Classical Voice North America
By Richard S. Ginell
June 14, 2017
OJAI, Calif. — The Ojai Music Festival — four days in June crammed from stem to stern with concerts, pop-up events, films, lectures, and whatnot — was getting to be too much to handle in recent years. With such a crowded schedule, there was almost no time to absorb, contemplate, and process the music before hustling on to the next event. Fortunately, in the June 8-11, 2017 edition of this venerable, still lovable little festival, there was some trimming evident in the number of events, with thankfully more space in between them. Now we could breathe again.
Adventure, though, was not on the chopping block in a festival that prides itself on taking chances and stretching the ears under the avuncular watch of artistic director Thomas W. Morris. This year, Morris’s choice for music director was the South Indian-American composer-pianist Vijay Iyer, best known perhaps for his jazz piano chops, yet heavily involved in a much wider range of music than that.
Iyer will tell you that he doesn’t have any use for the idea of “genres”; rather he replaces that with the word “community” in the hope of bringing people together through music. But contrary to the cliché, music is not a universal language. There is no one style that speaks to everyone, and perhaps a few styles may not speak to anyone other than their advocates.
Ignoring such concerns, some of Ojai’s artists went about as far out on a limb as you can go, with a lot of group improvisations that raised the question, what is the line between music and noise? For a good deal of Ojai’s devoted audience, there may not have been any line at all, if you go by the warm and often enthusiastic reaction each concert got. Yet underneath the cheers, there was a current of doubt among some in the crowd, most often fudged with the use of the hedge word, “interesting.”
Mainly, the 2017 festival revolved around a celebration of the influence of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — known simply as AACM — a consortium founded by African-American musicians on Chicago’s South Side in 1965. While the group eschews labels, its main impact has been on the world of jazz, particularly in the form of AACM co-founder Roscoe Mitchell’s exuberantly entertaining, experimental Art Ensemble of Chicago. Mitchell and another AACM co-founder, Muhal Richard Abrams, were there; so were members Wadada Leo Smith and George Lewis, giving the festival the air of a reunion.
Everything seemed to zero in on the largest work of the festival on June 9, an opera by Lewis about the founding of the AACM called Afterword. Now that’s a great idea for an opera — following the paths of the founding members from the old segregated South into Chicago, depicting the debates and arguments of young rebellious black musicians struggling to create “original music.” The libretto, based upon interviews and recordings of AACM meetings, is a fascinating read, and it got one’s hopes up.
Yet the score, played by the resident International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), tirelessly led by Steven Schick, is bitter, prickly, full of unrelieved tension and dissonance — appropriate enough when depicting the oppressive South but tiresome because the sound hardly varies at all throughout the piece’s 100 minutes. Even when the characters (soprano Joelle Lamarre, contralto Gwendolyn Brown, tenor Julian Terrell Otis) in Sean Griffin’s bare-bones production are enjoying life, there is no fun in the music, nor does the score reflect other facets of the libretto like the uplifting, defiant, triumphant lyrics in the finale. You wonder if Lewis was aware of the supreme irony of depicting a saga of African-American musicians strictly in the language of the European avant-garde.
Elsewhere, though, Lewis made a more pleasing impression with his electro-acoustic Emergent at one of the pop-up events June 8. Flutist Claire Chase blew wild, exhilarating passages against digitally delayed echoes and electronic permutations; the whole thing was a match for the physical energy that she puts into her playing.
The hyperactive Chase was another persistently recurring presence throughout the four days, most notably in a morning showcase for works from her ongoing commissioning project, Density 2036, which won’t be completed until that distant year. Starting from a base of Varèse’s Density 21.5, the sequence of pieces went further and further out, reaching an apogee in Tyshawn Sorey’s Bertha’s Lair where Chase seemed to be alternately fighting with and making love to her pretzel-like contrabass flute as Sorey thundered away on drums.
Actually, Sorey is a terrific drummer, all muscles and speed and fantastic rhythmic complexities, but put a conductor’s baton in his hand and strange things happen. He specializes in performances that feature improvisation, placing himself at the mercy of his musicians’ on-the-wing creativity — which in so-called classical music is a gamble. Sorey followed Chase’s project June 9 with a vast composition-cum-improvisation portentously called The Inner Spectrum of Variables for a double trio — sometimes lyrical and mournful, most of the time arid and rambling in desperate need of a trim. It was 67 minutes long — and that was the cut version. The recorded edition on two CDs lasts two hours!
But Variables was a masterwork compared to what Sorey came back with the next day, a group improvisation for ICE called Conduction (a trademarked word) in which he held up signs and employed bizarre conducting techniques with as many as 4 1/2 batons. Result: a bunch of bleeps, blats, burps, whoops, and smears for 61 interminable minutes. “Interesting.”
Three veterans of the AACM — Mitchell on sopranino and alto saxophones, Abrams on piano, and Lewis (the youngest, b. 1952) on trombone and laptop — put together their own improvised set of extended techniques. There was a lot of squeaking and honking there, too, sometimes almost indistinguishable from the bird calls in Libbey Park on the morning of June 11. But here, the intervention of electronics from Lewis’s laptop always helped to color the picture more vividly. And this was living history: three venerated pioneers of “original music” interacting with each other out on the edge, as feisty as ever.
We now circle back to Iyer, who ultimately traveled the furthest in range of anyone in the festival. Iyer’s Emergence on June 8 (a U.S. premiere) with ICE and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble found his jazz trio determining the pulse for the entire ensemble in an unusually compatible fusion of jazz and classical ideas. Then came his classical violin concerto for soloist Jennifer Koh entitled Trouble, which in its world premiere performance went through several phases before settling into a 5/4-meter folk-like finale that built and built to a satisfying finish. Likewise, Iyer’s Mozart Effects, as played June 10 by the suavely blended Brentano Quartet, journeyed through a period of uncertainty after quoting a Mozart fragment in E minor, eventually coming to a strong propulsive conclusion.
Iyer finished off the festival’s opening night on piano and Rhodes electric piano with an often stunningly beautiful duo improvisational set with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who in his 70s is experiencing an Indian summer full of big projects unlike that of almost any other jazz master. In 2016, a CD of their collaboration was put out on ECM, but that was only a blueprint; their telepathy has grown considerably tighter since. Alas, Smith fainted onstage from dehydration after finishing the set, having given his all (fortunately, he was okay).
On June 10, Iyer unveiled what I would call a tone parallel of Le Sacre du printemps entitled Radhe Radhe, the Stravinsky score having been performed in a Cliff Colnot arrangement for 11 players by Schick and ICE just prior. Accompanying Prashant Bhargava’s film of the Hindu Rites of Holi, Iyer’s piece precisely followed the structure and dynamic levels of Le Sacre but in a completely different, Indian-flavored musical language. It was devastatingly clever — and it worked.
On June 11, Iyer tried to fuse his jazz piano with the tablas of the master Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, the pitch-bending vocalist Aruna Sairam. and the John Coltrane-Cannonball Adderley-influenced alto sax of Rudresh Mahanthappa. The results of merging two different rhythmic systems were stiff at first but more comfortable by set’s end, and best when Iyer was doing a funky soul-jazz thing on piano. Finally, Iyer’s own sextet closed the festival with a boisterous set of roiling, tumbling progressive jazz somewhat overpowered by Sorey’s loud, complicated, polyrhythmic drumming.
From there, portions of the festival move on to Cal Performances at UC Berkeley (Iyer’s alma mater) through June 17. Iyer’s Emergence, Trouble and his duo set with Wadada will be reprised Jun. 15, Lewis’s Afterword will be staged Jun. 16, and Iyer’s encounter with Hussain, Le Sacre du Printemps and Radhe Radhe (with film), will happen on Jun. 17. That will give you the essence of the 2017 Ojai Festival, with most of its excesses shorn off.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.
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