It’s not the 10th anniversary celebration Andrew Bliss envisioned for his unusually named collective of artists and composers, but for the musicians who make up Nief-Norf, an intimate performance on Sunday at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum might as well be a night at the Kennedy Center.
There, roughly two dozen performers will take their places in the upper meadow of the East Knoxville historical site, far enough away from one another and audience members that COVID-safe protocols will be observed, but music composed by Yaz Lancaster and John Luther Adams will fill the space in a way that presents an almost interactive experience for audience members, who can attend for free.
It is, Bliss told The Daily Times this week, something of a comeback for Nief-Norf, founded in 2005 but established in Knoxville in 2011, when he first moved to East Tennessee.
“The pandemic hit us very hard as a nonprofit,” he said. “As a performance organization, we’ve played many concerts and been a part of Big Ears (Festival, the presenting organization of Sunday’s performance) in a lot of capacities over the past six or seven years, in addition to commissions, recordings and touring, and on top of that, we run our own festival every June — and June 2020 was supposed to be our 10th anniversary.
“It’s the largest program of the year by a long shot, and we couldn’t do it last summer, and we’re not going to be able to do it again this June. As a result, it’s upended our operation, because we have a lot of grants and income streams tied to that in one way or another, so we had to basically furlough our whole team. It’s been really rough, but in a meeting with the folks from Big Ears to throw out some ideas and proposals, we came up with a list of things to wanted to get going, and this seems like the obvious first swing.”
Nief-Norf began as a project of Bliss and co-founder Kerry O’Brien, who wanted to explore music that doesn’t fit in mainstream boxes or paradigms. In some circles, the music the organization pursues might be classified as avant garde, but for Bliss, it’s part of a lineage that traces its roots to contemporary classical composers like Terry Riley, Steve Reich and.
“Every instrument, in their learning and pedagogy, has a set of pieces and repertoire they use to sort of idiomatically teach the instrument,” Bliss said. “They work well, and they’re technically guided in what they do, but as I started getting into graduate school, I started finding people like John (Luther Adams), who’s written a lot of percussion music, but also music for all sorts of other instruments.
“Nief-Norf was something my colleague and I came up with as an onomatopoeia for strange music, or music someone doesn’t really understand, and as we started getting into music research, we loved the fact that John had published a book of his writing, or that Steve Reich had a lot of work on him that we could look into and research. We found an artistic whole as we were able to start to learn more about the background of these artists, whom we found very interesting and compelling and thought provoking, and that became the impetus of Nief-Norf as a performance unit and as an educational organization.”
Currently an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, where he serves as director of percussion in the School of Music, Bliss and Big Ears Festival founder Ashley Capps formed a friendship in 2014, when the former brought Adams to Knoxville to direct a performance of “Inuksuit” — the same piece Nief-Norf will perform Sunday at the Botanical Gardens, thanks to the financial assistance of Moxley Carmichael and the Aslan Foundation. Then, Nief-Norf presented it at Ijams Nature Center, and Adams spent a week in Knoxville leading college workshops, giving lectures and ultimately directing his the 70-minute work, described by The New York Times as “the ultimate environmental piece” and hailed by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross as “one of the most rapturous experiences of my listening life.”
In 2016, Capps and the Big Ears team brought Adams back to Knoxville to close out the Big Ears Festival with an “Inuksuit” encore, this time performed by more than 70 musicians scattered throughout Ijams. Although the performance was “packed,” Bliss said, the fortunate few who arrived early for the pre-performance rehearsal were treated to a resplendent, almost sacred, sound.
“For Sunday’s performance, one of the things I’m really excited about is that we have a smaller group of musicians because of COVID restrictions, so it’s a collaboration solely with Knoxville participants,” Bliss said.
“There will be 18 of them, and you can almost see every performer, if you kind of stand toward the middle, so the piece is different when it’s constructed that way, I think. It’s not as dense of a sound, but it also, I believe, allows for more individual contribution. It changes as you move through the space, so I think it’s definitely going to be more interesting.”
The performances — at 2 and 5 p.m. on Sunday — will open with Lancaster’s “sequoia,” a 10-minute percussive piece designed to be played on wooden blocks and ceramic flower pots. By combining unusual sounds with interesting techniques, it opens up more possibilities for the musicians, Bliss said.
“It’s really kind of a meditation on these flower pots,” Bliss said. “It will set the tone for the afternoon, and we’re excited by the idea of doing ‘Inuksuit’ in a way to celebrate the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and to allow our audience to cautiously and responsibly come together again, masked and socially distanced.”