Before yesterday, I had not been to any music festival that began in a museum with a talk about the philosophy and ideas that informed the curators of the unique amalgam of musicians on the lineup. Big Ears started this way, a kind of listeners’ preparation led by festival producer Ashley Capps; his talk was meant to serve as a loose guide to how to approach the music.
This year’s headliner Steve Reich is a thread with which the curators have thoughtfully woven the diverse artists of the festival. Capps spoke of the broad influence of Reich’s compositions, how “he comes creeping out of the speakers and into our sonic environment” in a lot of the music we hear today. He talked of his first time hearing Reich’s music in the 1970s, how it was like nothing he had ever heard, how his Drumming and Six Pianos works spoke to him “with a deceptive simplicity and a unique clarity. It insisted you inhabit it. It forced you to slow down and take your time.”
That idea is perhaps the single driving force behind the festival. This music insists that we really listen, and it seems indicative of a fast-paced, quick-consuming pop music culture that we are reminding people that music is made to listen to.
As a point of departure, or of arrival, Capps suggested we start the weekend with one of Reich’s “beautiful, fundamental pieces,” Clapping Music. Two members of So Percussion, with Reich, clapped the rhythmic, repetitive piece out to a room full of people from their early 20s to their early 80s, who all fell silent. It was simple and energetic, alive and kinetic; the mood was set.
“Now it’s time to dive in,” said Capps.
From there, Laraaji, a zither-player who began as a busker on the sidewalks of New York and was “discovered” by Brian Eno, provided the festival’s unofficial and humble little invocation. Seated cross-legged on a mat, he layered his electric zither into a wash of meditative sound while his “inwardly mobile” partner swung wind chimes and strings of wooden beads and he sang, “We are one as this infinite sun, shining everywhere.” (Laraaji is also devoted to mystic studies and will be leading one of his laughter meditation workshops on Saturday.)
Stephen O’Malley, well-known as the drone/doom pioneer of Sunn O))), who will also be playing with Keji Haino and Oren Ambarchi in Nazoranai Saturday night, played a solo show at the really lovely Scruffy City Hall. Center-stage were his stacks of Orange and Sunn amps, and he stood off to the side, in the dark, looping and building a single chord. Very soon into the hour-long “song,” the large hall was full of his heavy, transcendental drone noise. I took a cue from the long-haired guys sitting along the wall with their eyes closed. Standing against the brick wall, it became apparent that O’Malley’s music breaks open the idea of music as a stimulation picked up by and filtered through the ears. O’Malley’s sound enters through every orifice—and I do mean all of them—and every inch of skin. It is like a full-body massage, hitting on different areas at different points, depending on the range of tones he is working with. This noise was not for the faint of heart; when it hurt, it really hurt. When it felt good, it felt orgasmically good. At various times, a helicopter hovered in my lungs, an airplane blasted across my heart, there were fairies dancing on my scalp, there was an earthquake in my eyeballs, and my kidneys were vibrating with the deep sea. I think my spleen rolled over.
At one point I opened my eyes for a look around, and everyone was just like me—eyes closed, body limp, heads bowed.
After an hour, O’Malley quit and did many namastes, then left the stage.
The phenomenal guitarist Marc Ribot was another highlight of the night. Ribot (who helped Tom Waits find his musical direction on Rain Dogs and on many of his later albums) has said, “What fun is raging against the machine if you can’t also rage against the bar line and tonal system?”
Playing with bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith as Ceramic Dog (Ribot is also playing with his Los Cubanos y Postizos Saturday night), Ribot truly embodied the spirit of experimentation and improvisation, allowing the music to discover itself. It was at turns driving and then devolving, building and deconstructing. It was loose and dynamic and surprising. Ribot, with gray hair, dressed in black blazer and jeans, sitting down with his electric guitar, would stumble upon something new, and Ismaily would look delightfully surprised at Smith, and they would follow along. Smith was an ecstatic drummer, and at times he ripped up the foundations of the song and laid a new one, only to rip that one up and start something else. He absolutely killed it while Ribot took crazy turns himself, letting out little yips and howls.
All of it had a casual joy to it, a kind of whatever-ness. A lone ringing cell phone at a quiet point in the song, an occurrence that would have normally made me grind my teeth, reminded me of John Cage’s notion of opening the doors of music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment; it all seemed to fit somehow, nothing was too sacred.
The band got a song really brewing only to have it peter out and end. Ribot looked at the crowd and shrugged, and there was applause.
John Cale was the major headliner on Friday night, and delivered his songs in a surprisingly restricted manner. The show seemed a little tight and rehearsed. He knew which song would follow the next, and the moment that he would end the song. It stood in stark contrast to loose, anything-goes delight of the Ribot show, and I found myself bored.
The highlight of the show was “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend,” from his 1974 album Fear. For that, he got the crowd going with the refrain “say—fear is a man’s best friend!” And the song had a less traditional song structure than the others he played. There is nothing wrong with songcraft, but the energy within the atmosphere of the festival seemed to fall flat.
Tim Hecker played at the midnight hour to the almost-full Bijou Theatre. His structures unfold at a creeping pace—they are layered beyond belief and slow-churning. In the space of the theatre—a restored historic theatre with a ceiling which I found myself looking up to in the moments I wasn’t closing my eyes, that recalls the set of a Georges Méliès film—his sounds (and they really are layer upon layer, each rubbing up against each to create something massive like the ocean) had the room to live and breathe in all of their real substance.
It reminded me of Capps’ idea that Reich’s music is something you can inhabit. But music like Reich’s and Hecker’s is also music that inhabits the world, in that it sees/feels/smells/touches/hears it in each moment and responds to it with attentiveness and care and presence.
Tim Hecker did something amazing, and I can’t tell you what that was. When someone in the crowd once asked Beethoven to explain a piece of music he performed, he simply sat down at the piano and played it again. That is why we have music; words sometimes have no essence. Hecker’s gift to the world is something no words can give.
And last night, he gave it.
It was a long night, and the last man standing was Hailu Mergia, along with the band Low Mentality. Mergia was a star of Ethiopian music in the 1970s as the keyboardist for the Walias Band. In 1981, while Ethiopia’s government was being overtaken by a brutal military dictatorship, the band came to the United States and Mergia ended up staying here. He recorded an album in 1985 called Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument, that instrument being the accordion. (John Pareles of The New York Times wrote that, “the classical instrument was the accordion, but its old-fashioned tone was joined by the new electronic sounds. With the unswerving patterns from the drum machine, the music came across as an eerie, isolated rumination on a place and time.”)
After the album, Mergia became a star in Ethiopia, but here in the States, he became a cab driver. That’s what he’s been doing for two decades, driving a cab in Washington, until last year when Brian Shimkovitz, who runs the label Awesome Tapes from Africa, discovered the cassette tape in a shop in Ethiopia, tracked Mergia down and reissued the album. Now, for the first time since Mergia came to this country, he is playing shows to audiences of people.
Throughout the show, when he would look up from his Yamaha and Rhodes keyboards to the dancing crowd, he had a kind of smile on his face that said, “Is this a joke? They really like my music?”
They really did, and not just a little. His show drew the most energetic crowd of the festival so far. His music was complex, representing jazz and Ethiopian traditions, reggae and other styles, but it was unique; it had a specific flavor. It was joyous and had a kind of purity of heart to it. (Hecker and Mergia were the yin and yang of my evening: both necessary.)
Low Mentality was the perfect accompaniment to Mergia. The band is a new project headed by Nikhil P. Yerawadekar who plays guitar and bass with Antibalas and a handful of other bands. Of Low Mentality, Yerawadekar says on his Facebook page, “The music is full of bass, beats and devious melodies, and I came up with it without worrying about who the market is or how it compares to anything that other people seem to like. … As much as I respect the hustle, I got into this music thing because of the possibilities, not the most immediate realities, and I want to continue to live my life with that curiosity alive. Also, I want to enjoy my damn self. It’s music after all.”
On stage were two drummers (one on a full set, one on a pair of congas), a bassist, two guitarists, a saxophonist (my goodness, that saxophone!), and a trumpet.
Mergia and Low Mentality delivered the only encore of the festival that I have seen so far. In fact, after the first, when they had left the stage again, they were relentlessly begged for a second one. The crowd would not let him go, yelling “give us one more, please!” I was one of them. He came out to play another. Before he left for a final time, he gave a humble and sincere thanks; his face was one that had hope in the world, or that gave you hope again. It was a great ending to the festival’s first night.