There is something strange and somewhat magical about the atmosphere in downtown Knoxville this weekend. The Big Ears Festival, which began Friday and runs through today, has brought ear-bending musicians to town - many who have never played in Knoxville.
Philip Glass, Wendy Sutter, Antony and the Johnsons, Jon Hassell, Ned Rothenberg, the Necks and Matmos are among the artists who have come to Big Ears to play music that is critically acclaimed and often little heard. Concerts are taking place in several venues around town, including the Bijou Theatre, the Pilot Light and the Square Room.
At noon Saturday, avant garde artist Pauline Oliveros conducted a "Deep Listening" workshop for approximately 50 festival attendees, who became part of the music themselves, and then she answered questions afterwards.
"It was a beautiful response," said Oliveros after the workshop.
A long-time champion of technology in music, Oliveros said that communication technology was helping fans who typically would not hear about her music to find it and it was allowing her to collaborate in real-time with other artists around the world. She said she could foresee a virtual audience and performance becoming part of future Big Ears festival. For the current festival she was delighted to have been part of it:
"Things like this are really important because it expands the mind to embrace something new and different and you need that," said Oliveros.
Many who have turned out for the festival had heard few, if any, of the artists.
"I knew nothing about these artists," said Pat Abbarno of Knoxville. "I had heard of Philip Glass."
Abbarno and her husband bought the full $200-apiece passes to experience the entire weekend. The two enjoyed Friday night's shows and planned on attending as much as possible.
Noura Eltabbakh and her boyfriend drove 16 hours from Vermont for the festival. Early Saturday afternoon, she was playing with the electronic instruments set up at the Mooglab in the Woodruff Building.
"I really like how interactive it is," said Eltabbakh. "I went to Lollapalloza, but that and just about all festivals now are so mainstream. You really have to come to something like this to challenge yourself as a listener."
Just outside on Gay Street, a parade of more than 200 people followed comedian Neil Hamburger, who was giving an "architectural tour of Knoxville." Hamburger improvised a history of Arby's while people in the crowd laughed.
In the Square Room on Market Square, about 75 people listened to clarinetist/saxophonist Ned Rothenberg.
Using the circular breathing technique, Rothenberg played clarinets and saxophones without ever seeming to take a breath. At one moment he seemed to be playing bebop. At another, he made a bass clarinet sound like a didgeridoo. At the end of the show, the crowd gave Rothenberg an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Knoxville musicians Tom Johnson and Jeannie Bowers had come out specifically to see Rothenberg.
"It was phenomenal technique," said Johnson. "The way he was able to manipulate the overtones ... I play all these instruments, so it was staggering to watch him."
"He almost does what Rashad Roland Kirk does on two instruments with one," said Bowers.
Rothenberg said he was happy with the response.
"It's always gratifying to have this reaction in the United States, especially in cities that are not the usual suspects," said Rothenberg, referring to the country's largest cities.
Outside the Bijou, where modern classical composer Philip Glass and famed cellist Wendy Sutter were performing, Louis Ebourgeois and Betsy Chapman shared a smoke. The two heard about the festival on NPR's "Fresh Air" program, and Chapman liked what she'd heard of Antony and the Johnsons.
"Then we heard Philip Glass was here and that was the clincher," said Ebourgeouis.
The two drove for 10 hours and arrived just before the Glass performance and planned on seeing Antony later.
Knoxvillians Lauren Almquist and Dugan Broadhurst came out specifially to hear the Glass/Sutter show.
"I wasn't sure I'd get another chance to see him in my hometown," said Almquist.
After the performance, Glass and Sutter and Big Ears promoter Ashley Capps walked up Gay Street to Glass' question-and-answer session at the Woodruff.
"That's the best audience we've played for in America," said Sutter. "You could hear a pin drop. It was like a European audience."
"I think it's a very auspicious omen for the festival," said Glass. "It was a tremendous experience ... It's my impression that there's a real cultural renaissance going on in the South ... We haven't really talked about it yet, but I look forward to coming back."
Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or email@example.com.
© 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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