There seem to be festivals for every kind of music: from classical in Aspen and Spoleto to acoustic music at the venerable Philadelphia Folk Festival. But it’s hard to pin a label on Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival in Tennessee, which draws together everything from big rock acts like Wilco to the elder statesmen of the avant-garde.
“It’s like a who’s who of new music, covering not only new classical music, but also rock and jazz,” notes first-time attender and performer Matt Levy, who plays saxophone with the Philadelphia-based Prism Quartet. “I like the idea that it looks at the relationship of all kinds of music, contemporary music and how they influence each other.”
Prism and another Philadelphia ensemble, The Crossing choir, made their debut in this eclectic mix. Donald Nally, the choir director, feels that, while they have always thought of themselves as diverse, he’s glad to be acknowledged that way by others.
“I’m sort of pinching myself to think that we have a choir that is seen as versatile enough to be included in this and at the same time to be invited to sing in a church in New York. There’s a lot of texture to the work and Big Ears really magnifies that,” said Nally.
Their shared concert bill included “The Fifth Century” by British composer Gavin Bryars. It was commissioned by The Crossing, specifically for the Ice Box performance space at the Crane Arts Building in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood.
“We had wanted to do a commission with Prism for a long time,” Nally explained. “We thought this was a good project for it because Gavin knows how to write for saxes, and he’s a very vocal writer who knows what the possibilities of the voice are, the fringes of the possibilities, and he goes for it.”
Bryars’ music, both vocal and instrumental, is marked by a slow unfolding of melody. He said he thinks about the listener as well as the players when he’s composing. “Something that evolves slowly gives a human pace for the listener. I just love the fact that you can have something so slow that it still swings. It’s not static, it’s still moving.”
For “The Fifth Century,” Bryars worked to highlight musical sensibilities shared by the two groups. “With Prism and the Crossing, there’s this effect we have on one another, where the sounds kind of meld,” explained Matt Levy. “Gavin Bryars has found this magical way of integrating saxophones and voices. It’s sort of a synergy that this piece really exploits beautifully.”
With busy schedules and members spread out in many different places, the performers and composer said they appreciated the rare opportunity to hear a 45 minute work like “The Fifth Century.”
“It’s the first time I’ve heard it live since I heard it in concert in the Ice Box,” he said. “That’s the last time I heard them perform it in front of an audience.”
For those who missed the performances, they recorded “The Fifth Century” at the Curtis Institute and released it this winter on ECM Records.