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

Matthew Allen
John Luther Adams

As a parting gift to the city of Knoxville, Tenn., Big Ears fest composer-in-residence John Luther Adams ended the weekend with a Sunday (April 3) afternoon performance of his Inuksuit, a composition written for between 9 and 99 percussionists. Held alfresco on a mild and gorgeous day, the show had a larger crossover appeal to non-festival-going 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 scattered about, perching in unexpected places as they performed.

The piece isn't just set in nature but resembles it -- it begins and grows like a meteorological event. Before they approached their instruments, the players wandered 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 settled 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, or chatted quietly with friends. One or two philistines even let their phones ring. But the vibe was congenial and appreciative; even those who wouldn't exactly call this "music" enjoyed the additional textures Adams gave their Sunday nature stroll.

Like the number of players and the terrain, the composition's length is variable. 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 shimmering and 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 locals who wanted to see how the free-improvisation segment of the Big Ears populace conducts itself each year.