For many music fans who want to sidestep the crazy crowds and unavoidable commercialism of the major music festivals, Big Ears is the place to be. Held in the unlikely streets of Knoxville, Tennessee, a town once as well-known for country music as its bigger counterpart, Nashville, the festival has slowly grown quite a reputation among music enthusiasts for experimentation and variety unparalleled in the modern music scene.
Though Big Ears does tend towards artists who emphasize experimentation over tradition, there are as many genres present here as one can imagine, from music that pays homage to classic styles like folk and jazz to compositions that will test your idea of what the definition of “music” really is. Big Ears stands out because it’s a festival where it’s hard to expect what might happen at any given moment. On Friday, for example, I walked into a concert at the Knoxville Museum of Art to find the audience sitting on the floor, not even facing the stage which was about 20 feet away. This strange scene all made sense when the artist, Aine O’Dwyer, showed up on the landing a floor up, wheeling her harp up close to the edge.
Several people laid down on the cold, hard floor as the Irish musician began playing, striking minimal, atonal notes that she whistled and sang along to. Then she hit the elevator button and continued to make various sounds as she wheeled the harp in, eventually arriving at the bottom floor where the audience sat and laid on the cold surface, the strange sounds of her harp echoing out of the elevator, broken up by the sound of the elevator alarm which I could only suppose she was jabbing at with her free hand.
The rest of the concert would move along in a similar fashion. The next few songs, or more appropriately, “pieces,” consisted of her walking away with five audience members that also had hard-heeled shoes on their feet, clicking and clacking through the museum as the rest of us sat quietly on the floor. Next, we circled the harp and took turns walking up to pluck a note, or in the case of one man, several notes. In fact, he probably went up there at least five times, though no one else in the circle dared to. The final performance found O’Dwyer back up on the balcony and throwing ping pong balls down at us, several of which bounced off of me and rolled away on the cold stone floor.
When the concert was over, O’Dwyer simply looked around at us sprawled across the ground floor of the art museum and announced that the performance was finished. I found within a few minutes that I still hadn’t gotten up from my seat on the floor, and that I couldn’t really conceive of leaving just yet, due mostly to some imperceptible fog that was slowly lifting from around my mind. I noticed, strangely enough, that everyone else was following the same pattern, as if we were all awaking from some ancient slumber and had to remember how to use our bodies again to stand, walk, and move around this world.
Later on, during the last night of the festival, I would run into a few people who were also in attendance at that performance by Aine O’Dwyer, and we were soon all reminiscing about the different facets of the performance. One girl among them, whom I remember seeing from afar at that performance due to her striking features, commented that she had thought at the end that the whole thing was merely a social experiment, and that O’Dwyer was recording our reactions to each part of the show. This occurred to her, she said, during the part where we all circled around the harp and took turns plucking notes. The awkwardness of approaching an object circled by many people, especially when you were afraid of stepping out at the same time as another person, was something that she had hardly stopped thinking about since. Even in memory, an uneasy feeling seemed to make itself present at the mere thought of it.
When the festival was over and the streets were quiet and empty, not a sound to be heard but the distant hum of the interstate, I thought back to O’Dwyer’s intense stare, which seemed to watch us like a bird of prey as we each approached the harp in the center of the circle. Walking around the deserted streets of Knoxville, I was reminded of that feeling that hits right before you step out from the periphery – the tense muscles, the confusion and fear, the knowledge that now, unlike all those other days you spent dreaming of this moment, you have finally stepped into the spotlight. Tugged between uneasiness and excitement, I find that feeling everywhere I go, and that music, with its strange power, can often push me over the edge in either direction. You just have to let it work through you.