival reviewMichael Gira hit such a despondent nadir Sunday night that he seemed to startle even himself.
During his hour-long solo set, which served as the finale for Knoxville, Tennessee's inaugural Big Ears Festival, the former Swans frontman followed his old band's tune "Failure" ("Some people live in hell/ Many bastards succeed/ But I've learned nothing/ I can't even elegantly bleed") with Angels of Light's "My Brother's Man. "No, God will never understand/ I'll crush him in my brother's hand," he screamed, locks of slick gray hair falling to the side of his face as he stomped his black leather boot against the worn black stage of Knoxville's Bijou Theatre. "I am the god of this fucking land/ I am the god of this fucking land."
"Oh, the gentle folk stylings of M. Gira," he said when the song was over, cracking a coy smile for the cheering audience. "I'm the kind of guy you invite over to your house to babysit your two-year-old daughter." As expected, Gira's set had been stern and scowling, full of references to miscreant politicians and crucifixion offerings. But after those two songs, he eased off, taking a sip of whiskey from a blue Solo cup and handing the rest of the bottle to a fan in the front row. He waved his hand and encouraged her to pass it through the crowd of 100 or so attendees. Everyone should share, he suggested, and the firewater‹12-year George Dickel whiskey, manufactured about 200 miles west of Knoxville‹eventually reached the back of the room. Even though Gira ended his set with "Sometimes I Dream I'm Hurting You", an Angels of Light song he wrote about a dream in which he stabbed his then-pregnant wife repeatedly in the stomach, things felt somehow friendlier.
Such conviviality proved to be one of Big Ears' central assets last weekend.
The first-year festival gathered two dozen fringe music performers in the surprisingly (to most festival attendees, at least) vibrant downtown of Knoxville, a city of nearly 200,000 situated near the Great Smoky Mountains.
The international cast of performers‹from Baltimore's Dan Deacon and Matmos to Australia's the Necks and Austria's Christian Fennesz‹ shared hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops with one another and with the festival's several hundred ticketholders. For music scenes (noise, experimental,
avant-classical) generally castigated for their aloof and esoteric natures, the sense of kinship and community at Big Ears came as an inspiration and relief. Artists shared advice. Fans shared gratitude. Collaborations abounded. Surprises happened.
Gira, for instance, squatted behind a keyboard for a song during the world premiere of a trio featuring Mark Linkous and Scott Minor of Sparklehorse (now based in nearby Andrews, North Carolina), and electronicist Christian Fennesz. Gira played a few notes with his right hand while drinking a bottled beer with his left, smiling up at Minor all the while. Earlier in the evening, Gira also acknowledged the Big Ears performance he'd seen by the improvisational trio the Necks one of the best sets of music he'd seen in a long time.
He was absolutely right: The Necks' two Knoxville sets-- Saturday, around midnight, as a trio and Sunday, early in the evening, as quartet with the alien-breathing New York clarinetist and saxophonist Ned Rothenberg-- were two of the best hours of music I've ever heard. Imagine a pristine, polished automobile at the top of a tall hill slowly releasing its foot break and steadily speeding through the descent. Saturday, near the bottom of the hill, the car's parts rattled loose with drummer Tony Buck's huge snare swipes echoing throughout the hall and against the rest of the trio's piano tides and bass washes. Sunday evening with Rothenberg, the band stood on the brakes, halting the metaphorical car's progress into a creep-- no explosions or big bangs, just a torpid, gorgeous allusion to one. Together, the sets comprised an exhilarating, hypnotic look at the crooked line between complete fulfillment and conscious frustration, music so tense and transcendent you could have listened to nothing else all weekend and been completely satisfied.
That wasn't the case, of course. The Necks' Saturday performance followed the 17-song set Antony and the Johnsons are currently toting around the country. Antony joked with the local crowd, teasing them about their city's boomtown history and how Knoxville, a "chicken village," was fortunate to host such an event. They laughed and then listened, mesmerized by "Another World" (augmented by a dissonance-flecked string drone), and energized by "Epilepsy is Dancing" (lifted by a playful drum beat). Antony played much of his recent third album, The Crying Light, in sequence, pausing for I Am a Bird Now's "For Today I Am a Boy" ("All right, there's that one," he quipped) and the Another World EP's "Shake That Devil" (extended and particularly brazen, with Antony clenching the microphone with both hands).
On Sunday, Negativland arranged the same stage in a much different way, fashioning it into a radio studio from which they broadcasted as "It's All in Your Head FM." The ambitious 150-minute program poked fun at religious zealots and people's need to believe in some higher truth, even if that truth was an "unimaginably lonely oneness." During the program's second half, general anxiety for the havoc those same zealots can bring-- suicide bombings, religious wars, cultural myopia at large-- replaced any earlier levity. Even if at times it felt like a philippic to and by converts, the work should stake a strong claim in the current conversation about the function of faith in public policy.
Three of the festival's best sets came from three of its most venerated guests. On Friday, Christian Fennesz, playing his only scheduled American date for 2009, improvised through a morphing medley of his benchmarks, including tunes from Endless Summer and Black Sea. Fennesz reinvented things that seemed so perfect at first listen, shocking the colossal chords of "Glide" with guitar noise and, at one point, sending shivers of a Merzbow din through the attentive room.
Similarly, experimental music pioneer Pauline Oliveros, now 76 years old, tweaked a sound we thought we knew using technology and her influential system of deep listening. The signal from a black Titano accordion traveled through pedals, into a laptop, and into the room through eight speakers arranged into a wide circle. As the winds flapped the flags of the 1982 World's Fair Park outside, Oliveros' Apple added aberrations in pitch and delay to warm hums, drones, and melismas. For an hour, her sounds danced for us.
But it was perhaps the set from the sometimes stodgy Philip Glass that was the festival's most welcome surprise. With a combination of his own solo piano work, his compositions for virtuoso Wendy Sutter's solo cello, and a sample of duets combining the two, Glass traversed two decades of his output. He began alone, his body coiling in front of the piano, right hand reaching over the left to find the bass notes of two selections from 1988's Metamorphosis. Glass then yielded the stage to Sutter, who played a 400-year-old Cremona cello. Sutter released great huffs of air as she moved from one line to another, her fingers alternately slapping against and gliding down the strings, pulling tremors of nuance from Glass's 2007 work "Songs and Poems for Cello." A duo set of Glass' humdrum score work followed, but he redeemed it with a set of six brilliantly executed études and an encore of "Opening" from Glassworks. Inviting but not banal, the brief piece set the perfect tone for the weekend: Everyone here's friendly enough, but you'd best be ready to present adventurous work.
Maybe someone should have told that to Dan Deacon before he brought a gaggle of Baltimore B-listers to his Saturday night "Baltimore Round Robin" set.
The kids in Knoxville barely moved to the crew's mediocrity. Good for them.