This year’s Big Ears lineup is again unlike any other in the country, mixing an audacious slate of special programs, central themes, and world premieres with powerful sets from some of music’s most compelling new voices. Big Ears 2019 will turn Knoxville into one of the world’s creative epicenters for a remarkable long weekend, March 21-24. Tickets are now on sale at www.bigearsfestival.org.
Big Ears 2019 leads with a network of vital musicians and legendary innovators working across multiple genres, from rock ’n’ roll and free jazz to classical composition and dance music. Spiritualized and Mercury Rev supply their ecclesiastic psychedelic rock, while Nils Frahm, Jlin, Carl Stone, and The Comet is Coming all offer unique visions of what it means to make electronic music right now.
In a rare performance, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, who have reimagined the boundaries of improvised music since the late ’60s, celebrate their 50th anniversary recording under that name. They lead an immense field of jazz legends that includes the likes of Jack DeJohnette, Carla Bley, Bill Frisell, The Alex Schlippenbach Trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton, and Wadada Leo Smith. They’re joined by members of jazz’s rightfully acclaimed new school: Mary Halvorson, with her band Code Girl; Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn in a rare piano duo; and one of this year’s great breakout acts, London’s Sons of Kemet.
Parallel pioneers of extended vocal techniques, Joan La Barbara and Meredith Monk, perform, plus groundbreaking outsider visual artist and improvisational singer Lonnie Holley. Rhiannon Giddens returns with two new projects after delivering the keynote address at Big Ears 2018, and Kayhan Kalhor, the revered master of the Iranian fiddle known as the kamancheh, performs solo and with the polyglot string quartet Brooklyn Rider.
Big Ears 2019 will also provide a platform for some of music’s most exciting emerging artists. Knoxville native Yves Tumor has released one of the best albums of 2018 with the mutated soul of Safe in the Hands of Love. Guitarist Rafiq Bhatia builds worlds of radiant noise and rhythm on his ANTI- debut Breaking English, while young Scottish cellist Peter Gregson is readying his audacious Deutsche Grammophon introduction, a modern reinterpretation of Bach’s Cello Suites. Electronic composer Kara-Lis Coverdale, breathless instrumental trio The Messthetics, Nashville ambient experts Coupler, South African guitar phenom Derek Gripper: the fresh talent pool at Big Ears 2019 is as compelling as it has ever been.
In 2019, Big Ears presents more than 10 distinct special programs that are unique to the festival altogether or are in some of their earliest performances. To wit, Big Ears 2019 presents one of the first productions of TRIPTYCH, a multimedia project that explores the legacy of provocative New York photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. Combining large-scale projections of his work with new music by The National’s Bryce Dessner and interpretations of Monteverdi’s madrigals by stunning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, TRIPTYCH includes the writings of Essex Hemphill and Mapplethorpe’s longtime mutual muse, Patti Smith. Under the direction of the brilliant Daniel Fish, TRIPTYCH arrives in Knoxville almost exactly 30 years after Mapplethorpe’s untimely death.
Nashville Ballet presents the first performance of Lucy Negro Redux outside of its hometown premiere, a program based around the hypothetical life of Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady,” for whom he penned many of his most famous sonnets. Composed by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and Big Ears veteran Rhiannon Giddens and based on the 2015 book Lucy, Negro Redux by Nashville’s Caroline Randall Williams, who will narrate the work, Lucy is a reflection on love and equality in a world where those states of being are not always easy to find.
Fifty years after Manfred Eicher launched ECM Records, Big Ears will offer a timely focus on the ever-vital record label, with a series of performances highlighting the label’s pioneering past and rich present, exploring both its jazz and classical pedigrees. The programs include concerts by free jazz titans The Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Carla Bley Trio with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard, drummer Jack DeJohnette with Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison, trumpet master Wadada Leo Smith (performing his early masterpiece Divine Love), Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Ralph Towner, the Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan duo. Meredith Monk, and violist Kim Kashkashianand pianist Robert Levin. Representatives of the label’s new vanguard include a collaboration between Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn, Nik Bärtsch’s RONIN, trumpeters Avishai Cohen and Mathias Eick and their bands, plus the trio of emerging Israeli piano star Shai Maestro. More artists will be added to the Big Ears’ ECM roster in the months to come.
Across three nights, ambient pioneer Harold Budd presents a career overview featuring new arrangements of many of his classics, as well as multiple world premieres of new works, with the support of his son Terrence, the ACME String Quartet, Knoxville-based experimental collaborative Nief-Norf, and composer Tim Story. Alvin Lucier — another legendary composer, known for his musical inquiries into the very nature of sound — delivers his work across multiple days, including performances of his seminal I Am Sitting in a Room and Bird and Person Dyning. The Ever Present Orchestra, featuring Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi, plays more of Lucier’s work, as does Joan La Barbara, the inventor of multiple extended techniques for voice. In her own concert, dubbed Voice is the Original Instrument, La Barbara will present an overview of her own astonishing compositions. Speaking of innovative singers, Theo Bleckmann performs two unique programs: Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush and Berlin: Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile.
Essential British guitarist and singer-songwriter Richard Thompson delivers his Killed in Action, a string-supported song cycle about the human horrors of World War I. Just weeks after the world premiere of The Way Forth, a folk opera about the hardships of centuries of women in Kentucky, leading composer and pianist Rachel Grimes offers the second performance with a unique chamber ensemble. The International Contemporary Ensemble presents three concerts, including works by four vital living women composers. They play pieces by Iceland’s Anna Thorvaldsdottir, whose music they have recorded for an album due in November; a work developed in collaboration with the daring experimental violinist Carla Kihlstedt, At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire; plus music from Ellen Reid, a Tennessee native; and Ashley Fure, part of an acclaimed recent premiere by the New York Philharmonic.
In the coming weeks, Big Ears will announce even more of its 2019 programming, including the second edition of its all-night, 12 -hour drone concert and a series of panels and workshops. The Big Ears film festival—recently dubbed one of the 25 coolest film festivals in the United States – “an experimental answer to SXSW” – will return under the direction of Paul Harris and Darren Hughes of Knoxville’s Public Cinema.