It just takes one glance at the lineup for this year's Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee to realize that this is no see-and-be-seen gathering of obscurantist indie kids. Boasting innovative string ensemble Kronos Quartet as headliners and Artists-in-Residence, Big Ears is all about expanding the listening palettes of festivalgoers.

Its name reflects its aim: to introduce "passionate fans and receptive audiences to new and exciting concerts, performances, workshops and discussions." The festival, which will be hosted March 27-29, is best enjoyed with both ears and mind open; here are ten acts, artists, and performances that cannot be missed.



1. Tyondai Braxton: HIVE

If ever there was a quintessential Big Ears act, then this is it. Braxton--the one time frontman of math-rock outfit Battles--is the driving force behind HIVE, which is as much an experiment in sound design as it is a live performance piece. Five musicians, Braxton among them, perform cross-legged atop trellised pods that resemble beehives. Three members of the group are percussionists, while Braxton and another musician play synthesisers. The pods are programmed to synchronously emit shafts of coloured LED light along with the music, rendering the whole show a staggering sensory experience.



2. Silver Apples

'60s minimalist psychedelic duo Silver Apples were making EDM decades before the acronym was in popular use. Vocalist and founder Simeon Coxe has famously made use of a literal pile of oscillators to achieve the band's trademark electronic sounds. Though their music may have been relegated to niche territory at the time, Silver Apples were admired by some of the decade's musical powerhouses--even jamming with Jimi Hendrix during late-night sessions at New York's Record Plant. The band originally disbanded in 1969, but slowly gathered a cult following and reunited in the mid-1990s. Silver Apples' other original member, Danny Taylor, died in 2005, so Simeon will be joined at Big Ears by drummer Toby Dammit, most recently seen smacking snares in Iggy Pop's live band.



3. Ben Frost

The Iceland-based composer reached new levels of sonic innovation with his most recent record Aurora (2014). Frost is known for creating soundscapes; somehow "music" doesn't seem like the right term for his intense and expansive pieces. Aurora is a rich blend of textures-- all gritty percussion and keening synths and visceral emotion--which is sure to resonate with Big Ears' avant-garde enthusiasts.



4. tUnE-yArDs


Bandleader Merrill Garbus is something of a ray of light in a lineup brimming with dark and heavy vibes. However, this doesn't mean that tUnE-yArDs lack substance or an innovative approach. In the studio, bassist Nate Brenner accompanies Garbus exclusively, but the duo is currently on the road with an extra percussionist and backing vocalists in tow. tUnE-yArDs have been touring nonstop since the May 2014 release of Nikki Nack, and their stage setup is nothing short of animated. As always, Garbus is front and center, pounding out polyrhythms on a stripped-down drum kit while simultaneously crafting synth loops. It takes a remarkable amount of synchrony to bring a tUnE-yArDs track to life, and the complexity of their full-band performances is totally mesmerising.



5. Jamie xx

Cliché as the adage is, Jamie xx has something of a pop music Midas touch. In 2011, he famously took Gil Scott-Heron's grizzled and soulful 'I'm New Here' and refashioned it into the polished (and universally praised) 'We're New Here'. His work with The xx is just as intoxicating. Utilising techniques from across the spectrum of contemporary UK electronic music--from drum'n'bass rhythms to selective vintage sampling to laid-back garage beats-- Jamie consistently produces cohesive and addictive electropop.



6. Grouper

Liz Harris, alias Grouper, has made some devastatingly introspective music over the years, but 2014's Ruins marks a real affective zenith for her. With little else on offer but piano and vocals, Harris crafted eight vast and haunting tracks that promise to translate into pure poignancy onstage.



7. Max Richter

It's safe to say that Max Richter is one of the most prolific and gifted composers/sound artists of the 21st century. Of course, the folks at Big Ears are more than aware of this and have granted him two sets over the course of the festival weekend. The first is a live rendition of two of his records, Blue Notebooks, which features excerpted readings from Franz Kafka and Czeslaw Milosz, and 'Infra', an extrapolated score for a Wayne McGregor ballet. Richter's Sunday performance sees him taking on Vivaldi's classic Four Seasons and reworking the score as only he knows how. He will also present audiences with a few cuts from his original compositions for HBO's The Leftovers.



8. A Winged Victory For The Sullen

There is clearly something about the grace and fluidity of Wayne McGregor's dance pieces that attracts ambient musicians. A Winged Victory have been touring Atomos, their soundtrack to McGregor's ballet of the same name, since the record's release in October. The duo engineers a cavernous, droning vision with a somewhat greater degree of fluency than Richter's Infra. Each track on Atomos unfolds with the grace of a slow-moving celestial body. The band's eponymous debut album also showcased their ability to let string swells and crescendos crest and fall in cycles. "Ethereal" is probably a word that gets thrown around a lot where ambient-drone is concerned, but there's nothing more applicable here.



9. Amen Dunes

Amen Dunes is the lo-fi psych/folk project of occasional New Yorker Damon McMahon. There is wanderlust and longing embedded in each track from Love, the band's acclaimed third record and first as a trio that includes guitarist Jordi Wheeler and drummer Parker Kindred. Tracks like 'Lonely Richard' and 'Green Eyes' are hazy and gorgeous; an ideal acoustic reprieve during an electro-heavy weekend.



10. Demdike Stare

Lancastrian experimental electronic duo Demdike Stare have a bit of a preoccupation with the occult. Their namesake is the leader of the Pendle Witches, who were famously put on trial in the seventeenth century. And they are bringing their original score for Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922)-- a cult proto-horror film focused on historical depictions of witches and demons--to Big Ears. Demdike Stare's fondness for eerie digital arrangements will ensure that their audience's experience is one of uneasy, albeit intriguing, listening.