Tuesday, June 4, 2013

West Coast Minimalism at Ojai

ONE of the best things about spring in Southern California is the Ojai Music Festival, which turns the little valley town in Ventura county into the site of a risk-taking weekend of classical music with an emphasis on chamber music and contemporary work. Since its founding in the ‘40s, everyone from Stravinsky to Eric Dolphy (!!) has performed there. It kicks off Thursday.

This year’s music director – in recent years this chair has included Salonen, Kent Nagano, Dawn Upshaw and Leif Ove Andsnes – is choreographer Mark Morris. He’s selected a schedule heavy on work by West Coast mavericks, including Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Alaskan John Luther Adams and that Connecticut Yankee Charles Ives, whose radicalism and searching spirit make him for me an honorary West Coaster. (Disclosure: My ardor for Ojai predates the brief stint I did for the festival writing a newsletter essay for last year’s bash.)

A concert we’re especially excited about here at the Misread City is In C, the 1964 piece by Bay Area composer Terry Riley which is sometimes described as the first important work of minimalism. 

In the mid-‘70s, the late great music critic Robert Palmer called the piece “the single most influential post-1960 composition by an American,” describing its impact on not just Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but John Cale, Brian Eno, and jazz as well. I’ll let Palmer describe the piece here:

“’In C’ consists of 52 melodic/rhythmic motives, most of them as short and simple as a whole note or a group of six or eight sixteenths. It can be played by an ensemble of any composition and size. The musicians begin by playing the figures consecutively, but each one proceeds at his own speed, so that the melodic kernels soon begin to overlap in wild profusion, forming constantly shifting prismatic relationships with each other.”

The piece, then, as wildly new (and hippie-ish) as it would have seen in the ‘60s, also echoes the collective improvisation of early New Orleans, and opens up some possibilities that musicians are still pursuing in the 21st century.

Despite having seen performances of Riley’s work, and knowing a New Albion recording of In C about as well as one can know such an elusive piece, I’ve never seen this one live. So I spoke to Dustin Donahue, part of the San Diego percussion ensemble red fish blue fish, about the Ojai performance his group will be a part of on Saturday morning.

“This one is pretty special,” he said, “because these groups from all over the country will come together to play this piece,” including members of Morris’s group and the jazz trio The Bad Plus. “With string and brass players, it’ll take on a whole new identity – we can’t really predict what it’ll sound like.”

Since all the musicians need to play – whatever their instrument – in the key of C, red fish blue fish will have to pick instruments that make sense. “We have to focus ourselves in the pitched percussion world – vibraphones, xylophones, glockenspiels, celestes. And there this particular part, where people are repeating a tone in C: We find idiosyncratic objects tuned to C – gongs, pipes, found objects”

Donahue – who says his group tends to look for “composers who are trying to discover something new or exploring other sound worlds” – is also looking forward to performing pieces by John Luther Adams, for his gift of isolating instruments in unusual harmonies, and John Cage, whose piece for six percussionist varies times for starting and time elapsed while playing.

As for In C: “So much of the measure of a good performance of In C is how much fun the performers are having… I can enter into a canon with the person next to me. You can be struck with a musical idea and see where it takes you. The more musical ideas you get from each other, the better. It can be an occasion for spontaneous joy. Whoever is in the room with you makes it its own special version of the piece.”

I was luck enough, about a decade ago, to interview Riley by phone before a performance in Orange County. I was struck that someone whose early explorations involved tape loops had become disillusioned with the use of technology. "It looked in the beginning much more promising than it's turned out," Riley told me from his ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

While growing up, he and his peers heard mostly acoustic instruments and few things more high-tech than the radio. "Just hearing a tape recorder played backwards was startling to me in the '40s and '50s. " These days, though, technology is hard to escape. Riley says it's "eating up the souls of the musicians. People think they have to have the newest instrument or it will stifle their creativity. That's what the ads tell them -- and it's just nonsense. "

Only with acoustic instruments, he says, can he really feel like he's really engaging with the music.

This all said, very much looking forward to the 2013 Ojai Festival. 

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