Big Ears’ audacious mashup of contemporary classical music, jazz, film, and experimental rock may make intuitive sense to tuned-in listeners, but it’s not always easy to describe the festival to the uninitiated. What, exactly, is the thread connecting the British composer Gavin Bryars, indie icons Wilco, American filmmaking legend Jonathan Demme, and Ukrainian folk-music troupe DakhaBrakha? You might say it’s Ashley Capps.
Capps, the president of AC Entertainment, is always eager to credit other people—friends, musicians, staff members—who have contributed to the wide-ranging, boundary-dissolving character of Big Ears. But at its heart the festival is a reflection of its founder’s own tastes and obsessions. Bonnaroo, one of the defining pop-music events of the festival era, may be his company’s signature event, but Big Ears holds special meaning for him. Here he discusses the history of the festival, its future, and what makes Big Ears stand out from other experiences.
What exactly is Big Ears? How do you define it, and what ties all this music together?
Well, first of all, it’s a completely evolving concept, so what Big Ears was in 2009, it was different in 2010, and it continues to be different each year. It evolves—it’s tempting to say with a mind of its own, but it’s certainly with a lot of different influences, both internal and external, and a lot of it involves exploiting connections that lead to unexpected places.
I would say that the initial idea was to cross genres, to explore the different ways in which music influences different genres—classical might influence rock, or draw influence from folk music or jazz or international musics of different kinds. … Most music festivals tend to just focus on a genre. It’s a bluegrass festival, there’s a lot of bluegrass there. They may play around with some folk music and some singer-songwriters, but it’s mostly bluegrass. Jazz festival, mostly jazz, rock festival, mostly rock music.
For me, it seemed interesting to try a different organizational strategy, which I think is more like a film festival. You go to a film festival and you get to see all sorts of different types of films—experimental films, blockbuster films, revered directors, new up-and-coming directors. … Nobody goes to a film festival expecting to see just detective movies. It’s not genre-based; it’s about the art form of film. …
Were there any specific models that you borrowed ideas from—other festivals or events?
I think I borrowed some of the concepts from the more cutting-edge avant-garde music festivals in Europe—maybe a little bit from All Tomorrow’s Parties, which had a pretty broad range that it would pull in, the Sónar festival in Barcelona. Yeah, there were some models. I would say Sónar and All Tomorrow’s Parties were certainly an influence, along with some very avant-garde festivals like Punkt, in Norway, and the Moers Festival, which was a legendary free-jazz festival and it’s changed in recent years into something not unlike Big Ears. So all of those festivals were encouragements in the sense of, let’s think outside the box here and try something new.
One thing that people continue to comment on is that fact that Big Ears is held here in Knoxville. I think it surprises a lot of people. But it seems like the fact that it’s here is essential to the festival, the character of it and how it works.
I think its location in Knoxville is very important, for several different reasons—first and foremost because Knoxville actually provides a great community and a great downtown experience that really helps to nurture the festival along. The venues are fantastic, everything’s within walking distance, there are now great restaurants, great shops, the hotels are all downtown.
The furthest walk is maybe 15 minutes, and that’s if you’re walking at a pretty leisurely pace. Many of the venues are only two or three minutes from each other, so you can be in different venues and you can be indoors but you don’t lose the festival experience, which I would characterize as people coming together for a common reason. I think the minute you have to get in a car and drive somewhere you start to lose an element of that. …
But beyond that, I think the unexpected nature also is a plus, because it gives the festival a certain profile and a certain relief that it wouldn’t have if it was where everybody expects it to be. If it’s in New York, it just gets completely consumed by the cultural landscape. In New York, there’s a million things going on, so people will hear about the festival and they’re like, of course this is going on in New York. Everything is going on in New York.
And similarly, San Francisco, Los Angeles—great cities, I love them, but it’s more and more and more difficult to capture that spark that makes an experience like this stand apart from all others. So I think being in Knoxville has mostly been a positive. Now, there are people who are like, ah, I don’t want to go to Knoxville—until they come. And then when they come, they can’t wait to come back. So one of the beautiful things about Big Ears is the repeat visitors. Once people get sucked into the experience, they’re usually eager to return.
Last year, the entertainment conglomerate Live Nation bought a majority interest in AC Entertainment. What’s that going to mean for Big Ears?
Well, Big Ears is not part of that acquisition, for starters. Big Ears became a 501(c)(3), so it’s a nonprofit organization. … Big Ears has an operational agreement with AC Entertainment, so AC Entertainment’s going to continue to do the nuts and bolts production and execution of the event for the foreseeable future. But Big Ears has the ability to stand on its own and continue into the future as a 501(c)(3).
This is the first year that Big Ears hasn’t had a composer or artist in residence at the top of the lineup. Why the change, and what does that mean for the programming?
Well, I would argue that we’ve got several composers in residence and therefore it became difficult to use the designation. We have Gavin Bryars—there are four concerts of Gavin Bryar’s music during the course of the weekend, and in a sense—in the traditional sense—he is the composer in residence.
But we also have Carla Bley doing two performances. We have Meredith Monk doing two performances, and we have composers like Jóhann Jóhannsson coming and doing a concert, and Henry Threadgill, who is a composer and won the Pulitzer Prize for music last year. It started to seem more awkward than it was useful, so this year I decided simply not to go there.
Is this the biggest lineup so far?
Definitely. And we’ve gone to four days—it used to be three days, we kind of did three and a half last year. This year, we went to four days because frankly there were so many great opportunities and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to say no.
But we also have over 100 performances and 10 different venues. We’re using Church Street United Methodist Church and St. John’s Episcopal Church for the first time ever, and we’re really excited about the programming in those venues. It’s going to be very special.
What do you have programmed there?
Well, at Church Street, the showcases at Church Street, there are two different types of shows. There are four concerts—two of them are concerts by the Crossing, who are one of the great choruses in the world today. They’re a choral group from Philadelphia that commission new work, and they’re absolutely one of the most outstanding groups in the world. They’re going to do two concerts that the primary component of them is a major work by a contemporary composer.
Gavin Bryars is one of them. It’s a new work they just premiered last summer. It’s called The Fifth Century and it’s based on the poetry and meditations of a 17th-century British poet, but it’s very much in the tradition of some of the meditative schools of Christian mysticism. It’s a very beautiful piece.
The other piece is David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, which he won the Pulitzer Prize for in 2008 and is based on the fairy tale but also has a strong religious theme running through it—but an absolutely stunningly beautiful piece of music.
Then the other two concerts make spectacular use of the amazing pipe organ in the church. It’s going to be two concerts by two Norwegian musicians: the amazing trumpet player Arve Henriksen, who’s a member of Supersilent, who plays this very beautiful, ethereal trumpet and also sings a bit like a choir boy; and then Nils Økland, who is a master of the Hardagen fiddle. This is Nils’ first trip to the United States ever, but he’s one of Norway’s master musicians. He’s doing a concert with his partner who works with him a lot playing the pipe organ.
You’ve been featuring some Pulitzer Prize honorees. Did you just go to Wikipedia and go down the list of winners?
No, it’s just a happy accident. Henry Threadgill winning the Pulitzer Prize last year was awesome. I’ve been a fan of Henry Threadgill’s since the ’70s. Amazing composer, amazing musician, he always has extraordinary bands. I actually planned for Henry Threadgill to come last year, with [Anthony] Braxton and [Wadada] Leo Smith—they were all part of the [Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians] together in Chicago—and it just didn’t work out. So we were already working on having Henry come this year and then bang! He wins the Pulitzer Prize. So that’s the way it happened.
Last year, John Luther Adams was here. He had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Actually, he was awarded that prize on the day that I met him, at Ijams. He was here doing a special thing with the University of Tennessee—he was artist in residence for a week or something at UT and I was invited to meet him. They did a performance of Inuksuit out at the quarry, and it was announced that day that he had won the Pulitzer Prize.
But we had already started having a conversation about him coming to Big Ears then. It didn’t work out for 2015 but we had him in 2016.
I would argue that it’s great that the Pulitzer Prize is onto some good stuff.
Talk a little about the actual logistics of planning and staging something like this. When do you start?
I don’t know if I should say this out loud, but we’re actually hoping to announce several of the exciting things for 2018 during the 2017 festival this year, and putting the festival on sale a year ahead of time.
The interest in this festival worldwide has been really inspiring to me. Professionally, it’s been one of the most exciting developments of my career, and the opportunity to collaborate with some of the world’s greatest artists and help bring some of their ideas and performances to Tennessee and to fruition here is an amazing experience. It’s taken on this whole character—it inspires people to come to the table with ideas.
I could not do the film component of this on my own. But Paul Harrill and Darren Hughes at the Public Cinema were inspired enough by Big Ears that they came to the table with so many fantastic ideas for a film component. They loved the music—in fact, I think the thing they hate about our collaborations is that it restricts their ability to go see the music these days. We were scratching the surface with some of these live performances of film scores and the films being screened. It was a very exciting component of the festival, but Paul and Darren have just taken this thing up to a totally different, totally new level.
The symphony—Aram [Demirjian] came to me saying, “What can we do?” And this year I didn’t have anything where I felt like we absolutely have to do this with the orchestra. It just hadn’t panned out that way. I was struggling with that, because I loved having the orchestra involved the previous two years. But there wasn’t an absolute natural fit for a full-scale orchestra program.
Well, Aram was like, “How about if I curate one?” So he developed the program that the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra is going to be performing. Then it’s like, “By the way, we want to play at the Mill and Mine.” That’s what this thing is all about.
The beautiful thing about the growth of this festival is while I still have my own ideas, I have so many other people coming to me with ideas that they want to weave into the festival because they’re so inspired by the possibility. I have no idea where this could go at this particular point but it’s just an exciting ride.
What about the breakdown of where people are from—roughly what percentage are from Knoxville vs. out of town, or from outside the Southeast?
Last year, it was somewhere between 65 and 70 percent were from out of town. I don’t remember exactly how it broke down at the end.
I haven’t looked at the stats too carefully this year, but I would be surprised if it’s a very different pattern. The number-one city was Atlanta but number two was New York and then Chicago. There were people from Nashville and Washington, D.C. But San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin were like five, six, and seven in the metro areas that people were coming from.
Then there’s a lot of people from Europe, some from Australia, some from Japan, Mexico, South America, Canada. So it’s from all over, and the international profile, I think, is continuing to grow.
Last year seemed like the first time shows regularly reached capacity, and there were some long lines for those shows. Have you done anything to—
We’ve tried. In a way, that’s part of a festival experience. We’ve talked about different systems for doing that. We tried last year the reserve seats at the Tennessee Theatre for some select shows, but we didn’t like that and I don’t think the audience liked it much, either.
We have your premium passes, a skip the line pass, so if people are especially concerned about being able to see an artist, we’re trying to make it possible for them to do so.
The beautiful thing about any festival to me is, while you don’t want to miss the things that you’re excited to see, often the highlight is something you had no idea you wanted to see because you didn’t know what it was. For me, that happens a lot at Bonnaroo but especially at Big Ears.
We want to create an environment that encourages people to explore, to go check out things they wouldn’t necessarily buy a ticket for, and to discover something new. The challenge is, how do you program things so that you’re really giving people many opportunities to see a lot of different types of music? We try to strategically program things so that we’re not causing people pain but we’re distributing the audience so that everybody gets to do what they’re most passionate about doing.
Everybody here has some capacity for being surprised.
This year, I think you could be a jazz fan and you could come and just see the jazz. You could probably see all of it, and you could have a wonderful festival weekend. Now, is that the spirit of the festival? Not exactly. But if that’s what you want to do, why not? And you know you can have a little bit of extra time so you can go check out some of the other stuff, too.
There are festivals within the festival, and then there’s just the sheer reality that you can’t do everything. Everybody’s festival experience tends to be unique from everyone else’s.
But that’s like life. That’s how the festival becomes a little bit of a microcosm for life itself.
Describe some personal memories and experiences from the festival—not just shows you’ve seen but conversations you’ve had or random encounters.
Oh gosh, there are so many, and sometimes with artists, sometimes with people who are attending the festival, sometimes with casual bystanders who wonder what on earth is going on. I ran into a friend of mine who didn’t really realize that Big Ears was going on a few years ago. She was hyperventilating because she had just had dinner at the table next to Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth down at Knox Mason.
The chemistry that’s created from people being on the street from all over the country, all over the world, the artists among them, the artists going to shows as well as performing, the artists in the restaurants. Unlike many festivals and certainly unlike your normal concerts, we don’t really do full meals backstage, catering. We have programs that encourage everyone to go out and explore the city and explore what the city has to offer. That helps create a really unique and special experience.
Some of my favorite memories—it’s hard to know where to start. Keiji Haino, in several different instances when he was here that weekend—it was just amazing that he was here in Knoxville, Tenn. Pauline Oliveros in 2009—just being in the same space with Pauline was extraordinary. I’m obviously not the only person in the world who’s felt that, because of their own accord we have not one, not two, but three tributes to Pauline Oliveros that are going to happen during the festival weekend that we really haven’t announced yet, where artists are like, we want to celebrate Pauline’s legacy. Of course, she died right after Thanksgiving this year. That experience with Pauline in 2009 was really amazing.
Philip Glass, not only because he came and gave amazing performances but he was so open and so generous and so encouraging. Being able to spend time with Philip is something I’ll be able to treasure my entire life, and his encouragement as well. But Terry Riley, too.
I’m not a newcomer to this music. I was listening to Terry Riley when I was in high school, wondering what on earth this is. Philip Glass I discovered right around when I graduated from high school and first went to college in the very early ’70s. Philip was like a punk rocker in terms of his aesthetic. I mean, he wasn’t a punk rocker, but he was putting out his own records. He put together his own bands to play his music and he put out his own records. It was total DIY in that world in the early ’70s. I was always so excited by that commitment and that sense of discovery from all of these musicians. …
Steve Reich—I’ll never forget that moment of Music for 18 Musicians, which to me was every bit of the ecstatic experience that it’s supposed to be in that performance at the Tennessee on that Sunday night when we first brought the festival back. I felt like everything was levitating.
Downtown Knoxville is a different place that weekend.
You know, downtown Knoxville is also a different place than it was last year and the year before that even on its own. It’s so exciting to see Knoxville evolving. I joke that 20 years ago, when people came to visit me, I had to explain to them why I live here, and now I have to give them the names and phone numbers of some real estate agents. And that included people who are coming to Big Ears. …
I agree with you—the festival transforms the city. But I don’t think we should lose sight of how the city transforms the festival, too. It’s a perfect fit for what we’re doing, as out of the box as it appears on the surface.
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