Daily Big Ears Recap: Day Two

Pictures and words by Rrita Hashani and Zoe Evans.

Day two of Big Ears was a success! After two panels and several shows, we feel thoroughly exposed to new ideas, new jams, and new people.

Panel: Voices! with Theo Bleckmann, Kristin Anna Valtysdottir, and Amirtha Kidambi:

Amirtha Kidambi, Kristin Anna Valtysdottir, and Theo Bleckmann gathered at Boyd’s Jig and Reel this morning for a discussion panel about voices. All three are vocalists but come very different backgrounds and types of training. Each brought their own unique knowledge about vocalizations, training, and personal experiences.

I was especially drawn to Kidambi, who declared the voice (and, well, everything) to be political. She brought up the relation of the voice to the body, and how using it is a vulnerable experience, especially for marginalized people.

Kidambi grew up singing Hindu devotional and Carnatic music, but then had a shock when she attended music school and discovered the curriculum was centered around Western classical music. She later attempted to make singer-songwriter music after learning to play guitar, but felt that her writing style was long and awkward compared to what it was “supposed” to be. Kidambi said that she first had to move away from communicating text through music, and from forcing herself into the position of a poet, before she could later return to lyricism with confidence in her ability to communicate emotion through vocalization of only syllables and sound. Kidambi now has many ongoing projects, but is currently performing in her group Elder Ones at Big Ears. According to her website, Elder Ones criticizes “power structures of capitalism, racism, colonialism and fascism, distilling heavy post-colonial theory into concentrated visceral battle cries” through improvisation and jazz. In short, Kidambi is a bad-ass.

Regardless of their various backgrounds, the three panelists seemed to have arrived at similar perspectives regarding voices. They all discussed how technique is truly whatever you want it to be -- a vocalist need not conform to Western classical ideas of “extended technique” to be successful in making music. They agreed that using your voice is a bit like making visual art: choosing from a color palette, blending colors, expanding beyond the palette you’re comfortable with. And, they all discussed the importance of silence in their work-- whether it be to make a conceptual point, to make themselves more receptive, or to listen.

Each vocalist also did a demonstration of a sound that they use in their work -- one of the many “colors” in their palette -- and encouraged the crowd to give it a try. Bleckmann taught us how to do ingressive singing, Kidambi showed us how to try to “scream like little banshees”, and Valtysdottir made a noise, about which she admitted “I don’t know how I make that sound.”

Lonnie Holley and the Messthetics:

As the Messthetics set up on the Mill and Mine stage, someone came on before Lonnie Holley to give a little bit of background information about him.

Holley used to be a visual artist who created collage-based sculptures. Much of his work focused on the oppression of people of color and women, as his music continues to do. Just like his sculptures, every piece of music is unique. Holley has released several albums of recorded music before, but he never plays the songs the same way in concert. The person who introduced Holley told us “Someone from the crowd would yell for a song to be played, and Lonnie would reply ‘I’ve already played that one’”. He improvises and alters his music as he presents it on stage.

You’d never guess that Lonnie and the Messthetics hadn’t practiced their exact set together before, though. Their sounds all flow beautifully together, like a psychedelic-jazz smoothie. There’s never a moment of anxious pause from not knowing where they’re headed next. Their sound has the confidence of a set that has been played through hundreds of times, and the passion of a jam session.

That confidence and passion is undeniable from the start of the show. When Holley first arrived on stage, he turned his back to the crowd, showing off a trippy looking jacket depicting a rainbow pouring from a giant eye. He stood this way and played the keys behind his back for a moment, before turning to face us, sitting, and removing his shades.

During his set, Holley talked to the crowd about letting themselves feel. “Adult folks don’t like to cry” he announced, encouraging us “everybody cry -- everybody make yourself cry and see how it feels.”

Making Waves: Women In Music, presented by NAXOS

It would not make any damn sense if I had not gone to see the Women In Music panel and, of course, I was so happy I went. The panel included Rachel Grimes, Jlin, Abigail Washburn, Natalie Lewis and two others I sadly did not catch the name of. The panel was moderated by Molly Sheridan of New Music USA who asked, “I always get pigeonholed into asking the question ‘What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated field?’” The panel and audience replied with groans and laughs. “So I wanted to leave it up to you if you feel like it has a strong resonance with you.”

The panel was more than excited to answer but my favorite response was from electronic musician Jlin.

“A lot of people thought that I was a man when I first started out… and when they found out they’d be like ‘Damn, you make great music for a girl’ [and] ‘She makes music like a man.’ Well, excuse me. What does that mean? ...What does my gender have to do with my skill set? ...and then it became ‘How does it feel to be a black woman in the electronic scene?’ so it keeps escalating!”

I loved the line where she asks how her genders interfers her skill set. Women in music (or anything really) are constantly having to defend the fact that they are women. A woman with talent -- for some reason -- completely confuses and shocks some people. While we are definitely making progress, there is still so much left to change in the music industry. After that panel, though, I felt more hope than I have in a long time. We’re in good hands.

The Comet Is Coming

I had actually gone into this show by complete accident and had no prior knowledge of the band beforehand. They blew my mind. The Comet Is Coming lit up the stage and gave the festival some much-needed umph amongst all of the ambient droning. The group is a jazz, electronic band from London with pseudonyms that seem to describe them pretty well; Danalogue is on the keys, Betamax on drums, and King Shabaka on the saxophone. King Shabaka stole the show for me. By the third song, he was drenched in sweat from how hard he would go on that sax. King!

I will say that Danalogue gave a pretty... interesting speech on unity when introducing their song “Unity.” He seemed self-aware, saying that it is “blindfully obvious why we need unity today” but then went on a little tangent about the media that sounded like he definitely hit a GB before. That didn’t stop me from catching their secret show at the Pilot Light later, though.

Although they performed the same set, I was amazed to see at just how much they put into each show. The same level of intensity that they brought to the Mill & Mine was exemplified in the cozy room of the Pilot Light. Luckily, Danalogue didn’t go off on a dense rant. But hey, maybe rants are your thing. Either way, definitely check out The Comet Is Coming.