The season has come again, that time of long days of sun and music festivals. Spring is in the air, bringing with it that musty smell of wet streets, the night lights reflecting off the moisture as people emerge out of their long winter hibernation. As you leave your house in the evening hours, hesitant at first, like a bear groggy from a long sleep, you hear the far off sound of music somewhere in the city. Will you follow it?
These sounds may be coming from a sleepy southern city in the United States of America, the sounds and flavor of the globe spiraling into existence with the beginning of the Big Ears Festival. This springtime feeling, digging into your very bones, seems mystically connected to the music you hear. You begin to walk toward the sound, which inexorably moves your body in unison with it.
What is Big Ears? It is something brimming with light, feeding off of wonder; a music festival unlike any other you have ever seen, and which it is worth making the journey to see. For four magical nights in late March, that most unlikely town of Knoxville, Tennessee plays host to a tangle of experimental jazz mystics, hardcore folk traditionalists, and meditative sound artists, all of whom show up to play and dance and frolic at the edge of possibility. Sometimes the genres and artists at Big Ears can feel disparate, but the philosophy that informs them is not. The artists that play at Big Ears are explorers of music and sound, ones that search for and crave all the depth of meaning that is contained within our human attachment to organized sound.
When it comes to describing Big Ears, I often find myself caught in a tangle of adjectives, my mouth jumbled with esoteric words that just won’t come out, at least not in the right combination as to make them a complete and coherent sentence. I usually settle on something banal and vague such as “experimental music” or “intellectual sound experiments,” which as soon as it comes out of my mouth, seems paltry in trying to describe such a dynamic and boundary-destroying festival. What I can say is that you will find surprises around every corner, will have chances to test and explore the edge of your music taste, and will hear something you have never heard before.
To some Big Ears is an outlier, an eccentric festival for those bored by popular music, but that’s not quite it. The fact that it exists points to a current in a society, a movement in culture from the mundane to the exquisite. Where did such an exciting and cutting-edge festival come from? Big Ears seems even stranger to me because I am from Knoxville. Coming back to the place I grew up to find groups of mind-bending musicians assembling in my city was as strange as perhaps people felt around the turn of the twentieth century, when they came to the city to find tangles of wires crisscrossing the streets, trolleys soaring through city blocks, and the thick smoke of factories blotting out the horizon. During Big Ears, Knoxville is a different place, a strange new future that is impossible to ignore.
Though it’s hard to conceptualize how Big Ears 2019 could ever be better than 2018, there are a few acts I just can’t wait for. One is the legend of ambient piano, Harold Budd, who, along with his famous collaborations with Brian Eno, has carved out a career as the foremost authority on piano atmospherics. Performing three sets at Big Ears, fans can expect to immerse themselves completely in his enigmatic style. Edging into musical mysticism, the sounds from the master will be something to experience.
Another must-see is Nils Frahm, who like Budd has cultivated a career as a dedicated adherent of piano and keyboard sounds. Whether softly playing spacious pieces alone or creating cinematic soundscapes on his vast array of synthesizers, Frahm will be bringing a particular European sense of minimalism to Big Ears 2019. It will be fascinating to see what kind of mood he creates during his show inside the beautiful Tennessee Theatre.
Other big names coming to play this year include Spiritualized, Richard Thompson (who’s playing with the Knoxville Symphony Strings), Punch Brothers, and Ralph Towner. Covering a wide array of musical genre and style, fans of any type of music can find their home here. This is exemplified by artists like Sons of Kemet, who play at the edges of jazz with roots in Caribbean rhythm and urban hip-hop. Spiritualized was also an exciting addition. Coming off a new album, the creator of the masterpiece “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” will sure to bring all the maximal joy of rock ‘n’ roll at its finest to The Mill & Mine.
But it’s not like this is only a festival of highlights either. Big Ears 2019 is stacked with talented musicians at many different stages of their career. Up and comers like Mountain Man and Joep Beving will bring new waves of folk and piano minimalism, respectively, to the festival. Electronic impulses will vibrate in halls where Kara-Lis Coverdale and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir experiment with drone textures and new mixtures of acoustic and synthetic instruments. Wherever you go, the senses will have a feast to indulge in.
Playing at the edges. That’s what sticks out about Big Ears Festival. In the tangled, seemingly infinite universe we live in, we need explorers that test what’s possible, dig up lost remnants of the past, and alchemize it all into strange currents of newness. This is a festival for those who delight in this kind of discipline, a pursuit that is serious in its approach, yet also rides on waves of joy at the way music, like all forms and matter in the universe, is in a constant state of flux. The music at Big Ears actively attempts to tap into the beauty and the wonder of these changes and fill us with the expansiveness of the sublime.
For those looking for a taste of the music, there is a Big Ears 2019 playlist on Spotify that you can listen to at your convenience with over 700 songs from the various artists that will be gracing the stages at the festival. You can find it by typing “Big Ears” into the search bar on Spotify or by following this link: