Outside of the Knoxville Museum of Art electronic sounds swirled, soared and buzzed. Inside the hall the music was different but was no closer to Top 40 radio than what was outside. Yet the 2010 Big Ears Festival, which opened Friday night with performances at the KMA, the Bijou Theatre and other venues in town, had plenty of anxious ears to take in the music.
The festival, now in its second year, had by Friday sold more than 11,000 tickets for the weekend's events - a number which didn't include artists and guests of the festival who were also in attendance.
The event, which continues through Sunday, was founded by Knoxville's AC Entertainment and has brought music fans from across the United States and beyond to Knoxville to hear artists who are far outside the mainstream. Some, like Terry Riley (who will perform several different shows over the weekend) are influential legends who have been shattering expectations for years. Others, like Council - who will create sort of guerilla shows at odd places during the festival, such as Friday's performance outside the museum - are young artists just making names for themselves.
Inside the museum, vocalist and string musician Sam Amidon and pianist Thomas Bartlett presented gentle folk songs, followed by the Calder Quartet and Czech-born vocalist/violinist Iva Bittova. The quartet performed everything from straight up classical sounds to improvisational numbers with Bittova seamlessly changing her vocal style from operatic to Eastern European folk to avant garde.
When Bittova walked into the audience playing her violin and vocalizing, it was sometimes hard to tell which was which.
"I like to surprise people," said Bittova after the show.
Jenny and Bert Richie of Knoxville were two of the older people in the crowd and decided to take in the show before going to a program by the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Tennessee Carousel Theatre.
"It's like nothing I've ever heard before, but I think it's pretty accessible," said Bert Richie.
Both said Bittova's voice was "remarkable" and said they were happy that they had attended.
Guest curator Bryce Dessner, who will perform Saturday and Sunday with his bands The National and Clogs, said the biggest challenge of the festival would be "to be in 10 different places at once" because there were so many events going on during the weekend.
Brian Margetts and 14-year-old son Hudson Margetts, of Knoxville, said they would have the same problem. The two decided to attend after a friend recommended the festival following the 2009 event.
Hudson said that the two first wanted to see the Calder Quartet and Vampire Weekend.
"But when we found out more about the full lineup we went ahead and got the full Inner Ear passes," said Brian. "My son is 14 and I think it's important to expose another generation to some wonderful music."
Both deemed the first show of the festival "spectacular."
"It's mind blowing," said Hudson.
"It really is ethereal music," said Brian.
Jon Ferguson traveled from Rockford, Ill., for Big Ears.
"I checked out the schedule and there are artists here I've followed for years and the only other places to see them are in Gdansk (Poland) or Athens (Greece)," said Ferguson. "I think the combination of artists is great. And my daughter came with me to see Vampire Weekend."
Lauren Marcus and Tim Roughgarden traveled from San Francisco to attend the event.
"When I first read the reviews of last year's festival, I was surprised," said Roughgarden. "There's not a lot of festivals like this in United States. In Europe there is, but not here."
Marcus said that having the festival in Knoxville added to the duo's interest in the event.
"We were excited to visit the city," she said.
"And why not, Knoxville?" said Roughgarden.
Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or email@example.com.
© 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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