This week, we’d like to share with you a few recent mixtapes which speak to foundational Big Ears philosophies from one of our favorite working music critics, Ben Ratliff. You may recognize Ratliff’s byline from his two decades at The New York Times, where he emerged as an essential analyst not only for modern jazz and experimental esoterica but also heavy metal and chart-topping pop, or his recent Every Song Ever suggested essential and unexpected themes for considering and appreciating music in an era when we’re still adjusting to instant and infinite accessibility to so much sound. He’s a fan of ours, too: “[Big Ears] has a rare, intuitive and ultimately anti-commercial vision, presented with purpose and first-rate sound,” he wrote in The Times in 2016. “This is why I have gone every year.”
For a recent episode of BBC Radio 3’s long-running Late Junction, Ratliff built an eight-track mix that centers around a quality he loves in recorded music: hearing and understanding the sound of the room. (Ratliff’s portion begins around the 24-minute mark.) In “Blues To You,” for instance, you can actually hear John Coltrane move around the microphone. Close your eyes and listen to Grouper’s “Birthday Song,” and you may picture the echoing, non-neutral room where Liz Harris records, imagining what she sees between takes. You can hear the casual street scene of Senegalese great Mar Seck or the circular energy of a Brazilian samba group. Ratliff guides us around his New York office and apartment, proving his point about what setting does to sound. “I worry about there being less context in the world. I worry that it’s being erased or collapsed,” he explains. “You can get context about music … from the sound itself.” Take a listen to Late Junction and continue the path via Ratliff’s follow-up mix on WGXC Overlooked.
The idea that music has more to offer than mere notes and words speaks to the work of so many Big Ears veterans, whether in the divergent ways Sunn O))) and GAS filled every little recess of the massive Tennessee Theatre or how Evan Parker seemed to duet with the walls of St. John’s Cathedral themselves just last year. But it is especially relevant to the legacy of Alvin Lucier, the groundbreaking composer we will celebrate at Big Ears 2019. His landmark work, I Am Sitting in a Room, offered a breakthrough in realizing that a room in which a recording was made could itself become an active collaborator. Lucier recorded his speaking voice, broadcast it into the room in which he was sitting, and repeated the process of recording and replaying that sound until the result reflected the room’s resonant frequency. It changes every time he performs it, as he will do at Big Ears 2019, because of the setting. That is, the room’s frequency becomes the music itself. I Am Sitting in a Room is like “discovering” gravity—at last, capturing an essence you understood was there all along. It is a reminder that music does not exist in a vacuum and, as listeners and musicians, we shouldn’t treat it as an act of hermetic perfection.
That’s not Ratliff’s only recent interest in the physical nature of music, as he revealed during another 10-song list for New York Public Radio’s New Sounds. In “The Scrape, the Drag, the Slide,” Ratliff focuses on artists who interact with their instruments in unorthodox ways in order to produce an unexpected and visceral sound. Ratliff pivots from Bo Diddley to cellist Okkyung Lee, a Big Ears guest earlier this year, to illustrate the concept.From the intimate relationship Milford Graves seems to have with every square inch of his drums to the way Sir Richard Bishop seems to wrestle with and then nurse his guitar, the ranks of Big Ears past and present are full of musicians who approach their instruments in ways that render novel sounds. This year, look for the likes of guitarists Mary Halvorson and Derek Gripper and cellist Peter Gregson to do just that—and that’s even before we announce the full Big Ears 2019 lineup in late September…