Big Ears Festival Offers The Chance To Truly Listen In A Distracted World


“Deep Listening is experiencing heightened awareness or expanded awareness of sound and of silence, of quiet, and of sounding…”

  • Pauline Oliveros

Festivals such as Big Ears, held March 30th – April 2nd in Knoxville, TN, defy characterization by their very nature. But no matter how you choose to describe the event, you may find yourself at a loss for words, trying in vain to describe this collision of sound, design, and philosophy that stands out in today’s festival scene.

Big Ears is a city festival. The fact that it’s held in Knoxville, a mid-sized city with a relatively small downtown, gives it the feeling of a playground for adults. Bouncing from show to show, a sense of play is discovered; perhaps you make a new friend, or sense a through line in the music that you had lost years ago.

In 2023, Big Ears is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Over this decade-long stretch, a few things have begun to change.

As usual, headline acts balance accessibility with the esoteric sounds at the fringes of the festival. Ethnic music intersects with experimental jazz and ambient soundscapes. A recognizable melody loses itself in the heady jazz of Makaya McCraven or Bill Frisell. Sometimes a concert will blur the idea of what music can be.

Just when you’ve become fully lost in sound, awash in the sonic world, a speech by one of the artists grounds you. 

You now understand why this music matters. It might be just a pattern of sounds, but it represents the yearning, the connection, and the souls of human beings. And that is where the meaning lies.

A sense of adventure, both sonically and philosophically, of your self and the world around you, is what truly permeates it all. 

If there is a metaphor for Big Ears, it is that of a forest trail. Around each bend, each fork in the trail, you sense something waiting to be discovered. Sometimes you find treehouses, other times a hidden river. At other times, the trees seem to go on forever. You look more closely and find that the forest hides many treasures.

Big Ears is a treasure trove, an undiscovered cave in a wilderness of sounds. In a world overwhelmed with media, Big Ears is a refuge. More than anything, it offers you the chance to escape from the cacophony of modern life and free yourself from distraction, listening as closely as you can to the world around you.

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