Big Ears Festival 2014

I had the absolute pleasure of attending for the first time, the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN over the past weekend. It was humbling and a true honor to be able to enjoy the festival both as a producer and curator of 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, featuring Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips, and as a fan of many of the stellar artists on the weekend roster, including Steve Reich, John Cale, Television and Low. To have The Warhol’s project 13 Most Beautiful, 5 years and some 85 shows into its touring life, selected by a festival highly praised for its adventurous spirit and forward-thinking range of experimental and new independent music, was a real crowning achievement for the project and for Dean & Britta.

My most lasting impression was how refreshingly fluid, relaxed, and both artist and audience friendly the festival seemed, which from my perspective, was due in large part to the setting of downtown Knoxville, with two beautifully restored theaters (The Bijou, a former vaudeville house, and The Tennessee, originally a movie palace from the ‘20’s) as primary venues, just a couple blocks apart and the thoughtful programming and scheduling of artists in terms of location and timing. For instance, I feel that 13 Most Beautiful was placed perfectly in this festival context as a 1:00 matinee performance on Sunday, the final day, as a subdued, dark musical theater piece, that could linger with an audience long after the performance, like an off-beat,  challenging independent film, as opposed to a high-energy, late night headlining event. In general, I was impressed by how the festival’s primary intention seemed to be not to create “sound-bite” moments for social media sharing or to neatly package artist experiences to perfectly match ultra-defined and genre described expectations, though instead was to thoughtfully create conditions for audience listening experiences, based on venue strengths and artist sensibilities. And to create at times awkward, unsettling and unexpected moments, created by artists listening to each other, mixing forms, pushing boundaries and sharing a stage in a festival context.

When Ashley Capps, who’s company AC Entertainment produces the festival (and also founded the much larger Bonnaroo Festival), was asked in a recent New York Times interview by Ben Ratliff to define the festival, he said it’s about “overcoming resistance”: not just a listener’s resistance to going outside a familiar genre, but resistance to the thought that a festival like this should happen here, not in New York or San Francisco”.  Ratliff had this say about the first Big Ears edition in 2009, which I think sums it up well…”You could also say that Big Ears was for people with long attention spans, good concentration and an appetite for letting repetitive non-dance music wash over them…Big Ears was for concertgoers who appreciate not hearing a lot of introductions and context and sponsor announcements before the music even starts. In other words, at times it was heaven.”

2014 Artist Roster:
Steve Reich
Ensemble Signal
Johnny Greenwood
John Cale
Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog
Marc Robit Solo Performance of Original Score to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid”
Nazoranai (Keiji Haino, Oren Ambarchi, Stephen O’Malley)
Tim Hecker
Oneohtrix Point Never
So Percussion
Vladislav Delay
Dean & Britta: 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests
Julia Holter
Colin Stetson
Dean Wareham
Glenn Kotche
Dawn of Midi
Vatican Shadow
Son Lux
Nils Frahm
Bill Orcutt
Mark McGuire

Ben Harrison

Curator of Performing Arts