Train tracks, highways and the Tennessee River frame downtown Knoxville. They also frame the Big Ears Festival, which envelopes the downtown area 3 or 4 days every March. And so they frame “Like Landscapes Going By,” a film that – through the lens of the festival and the city – explores the transporting experience of music.
Filming commenced in February 2014, and since then 5 Big Ears have passed. Over the years, a devoted if rotating group of cinematographers and sound recordists have contributed to this project. Along the way, we have gamely tried to capture the uncapturable – the ephemeral, private act of listening.
This project began with music and is infused with music. But to my surprise, I’ve come to see that it’s not about music or even about Big Ears. In this event that brings together people of all ages from all over the planet, I see a collective yearning – for mystery and connection, for what makes experience vital, for a way to, as Laurie Anderson puts it, “fall into another world.”
This brings us back to travel – to highways, train tracks and rivers. During an interview at Big Ears in 2015, the musician Tyondai Braxton spotted a passing freight train out the window. The sight led him to a memory of his father taking him to a station as a kid “just to watch trains” – because he liked them so much.
When asked if his music had any connection to trains, Braxton thought about it for a moment. Then he said, “If there is a correlation that I could draw, it would be a sense of being a passenger and viewing a landscape going by….”
“A landscape going by” – that phrase stuck in my mind. As I watched and rewatched footage from 5 years at Big Ears, I kept coming across musicians and festivalgoers describing music not by its aural qualities, but as a landscape or a world or a place. To some it was distant, exotic, unsettling, alien; to others it was the complete opposite – a way to go back home.
Braxton’s phrase seemed an apt metaphor not only for Big Ears but for this film. Big Ears is a million immersive landscapes passing by, staying long enough to spark complex feelings and wonder, but moving along so fast we can’t fix on any single one. Yet each glimpse leaves an impression, each sound echoes through our lives.
I’ve spent the past 2 years synthesizing this array of “landscapes.” The result is slow, quiet, sinuous, gentle – more experience than story. I’m the first to admit it’s an unlikely film, and a strange film. Its mere existence is a testament to Big Ears’ big, open heart.
– Ivan Weiss, director, December 2018