Big Ears Fest Closes With Xylophone and Air-Raid Siren-Assisted Experimental Piece

Courtesy of Matthew Allen

As a kind of parting gift to the city of Knoxville, Tenn., Big Ears Festival composer-in-residence John Luther Adams ended the weekend with a Sunday afternoon performance of his Inuksuit, a composition written for between nine and 99 percussionists. Held alfresco on a mild and gorgeous day, the show had a larger crossover appeal to non-festivalgoing locals than most of the weekend's events; with many out-of-towners already driving or flying back home, it was a free and not-too-crowded chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Naming his piece after the enigmatic piles of stone people have used as place-markers in the Arctic for centuries, Adams has created a similar kind of man-in-nature encounter: Percussionists set up their gear outside — in this case, in the woods around an old quarry — and scatter about, perching in unexpected places as they perform.

The piece isn't just set in nature but resembles it — it begins and grows like a meteorological event. Before they even approach their usual instruments, the players wander among audience members, blowing through rolled-up cones of paper or making swooshing notes by swinging plastic tubes overhead. Establishing the quiet, attentive mood, they one-by-one settle in at their stations to gently brush cymbals or hit gongs.

At a performance of Inuksuit a few years ago in New York's fully-enclosed Park Avenue Armory, listeners maintained a concert-hall reverence, wandering about slowly but making no noise. Here, as the music grew less quiet, attendees had varied responses. Some sat in meditative poses with eyes closed. Some played with children, walked dogs, chatted quietly with friends. One or two philistines even let their phones ring. But the vibe was congenial and appreciative, with even those who wouldn't exactly call this "music" enjoying the additional textures Adams gave their Sunday nature stroll.

Like the number of players and the terrain, the composition's length is variable, but while no clear indications were given, most members of the audience had a sense of when to return to the spot where things started. Sounds had turned from shimmeringly percussive to alert and melodic (or, as with a hand-cranked air siren, somewhere in-between); a five-note xylophone pattern bounced from one part of the park to another, before a piccolo gave songbirds in the area some company. Sounds tapered off, and when one brave soul started to applaud, everyone joined in. However structured the piece is, its end proved to be a solid introduction for those locals who, next time the fest is held, want to see how the free-improvisation segment of the Big Ears populace conducts itself.