The roots of the Big Ears Festival go back to 1979, when Ashley Capps booked his first show, a performance by the free-jazz cellist Tristan Honsinger at the Laurel Theater. Capps has made his professional reputation in the years since as the head of AC Entertainment, one of the biggest concert promoters in the Southeast and co-founders of the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn. But back then he was a 23-year-old University of Tennessee student and part-time DJ on WUOT 91.9 FM, interested—even obsessed—by contemporary jazz, modern composition, punk and New Wave, and international music. Nobody else was bringing the artists he wanted to see to Knoxville, so he started doing it himself.
That's essentially the model behind Big Ears, which is bringing an A-list of international superstars of out-there music to Knoxville this weekend. The difference is that Capps is now a professional, and he's combined his business sense with his own personal taste to build something that could put Knoxville on the world scene for adventurous music, at least for three days.
"This particular event, I've been thinking about doing something like this for a long time," he says. "The thing that pushed me into moving forward was Jon Hassell."
The Memphis-born trumpeter Hassell, who studied under serial music mastermind Karl Stockhausen and later in India, combines minimalism, the influence of Indian and African music, and electronic manipulation for what he calls "Fourth World" music. He's collaborated with Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel, but rarely tours.
"He hadn't performed in the U.S., to the best of my knowledge, for many, many, many years," Capps says. "I knew he had a new record and would be doing a small tour of six or seven cities, so I immediately agreed to do one of them. I'd already been thinking about the Big Ears concept. I thought, ‘Why not try to put several artists together to create synergy, to create more of an audience for everyone involved?' Jon's tour was a major starting point. Aesthetically, the vision of the festival spins out of Jon Hassell's music and the many different worlds he's touched on. There's the minimalist/trance aspect of it, but also the exotica, for lack of a better word."
Another point of combined energy came from Capps' partnership with Chris Molinski, formerly the proprietor of the Art Gallery of Knoxville and now an associate curator for education at Knoxville Museum of Art, and Jason Boardman, owner of the Old City music club Pilot Light. Both are providing space for performances and workshops, which has expanded the idea beyond a concert series into an immersive weekend-long experience of music, art, and interactive sessions involving the event headliners and local artists and musicians.
"I've been talking for a long time to Ashley about how we can work together as an arts community, to get the different parts of the arts community together and collaborate," Molinski says.
A question underlying the news of Big Ears since it was announced has been: Why Knoxville? Will a mid-size city support a weekend lineup of avant-garde, experimental, and underground musicians? Will enough people travel to Knoxville to make Big Ears a financial success?
Capps says he hopes to bring enough people to fill the Bijou—about 750 people—for the headlining events. Marketing for Big Ears has been limited and focused—ads ran in British music magazine The Wire, in Atlanta's monthly music publication Stomp & Stammer, and Metro Pulse; most of the festival's outreach has come across the Internet. It's still managed to become a focus of significant attention: Two writers from The New York Times are expected to attend, as are reporters from Pitchfork, the music-review website, and Baltimore's alternative weekly, The City Paper.
"I really did think of doing it other places first," Capps says. "I think the key thing is that Knoxville has a fantastic infrastructure for an event of this nature. I can't think of any city that has venues the quality of the Bijou and the Tennessee Theatre a couple of blocks from each other. But I'm also attracted by this not being in one of the established culture centers. It will create more of a sense of community among people who attend—they're here for a common purpose. I think by having it in a location that's a little bit unexpected and outside of all that cultural traffic, it helps create more of an immersive experience. And I think Knoxville's a cool town. I'm proud to have an opportunity to show off how cool Knoxville is."