I'm jealous of Knoxville, and it's not just because the recent Big Ears Festival brought together seminal punk band Television, minimalist composer Steve Reich, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and a shedload of other high-profile avant-garde artists. In a society where music often functions as a soundtrack to other, ostensibly more important activities, the festival represents a subtle yet seismic shift in focus by Knoxville-based organizers AC Entertainment, who also run Bonnaroo and help bring national tours to local clubs. They sold an experience that regardless of how lucrative it may or may not be in the short term, has potential long-term consequences for the music industry's viability.
"Big Ears seems to be a festival about the experience of listening, full stop, rather than listening to genre X or tradition Y. It gives concertgoers ... as much power as a composer or performer in determining what music means, gambling that those concertgoers might over time grow a culture around that feeling," observed The New York Times' Ben Ratliff. "That's something, especially at a time when the unseen forces of digital music-data companies are defining American tastes, and using genre as the basic tool of figuring out who you are and how you can be sold. Sorry: how you can be sold to."
Music City has yet to land a coup on the scale of Big Ears, but two events this weekend symbolize a widespread local commitment to carry the momentum long after our tenure as "It City" is over: the third installment of biennial hacker-culture gala Circuit Benders' Ball, and the inaugural East Nashville run of bike-centric music festival Tour de Fun.
The sounds generated by rerouting the guts of electronic toys and instruments can be chaotic, but watching skilled artists weave them into a cohesive performance is just one part of the point. The Circuit Benders' Ball excels at exciting crowds by pulling back the shroud of mystery that lingers around technology and art, encouraging active consumption and participation.
"A lot of people are intimidated by electronics," explains Tony Youngblood, sometime Scene contributor and CBB founder. "They think, 'That's really complicated. You have to go to school and be an engineer to learn how all this works.' But with circuit bending, that's not really true. All you really have to do is break open a toy — make sure that it's low-voltage, not something that plugs in, so you don't kill yourself — start touching different points with wires, and then discover [what it can do]!"
This year, the event blossoms into a three-day symposium, filling every unoccupied nook and cranny of Fort Houston with light from video artists and otherworldly sound from more than 30 performers. Locals are strongly represented, ranging from more traditional circuit benders to modular synth sorcerers and artists who routinely blur the lines between audio and visual art. Performers are also traveling from all over the country, including headliners Tim Kaiser, a Minnesota electronics guru, and Jeff Boynton, a Los Angeles native who designs interactive props that create the soundtrack to dance and theater productions. There are also 11 panels on topics ranging from circuit-bending basics to modifying 8-bit video game consoles, as well as a handful of special presentations, including an iOS circuit-bending simulator developed at Stanford University, and the SynthTable, a turntable-synthesizer hybrid built by local DJ Black Cat Sylvester. Seven workshops offer opportunities to build your own sound generators, or harness the power of light, miniature computers or even Google's software to make sonic art.
Meanwhile, East Nashville will be filled with the sound of whirring pedals and rocking bands, starting at 11 a.m. Saturday. Tour de Fun, the mobile music festival founded in Murfreesboro by one-man dance party Tyler Walker, has moved on up to the East Side. Following the tradition established with the first Tour in 2010, hundreds of revelers will meet in Riverside Village for a couple of short sets on the green and at Fond Object Records. Then they'll mount their bicycles for a ride to the next shows at FooBar and The East Room, progressing toward Five Points until nightfall, when dual after-parties will commence. The first incarnation of TdF relied heavily on cooperation, drawing on a network of houses occupied by MTSU students who enjoyed throwing living-room shows. Lacking that, Walker looked to local venues and businesses to host the shows.
"The whole point of the event is to build a community within a community," says Walker, who hopes to bring together bike people and music people, as well as Nashville's established indie scene and the one that's blooming again in Murfreesboro. "I hope we're starting something where those boundaries don't have to be there, and it doesn't have to be so cliquey."
Nearly 40 groups have signed on, drawing equally from new faces and well-established acts. From MCs Jung Youth and Treekeeper, to lady rockers Churchyard and heavy punks Megajoos, to delightfully weird pop acts like MantraMantraMantra and Walker's own Meth Dad, the bill represents a broad swath of genres.
From the time we started calling ourselves Music City, USA, we've had more to offer than country music. But events like Tour de Fun and Circuit Benders' Ball are crucial to keeping our scene strong and healthy. This weekend, they're working through the crucial steps between fledgling organization and established institution. Maybe I don't have so much to be jealous of after all.