Get to Know Big Ears, America's Most Distinct and Defiant Music Festival

With acts such as Kamasi Washington, Sun O))), and Philip Glass, the annual gathering in Knoxville, Tennessee epitomizes what a music festival should be: alternative, vibrant, and welcoming.

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Apr 13 2016, 1:00pm


Sunn O))). Photo by Tina Haver Currin

Market Square in Knoxville, Tennessee epitomizes modern Southern pleasantry.

The pedestrian mall in the middle of this post-industrial college town, where there are one-sixth as many orange Volunteers as ordinary citizens, is a polite mix of chain restaurants and revamped Dixieland cuisine, mild-mannered bars and quaint boutiques. Buskers play the fiddle and the steel drum and the blues. Families drift from shop to shop, perhaps milling about while waiting for a table at the Italian-American restaurant all of Knoxville seems to swear by or at Tupelo Honey Cafe, a Cracker Barrel for people fond of the phrase “food artisans.” If Norman Rockwell were painting portraits of our modern national comfort, he would ask all of Market Square to sit still for a spell.

But early on Saturday afternoon, when the bars weren’t yet crowded and Tupelo Honey was just getting busy, a line snaked from an alleyway that shoots off of Market Square, conspicuously angling into the public space. It—or, we, I should say—seemed incongruous amid the hustling-and-bustling burble of families and shoppers.

We stared at cell phone screens. We talked quietly amongst ourselves. We waited in line, talking about seeing Laurie Anderson wield her electric violin the night before alongside Faust talked or wondering if it might be possible to see all of The Necks’ upcoming early evening performance and squeeze into a too-small room to see the Tennessee heroes of Lambchop, from a few hours west in Nashville. We gazed at the door a hundred feet forward, waiting impatiently for enough people to leave so that we too might see the improvisational guitarist Mary Halvorson sit alone onstage with her snarling six strings.

We were back at Big Ears.


Mary Halvorson. Photo by Tina Haver Currin

For the fifth year since 2009, Knoxville—known best for Peyton Manning and old-time tunes and the near-safety-orange glow of the aforementioned Volunteers—again turned into America’s most carefully, lovingly program experimental music hub, at least for a perfect long weekend. Big Ears is the brainchild and labor of love of Tennessee graduate and Knoxville impresario Ashley Capps, whose AC Entertainment co-produces Bonnaroo come the summer and cuts an affable but controlling figure for booking bands in the Southeast for much of the year.

After its grandly esoteric first year, where Pauline Oliveros rubbed shoulders with Antony and Christian Fennesz and Philip Glass, Big Ears attempted to tap the vein of mainstream indie rock in its second year, recruiting the likes of Joanna Newsom and The National. Flailing a bit for focus, the festival took a three-year break and returned to rightful acclaim in 2014. It is now one of America’s preeminent musical events, an envy of organizers across the country.

As March eased into April last weekend, Big Ears celebrated its fifth iteration with the best moment of its resurrection—a compulsively restless, genuinely thoughtful bill that seemed to value, above all measures of buzz or billing, intrigue and excellence. Big Ears has never used the same footprint in the city twice, so that the venues shift as the situations require. This allows Big Ears greater flexibility than most, and Capps seems eager to program almost everything—that is, anything he wants. At times, the music was as monolithic and imposing as the mountains to the east, and, at times, it was as soft and gentle as the spring breeze that blew through the town’s hills most of the weekend. There was a clear thread, though: Without fail, what I heard and saw made me ask questions of the sounds and the ideas, of myself and my surroundings, of genres and boundaries.

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Kamasi Washington. Photo by the author.

Some thoughts, of course, were less than flattering than others: On Friday night, I wondered when Andrew Bird started sounding like such a rock bro, saved from the likeness of Kings of Leon only by an expansive vocabulary and the quirk of pizzicato violin. I pondered why people in 2016 still take Philip Glass so god damn seriously, enough so that his drab-to-comical duo set with Laurie Anderson sold out the enormous Tennessee Theatre on a Saturday afternoon. (This was, mind you, his stodgy fault, not hers.) And watching the generous and brilliant Kamasi Washington regale a late-night room several hours later, I wondered why it had taken Big Ears five festivals to book something so unapologetically black and hoped that, having done it, they always would.

But most of my thoughts and queries were of the marveling variety: While watching Sunn O))) in the wondrous, century-old Tennessee, a space so big and beautiful you feel a touch guilty even attending, I wondered how infinitely scalable the band could be. For two hours, they roared and drifted, drifted and roared, with Attila Csihar returning to the stage in multiple costumes and Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson locking riffs across a range of mountainous amplifiers. It was the most commanding I’ve ever seen them, as if they’d worked to rise to these elevated, ostentatious circumstances. What would Sunn O))) sound like at, say, the Olympics?

And as Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner sang Yo La Tengo’s landmark “Autumn Sweater” through a Helicon voice processor Friday night, with both Yo La Tengo and Lambchop surrounding him, I thought about the ownership of songs and how people should pass them around more, how musicians should let their friends have their way with the sources. While Faust pounded out the savage beat of 1973’s collaboration with Tony Conrad, Outside the Dream Syndicate, I wondered how music might sound if this classic were more than a mere cult favorite, if it had caught on a half-century ago. Specifically, I thought, how would the walk-up music of baseball games sound? And I questioned whether Conrad’s presence on a festival that has previously worked with Glass, Reich, and Riley finally confirms his rightful status as a major American minimalist. (Conrad, it should be said, didn’t show, due to complications with prostate cancer and pneumonia.) Or was La Monte Young just being characteristically difficult?

As Ikue Mori sat behind a computer, constructing digital scores for deeply dark films of puppets lost in moral and mortal despair, I pondered how much the screen influenced my interpretation of the music. I’d never thought of Mori’s broken digital landscapes as being quite so maligned, but now, she seemed like a conjurer of ghosts, a feeling bolstered by the glow of her face behind a screen. I thought about the secret pop phrasings of Mary Halvorson’s guitar playing and the seemingly hairline divide between Anthony Braxton’s praxis and theory. While watching The Necks create an immersive world of sound, I noticed—maybe, as I’m still questioning this myself days later—that Chris Abrahams’ piano seemed to act as a digital delay behind the interconnected pulse of Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton. Could that be true, or was I reading too much into the improvisations of one of the world’s most engaging bands?

All of these questions and ideas, thoughts and feelings occurred in a 30-hour window, over a weekend in the third-largest town in Tennessee. That is its own special surprise.


Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. Photo by the author

I must admit that, for the only instance in Big Ears’ brief history, I missed a day. For the first time, the event stretched to four days, with an impressive Thursday cast tacked onto the front. Work kept me from crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains a day earlier, and it does sound like I missed a few grand moments—what I’m told was an epic and guest-heavy Yo La Tengo jam, a Sun Ra Arkestra set that I heard half-a-dozen locals raving about twenty-four hours later, a Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performance that put John Luther Adams, Bryce Dessner, and Philip Glass on the same program. I mean, who else does that?

That’s much the same thought I had early Sunday afternoon, while hiking a well-worn footpath around the twenty-five-acre lake left behind by an old rock quarry. Because of Thursday’s inclusion, Big Ears limited Sunday’s programming to one especially grand finale—a free performance of Inuksuit, John Luther Adams’ indeterminate outdoor symphony for 99 or less percussionists, in a preserve a few miles outside of town.

On Sunday morning, shuttles began leaving the venue that Kamasi Washington had delighted just hours earlier. A steady stream of cars navigated the road closures of a municipal marathon to wind around curves and along two-lane roads toward Ijams Nature Center. Traffic snarls forced the festival to push the start time back. They wanted to ensure that, after all that driving, people could mill about the enormous property for an hour or so and be bathed in the sounds of drums and gongs and corrugaphones (that is, tubes, whirled by hand), which came from every direction. There must have been a few thousand of us, from local news crews and grandparents with lawn chairs to bright-eyed kids and bleary-eyed festivalgoers, ears still ringing from Sunn O)))’s swell of sound.

At its best, Inuksuit felt like walking in a starfield of sound and being delighted by each new discovery. At its worst, the logistics of attempting such a feat at a music festival’s end made the situation feel a touch unsettled, as though something were slightly lost in translation and preparation. In any event, Inuksuit felt like a necessary benediction for a weekend of challenging sound, a way to summon all the signals of Big Ears and send them out into the world with everyone who had come—from Brooklyn or New York, or even from a few miles over in Alcoa.

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Sunn O)) by Tina Haver Currin

We live in exciting information times, where access to most everything means that we either submit curatorial control to some anonymous expert or algorithm or build our own systems for navigating through an expanding canyon of content. Music festivals, by and large, have started to reflect that just as much as your Twitter timeline. They’re either nameless, placeless buffets that sound and look much the same as all the others because they try to be everything to everyone, or they are reactively, regressively niche, engineered to be impenetrable to outsiders.

On Saturday evening, just as the sun began to set, I saw Capps weave his way through a crowd in order to watch Anthony Braxton conduct his explosive trio with a series of shouts and signals and inaudible exhortations. He looked up at the stage with wide eyes, but he didn’t smile. He just listened, intently, without greeting anyone or glad-handing. I’d seen the seem expression a few hours earlier, when Capps slunk into a fifth-row seat to watch the Israeli-American cellist Maya Beiser conjure orchestral splendor from four strings. He had eschewed the reserved VIP seats and decided to not go backstage. He sat there with the rest of us, transfixed not by the sound of it all per se but by the possibility. Like everyone who had purchased a ticket to Big Ears, which broke every attendance record with a near sell-out weekend, he seemed to want permission to explore, to be shown new ideas and avenues for art.

Big Ears—his company’s defiant little gift to a booming festival monoculture and an event wholly capable of making a quiet Southern town feel like the momentary epicenter of experimental art—grants it. I don’t want to call Big Ears the best music festival in America, which plenty of people have done before me. But it does seem to be the only major American music festival with that all-important mission, and the blessed persistence to pursue it for half a decade.

Grayson Haver Currin is the managing editor of Indy Week and a writer based in North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter.