What's Bonnaroo got to do with experimental music?
Big Ears, Bonnaroo co-founder Ashley Capps' avant-garde gathering, resonates with Atlanta's musical outer limits
Drop a needle on the Who's classic 1971 LP, Who's Next, and long euphoric rhythms spring to life amid the clicks and pops of the record's deep black grooves. Flickering keyboard lines centipede into each other, creating a mass of ecstatic and staccato melodies. A full minute passes before Roger Daltrey's rapturous wailing carries the song away to a scenic teenage wasteland. At face value, the song's title, "Baba O'Riley," is a thinly veiled homage to guitarist Pete Townsend's spiritual guru, Meher Baba, and to avant-garde composer Terry Riley. The latter is often heralded as one the founding fathers of minimalism in 20th-century music and, musically speaking, has the most perceptible influence over the song's lead-in.
The Who's nod to Riley's early minimalist compositional style is rarely considered more than a footnote, a bit of rock 'n' roll trivia. But for Ashley Capps, co-founder of Knoxville, Tenn.'s Big Ears Festival, the first few moments of "Baba O'Riley" open a doorway to a universe of hidden allusions that link arena-sized rock to countless esoteric fixtures of underground music.
Capps sees such references all the time, especially when overseeing the other annual musical gathering he's best known for masterminding through his AC Entertainment music promotion company: Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn.
"I am always interested in finding ways of presenting the music I love," Capps says over the phone from AC Entertainment's Knoxville headquarters. "For years I've been struck by how many of the rock bands that I love — say, Radiohead or Pink Floyd, for example — are influenced by some of the other music that I love too. You start to see artists taking these influences and molding them into something else, but it's always fascinating when you start to explore where it's coming from."
Exploring these unexpected musical connections is the foundation upon which Big Ears was created in 2009. Capps' annual weekend of jazz, modern classical composition, minimalism, and improvised music rattles the street signs and storefronts of downtown Knoxville. Why these nebulous strains of experimental music are placed on the same lineup isn't spelled out in an easy explanation. Big Ears' website steers clear of pushing the festival as a forum for any particular musical genre. The festival's identity is as much of an enigma as the music and the audience that will descend upon Knoxville when Big Ears returns March 27-29.
Big Ears' unifying aesthetics are steeped in musical abstraction and impressionism, and include a spectrum of sounds from droning ambiance and elegant string arrangements to squelching feedback. Capps' goal is to harness the common ground and let the music roar.
In giving a stage to such offbeat musical luminaries as Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Television, Pauline Oliveros, the Shaking Ray Levis, and more, Big Ears has become an institution for impulsive and creative music in the Southeast. Big Ears' patchwork of jagged musical threads resonates with a musical culture that exists at the fringe of Atlanta's bustling music scene.
Over the last few years, Atlanta has become a staging ground for various monolithic music festivals including CounterPoint, TomorrowWorld, Music Midtown, and Shaky Knees. Each one draws tens of thousands of concertgoers to the city and the Georgia countryside for days-long marathons packed with pop, EDM, and more from mainstream music's marquee acts.
But as these festivals continue to grow, an undercurrent of outsider and experimental music simmers as well. From the contemptuous rumble of WREK-FM (91.1)'s long-running "Destroy All Music" program, to Lonnie Holley's unrestrained folk art stomp, to Faun and a Pan Flute's excursions, to the mind-bending outer limits of jazz-rock, avant-garde music is a fixture in Atlanta.
The city's musical vanguard thrives on the derelict streets of South Downtown at Eyedrum and the Mammal Gallery, and a few miles away on Midtown's western front at the Goat Farm Arts Center. Local record labels, including DIY operations such as Mission Trips, Geographic North, Blossoming Noise, and Grammy-winning Dust-to-Digital which preserves forgotten chapters of blues, gospel, and country music, allow experimental music to flourish here.
From classically trained musicians to misfit beginners with an idea and a tape deck, these adventurous musical minds form a loose network across the city, entertaining audiences while furthering a discussion of what the musical avant-garde is, and what it can be. Being in the audience means participation. Engaging with the music, remaining open to new musical modes and forms, and just showing up to be in the music's presence is a creative act that bears nearly as much responsibility as the musicians who are taking their acts to the stage.
On a rainy night in January, New York-based saxophone quartet Battle Trance made a tour stop at Eyedrum. Atlanta's Faun and a Pan Flute opened. The group's nine members assembled and elevated the room to a high plane with a meticulously composed set of songs.
Battle Trance's set began with the group's four members standing single file and facing the audience. Each of the instruments eased to life. The tone, texture, and rhythm of the individual saxophones reached a fever pitch, swirling in a din of sonic conflict. But within minutes, the four instruments aligned. It was a psychedelic experience.
Between sets, audience members and musicians shuffled around the room, mingling and talking about the music. Each conversation was guided by the roles that everyone played in such challenging, but engaging music: journalists and bloggers, photographers, musicians, promoters, record label owners, and social media champions were unified by their shared experience in a scene that defies easy definition.
Small interactions like this play out night after night in Atlanta. At Big Ears, similar scenarios unfold on a much larger scale. Atlanta faces crowd the audience at Big Ears. Like pilgrims on a spiritual journey, they travel 213 miles north on I-75 to take part in the Southeast's greatest ode to the workingman's avant-garde.
Farbod Kokabi, 31, sings and plays guitar with Atlanta drone-punk ensemble Lyonnais and co-runs the label Geographic North. He's been to every Big Ears festival. Kokabi makes the trek to Knoxville each year to pay homage to the music he loves, and to serve as an active participant in the music's culture.
"I grew up during a specific era of Atlanta music," he says. "When Deerhunter was coming up ... for me, their masterwork is Cryptograms. That's the sound of some weirdo kids, and that's the music where my interests are rooted. There is a scene for this kind of music here in Atlanta. It exists outside of most people's comfort levels. Big Ears attracts these folks with a curiosity for weirdo music. Maybe they'll go there and hear something they've never encountered before. Maybe they'll recreate it. Or maybe they'll make something completely new because they felt so inspired by what they saw and heard there."
Geographic North traffics in undulating guitar tones, shimmering noise, and post-punk strumming. The influences the label shares with Deerhunter's second proper album, Cryptograms, it shares with many other local groups, from the sustained kraut-rock rhythms of local rockers Small Reactions and the free-range jazz of the Edgewood Sax Trio to Synaesthesia's Color-Tone Drone Band, for which as many as 25 guitars lock in on a single, blasting chord.
One of Geographic North's most recent projects is the drone music cassette series Sketch for Winter. The series features four tapes from acts such as a Sunny Day in Glasgow, Pan-American, Night Cleaner (fronted by All the Saints' singer/guitarist Matt Lambert), and Moon Diagrams (aka Deerhunter drummer Moses Archuleta).
For David Harrington, violinist and founding member of San Francisco's Kronos Quartet, Big Ears' 2015 artist-in-residence, finding new modes of expression compels him to look deeper into the music's past and future.
"I tend to get magnetized by music that is made by people who have somehow found a way to express something about life and themselves, that cannot happen in any other way," Harrington says. "There are certain players and composers that have defined themselves through their instruments. In the case of Wu Man or Jimi Hendrix — people with whom Kronos Quartet has worked, or whose music we have performed — these people have found new expressions through their instruments that redefine themselves, and tell us a little bit about who we are in ways that never could have happened before we encountered their music."
Like the Who's nod to Riley, Geographic North's Sketch for Winter series takes its name from a song by Manchester, England's legendary post-punk group the Durutti Column. Repurposing the title for the tape series is a matter of name-dropping a musical influence, but it also carries on with an oral tradition of sorts, proliferating the music in a larger context.
"I've had some of my best and my worst moments in life while listening to the Durutti Column," Kokabi says. "That stuff is in my DNA, and I owe it to that group, to that song, and to that entire scene to reference it. If 20 years from now someone names a song 'Geographic North,' and that, in-turn, makes someone look into this label and all the music we've released — that's what this is all about."
Big Ears was launched in February 2009 with a lineup featuring a mixed bag of acts ranging from Chattanooga's old-timey avant-garde act the Shaking Ray Levis to early minimalism luminaries Pauline Oliveros and Philip Glass, to contemporary artists including Dan Deacon, Antony and the Johnsons, and Fennesz. The festival returned in 2010 with more varied programming: Riley, Ben Frost, and the Ex upheld Big Ears' experimental leanings, while higher profile alternative rock acts such as the National, St. Vincent, and Vampire Weekend attracted a larger audience.
Big Ears took three years off following the 2010 event. When it returned in 2014 with Steve Reich, Stephen O'Malley of Sunn O))), Keiji Haino, Kim Gordon's Body/Head, Television, John Cale, and others, the festival was clearly charged with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.
Still riding the wave of energy kicked up by last year's comeback, Riley, who turns 80 in June, returns to headline the 2015 festival alongside his son Gyan, Wu Man, throat singer Tanya Tagaq, and the Kronos Quartet. Dozens of other acts, including Laurie Anderson, SWANS, Omar Souleyman, Bing & Ruth, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Bryce Dessner of the National, and Little Annie, will also descend upon Knoxville the weekend of March 27-29.
"The idea is for people to be together and have this shared, common experience, and be able to walk to the different venues, and take in the city as they're going from show to show," Capps says. Sometimes it can be difficult to convince people they should travel to Knoxville for this particular fest, but once they do, they leave with a real appreciation for the character of the city."
Big Ears generates a more low-key environment than most music festivals. The street scene at the 2014 event was reminiscent of its like-minded counterparts throughout the region such as Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, N.C., MoogFest in Asheville, N.C., and Slingshot in Athens, Ga.
Wandering through Market Square, a central, concrete plaza between Big Ears venues, felt like a day on a college campus. Electronic fizzes, whirs, and feedback emanating from some sonic catharsis on stage at a nearby venue bled into the open air. Snippets of concert-goers' conversations about a scene from Cormac McCarthy's 1979 novel Suttree unfolded nearby, along the Tennessee River.
The scene is a far cry from the drunken spring break mania that characterizes modern music festival culture. Here, there are no lines forming outside sweltering Porta Johns baking in the sun. Victorian and Art Deco facades punctuate the cityscape along Gay Street — the festival's main artery — from the Bijou Theatre's small-town USA marquee to the Historic Tennessee Theatre's Spanish-Moorish-style majesty.
A few blocks away, the Sunsphere's massive, 266-foot high glass disco ball — a relic from the 1982 World's Fair — towers over an abandoned rail yard-turned public park.
Apart from the businesses that make up the city's natural landscape, branding doesn't seem to be a part of Big Ears' design. The U.S. Cellular name, attached to the Bijou Theatre's stage on the schedule for 2015, draws attention to itself. Capps says Big Ears is inundated with sponsorships. He's happy to have them. But preserving the character of the concert halls, the music, and the city are essential to the Big Ears experience.
In many ways, Big Ears is an about-face from Capps' much larger Bonnaroo fest. In the 2014 New York Times piece "They Heard Whatever They Wanted," writer Ben Ratliff reported that just under 2,000 people attended Big Ears shows each day of the 2014 festival. It's a paltry number compared to the more than 90,000 people who attended Bonnaroo in 2014. But Big Ears was not designed to imitate the high-volume festival model. Money is a factor, though, and Capps' impulses aren't so different in the case of Big Ears.
"To be certain, it is a passion project for me," Capps says. "But I am a businessman. Finding ways to make this keep working is all part of the art of presenting anything. Big Ears is no exception to that."
Quality over quantity is rarely the winning mantra when it comes to music festivals, which makes it all the more compelling to see Big Ears set up to serve such singular and peculiar music. A.C. Entertainment declined to disclose whether Big Ears pays for itself, turns a profit, or is tanking. Capps, however, does say that ticket sales for Big Ears 2015 are much stronger than last year's. Tickets range in price from $178.50-$199.50 for a weekend pass. Single day tickets run $65-$75.
Of course, intentions vary with people when it comes to the festival experience. For some, getting lost in a sea of people and sweating through marathon blasts of EDM is the experience of a lifetime. At Big Ears, it's all about the conversation, intellectualizing the music, and finding inspiration. This kind of dedication to the music resonates far beyond Knoxville's city limits, all the way to Atlanta, and throughout the Southeast. Big Ears is a place where new music can truly be discovered as a communal effort. That experience is what keeps people coming back.
"I have faith in one little part of humanity, and that is it's fun to learn new things," Harrington says. "It exists all over the world, and music is a great way to share that. It's mysterious, none of us own it, but we all recognize it, and we'll travel great distances to keep learning from it, even though we can't explain what we've learned from music."
Making the trek to a remote Tennessee outpost is all a part of Big Ears' allure. "Would I like to see the Necks play a show here at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta? Yeah, man — but they ain't gonna," Kokabi says. "So I'll drive to Knoxville with a carload of my friends and see them play at the Bijou, and have a damn good time."