The Groundbreaking Women Composers of Big Ears 2019

In recent years, a long-overdue discussion about the lack of representation for female composers has entered the mainstream conversation. Big Ears is proud of its tradition in this realm, from presenting Pauline Oliveros a decade ago to offering Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields and Jenny Scheinman’s Kannapolis only last year, among many others. These pieces are the profound works of visionary artists—our booking criterion, since the start.

This year, we’re upping the ante, from Rhiannon Giddens’ riveting work on Lucy Negro Redux to Mary Halvorson’s meticulous compositions with her Code Girl band. Rachel Grimes will present the second full performance of her folk opera, The Way Forth, following its world premiere with the Louisville Orchestra this weekend. Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara, Carla Bley, Kara-Lis Coverdale, Carla Kihlstedt, Aurora Nealand, Jlin, Clarice Jensen: They’re all performing at Big Ears 2019, too. We’ll also present a series of three concerts by the International Contemporary Ensemble featuring the works of four emerging women composers and a performance by Nate Wooley featuring the works of the great Eliane Radigue and Annea Lockwood.


ICE—one of the most engaging and ambitious syndicates for new music in the world—will perform three programs at Big Ears 2019, all built with the works of women composers. (We’ll tell you more about their Saturday performance of Carla Kihlstedt’s At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire next week.) On Friday, ICE will perform selections from AEQUA, the lauded 2018 collection from Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Shifting from tense prepared piano solos and fluttering pieces for coteries of winds and strings to “Aequilibria,” a gorgeous piece that blooms and collapses as if to suggest the arcs of a life cycle, these works conjure landscapes in curious, non-didactic ways, igniting the imagination much like Thorvaldsdottir’s In the Light of Air, which ICE performed at Big Ears last year.  


ICE opens its Sunday program of four composers with Thorvaldsdottir’s Tactility, a pensive piece where a harpist and a percussionist emphasize and explore their physical relationships with their instruments—coaxing sounds more than playing them, interacting with sound as an object. For Shiver Lung 2, by the ascendant Ashley Fure, two percussionists place various objects, from sheets of velum and wires to brushes and bowls, on subwoofers, which rattle them into a sort of immersive rhythmic being. Strange, hypnotic, and playful, it is a work meant to be witnessed. They then turn to selections from Ground to Steel Dust by Tennessee native Ellen Reid, who became the first composer to have work commissioned by the L.A. Master Chorale, L.A. Chamber Orchestra, L.A. Philharmonic, and LA Opera last year. Written for percussion and cello, it likewise explores elements of physicality. The program closes with A Library on Lightning, Fure’s visceral meditation on the scars that lightning leaves when it strikes a body. Gripping and heavy, it is the precursor to Filament, commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic for its 2018 Opening Gala. Trumpeter Nate Wooley, who joined the Philharmonic for Filament, performs with ICE for this special presentation.


Aside from a set with his astounding new quartet Columbia Icefield, Wooley will also perform a solo set, featuring rather new pieces by two truly groundbreaking women composers. Eliane Radigue is perhaps best known for her early work with electronic drones, synthesizers feeding back onto one another in august waves. But more recently, she’s shaped the same engrossing long works by composing for acoustic instruments, a challenge that demands expertise and exactitude from the players. “It concerns the virtuosity of absolute control of the instrument, an extreme, subtle and delicate kind of virtuosity,” she has said of the works she collectively calls Occam. “What I did with my synthesizer was almost comparable. Turning a potentiometer the value of a hair could change everything.” She composed Occam X—still, silent, transfixing—for Wooley, who offered its world premiere in 2014.


In recent years, Wooley has programmed For/With, an adventurous music festival in New York that centers around new trumpet ideas and long-standing instrumental innovators. At 2018’s festival, he premiered Becoming Air, a new work by New Zealand-born composer and visionary Annea Lockwood, perhaps best known for the brilliant A Sound Map of the Hudson River. Wooley reprises it here, climaxing in a flurry of glorious amplified feedback.


We’ll have much more to say about the composers at Big Ears 2019 in the final weeks leading up to the festival.

Knoxville, TN · USA



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