As I said in my last recap of the Big Ears music festival, the standing ovation at the end of Ensemble Signal's performance of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians on Sunday night was well deserved and a little bit emotional--I got the feeling that the applause was, in part, for the whole weekend, which was an almost unequivocal success.
There's been a heap of praise for Big Ears 2014, from The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Paste, Mayor Madeline Rogero, and our own Jack Neely, as well as just about everyone else I've talked to who attended the festival. By Sunday, I think some people were stunned, not just by the quality of the music but by the organization of the fest and the vibrant mood it established in downtown Knoxville. Big Ears succeeded on two fronts--the music was uniformly interesting (and sometimes mind-expanding or even life-changing) and it was presented in a well-designed and well-managed package. It wasn't just that artists you never expected to see in Knoxville were playing here; they were also going to see other shows and hanging out and generally having a good time themselves. Everything was mostly on time--the only major hitch of the weekend was that he Bijou Theatre's schedule was backed up by about an hour on Saturday evening. There weren't even that many tough conflicts; while I wish I'd seen both Bill Orcutt and Colin Stetson, I don't regret skipping them for So Percussion and Ceramic Dog.
This was a fundamentally different festival than the first two Big Ears in 2009 and 2010. The crowd was something like four or five times as big as it was in 2009--close to 2,000 people each day, counting weekend pass-holders and those with daily tickets. More than half, maybe a lot more than half, were from out of town. (I ran into people from New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville, and Memphis.) In 2010, there were afternoon shows in the Old City attended by fewer than 20 people; that didn't happen this year.
The lineup this year was more cohesive, too--oddly enough, the more explicit commitment to avant-garde and experimental performers over mainstream acts like Vampire Weekend and the xx seems to have been a shrewd move. A $330,000 grant from the Aslan Foundation through the CBID took some of the commercial pressure off AC Entertainment, the organizer of the festival, but a tighter programming focus also appears to have made the festival easier to market. (In 2010, it was a lot harder to describe just what kind of festival Big Ears was. It's still hard to put into a sound bite, but the threads connecting Steve Reich, Stephen O'Malley, Vatican Shadow, Susanna, Bill Orcutt, and Jonny Greenwood this year made more intuitive sense.)
All in all, it seems like AC Entertainment has figured out what Big Ears is and how to do it. Considering what it is--a weekend of world-class contemporary classical, experimental, and avant-garde music in Knoxville--that's a significant accomplishment. Even if Big Ears never happens again, it's been a momentous and even magical event.
There are a lot of questions for the future: Will a for-profit company remain eligible for six-figure grants? Now that the great triumvirate of American minimalist composers has been featured, who will be artist-in-residence next year? Can we get some food trucks next year? Will Ashley Capps hang onto that list of suggestions for future lineups I gave him? But Big Ears seems to be in good shape for 2015.
Photo of Ensemble Signal by David Luttrell.