Train tracks, highways, and the Tennessee River.
They frame downtown Knoxville. They frame the Big Ears Festival. And they frame “Like Landscapes Going By,” a film that explores the transporting experience of music through the lens of a joyfully enigmatic musical event.
This project began in 2014. Through the years, a devoted group of cinematographers and sound recordists have traveled to Knoxville in an effort to capture the ephemeral, private act of listening.
People of all ages – and from all over – come to Big Ears. In this audience I have come to 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 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. It triggered a memory of his father taking him to a station as a kid “just to watch trains.”
When asked if his music had any connection to trains, Braxton thought about it for a moment. “If there is a correlation that I could draw,” he said, “it would be a sense of being a passenger and viewing a landscape going by….”
As I watched and rewatched footage from five years at Big Ears, I kept coming across musicians and festivalgoers describing music not by its aural qualities but as a landscape, world, or place. To some it was distant, exotic, unsettling, alien. To others it was a way to go back home.
“Landscape going by” – Braxton’s phrase seemed an apt metaphor not only for Big Ears but for this film. Big Ears immerses listeners in passing landscapes, staying just long enough to spark complex feelings and wonder, yet moving along so fast we can’t fix on any single one. Each glimpse leaves an impression, each sound echoes through our lives.
I’ve spent the past few years synthesizing this array of “landscapes” into a sinuous, spacious world where, as at Big Ears, you can seek your own experience and find your own story.
Ivan Weiss, January 2019