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Big Ears Festival breaks barriers for open-minded music lovers

April 10, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Big Ears is a small, personal and eclectic music festival that aims to showcase how diverse genres can stretch and influence one another. This year, acts like the Kronos Quartet and Rhiannon Giddens and musicians from Wilco and The National shared billing with a Canadian throat singer and minimalist composer Terry Riley. Jeffrey Brown reports from Knoxville, Tennessee.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s called Big Ears, a musical gathering that Rolling Stone magazine called the most diverse festival in the country.

Jeffrey Brown recently traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, to have a listen.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Big Ears Festival is a feast of strange sounds, a mix of traditional musical styles and decidedly new ones.

ASHLEY CAPPS, Founder, Big Ears Festival: The idea for Big Ears is to invite people in. It’s to share the experience. I want it to be seductive, not frightening.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more than a decade, Big Ears founder Ashley Capps has been best known for another festival, Bonnaroo, a massive gathering in the blazing June heat of Middle Tennessee that features major pop and rock stars of the moment.

Started in 2009, Big Ears is altogether different, smaller and more personal, eclectic in its tastes, aiming to show how different genres influence one another, rather than exist in separate musical boxes.

A big part of its charm is that it unfolds not in New York or San Francisco, but within a walkable area of downtown Knoxville, Tennessee.

You get this reputation for — it’s weird music, right? You’re putting these things together, avant-garde. Does that scare people off?

ASHLEY CAPPS: I’m not sure what avant-garde means in 2015.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t like it because it scares people?

ASHLEY CAPPS: Well, I don’t like it because it scares people. If I wanted to do an avant-garde festival, I could really scare people.

JEFFREY BROWN: This year, the festival centered around a group that’s been breaking musical barriers for more than 40 years, the Kronos Quartet, led by violinist David Harrington.

DAVID HARRINGTON, Kronos Quartet: When I started Kronos in 1973, I hoped we would survive a week. Society didn’t really welcome our work at first.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because you didn’t fit into any box?

DAVID HARRINGTON: We didn’t fit in. It was hard to explain what we wanted to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kronos looks like a traditional quartet, but the group has made its name by stretching the form.

At Big Ears, for example, Kronos performed with, among many others, the Chinese pipa player Wu Man, minimalist composer, Terry Riley, and a Canadian Inuit throat singer named Tanya Tagaq.

DAVID HARRINGTON: The world of music is a cool, wonderful place. What I want is for music, and concerts, and musical experiences to be these places where we learn new things about each other, about instruments, about culture, about life. And music is the greatest teacher.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kronos looks around the world for its inspiration. One performance here featured folk music from all over, including a piece from Iraq.

Later, the group was joined by singer and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens for American folk ballads. Giddens is a classically trained singer who then spent years exploring and playing African-American Appalachian styles. Big Ears offered a new way into that music.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: It’s great because it gets you out of your comfort zone and it makes you just go, OK, I’m going to consider something from a totally different point of view. And I just think that’s really important. You can’t make art by thinking, this isn’t going to fit. You just do what seems right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rock music also had a central role at Big Ears, but again in unusual forms.

Guitarist Nels Cline, best known for his work with the band Wilco, performed here with a painter, Norton Wisdom. Another genre-bending guitarist, Bryce Dessner, a rock star with the band The National and a classical music composer, played a piece he wrote for the Kronos Quartet.

BRYCE DESSNER: We are blessed now, my generation, where there’s a much more open, and thanks to them, very much so, where the path has been paved. The world is just a very open and beautiful environment, where we can — and a place like Big Ears is obviously kind of the most pure celebration of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: A still small celebration of listening and finding connections between genres, but one that’s finding an audience of open-minded and big-eared music lovers.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Knoxville, Tennessee.

 

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