The Big Ears folks deserve massive credit for kicking off one of the more fantastically nerdy avant-music droolfests we’ve seen smack in the middle of an economic septic tank. Over three days, Knoxville, Tenn. found itself in the odd company of several hundred well-trained ears for a series of improv collaborations, tightly composed modern-classical performances, musical theater renditions, and dance parties. The weather was lovely, the ten-hour drive sucked, and Southern hospitality was no joke.
Philip Glass’ Saturday afternoon performance was one of only a couple of events at Big Ears that looked “full.” The composer-legend performed two of his late-’80s solo piano pieces, mesmerizing tracts of dense melody turned drone and linked by a lonesome reverberating, repeating low-register note. The middle of the performance was given over to cellist Wendy Sutter, who performed a trio of Glass compositions from her /Songs and Poems/ record. She was simply stunning as a performer, coaxing what sounded like three cello parts from her instrument with surgically slight movements. Justifiably, the pair received two standing ovations.
Fennesz did three shows over the weekend, one solo and two collaborations. The culmination was a session capping the festival’s finale, with Fennesz sitting in with multi-instrumentalists Mark Linkous and Scott Minor, the core force behind the late drift-pop outfit Sparklehorse. Linkous looked wasted, but the trio still managed to bat about .300. Most of the hits were straight-up rock burners coming from the Sparklehorses, with Fennesz laying on big reverberating clouds of texture. Even the misses were pretty, but they tended to wander without really having a place to wander to.
Antony and the Johnsons came close to selling out, and there’s something special about seeing a few hundred middle-age Southerners lapping up a chamber arranged faux-cabaret performance led by a transgendered fellow who’s sort of making fun of them (it’s parody, but still….).
Young God impresario and ex Swans frontman Michael Gira strikes a balance between affability and straight creepiness. One moment he’s joking with and passing out whiskey to the audience, and then he’s talking about the next song being inspired by a dream he had of stabbing his pregnant wife in the belly. This set also made for the most Lynchian scene of a festival full of them: his doomy, booming voice is hanging out over a seated, frozen-looking crowd in a big, ornate theater, and there’s this small spotlight flicking around the crowd’s faces, a reflection from Gira’s guitar. You expect the current Angel of Light to flick his fingers and the crowd to wake and start moving again, feeling kind of haunted but not knowing why.
Lasting well over an hour, Matmos put on one of the best sets we’ve ever seen by the genre-agnostic, but mostly electronic, Baltimore duo. With backup from Baltimoreans Jason Willett (electronics, rubber band) and Max Euilbacher (sax, violin), they tore a healthy chunk of its recent catalog including the titular 20 odd minute jam of their synth dreamworld/Supreme Balloon/ where they make a vintage ARP synth “talk”) to “Public Sex For Boyd McDonald” from the hyperconceptualized musique concrete record/Rose Has Teeth In the Mouth Of The Beast/to a mutant Americana freakout that sounded like some kind of cyborg country-western tune pumped full of amphetamine.
As an irritating reminder that Knoxville is, yes, still the South, Matmos managed to get the boot from their originally scheduled venue, a weird box abutting a classy restaurant called the Square Room, for a benign video projection that goes along with the “Boyd McDonald” song and features cut up, grainy clips of ’80s porn.
Negativland’s “It’s All In Your Head FM” performance is a sort of half sound-collage, half theater piece that spends its entire two hours taking down the idea of God. Your god, their god, any god — it’s all in your head. The theater staff, and a cop lurking around, all looked seriously pissed off.
The Baltimore Round Robin is essentially a festival in itself. For about three hours, Dan Deacon, Cex, Ed Schrader, Height, Matmos, DJ Dog Dick, and Adventure performed in-the-round style, with everybody having their own “station” and playing one song before moving on to the next. Ed Schrader, sounding like a hysterical Michael Gira circa Swans, was a highlight, as was Matmos doing LA synth-punk outfit Nervous Gender’s “Confession” (recorded several years back on a record from Matmos’ Drew Daniel’s Soft Pink Truth awesome side project) with a chorus that could probably get you killed in Tennessee: “Jesus was a cocksucking Jew from Gallilee. Jesus was just like me. A homosexual nymphomaniac, a homosexual nymphomaniac…”