Big Ears 2014: Connecting the Dots

A few weeks ago, Ashley Capps sent an e-mail to a group of local journalists, politicians, businessmen, and other civic leaders. The subject line was Overcoming the Fear of Music.

Capps wrote about some of the responses he'd been hearing, from friends and others, about Big Ears, a music festival that his company, AC Entertainment, is staging in downtown Knoxville this weekend; he used the words "hesitant," "intimidated," "anxious," and "perplexed," and then followed up with three more e-mails introducing some of the artists who will perform at Big Ears, like the Norwegian avant-pop singer and composer Susanna and former Galaxie 500/Luna frontman Dean Wareham. The fact that Capps felt the need to explain the festival to some of the people in the intended audience says something about the ambiguities and complications of Big Ears.

"I do feel like in some way I have to be an advocate for it," Capps says. "The ‘fear of music' thing is kind of tongue in cheek, but it actually arose from some conversations I had at some social gatherings where people expressed to me that their friends didn't know what was going on. They may know two or three of the bands, but they were intimidated by the experience as a whole. … I felt a need to try to convey more information about what was going on to people."

Since its inception in 2009, Big Ears has been something of an enigma. It's unlike almost any other music festival in the United States, and it's made even more unusual by the fact that it's in Knoxville. It's a cosmopolitan event in a small city—there will likely be more people from out of town than from Knoxville in attendance this year. The music is, to many people, unfamiliar—cerebral, experimental, avant-garde, even forbidding—and the threads that connect artists as different as Steve Reich, Kim Gordon, Son Lux, and Lonnie Haley can be difficult to articulate. But all that weirdness and mystery is actually an important part of the festival's appeal.

"What I like about it is that it doesn't seem to represent a typical American festival aesthetic," says Ben Ratliff, the jazz critic for The New York Times, who reviewed the first two Big Ears in 2009 and 2010 and will be here again this year. "It doesn't seem overly market-tested. It doesn't seem to be explicitly Ashley Capps' private-obsession festival, but it does seem looser than a lot of other festivals. I feel like one's natural reaction, looking at the lineup, is, oh, I have to connect the dots."

Capps often argues against the notion that the music at Big Ears is difficult or challenging, but the metaphor that gives the festival its name suggests that this is music for serious, informed, and even determined listening. But the message of his e-mails is right—much of the music that will be played this weekend is immediately engaging and maybe more familiar than you think. Some of it, like Reich's Music for 18 Musicians and Drumming, is simply beautiful; it will be a wonder to hear these pieces live in the Tennessee Theatre. Some of it—Marc Ribot's various guitar workouts, Dean and Britta's 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests, and Susanna's orchestral pop—add new dimensions to established creative traditions, while other performances, like Keiji Haino and Bill Orcutt's guitar improvisations, will be thrillingly transgressive.

There's no question, though, that the first two editions of the festival were among the best things to happen in Knoxville in the 21st century, and the third Big Ears promises similar rewards.

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