In 2009, during the first edition of Big Ears, there was a little bit of discussion about the lack of percussion during the festival. There were drums, but there was a lot of drone, too. This year is different--there was Ches Smith's athletic performance behind the kit last night as part of Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, and even Fredrik Wallumrod, the drummer for Norwegian songwriter/interpreter Susanna, found occasion to pick up a pair of mallets during her set at the Square Room on Saturday night.
But drums became a centerpiece of the festival during So Percussion's hypnotic one hour-plus performance of Steve Reich's 1970-71 piece Drumming at the Tennessee Theatre Saturday night. It was one of the best concerts of Big Ears so far and one of the major set pieces of the festival. The group's four main members were augmented by auxiliary percussionists, a flutist, and a couple of singers on the piece, in which small bits of rhythm--on drums, xylophone, and glockenspiel (I think)--were repeated and layered, building and receding. The second main section, on xylophone, especially sounded like what I think of as Reich music--bright, tight, repetitive, nimble. It was altogether a stunning accomplishment that blurred the line between rhythm and melody.
The New York jazz trio Dawn of Midi took noticeable influence from Reich during its early afternoon set at the Bijou Theatre. The group--piano, bass, and drums--went through its 2013 album Dysnomia in whole, piecing together tiny one- or two-bar fragments of music into what amounted to a dense, interlocking, and subtly shifting single work. Again, the difference between melody and rhythm was never entirely clear.
I waited a while for Oneohtrix Point Never's set right after that, but the technical demands of Daniel Lopatin's audiovisual set-up pushed the start time back (and ultimately set the schedule at the Bijou off, something that never happened in previous Big Ears). (Lopatin also tweeted "Drunk at the Fest" around 7 p.m., a welcome relief from the social media hosannahs directed at the festival--they're well deserved but it's nice to hear something different after 36 hours.)
Some other notes: The delay at the Bijou has had at least one positive outcome, since I'll now be able to see both Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos and Nazoranai later tonight; that had been one of the few hand-wringing conflicts I'd faced when the schedule was released. And I wonder about the Knoxville Museum of Art as a venue for some of the more extreme (i.e., loud) acts in Big Ears--during Dylan Carlson's set this afternoon as drcarlsonalbion, I considered the possibility that guitar feedback might shatter Richard Jolley's installed but still unveiled large-scale glass piece, Cycle of Life.