Saturday dawned bright and COLD in Knoxville. I believe we were told it was 25F (hard to take, after our 78F on arrival). We bundled up and headed back to the Square Room for the afternoon.
First up was Wu Man, a Chinese pipa player. The pipa is a four-stringed instrument, which first appeared in/around the second century A.D. It’s pear-shaped, and looks a little like a flat oud. The instrument can have anywhere from 12-30 frets (modern ones have 30).
Wu Man had performed Terry Riley’s ‘The Cusp of Magic’ with the Kronos Quartet the evening prior. Riley had studied with her for a year to learn the pipa, prior to writing the piece for her. In her solo performance Saturday morning, she introduced the audience to her instrument and its potential, playing pieces that ranged across several centuries and genres… from the 9th to the 20th, and from traditional to 20th century styles of compositions. One piece, ‘Flute and Drum at Sunset’, was a deep meditation, tracing back to the Qing dynasty and a foundational piece of the pipa tradition. Wu Man encouraged us to close our eyes and go somewhere beautiful during that piece and others. A contrast was a martial song, played at times of battle, and very percussive and active. The Dance of Yee, written in the 1960s, was an example of Western-style composition, and a piece that bridged between the traditional pieces and Wu Man’s decision to out-Hendrix Hendrix in her own latterly composed pieces.
Following Wu Man’s set, we had a conundrum; Winged Victory for the Sullen at one venue, and a race to another for Tanya Tagaq; or Josef van Wissem, again in the Square Room. Tanya Tagaq was playing again with Kronos later in the weekend; we were concerned for not finding a seat with a rush to a late entrance; these factors and my long-standing affinity for Josef van Wissem led us to return for his set.
His set has been described elsewhere as a kind of punk-medieval performance. Similar to Wu Man, he demonstrated traditional and contemporary styled playing with a traditional, unique instrument. Unlike Wu Man, there were no explanations and in fact no introductions or talking whatsoever prior to or between pieces. He played many of his hypnotic, repetitive pieces tracing back to his incunabulum recordings, many of the titles referring to the soul or other mystical concepts. He finished with a roaming piece, loping off the stage to wander among the floor-seated audience and exposing them to a closer listening to the sound of the lute.
After a meal break, our next show at the Tennessee Theatre at 7:00 was the Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson, playing Anderson’s ‘Landfall’, composed in response to Hurricane Sandy. The building, an official State Theatre of Tennessee, was originally constructed in 1927 as a movie theatre. It is a beautifully well preserved spot, where the Knoxville Symphony, UTenn groups, and visiting singers and comedians play. ‘Landfall’ was an electrifying, sometimes humorous look at our place in the world and in the Universe, and our own tiny existence in the galaxies. There is poetry, there is Kaddish, there is grocery list. Overall, Anderson’s performance was electrifying and gripping.
We then scuttled over to another venue, on a sort of backstreet of clubs kind of between the downtown Market Square/Gay Street area and the Old Knoxville Downtown. The Standard had two stages, one room with brick and concrete walls and another with wooden walls and ceiling and a balcony. It looked to have originally been a factory [aha, the Interwebs say it was a Lighting Factory], and has been renovated as a banquet/wedding space. We arrived to a room at capacity for Tyondai Braxton (of Battles fame) and the HIVE; a collaborative performance among three percussionists, a keyboard player, and Braxton on synthesizer. The HIVE members sit on top of what look like old-fashioned home fryer baskets. The music was repetitive electronic music, with interesting loops and repetitive percussion bits. We eventually got in to experience these beats.
Following Braxton, we crossed the hall into the warmer space of the Standard for Amen Dunes. Damon McMahon and his backing band played across his repertoire, focusing on his possible breakout 2014 release ‘Love’. The tunes on ‘Love’ are more traditionally song-based than his prior records. His most recent record, ‘Cowboy Music’, released just in January 2015, includes alternate versions of many of the pieces in ‘Love’, reworked and rerecorded in Montreal with the help of the GYBE! Crew. Another fairly meditative, compelling set, which as it turned out, ended our day.
We were faced on Saturday with later opportunities to see Sam Amidon, Nels Cline, tUnEyArDs, Grouper, and Omar Souleyman. But by 11, we had no energy to get to, much less absorb, more music, so we called it quits for the second day of Big Ears.