Big Ears 2017: A Great Music Festival

A second visit to Big Ears and hugely enjoyable it was. Back in Knoxville TN the venues were as warm and welcoming as before.  This post is my thoughts about what I listened to and the reflections triggered by this – a process that continues.

Thursday 23rd March

Nief Norf: Pauline Oliveros’ ‘Single Stroke Roll Meditation’ and Michael Gordon’s ‘Timber’ at The Mill and Mine.

Single Stroke Roll Meditation’ was a quiet start to crescendo to silence work on two cymbals, one wheel hub, one large cow bell and two other instruments that I never saw.  Spaced around the perimeter of a room full of a standing audience, the six musicians must have found it hard to stay in touch.  A long slow build of the tones across the six players, varied slightly in intensity, built from silence, gradually peaked and then slowly ebbed away.  Were I to experience this piece again I would walk around the musicians (here the size of the audience discouraged this).

Timber’ was played on six pieces of wood arranged as a hexagon in the middle of the room.  This was a durational piece in which the musicians slowly exchanged rhythms and tomes across a multitude of variations.  The range of tones, resonances and layering of sounds from six pieces of wood was extraordinary and the young sextet played this physically demanding piece over about an hour.  It was mesmeric with its slowly cycling sound and it was never clear where in the piece we were so there was also a feeling of being lost in the music.

Both pieces rewarded close (deep) listening.

Matana Roberts at The Square Room

A saxophone lament mixed with vocals, all recorded and looped.  The intimate venue helped the work with the almost physical presence of the saxophones tones within the room.  The accompanying collages video played a rapidly cycling selection of black and white, low resolution images that were a mix of random marks and scenes from black Americans’ lives in the early 20th century.


Each of the pieces produced their sonic complexity by layering and repetition of sound.

Without any signposting Timber became a bit of an endurance work; there is merit in letting the audience know how long a work is likely to last.


Friday 24th March

Maya Beiser at The Mill and Mine

Experimental cellist.  The accompanying video piece for one work failed to appear.

Matmos perform Robert Ashley’s ‘Perfect Lives (Private Parts) at The Tennessee Theatre

Spoken opera with rhythm and music.  A surprising amount of activity and a great ‘lead speaker’ – animated of face and hand. Supported by two female chorus, and electronic percussion plus piano bass cello violin and reeds.  A video played on a screen at the back of the stage linking into the text and offering some further clues to interpretation.

Frederic Rzewski (The People United Will Never Be Defeated) at The Mill & Mine

An hour or so, a sprawling, meandering piano work that starts and (almost) ends in the famous song.

Claire Chase at The Standard

Flautist with a touch of Kate Bush.

Stale Storlokken & Arve Henriksen at Church Street United Methodist Church

Mournful organ and trumpet set off magnificently in the huge baptist church.  The music was experienced via the building.

Alvin Curran at The Square Room

A ‘prepared’ electric piano alongside a concert baby-grand.  At first there seemed no obvious structure and the apparent electronic cacophony was confusing, accentuated by Alvin Curran’s playing style which looked like he was getting electric shocks from the keyboard.  However, the emerging similarities between what was played on piano and what was played on keyboard became fascinating.  Ended with a few blows of a goat’s horn that he had pulled across the piano strings.

Carla Bley, Steve Swallow & Andy Sheppard at The Bijou Theatre

More familiar territory.  A relatively brief set and one that felt slightly ‘tame’ by comparison to much that had gone before.  I was startled by Carla Bley’s physical frailty (she is now 80) and this then became the lens through which I viewed the set.


The combination of word and music in Robert Ashley/Matmos was very powerful and there may be some ideas that I can take from this when thinking about my sound works.

Both Rzewski and Matmos demonstrated the performance of slowly evolving durational works.

Storlokken/Henriksen was the best (most obvious) example of hearing the music via the space.


Saturday 25th

Lisa Moore at The Mill & Mine

Performing in the round at The Mill & Mine the Australian born ‘queen of avant-garde piano’ played a one hour set of works by Glass, Stockhausen and Luther Adams.  This was an absorbing short recital.

Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble: The Soul’s Messenger at The Bijou Theatre

Meredith Monk plus two other female vocalists (one also a pianist) and a male reeds player made up the ensemble.  Monk was performing pieces from her back catalogue including from Atlas, Mercy and Dolmen Music.  This was the performance I had come to Knoxville to hear and it didn’t disappoint.  Meredith Monk was fantastic and I can safely say that I have never heard/seen anything like this before.  The sound plus the intense presence and physicality of Monk as a dancer was breathtaking.  The scale of what she has been doing for 50 years is awesome.  The sheer bravado of the route she has followed is inspiring.  The voice as sound – I find this much more interesting than the voice in song.

Colin Stetson ‘Sorrow’: A Reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony at The Mill & Mine

I took against this from an ill-defined but early point in the performance.  The programme notes identified this as a work performed by a 10 piece ensemble that included a rock drummer and an indie-rock violinist to which was added electric lead and bass guitars.  So, it was not surprising that it was loud – but this performance was over amplified to the point of distortion (the sections with the cello and violin alone were too loud, and everything else was in step with this).  The orchestral version makes its impact with controlled clarity of sound (particularly voice and strings) and this rock band sound mush seems rather ‘obvious’ – a bit like shouting “this is emotive ‘cos it is loud” – the trap of the film score.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble at St John’s Cathedral

A quick trip into the cathedral for three pieces by Gavin Bryars ensemble – not really enough to get a good feel.

Frode Haltli: ‘The Border Woods’ (featuring Emelia Amper on nychelharpa) at The Knoxville Museum of Art

The ensemble was Frode Haltli with two percussionists and Emelia Amper.  Having expected a solo accordion the size of the set up was a surprise with cymbals and wine glasses at either end of the auditorium and a central strip of two large xylophones and a central percussion set of wood blocks/boxes.  The performance was a one hour work loosely based on traditional Scandinavian tunes that moved through various stages of definition (in terms of melody) in the form of a musical conversation between the accordion and the nychelharpa both punctuated and underpinned by the percussion.


Meredith Monks performance re-awoke thoughts from the sound/words transcription workshop – the notion that sound could be transcribed and re-vocalised.  Plus larger message from seeing Monk was that what may appear well beyond mainstream is worth pursuing as long as it interests – forget being popular.

From Gavin Stetson I take a particular manifestation of the idea that ‘less is more’ – here I am looking for my use of silence and quiet and take this as a warning about the seductive illusion that amplitude can in some way replace content.


Sunday 26th

The Magnetic Fields ‘Fifty Song Memoir’ (part 2) (Stephen Merritt) at The Tennessee Theatre

A song a year for his 50 years. We lasted three years then left.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble: ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ at The Mill & Mine

A song sung by a vagrant, recorded by Bryars and used as the basis for the piece. A long, slow increase in volume, always of the same accompanying refrain, then a slow fade away. The Ensemble was about a dozen various string instruments.

Oliver Coates at The Mill & Mine

A recital by a young English cellist.

Jace Clayton presents ‘Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner’ at The Bijou Theatre

A reworking and presentation of work by Julius Eastman.  Two pianists played Eastman work(s?) whilst Jace Clayton recorded and re-played them. Very fast, frenetic rhythms.

Deathprod at The Tennessee Theatre

Tissue vibrating ambient drone. Lasted five minutes then left.

Gavin Bryars Ensemble: The Sinking of The Titanic at The Tennessee Theatre

Similar idea to today’s earlier piece (with which it is broadly contemporaneous).  This work was combined with the turntable/synthesiser work of Philip Jeck and accompanied a screening by Bill Morrison.  Again a slow build then fall away.  Philip Jeck’s turntables added to the piece.


Not all ideas are appealing, but most ideas will find someone who is prepared to engage with them.  Slow pace of change can be very effective.

Repetition can be very effective; after a while it can become the main point of a work.


Northumbrian Rants: Rant 4

Rant 4 Step 1

A relatively early start (on February 5th) so that I am at the first site shortly after sunup.  A large field of winter wheat and still, cold air.  It doesn’t seem to be overlooked by any habitation.  A walk along the road and then into the field over a broken gate.  Along the field edge then I walk into the field trying to step between the neatly drilled rows.  Distant Jackdaws.  Out along the same track as a trio of cyclists chat their way along the road.  Back over the gate, onto the road and back to the car.

frozen field

crows call

still air, cold, mist


Rant 4 Step 2

I park in a layby that, according to the road signs, is in Cumbria but the walk will be to the site on an edge of Northumberland.  Stepping uncertainly onto a disguised, uneven surface; I walk on heather, grass, wet, peat, step over fences; I drift off line to the south.  I put up a lot of Red Grouse from the heather moorland, flush a small flock of Golden Plover and am a little surprised to flush three separate Hares – I think of them as animals of lowland fields not upland moors.  My sense of distance seems all wrong; it seems so much further over rough moorland.  Eventually supress my instincts, trust my technology and attain High Green Hill (which, paradoxically, is brown).  I record in the windy, grouse punctuated solitude and then walk out along a bearing straight towards the car –12 minutes faster than the walk in.


hard walking, no rhythm

stop, start, back, forth


rounded hillsides

wide sky, sunlight, gaps in cloud



Rant 4 Step 3

I am surprised that the sat. nav. can get me right to the site.  I drive past a farm and, though she waves a friendly greeting, the farmer’s wife, in the guise of walking her dog from her car, still comes after me.  She watches from a distance and then drives up to check what I am doing – I didn’t like to say “waiting for you to go away”.  After a pleasant enough conversation, she drives off back to the farm.  Next to a tank turning circle and with a ruined shell of a tank (surprisingly inconspicuous) on the nearby fell, it is an odd place.  Not much moves and not much calls.  There is no walk in or walk out as it is a roadside site; as the farmer’s wife explained, off road equals risk of death.  So … it’s all very simple.  I complete the recoding and move on.



flat horizon, grey cloud

roadside fences


grass moorland

wrecked tank


Rant 4 Step 4

Since the map was drawn, forest ‘harvesting’ has changed the landscape.  Despite this the site is still about a further 20 metres into an impenetrable conifer plantation.  The track is fine but the road edge clearing is typical forestry underfoot with lumps, ridges and troughs apparently designed to trip even the wariest walker.  The wind sighs through the trees.  It may still be trying to rain but tucked inside the shelter of the conifers nothing gets anywhere near me.  I record, walk out and I am done.

cocooned in trees

sound deadened

vista of trees

dreadful underfoot


Northumbrian Rants: Rant 3

Rant 3 is done (Sunday 29th January) with my friend Jeremy Grimshaw who is responsible for a lot of my Cagean input.

Rant 3 Step 1

A long drive to the Tweed valley, sequential turns onto diminishing roads gets us to the site, accessed through a gate that would be a sea of mud if the temperature was above freezing.  As it is we just walk over the frozen top.  The site is along the hedge line and is easy to access.  The hawthorn hedge is thick with yellow lichen.  Crops to the north and stubble to the south.  I am not surprised to hear Skylarks calling but am surprised when, having chased each other around for a bit, one of them launches into a song flight.

sunny, quiet wind

along field edge

four Skylarks in the stubble field

crow over

couple of shotgun shots

one or two planes

lichen on hedge


Rant 3 Step 2

The site is accessed from a busy road and the way in is not clear; hedges, fences and no obvious access.  A map-marked track by small estate of bungalows isn’t there so I am walking the roadside hedge when I find a locked gate that I can easily climb.  Given my previous experiences with horses I am a little uneasy about stepping into and crossing the horse paddock but the two horses take no notice of us.  I step over the barbed wire fence and continue down the small valley until the path enters a bog – almost exactly at the site.  As we walk in, on the other side of the valley, three Roe deer slowly walk off over the brow of the hill.  A Wren moves amongst the sedge.  The road above is a dominating sonic presence and an almost constant backdrop to the scene.

difficult access

roadside, houses, gate, fence, rough field

in a dip down to the river

three roe deer

horse field


Rant 3 Step 3

At the end of an unremarkable single track road but within distance of a busy road, a golf course and an airport.  A small stream, a lot of suburban shrubbery and an amount of bird call – Chaffinch, Robin, Blackbird.  The site is in a stubble field accessed from a footpath along the margin.  I can just about hear voices and the swish of clubs from the nearby golf course; traffic on the main road but no noise from the overhead power lines.

end of road

stubble field

golf course


power lines

telegraph lines


Rant 3 Step 4

We retrace some of our days ‘steps’ to the final site.  Roads to farms lead to the site.  Trees at the roadside, a shallow valley, a distant, ridge-top community and a closer farm, surrounding trees.  Access via a wooden gate into a grass field.  The belt of trees to the west of the site is providing shelter from what little wind there is.  There is no hedge or fence between ma and the farm but a former boundary line seems marked by a change in crop but the cattle seem to wander too and fro at will.  The whole area feels sheltered and still.


big wide sky, cloud at the edges

trees and fields

pheasants, cows, two horses

hills nudging over the skyline

low slanting sun etching sheep onto the fields



Northumbrian Rants: Rant 2

In general this (Friday 27th January) was a cold, still day.  On step 2 the temperature rose to 5C but the rest of the time it was 1C.  I still have the first recording of the day challenge of sorting the wires.  With their unique ability to knot themselves I have to re-establish the sequence in which I put things on – recorder, hat, pick up tripod – and take them off – place tripod down, take off hat, take off recorder.  To do otherwise is to risk having to disassemble the whole lot.

Rant 2 Step 1

Easy parking off a narrow country road.  A short distance from the A1.  A climb over a gate and a walk around the perimeter of the field of winter wheat to get to a final fence climb and the site at the edge of a field of lowland pasture.  I pass a small conifer plantation.  It doesn’t look like a convincing shelter belt and I am not sure what it is for.  Nonetheless, as I walked towards it a Roe Deer walks out before disappearing over a couple of barbed wire fences.  Close to the site and I can (just) step over a barbed wire fence into the grass pasture, close to the junction of two hedges.  With so little wind the traffic on the A1 is audible; the cold still air carries the sound as a distant low roar.  There is not much else to hear.  Walking out the gap and common usage path through the hedge is obvious so there is no need to scale the gate.

hands frozen, hurting


flushed roe deer, hare, pheasant

cold mist sitting on the fields

branches skeletal against the sky, silhouettes

grass field


Rant 2 Step 2

I pass through a weather front on the way north so the temperature rises slightly and the sun shines.  Another lowland pasture with two flocks of sheep separated by a single strand electric fence.  The access point is on a minor road but the A1 is close by and I can see the traffic, so no surprise that it is audible.  A derelict circular stone tower that looks like a decapitated windmill and its demesne means that access is at the corner of the field where there is a combination of a broken gate and a severely chopped back hedge.  An initial scramble and a careful step over a perimeter electric fence before walking into the middle of the field.  A Pink-footed Goose flies off calling as does a solitary Curlew.  The sheep initially run back and forth a bit but then settled to continued grazing once I stop moving.  Much less misty.  Walking out is straight forward.


long undulating cloud

outlined tree ridges away to the horizon

sheep, goose, curlew

grass pasture

electric fence


Rant 3 Step 3

Step three is on an old estate, now a wedding venue.  The road in is a dead end but the public footpath is marked and it is easy to pull off the road.  Park at the roadside amid bushes shading the road; lots of leaf litter crunching as I walk in.  The footpath runs along the field margin – though there is a retained margin there is no sign of a walked path.  Walking down the hill the lie of the land looks reasonable given the map and it takes me a little while to realise that three fields have been amalgamated into one and I have already passed one of my reference points.  Not wanting to walk into a closely planted winter wheat field I make the recordings at the closest point on the route of the public footpath.  There are a series of gunshots plus their echoes.  By the time I get back to the car my shoes are heavy with soil, clagged onto the soles and around the heel.  I kick off some and end up performing a bizarre stomping dance on the road in an attempt to dislodge the last bits.

frost hollow

winter wheat, cut up fields, lost margins



tracks – deer, heron


Rant 2 Step 4

A remote site that should have been accessible via a public footpath but the immediate vista is the aftermath of forestry clearing.  The trees have gone and two mechanical diggers work to clear the brash.  The finger post is at the start of the path but the stumps and churned up earth means that the footpath is no longer apparent.  After an attempt to follow its line for 20 metres of so I have fallen into a couple of trenches and I give up.  A forestry path looks like it will get me close and I walk along and up on a firm track that eventually turns into an ill-defined grass path.  At the edge of the plantation I scale a gate to walk onto open moorland.  I pick up a barely defined footpath and follow to a set of gateposts – all that remain of an old fence line.  I am still 500 metres short of the site but I estimate that getting there (and back) will take another 40 minutes given the terrain.  The sun is almost down and I don’t want to be walking back through the forest along tracks I don’t know in the dark.  I make the recording at the gateposts and turn around.  All the way I have been able to hear the sounds of the diggers.  By the time I walk back past them they are parked up for the day and are being re-fuelled.  One of the drivers doesn’t return my wave and his two terriers race down to the track to check me out.  When I get back to the car it is dark.

walk in longer, difficult

wind low

sound of forestry diggers carried most of the time

moor frozen

ran out of time



Northumbrian Rants: Rant 1

A delayed posting of a fieldtrip on December 3rd last year.  This was the first of four Northumbrian Rants – four sets of four field recordings using a process derived from John Cage’s ‘49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs’ and detailed on my website describing the Fair Isle Reels version (

Rant 1 Step 1 

At the first site I had expected the sounds to be the local hamlet and the distant main road so was a little surprised to find that the main sound was the tractor and hedge trimmer doing the seasonal work of neatening up the hedgerows.


stiff gate

exposed field


sparse hawthorn hedge

improved grass

chimney smoke

valley bottom to moor top


Rant 1 Step 2

On to the second site – as I walked in to the bottom field and looked up towards the site up the hillside and the other side of a belt of trees I registered the fact that a horse started galloping off to the north.  Thinking no more of this I carried on and was about 400m into the field when the noise of galloping hooves became audible followed a few seconds later by the horse in full gallop heading for me.  There was nowhere I could get to before it would be with me so it was fortunate that the animal pulled up with about 50 metres to go and then proceeded to graze.  Still, I didn’t want to risk antagonising it so opted to make the recording on the road side of the field gate.

estate land


planted trees


up the hill

on the edge of new ash planting

caledonian pine on the hill top




Rant 1 Step 3

The third site was a root vegetable field just to the west of the east coast mainline.  As a rule I don’t walk into crop fields but here there was more than enough space to walk in and still avoid the crops.  A very short walk in but going through the patch of low brambles I still managed to trip and measure my length.  After that it was easy.

beet field


wind turbines

fall on the way in

feels rather desolate


Rant 1 Step 4

The final site was across the county, just to the north of Hadrian’s Wall.  This was the longest walk in of the day and was across sheep pasture, still frozen even towards the end of the day.

upland farmland


shooting pond

light fading

low sun

fell along the wall into the stream

military road



ram in harness


Each of the sites has its own distant mechanical ‘roar’ – usually traffic and usually quite ill defined.  It is the sort of sound that normally gets filtered out as we concentrate on something else – the wanted versus the unwanted, sound versus noise.  However, listening to the recordings the sound is present – the microphones don’t filter and on playback the sounds that were filtered out on site become part of the subject of the recording.

Rievaulx: a sense of place

During a recent visit, I was forcibly reminded that Rievaulx and its surroundings have, for me, a strong sense of place; it generates in my thoughts words like ‘peaceful’, ‘tranquil’, ‘restful’ and I’d like to try and work out something of why this might be.  My recent visit was on a clear, crisp December morning.  The sun shone all day and whilst it was never anything other than cold the day was invigorating.  It being a week before Christmas meant that few people were around and the valley was quiet.  So, the conditions were conducive to my thoughts of peacefulness but I have been there before, in bad weather, when more people were around and the sense has still been there, so while context may have contributed to my sense of peacefulness on my recent visit, it doesn’t feel like the whole story.

Rievaulx is a hamlet of about 20 dwellings in Ryedale, a steep sided river valley on the south-west edge of the North York Moors.  It’s most striking feature is a ruined Cistercian monastery dating from the 12th century and closed in 1538 during Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries.  It would be possible to assume that a sense of tranquility was linked to its religious history or some sort of enduring spiritual presence.  Yet, the monastery hasn’t functioned for 400 years and during its 400 years of functioning, life would not have been easy, tranquil, or necessarily peaceful; Cistercians were noted for their austerity; on one occasion the monastery was sacked by Scots and on another the monks were badly afflicted by the plague.  After its closure it was the site of an iron foundry for a further 100 years until local supplies of timber for charcoal were exhausted.  So, whilst Abbot Aelfred wrote of Rievaulx’s peacefulness and tranquility, a ruin doesn’t automatically translate into a sense of peace.  Rievaulx’s abbey ruins became a destination of romantic travel in the 18th century and the then landowner created a valley top walk to the north of the abbey with specifically cleared lines of sight down to the ruins to facilitate its viewing.  So, the valley has been through periods of being a religious center, an industrial complex and a romantic ruin, but the current sense of place is about more than the abbey – the nearby ruined Cistercian abbey at Byland shares many of Rievaulx’s historic and architectural attributes but not its sense of place – what are Rievaulx’s other enduring dimensions of place?

When viewed from a number of standpoints, the valley with its constituent buildings have a sense of harmony – of materials, colour and scale.  With many of the extant buildings of the hamlet being part of the original abbey precinct there is harmony of materials with all the buildings built of various types of local sandstone (2012).  There is harmony of colour with the worn sandstone of the buildings sitting alongside the natural greens and browns of the valley bottom fields and hedgerows and the grey browns of the heavily wooded valley sides.  Finally, there is harmony of scale.  With the tallest building, the ruined abbey, tight up against the 70 meter high, near vertical, northern side of the valley and the smaller buildings at valley tree top level, nothing protrudes above the natural skyline – it feels as if the buildings are held within the landscape rather than dominating it.

Whilst Rievaulx is not isolated, with the busy market town of Helmsley only three miles away, the two roads in and out of the valley are narrow and steep and there is little invitation to casual through traffic.  Local traffic is relatively sparse and the overall effect of this is relatively low levels of traffic and other mechanical sound.  The absence of roads means that to explore the valley to any extent you need to walk.  Couple this human pace of movement with the low levels of mechanical noise and the shape of the valley and there is a sonic clarity within the valley.  The shape of the valley – steep sided and relatively narrow – lends something of an amphitheater effect to listening in the valley; Jackdaws flying over calling are easily heard.  Finally, the river, providing the sound of running water, whilst not widely audible, adds the slightly mesmeric sound of running water into the general soundscape.

Bur Rievaulx does not exist as an abstract idea and its ‘sense’ is a consequence of my interaction with the place.  All I have written so far is thinking about my current interactions with Rievaulx but a final dimension of Rievaulx is my personal history of association with the place.  I was introduced to Rievaulx as a child by my parents and it was a happy childhood destination that I then revisited as a young man.  It has a similar place in my wife’s family history and together we have visited it repeatedly.  So, what I have written has emerged from a lineage of experience of over 50 years.  No wonder articulating this is complex.


Rievaulx Abbey. Available at:

(2012) Strategic Stone Study: A Building Stone Atlas of North Yorkshire East and York: English Heritage.