With a look of soft determination, guitarist Bryce Dessner of the National sat surrounded by the world renowned Kronos Quartet, the festival’s artist-in-residence, to perform a piece he wrote for the string quartet’s 40th anniversary. You could tell the quartet’s founder, David Harrington, used to selling out massive concert halls, took bemused pleasure in playing mere feet away from his audience members. Many of these people had stuck around after a performance of math-rocker Tyondai Braxton’s new composition, HIVE, to claim seats (later stands) at front and center of Knoxville’s clean-cut event space, The Standard. After a short transition period, Dessner left the stage to be replaced by Tanya Tagaq, throat-singer superstar from Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada. Over the billowing tension and release of the strings, Tagaq yelped and whelped to a recorded folkloric narrative of a girl who spawns a litter of dog children.
Two days earlier, Tagaq’s trio took the stage of the Bijou Theatre, equipped with violin, percussion, and electronics. After a gentle and charming introduction and a disclaimer that, “I’m always okay! Don’t be concerned,” Tagaq proceeded with most extreme display of human emotion I have ever seen on the musical stage. In this rawer and more improvised setting, Tagaq filled the hall with shrieks and wails and deep rhythmic croaks, making use of every corner of the Bijou. With her hand, she summoned ever-shifting landscapes and all the good and evil within them; fear, hatred, and ecstasy all unfolded from one another. She evolved through a series of bodily positions, at one point crouching at the edge of the stage and extending her arm blindly out into her captivated audience. While the performance was highly self-expressive in nature, you got the feeling she was channeling something greater than herself. People, places, and periods far beyond physical reach wound into Tagaq’s story with a passion that transcended her mere body and spirit.
It may be tempting to label this festival, brainchild of Ashley Capps (of Bonnaroo fame), as an avant-garde affair, and it is, but the term does not fully paint the scope of the musical portrait. Big Ears can be described a festival for serious musicians and, likewise, for serious listeners. You won’t find the dayglo-fitted raver types or bad-trip-inducing crowds of Bonnaroo.
That’s not to say the performers aren’t out to put on a spectacle, to induce a frenzy of toetapping or headbanging, but merely that the organizers relied on a sophisticated musical palate. As freakpop troubadour tUnE-yArDs said about the lineup, “It feels like it came from my brain. But it didn’t.” Big Ears is the kind of place where Jamie XX can ooze funky eclecticism in a DJ set in anticipation his forthcoming album. The kind of place where Wu Man, the world’s premiere pipa player (a sort of Chinese lute) can shred alongside an adorably sinister orchestra of noisemaking children’s toys, courtesy of the Kronos Quartet. The kind of place where Perfume Genius can run through a series of balladic pop fragments with proud vulnerability. The kind of place where you can mentally position minimalist mastermind Terry Riley (a former artist-in-residence) alongside his contemporary progeny like Holly Herndon — 50 years of musical progress in 48 hours.
You can always count on Big Ears to facilitate the kind of joyous and unexpected collaborations that keep cropping up over its four-year run. The festival constructs an ideal forum for artists to reinvent themselves, explore long-form composition, or experiment in multimedia. Between the vast and diverse Big Ears roster and its younger brother, the Hello City Festival, comprised of local acts, Knoxville had performances practically coming out of its ears. Even when I ventured to the Knoxville Museum of Art Saturday morning for a visual reprieve from my sonic surroundings (free of charge, by the way), I stumbled onto yet another Big Ears performance. There, ambient programmer Loscil was happily lulling his audience into a hypnagogic state in the atrium. Even for the unsuspecting museumgoer, his performance proved a fine soundtrack to the art browsing.
Within a few hours of arriving in Knoxville, you’ll notice the city can more or less tell what’s going on, making the festival experience all the more accommodating. Big Ears banners line the streets, and restaurants start serving “Big Ears specials,” whatever those are. Amidst the larger than expected groups of people dotting the squares and storefronts, you start to notice folk who look they have music running in their veins: robust, Viking-like granddads and bearded ramblers who drove 300 miles to sleep in their pickups truck hotels on the top levels of parking decks. With a keen eye, you’ll even spot a performers or three strolling about or stopping off for pint. The event staff was nice as can be, and the same goes for the various venue staffs: the smiling snow-haired doorwomen of absurdly ornate Tennessee Theatre, the accident-response team (aka security) at the sleek and practical Standard. And moving from one venue to venue is a breeze. The midsized city of Knoxville presents a positively walkable arena for a festival of this size and caliber; you’ll never find yourself traveling more than 15 minutes between shows. For the wheel-prone commuters, Big Ears offers bike rentals and even provides your first Uber ride on the house.
If I had one complaint about the festival, it would be that the venue choice did not always suit the performance. At the Tennessee Theatre, tUnE-yArDs, aka Merrill Garbus and crew, proved with every ounce of their being that they are the real thing, crafting some of the most infectious hooks of the festival. Still, she had to beckon her audience out of their comfy seating, and while we graciously complied, we might have more comfortably boogied down in the likes of The Standard. Meanwhile, Kronos Quartet’s performances with Tanya Tagaq and Bryce Dessner at The Standard might have fit better in the Tennessee Theatre. Still, given the high density of shows and the difficulty of accommodating the schedules of the parties involved, all can be forgiven. Indeed, the fact that the festival could make such comprehensive use of Knoxville’s resources is sort of a miracle in itself.
Compared with last year’s festival, Big Ears 2015 housed fewer rock-centric acts — take 2014’s late-night jam by Television or the whacked-out quartet of John Cale. This time around, Big Ears took on a more classical bend, given the bevy of Kronos collaborations or Max Richter and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Vivaldi renditions. That said, the overall breadth of the lineup diminished not a bit, and every seminal exploration of 2014 had a counterpart in 2015 (or as close as one would dare to get in the realm of experimental music). For instance, last year’s skull-detonating maxi-minimal performance by Tim Hecker was met by this year’s brutally meditative onslaught by programmer and guitarist Ben Frost, sandwiched by two drumming accomplices. Last year’s paper-thin layers of jazz, provided by Dawn of MIDI, were met this year by Minneapolis trio the Bad Plus’ thrilling re-imagination of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
The Bad Plus
Truly, the unabashed variation that Big Ears brings to the table means that all fans, regardless of their background, can find sounds both familiar and radically different to fill their ears. I can guarantee that even the most well informed attendees will walk away from the festival with newfound curiosities about musical facets heretofore unexplored.