Mead’s Quarry, on a sunny and warm afternoon at Ijams Nature Center, will often be filled with enthusiastic families and outdoorsy-types. But Sunday it was filled with something a little atypical for the space: music.
Not just any kind of music, but a large, outdoor performance piece called “Inuksuit,” written by John Luther Adams. Small clusters of percussionists around the area, playing in an almost call-and-response form for more than an hour as Big Ears Festival goers walked around them, listening.
The music is designed, according to Adams, to heighten awareness of the sights and sounds that surround us every day. “Music can contribute to the awakening of our ecological understanding,” said Adams in a release. “By deepening our awareness of our connections to the earth, music can provide a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and culture.”
“I think overall it’s a nice opportunity to get outside and enjoy time with the family,” said Caleb Whitson, a Knoxville native with his family. “A unique experience, I would say.”
The work began around noon, with a group of performers sitting in a clearing on the Pink Marble Trail. One by one, they slowly rose and revealed their instruments – two stones rubbed together, maracas, a paper cone the player made wind sounds through, or even a few plastic corrugated tubes that were whirled around – and gradually dispersed into the crowd. Percussionists slowly began to play at their stations – gongs, xylophones, cymbals – in an almost call-and-response format, though not in the traditional musical sense of one soloist phrase followed by the ensemble in a second part. But rather, in a more natural sense, the way one hears birds call to one another throughout the quarry.
“Freeform. Not necessarily anything that would be conventional by most music fans standards,” described Whitson. “It’s really nice. A lot of good energy, a lot of roaming around back and forth to see different people.”
John Luther Adams was the festival’s 2016 artist-in-residence. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra also performed his work on Thursday at the Tennessee Theater. They played his piece “Become Ocean.”
More than 1,000 people walked through the outdoor area Sunday at the free event. More than 8,000 people attended the Big Ears festival this past weekend, at the fifth iteration of event since it started in 2009. Even the New York Times made the trip, with one journalist writing about how much he enjoyed it.
Check out our 360 cam of Sunday's event.
The festival took a four-year break but returned in 2014. It is put on by Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, which also produces other festivals like Bonnaroo.
“We wanted to sponsor an event the public could come to for free and experience,” said Alan Carmichael, the president of Moxley-Carmichael, which sponsored the event. “It truly is an experience. Very avant-garde.”
Next year's festival is scheduled for March 23-26.