Bigger and Better: 2015 Big Ears Festival Embraces Possibility
This year’s Big Ears Festival, held in Knoxville, TN on March 27-29, featured a lineup that was imaginatively eclectic, cutting-edge, and avant garde. Now in its fourth year, the festival’s organizers succeeded in creating an event that transcends the ordinary in every way to celebrate creativity and artistic innovation across musical genres. The weekend’s schedule was packed with diverse acts that all had one thing in common: their ecstatic embrace of the possible.
Performances were spread out in venues scattered along approximately five blocks of downtown Knoxville, and the variety offered by each of the venues–from the intimate Square Room to the majestic Tennessee Theatre–reflects the range of the festival itself. Big Ears is one of a small but growing number of festivals that take advantage of urban spaces, supporting local communities and encouraging visitors to explore towns that might not have been on their radar. Knoxville, with a population of not quite 200,000, is perhaps not the first place you’d think of for a festival that features acts from The Kronos Quartet to Jamie XX, but the location was perfect. The unofficial slogan of the city is “Keep Knoxville Scruffy,” and although Big Ears classed things up quite a bit, the unpretentious, welcoming, and, yes, slightly scruffy vibe made everything even more enjoyable. Music festivals can sometimes feel a bit exclusionary and affected, but the mood was more often than not down-to-earth rather than lofty, accessible and open rather than egoistic and haughty. The festival is, rightly, a point of local pride, but it’s a two-way street: the weekend assuredly wouldn’t have been the same without its host city. The proximity of the venues to one another and to the restaurants and cafes of downtown Knoxville made it easy to dip into a local coffeehouse, like the delightful Coffee and Chocolate, sip a craft cocktail (Holly’s 135 had a creative and intoxicating selection), or settle down for long enough to enjoy a proper meal–the menus for brunch at Cru Bistro and dinner at The Tomato Head offered fresh, inspired choices.
But of course all of this exploration would not have been possible without the music. The festival’s first event, an opening reception at the Knoxville Museum of Art, was directly followed by Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s performance (one of two on the schedule). Hildur’s evocative, melancholic strains inspire a hypnotic reverie in her listeners. Hailing from Iceland, Hildur joins her voice with her electric cello (a beautiful instrument designed by Icelandic instrument-maker Hans Johansson, which she lovingly introduces as Ómar) to create sweeping sounds that seem to rise out of the primordial volcanic landscape from which she hails.
Hildur’s performances were not the only ones that encouraged intimacy. Dutch lutenist Jozef van Wissem, who played a solo show Saturday afternoon at the Square Room, created a deep connection with the audience through his music and his performance style. Seated on stage with his 24-string Baroque lute, he invited deep attention as well as introspection. The timeless quality of the instrument itself is reflected in his palindromic composition style and his repetition of melodies that seem to stretch the fabric of time itself. The hushed audience sat reverentially on the floor of the venue as van Wissem’s immersive songs suffused the space. Grouper‘s performance, also in the Square Room on Saturday night, both fostered and eschewed intimate connection as Liz Harris sat in complete blackness onstage, murmuring dark notes inflected with strains of grace as a video installation played overhead like the reel from a dream.
While these performances were characterized by a quiet, meditative quality, Big Ears wasn’t afraid to get loud. SQÜRL‘s droning, feedback-embracing sounds filled the Square Room on Friday night (with van Wissem on 12-string guitar), and on Saturday Jim Jarmusch and Carter Logan performed a live score for Man Ray films at the historic Bijou Theatre. Steve Gunn brought his unique brand of psychedelic folk-rock, characterized by his deliciously soulful guitar and smooth voice, to the festival. And, on the final evening, Swans and Little Annie rocked out hard. The loudest performance of the weekend, though, was Tyondai Braxton‘s experimental HIVE, which was so ferociously uncompromising and strangely beautiful that it sounded like an alien A.I. had taken over the sound system at The Standard.
“Experimental” is a buzzword for Big Ears, and it certainly fits. One of the most exciting and talked-about performances was Tanya Tagaq‘s, the Inuit throat singer who reassures audiences before her performances that yes, she really is ok. Dressed in fur leggings and barefoot, Tagaq screamed, moaned, and gyrated like a woman possessed during her utterly powerful and riveting set. She returned on Sunday to perform Tundra Songs, composed by Derek Charke, with the Kronos Quartet. Charke traveled to Tagaq’s home turf of Nunavut, the northernmost Canadian territory, where he spent two days recording the sounds of that sublime and unforgiving landscape, which were joined with the Quartet’s playing, Tagaq’s expressionistic sounds, and the recorded retelling of a myth about a water goddess who holds the power of the seas.
Kronos Quartet, as the artists-in-residence, played five shows over the weekend, joining forces not only with Tagaq, but also with Laurie Anderson, Terry Riley, Rhiannon Giddens, Sam Amidon, Bryce Dessner, and Nels Cline in a series of unforgettable sets that showcased the Quartet’s diversity of interests and playing styles. Max Richter performed his neo-classical compositions twice over the weekend. Particularly stirring was The Blue Notebooks, which features readings from Franz Kafka and Czesław Miłosz. Jazz trio The Bad Plus performed their deconstructed reimagining of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring twice in one night.
While these performances were more serious, other musicians added a levity that balanced things out. tUnE-yArDs brought their infectious music to the Tennessee Theatre on Saturday night. They served up a much-needed jolt of energy, playing in front of a draping background decorated with eyes that looked like it had come out of an Alice in Wonderland / Spellbound mash-up (I’m thinking specifically of the Dali-designed dream sequence from the latter film). Experimental producer Holly Herndon (a Tennessee native whose parents were in the crowd) served up an irreverent, exuberant set that pushed the boundaries of electronic music. Heavy-hitters Nosaj Thing, Clark, and Jamie XX all performed on Friday night and kept The Standard thumping, and Saturday was filled with the sounds of Coupler, Herndon, and crowd favorite Omar Souleyman.
Even more than “experimentation,” the word that fits Big Ears the most is “possibility.” It’s not just a festival, it’s a coming-together of artists who are constantly moving forward in their composition and performance. It skirts the horizon of the unknown, flavors the dream of the what’s-to-come. During her performance, Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs) leaned in to tell us all a secret: “Don’t tell the other festivals, but Big Ears is my favorite festival.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.