In theory, the all-nighter could have been a great chance for extended, focused listening; in reality, I slept through almost the entire thing. When I awoke around 9 a.m., Nief-Norf, the fest’s resident chamber collective, was filling the space with bowed marimba, cello, and synthesizer tones, creating a rich overlay of harmonics. Several musicians positioned around the room shook sleigh bells, creating a sheen of assertive noise that was still several times more pleasant than an iPhone alarm.
Harold Budd and Nief-Norf with Mary LattimoreHarold Budd’s compositions are often sparse and meditative, contemplating a handful of notes reverberating into silence. In a concert featuring new pieces, a small ensemble of instruments including harp, orchestral chimes, keyboard and cymbal shared momentary clusters of notes or fleeting motifs, like bits of crystal briefly catching the light.
Photo credit: Fistful of Tigers
Andy Bliss of local percussion ensemble Nief-Norf played a slow mallet roll on a ride cymbal to kick off Pauline Oliveros’ composition “Single Stroke Roll Meditation”. As the overtones blended with other percussionists in the room, the clashing created waves of sound like a somber fire alarm. The ensemble followed with Michael Gordon’s “Timber”, an hour-long collection of malleted flurries on blocks of wood. Seeing these waves of wood clunks in person reveals things that can’t be translated onto the 2011 recording: the way the sounds change as the mallets get closer to the center, the machinelike harmony of the performers, the way an already polyrhythm-heavy piece required the performers to work out complex patterns between their own left and right hands.
Big Ears favorite Nief-Norf–Knoxville’s own contemporary percussion ensemble–and Wordless Music Orchestra presented the score at the Tennessee Theater, a classic, large-scale hall. As the evocative score is so percussion-forward, Nief-Norf was heavily featured. It also allowed for members of Nief-Norf to be creative with their instrumentation; playing with the softening or scaffolding, some of the more unyielding moments of the original score proved their choices to be effective. The score’s austerity allowed Nief-Norf to be co-stars with the film itself.
Most notably, the increasingly popular strain of 21th Century Classical and “new music” will be represented by what may be its largest cast yet: cellist Maya Beiser performing David Lang’s “World to Come”, Radiohead cellist Oliver Coates, flautist Claire Chase, pianist Lisa Moore, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, and Knoxville’s own new music ensemble Nief-Norf, who were a surprise highlight of 2016 with a masterfully curated selection of contemporary pieces. “ACME and Nief-Norf are outstanding ensembles,” says [Ashley] Capps. “They have omnivorous tastes and a broad repertoire and it’s fun and inspiring to work with them.”
Local new-music ensemble Nief-Norf filled rooms with the beer-sipping Converse-and-hoodie crowd to hear an 80-year-old Edgard Varèse flute solo.
Or, after being rendered slack-jawed by So Percussion’s Saturday night reinvention of “Drumming” with the Nief-Norf percussion ensemble, you might stumble upon the group’s members in the streets on Sunday and thank them without feeling like some strange interloper. Knoxville somehow fosters the sort of community that Big Ears demands by simply being itself.
Some of the music you’ll hear at nnSF will sound strange. Some will be abrasive or confrontational. Some will be beautiful, or even transcendent. Some of it might not sound like music at all. For many listeners, it will challenge deeply held assumptions about what music is and what it means. (One piece that will be performed loops sounds recorded from outer space and the inside of a pine tree.)You’ll hear new music—music you probably haven’t heard before—at nnSF. You also might find new ways to think about music, and new ways to listen.
“This exciting ensemble performs with a quiet intensity alternating periods of temporal stasis with exhilarating flights of virtuosic precision. Our students left the concert walking in poly-rhythmic discord; their brains will never be the same.
Nief-Norf is simply a gas – a smorgasbord of contemporary percussion works played with superb artistry and resounding musicianship. The energetic performance of these five inspirational percussionists challenged our students to experience the nuance and complexities inherent in the music. Every instrument – from flowerpot and wind-mallet to wooden sticks and saucepans – was played with flawless technique and marvelous expression. The performance was eye opening, inspiring, and musically outstanding – it still rings in my ears! Certainly a joy to experience!
Nief-Norf is an exciting group of young, dedicated percussionists who are destined to do great things in percussion. Their approach to the percussion ensemble idiom is thoroughly prepared and very well executed. Each member possesses an internal flame that burns bright for percussion, as evidenced by his or her recent performance at Mercer University. The audience entered unaware of the possibilities that could come of a stage filled with percussion instruments and walked out with a brand new appreciation of what these musicians and their music are capable of doing.
Inspirational and highly motivated percussionists who take great care and responsibility in bringing the full intent of the composer to the performance hall. With his or her challenging and diversified cutting-edge percussion programming, every listener is insured a listening experience not found elsewhere. The astute attention to detail is second to none with this inspirational group of young and fully dedicated group of percussionists. No one will leave their concerts without a new appreciation of sound reference within the world of percussion.
Your vision and the reality of Nief-Norf is absolutely fantastic. The ensemble has fine performance chops, and your chosen emphasis on contemporary works allows for an exceptional lot of imaginative expressions. Our students really dug it, as the long and loud applause attests. When I mentioned your performance in our wind ensemble rehearsal yesterday, there were lots of smiles and head nods.
Nief-Norf visited the University of Tennessee at Martin percussion studio on March 18-19, 2007. My students and I are inspired from their visit and we feel charged to continue the exploration into Contemporary percussion music that was discussed and performed for us by Nief-Norf. They presented a highly professional master class, which consisted of significant works/composers of percussion music since the 1920s. The presentation was especially powerful because it included photos, videos, sample manuscripts, and recordings to bring the actual sights and sounds to those in the audience. Furthermore, the concert Nief-Norf presented to the Martin public on Monday night was outstanding and pushed our audience to grow and learn about new music. This music fell mostly on fresh ears and I have received numerous emails from faculty members across campus as well as from community members thanking me for bringing in such a fantastic group and for helping Contemporary Arts grow at UT Martin. Nief-Norf is a fantastic chamber ensemble helping to push percussion music to its next stage of development. We were so grateful to have them here and I would just like to say ‘bravo’.