This past weekend, fans of experimental music gathered for the third ever Big Ears Festival
in Knoxville, myself included. Rolling Stone has called it “the most ambitious and avant-gard festival to emerge in America in more than a decade.” Its first year in 2009, offered a diverse line-up of rock, electronic, ambient, noise, and minimalist composers and performers. After a more commercially driven follow-up, it took a long 3-year hiatus. When asked why they kept festival fans waiting for so long, its founder Ashley Capps replied that they were waiting for this year’s lineup:
Headlining the festival was Steve “Kind-of-a-big-deal” Reich. While many of Reich’s pieces were performed throughout the 3-day festival, his presence provided more of a focal point.
Perhaps no other living composer has influenced the direction of both classical and popular forms of music. Reich was one of first musicians to experiment with sampling, which he claims to have discovered by accident. For more on Reich’s use of sampling, check out his introduction to the book Sound unbound : Sampling Digital Music and Culture
Among the host of musicians influenced by Reich is the band Radiohead, specifically guitarist Jonny Greenwood who both performed at and attended the festival. Greenwood began his music career studying viola at Oxford, but dropped out to become a rocker. In recent years he has returned to the classical world, scoring films like There Will Be Blood and The Master. While these scores hearken back to earlier composers, Reich’s influence on Greenwood, I find, is more evident on recent Radiohead releases (see: In Rainbows). Greenwood paid homage to this influence at Big Ears with a performance of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint on electric guitar.
Reich returned the complement by arranging a suite of Radiohead music, titled Radio Rewrite, also performed at Big Ears by an ensemble of strings and pianos. In his talk with festival-goers, the great composer seemed, at times, dismissive of the popular forms of music he has helped create. My question, left unanswered, was what had led him to single out Radiohead for the distinct honor? For me, Radiohead served as an introduction to more experimental music. Did this homage validate the musical depths of the band, or was Reich just trying to appeal to folks like me?
Other Big Ears Performers found at your library:
Music of Steve Reich
Buke and Gase excellent, and accessible jangly pop
John Cale : a major songwriting force of Velvet Underground, etc.
Dawn of Midi : jazz instrumentation evoking electronic composition
Glenn Kotche : drummer from Wilco’s recording of Reich’s “Clapping”
Bryce Dessner : from the band The National
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth
John Adams’ Shaker Loops