Big Ears Festival Impressions

I felt a rising tide in downtown Knoxville over the weekend. John Luther Adams’ orchestral journey Become Ocean, which was performed on Day 1 of the Big Ears Festival by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, describes such a thing—the interaction between our existence and the planet’s oceans. Thankfully, that wasn’t it, at least not this time. This tide was the rising realization that Knoxville possesses something intrinsically unique in its Big Ears Festival that no other city or festival has managed to capture. Although that something is as elusive as an ocean lapping at one’s feet, the effect seems to accumulate over the days of the festival with each performance, with each experience. And, one is left with the feeling of having been a part of something incredibly special, if not life-altering. Perhaps the sensation is a metaphor for the realization of Knoxville’s urban revitalization, not just of buildings and performance venues, but of a local spirit drawn out by music.

One naturally looks to the selection of performers as the key factor in the festival’s success, but the reality is more complex. It is the connection between performers skillfully nudged together by Ashley Capps and AC Entertainment that create those rare, sublime moments of unexpected musical orgasm. Pairings of Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass, Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith, Yo La Tengo and Lambchop, Eighth Blackbird, Will Oldham, and Bryce Dessner, are what create those anything-can-happen, once-in-a-lifetime moments. And, it’s hands-on moments like John Luther Adams creating the live electronic effects for percussionist Steven Schick’s performance of Mathematics of Resonant Bodies that make it something to remember.

The Mill and Mine, Depot Street, Knoxville

The Mill and Mine, Depot Street, Knoxville

As I enjoy repeating, good music is good music. It is, in fact, Big Ears’ skillful blurring of performers and genres that pulls listeners in and changes minds for the better. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s terrific performance of Become Ocean on the same bill as Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto and Bryce Dessner’s Lacrimae was revelatory for a lot of listeners.

On a practical level—and everyone says it in a different way—the exposure and reputation that Knoxville gets from the Big Ears Festival is priceless. What we do with it now, how we continue and expand on this vision of an amazing urban cultural scene, is what will define us as Knoxvillians for years to come.