Three and a half years after the last Big Ears, it seemed as if the avant-garde/experimental/etc. music festival might be over for good—a pleasant but fading memory in the minds of Knoxville's most fervent fans of out-there music. It was the kind of thing that no one had ever expected to happen here in the first place, anyway.
Then, late this summer, a handful of updates on Facebook and Twitter suggested that the one-of-a-kind fest was being resurrected for 2014. After the official announcement in early November confirmed that Big Ears would indeed be back on March 28-30, the only questions left were about the lineup.
Most of those questions were answered Wednesday, when Big Ears promoter/producer AC Entertainment announced a program of Steve Reich-related performances as the centerpiece of Big Ears 2014. The 77-year-old composer, best known for the pulsing 1976 masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians, will take part in a Q&A session and be on hand for other events. He will see his work performed by New York's Ensemble Signal, which will play Music for 18 Musicians and Radio Rewrite, a new piece based on two Radiohead songs that had its world premiere in November; So Percussion, also from New York, which will play Reich's 1971 piece Drumming; and Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, who will perform Reich's electric-guitar showcase Electric Counterpoint.
In addition to the excellent roster of performers for the Reich program—AC Entertainment founder, president, and namesake Ashley Capps calls Ensemble Signal "the foremost performers of Reich's music at this particular point"—the schedule also includes several significant firsts.
"To the best of my knowledge, Johnny's never performed solo outside of New York," says. "And while he's performed this Steve Reich piece several times in Europe, at other Steve Reich events, he's never performed it in the United States, so that feels like a coup. I know that Radio Rewrite hasn't been performed outside of New York—whether there will be another performance of it between now and then, I'm not sure. That's a big deal. I'm pretty sure Music for 18 Musicians, which is arguably Steve's most famous work, from 1976, I don't believe it's ever been performed in the state of Tennessee."
Besides the Reich program, the altogether impressive lineup for Big Ears will also include recently reunited New York punk pioneers Television; Velvet Underground co-founder and renowned modern composer John Cale; experimental jazz/Latin guitarist Marc Ribot and his band Ceramic Dog; Nazoranai, featuring Japanese noise/psych/improv guitarist Keiji Haino, Stephen O'Malley of Sunn O))), and avant journeyman Oren Ambarchi; Austrian electronic composer Tim Hecker; New York electronic experimentalist Oneohtrix Point Never; experimental pop composer Julia Holter; jazz saxophonist and Arcade Fire sideman Colin Stetson; avant-garde guitarist Bill Orcutt; noise superstar Dominick Fernow's solo electronic project, Vatican Shadow; Mark McGuire, formerly of the Cleveland electronic trio Emeralds; German composer Nils Frahm; ex-Luna duo Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips; Finnish ambient/techno/house producer Vladislav Delay, aka Sasu Ripatti, aka Luomo; Wilco drummer Glenn Kotchke, who has also collaborated with So Percussion; 2010 Big Ears veterans Buke and Gase; Brian Eno disciple Laraaji; indie hip-hop performer Son Lux; and Norwegian folk/pop/jazz singer/songwriter Susanna Wallumrød.
Reich will be the third great American minimalist composer to appear at Big Ears, following Philip Glass in 2009 and Terry Riley, who was artist-in-residence for the 2010 event. While the festival's exact purview remains only vaguely defined—performers in the past have included improv ensembles, noise artists, classical composers and chamber groups, jazz musicians, electronic composers, DJs, and even metal bands—the droning pulse of minimalism has been a significant influence, either directly or indirectly, on most of the artists who have appeared.
"It just kind of worked out that way," Capps says. "I think it's because minimalism has been so extraordinarily influential across so many different genres. You hear it now all the time in electronica and movie soundtracks. It's been so influential that it's kind of a natural touchstone for a festival like this to build itself around. …
"Having Steve Reich's commitment to come here, Steve's influence on generations of musicians, cannot be overemphasized. Having him be here and building this around the work that he's created over the past 45 years is an inspiration to a lot of the other artists to be here as well."
Capps says AC Entertainment's involvement with the electronic music–focused Moogfest in Asheville in 2010 (and now with the Mountain Oasis Festival) interrupted the company's planning for Big Ears in 2011 and led to the three-year layoff.
"It just takes a lot of advance planning, and we lost our rhythm of that planning with Moogfest," he says. "So now we hope to be back in the rhythm. Actually, I'm already working on 2015 because of things that emerged that couldn't work in 2014 but we'd like to see happen in 2015. So the process now is in a different place. The other challenge, because of the timing and the calendar, was simply the availability of the venues in Knoxville. All of those together for a single weekend requires a level of advance planning that we had kind of let slip. We just got distracted."
Both the Bijou and Tennessee theaters will be part of Big Ears 2014, with several smaller venues expected to be announced soon.
Tickets for Big Ears go on sale on Friday, Dec. 6, at bigearsfestival.com.