For the better part of the last decade, in late March, music lovers and top-tier musicians tired of the status quo descend upon Tennessee’s third largest city – Knoxville – for a deep dive into musical exploration and collaborations they might not have ever fathomed. The Big Ears Music Festival has turned concert and festival-going on its head. While you can almost bank on sister festival Bonnaroo featuring some chart-topping mainstream pop artist whose music can be heard on some “Jack,” “Chuck,” or “Dave” FM radio station – the same really can’t be said for the Big Ears Festival produced by Knoxville’s A.C. Entertainment.
The experimental festival began in 2009 with an uncertain future, in and of itself an experiment. However, 11-years and eight festivals later (they took some time off between 2010 and 2014), Big Ears has grown to become one of the most critically acclaimed music festivals in the world. Ben Ratliff of The New York Times referred to the 4-day event as “possibly the widest-angle music festival in the country, bridging the spaces between the classical tradition, improvised music, electronics and guitars.”
Big Ears is, in fact, a cornucopia of experimental, groundbreaking artists, a kind of sonic choose-your-own-adventure. You might recognize a few names on the docket and some may even surprise you in their notoriety and connection to pop culture like a certain bassist for one of the most iconic rock bands of all time, but that’s where the familiarity ends. Predictability is not Big Ears’ specialty. To play at Big Ears it seems as though one needs to make their name in some alternative chasm of the musical landscape. This year’s festival is no different.
The incoming classical delegation consists of some of the genres most forward-looking heavy hitting musicians. Kronos Quartet is returning for the first time since headlining the 2015 edition of Big Ears. In addition to their own feature, the foursome will join minimalist icon Terry Riley in celebration of his 85th birthday, performing their recent collaboration Sun Rings. Bang on a Can All-Stars are back too and this year they are premiering the song cycle Memory Game by polymath Meredith Monk. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw will also be in attendance during that last weekend in March with a solo concert along with a collaboration with the innovative percussion ensemble Sō Percussion.
One act that A.C. Entertainment head-honcho Ashley Capps says he’s “super excited” about is Brooklyn-based Haitian-American Nathalie Joachim (ZHWAH zheñ) who’s recent album Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti) has been released to rave reviews. Joachim is best known as the flutist and co-artistic director of the renowned chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird. The project celebrates Joachim’s Haitian heritage, most specifically Haiti’s iconic female artists. Joachim is joined by the Spektral Quartet on the album and for the festival.
Jazz fans can look forward to the patented solo performing of saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton. Braxton will be celebrating his 75th birthday and introducing his newest endeavor, Thunder Music Ensemble which integrates vocal, instrumental, and electronic music.
Other jazz acts include Jason Moran and the Harlem Hellfighters with a tribute to the early 20th-century ragtime musician James Reese Europe. Pianist and bandleader Myra Melford will be making her Big Ears debut with Snowy Egret. The enigmatic Annette Peacock is also set to make a rare, live appearance at the festival this year. New Orleans jazz gets some solid representation as well from Aurora Nealand and the Royal Roses.
The odd couple of the festival has to be legendary bassist John Paul Jones, formerly of Led Zeppelin and the acclaimed Finnish cellist Anssi Kartunnen who have recently teamed up to form the band Sons of Chipotle. Jones has been everything from session musician to opera composer during his 60-plus-year career. Kartunnen is one of the world’s most sought after cellists having performed over 160 world premieres and is the beneficiary of an astounding 30 concertos written specifically FOR HIM. This will be the new band’s North American debut. Capps told Melony Dodson of Knoxville’s WUOT that he really doesn’t know what to expect from these two – the true spirit of Big Ears!
After all of that, the surface has barely been scratched. Musicians from the world stage, pioneers in electronic music, fusion folk and rock bands, and so much more will be making their way to East Tennessee this year to be a part of what Alex Ross of the New Yorker calls “the most open-minded music gathering in the country.” And the best part is – you don’t even have to go to the festival to discover all it has to offer. You can start by merely checking out the lineup right here! Tickets went on sale yesterday and guess what? There’s more to come.
For anyone who loves to discover music, Big Ears is the sandbox. So, go! Enjoy! And even if you can’t make it to Knoxville this year, there’s plenty of music to keep you occupied.
To hear more from Big Ears’ producer Ashley Capps, check out his interview with Melony Dodson of WUOT.