Southern Documentary Fund logo
SDF logo, for print only

Big Ears of Knoxville: A Gradual Process

Project Directors: Sam Stephenson and Ivan Weiss
Website: http://rockfishstew.org/big_ears_festival/

"Listening to an extremely gradual musical process opens my ears to it, but it always extends farther than I can hear, and that makes it interesting to listen to that musical process again." - Steve Reich, "Music As a Gradual Process," 1968.

After a four year hiatus, Big Ears, the extraordinary music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, is back. The first two iterations united far-flung performers like the minimalist classical giants Philip Glass and Terry Riley with contemporary indie rock bands The National and Vampire Weekend, as well as experimental sound artists like Tim Hecker. This year Big Ears promises to expand the legacy. Headlining is another profound minimalist, Steve Reich, with Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, John Cale and Television in the lineup, along with classical ensembles Ensemble Signal and So Percussion, plus hardcore cult artists such as Nazoranai, Oneohtrix Point Never, Vatican Shadow, and Dawn of Midi. Nazoranai, for one, has never appeared in North America.

The focus of Big Ears is difficult – perhaps impossible – to define. New York Times writer Ben Ratliff has said: "Big Ears emphatically refuses to cater to a particular audience, making it unlike any other American festival." This year's ticket sales are limited so everyone can gather in Knoxville's grand Tennessee Theater for Steve Reich's 1976 masterwork, "Music for 18 Musicians," an assembly of people as unique as the music. Like an asteroid, there is no telling when – or if – we will see Big Ears again, thus making it important to document this edition and to reveal the fascinating story of how it came to be in Knoxville, a culmination of a half-century of one man's passion.

Grayscale