Community and Empathy at the 2017 Ojai Music Festival

by Alexander K. Rothe

This year’s Ojai Music Festival (June 8-11) in Ojai, California was the chance of a lifetime to experience how music can serve to imagine and also activate a world of greater tolerance and social justice. The theme of this year’s festival was community and empathy, and the innovative programming of Vijay Iyer provided a space in which to reflect on this theme in a variety of different contexts. Iyer didn’t tell the audience how to interpret the theme, but rather framed the question in such a way that it invited further discussion. Each concert approached the theme from a slightly different angle, but there was a common thread connecting each one: the featured artists and composers had either participated in or been influenced by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective of African-American musicians founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1965.

Vijay Iyer and Jennifer Koh following the spectacular world premiere of Iyer’s violin concerto.

A highlight of the festival’s first evening was the spectacular world premiere of Iyer’s violin concerto for Jennifer Koh. Koh, who was interviewed later during the festival, is a warm, intelligent person, and this was reflected in her performance of Iyer’s violin concerto. The concerto—a genre that traditionally involves a hierarchical relationship between the hero-soloist and the orchestra—was instead reconceived here as a dialogue between equals. The soloist was depicted as a vulnerable figure responding to the musical material of the orchestra. For example, at one point during the concerto, the violinist sustains a single pitch while the orchestra plays the melody. When Koh performed this section, she drew her bow close to the bridge, resulting in a brittle, fragile sound—like a voice on the verge of breaking.

The festival’s second day was especially rich in its musical offerings. The afternoon concert featured two artists who were both inspired by the AACM. Claire Chase gave a magnificent demonstration of her Density 2036 project, performing a series of compositions based on Edgard Varèse’s revolutionary 1936 musical work Density 21.5. Later during the panel discussion on the AACM, Chase mentioned that she couldn’t have conceived of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which she founded in 2001, without the history of the AACM.

The audience cheers for Claire Chase, who performed selections from her Density 2036 project. Also pictured are composers Tyshawn Sorey, Pauchi Sasaki, and Vijay Iyer.

The Friday afternoon concert also featured a performance of Tyshawn Sorey’s brilliant composition The Inner Spectrum of Variables, which presents a fresh take on aleatoric procedures. The conductor performs a series of gestures instructing the ensemble which path to take in the score, a technique reminiscent of Boulez’s Eclat. Sorey refers to this technique as “conduction,” which is an elaborate system of conducted improvisation that he adopted from Butch Morris. Sorey, who also participated in the AACM panel, emphasized the organization’s influence on his personal and professional development. Having grown up in a poor neighborhood in which funding for the arts was not readily available, Sorey turned to the history of the AACM as a source of inspiration to guide him in his quest for self-determination. 

The Friday evening concert was the West Coast premiere of George Lewis’s Afterword, an opera about the history of the AACM. Compared to the 2015 world premiere in Chicago, the Ojai staging was more minimalist—there were no dancers and only a few props—and the gestures and movements of the three singers were much more transparent in meaning. This staging worked well because it highlighted the powerful message of the libretto—the transformative nature of creative music and the ultimate success of the AACM. The most impressive aspect of the performance was the superb singing and dramatic intensity of Gwendolyn Brown, Joelle Lamarre, and Julian Terrell Otis. The International Contemporary Ensemble did a wonderful job supporting the singers, and one had the sense that both were in dialogue with each other. In sum, the opera was a great success, and the audience was clearly moved.

The powerful West Coast premiere of George Lewis’s opera Afterword: pictured here, from left to right, are Gwendolyn Brown, Sean Griffin, George Lewis, Joelle Lamarre, Julian Terrell Otis, and Steven Schick.)

Another highlight of this year’s festival was the world premiere of the chamber version of Courtney Bryan’s Yet Unheard, to a text by Sharan Strange. The rich, nuanced voice of Helga Davis was juxtaposed with a chorus mourning the tragedy of Sandra Bland. Sharan Strange’s deeply moving text serves as a site of empathy, creating a community of listeners honoring the memory of Sandra Bland.  

In conclusion, this year’s festival accomplished its aim of creating a new kind of community through diverse and innovative programming. Pre-concert talks encouraged open dialogue between composers, performers, and audience members. After each concert, many of the performers and composers would come out and interact with the audience on the festival grounds. Moreover, the focus on the impact of the AACM—as a collective of musicians transcending genre boundaries—was especially effective for making connections between communities normally assumed to be separate. The juxtaposition of improvised and notated traditions—as well as examples that draw on both—broke down the hierarchy that often exists between the two. The programming of artists and composers fluent in multiple traditions further contributed to this tendency.   

On a personal note: this year’s festival was a profound experience that will always remain with me. I will strive to adhere to the tolerance and open-mindedness demonstrated by the festival programming. Finally, I eagerly await next year’s festival, which will be directed by the amazing violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya.

Courtney Bryan, Helga Davis, and Sharan Strange mourn the tragedy of Sandra Bland with Yet Unheard.

Alexander K. Rothe is a Core Lecturer at Columbia University, where he completed his Ph.D. in Historical Musicology in 2015. His research interests are opera staging, Regieoper, Wagner Studies, and new music. He is currently working on a book project on stagings of Wagner’s Ring cycle and afterlives of 1968 in divided Germany during the 1970s and 1980s. Dr. Rothe regularly blogs on musical topics on his website.

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