If it was hard to nail down a common thread among the artists who performed at the first installment of Big Ears in 2009, it's even harder this year. What, exactly, connects the composer Terry Riley and indie rockers Vampire Weekend? New-music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars and the National? Nouveau-folk singer/songwriter St. Vincent and tape-loop experimenter William Basinski? Party-rock performance artist Andrew W.K. and eccentric harpist/folk singer Joanna Newsom? British new-new wavers the xx and Dutch art-punk collective the Ex?
The best answer might be that it doesn't seem to matter. What began as a festival of experimental music has developed into something else. It's still an unusual premise, mixing and matching pieces from Bonnaroo, All Tomorrow's Parties, and European avant-garde festivals. Vampire Weekend and the National may have added some surprising commercial heft to the top of the lineup, but Big Ears hasn't given up on adventurousness. The weekend is still centered around Riley, after all. He's appearing four times during the festival, solo and with groups, performing new work and old pieces, covering nearly 50 years of his career.
In addition to those heavyweights, there's more or less straightforward indie rock (the xx, Dirty Projectors, Gang Gang Dance), indie folk (Joanna Newsom, Clogs), electronic music of varying danceability (DJ /rupture, William Basinski, Tim Hecker, Nosaj Thing), contemporary classical music (Bang on a Can All-Stars, Tracy Silverman, the 802 Tour, Iva Bittova, Shelley Hirsch), and noisy improv (Konk Pack, the Ex). There are also nearly a dozen local and regional acts, a three-day experimental film program at the Knoxville Museum of Art, and numerous unlikely collaborations.
What follows is our guide to Big Ears, and never mind whether putting this lineup together makes any "sense."