Listening to music you’ve never heard before is, by definition, full of unknowns. One aspect you don’t always think about is how long a piece will take to play. Printed program notes frequently include estimated timings, but that isn’t always the case, and you’re at the mercy of the composer’s and musicians’ ability to keep your attention for the duration of whatever they collectively had in mind.
Sometimes music is so enjoyable that time flies by (as it is wont to do when one has fun). Other times, the clock seems to stand still when listening to music, either because it is so sublime or because, well, it isn’t — making you just wish someone would rip the band-aid off and end your discomfort.
During the 2013 Ojai Music Festival, various works by prominent West Coast composers performed over the course of three Saturday concerts at Libbey Bowl ran the gamut of those possibilities, and then some. There were other events going on throughout the day, but I decided to just concentrate on these particular performances: not only was it a full day’s worth of music, starting at 11am and ending at midnight, but also seemed to represent a nice microcosm of what the entire festival had to offer. The day started for me with the Terry Riley’s seminal work in minimalism and mind expansion, “in C.” The famously unconventional set of small musical fragments played according to a few rules (click HERE for a PDF of the sheet music and full instructions) made its long-awaited debut at this Ojai Festival.
Some of the optional traditions were kept: the work began and ended with a percussionist playing the eighth-note “pulse,” maintaining it throughout the performance while the other musicians joined in and dropped out at various times. Other traditions weren’t: the “pulse” was not played by “a beautiful girl” as Riley requested in some versions of the score, and from my seat, there was not any olfactory evidence of hallucinatory herbage being smoked (for medicinal purposes or otherwise).
The performers included a sampling of folks participating in this year’s festival, including members of Mark Morris Dance Group music ensemble, The Bad Plus, The American String Quartet, among others. Thomas W. Morris, Ojai’s Artistic Director and percussionist of some renown, even joined in the fun.
And fun it was. The piece ebbed and flowed as the musicians each worked their way through the 53 fragments at different rates. I mostly tried to follow along with the sheet music, enjoying the game of figuring out which musicians had moved on to which parts; other times, I just let the evolving sound wash over me. Most in the audience just listened in without the sheet music cheat-sheet that I had brought, and seemed to enjoy it at least as much as I did.
In total, it formed a delectable feast for the ears that was, as the best dishes often are, meticulously complex in its composition but providing a vibrantly clear sensory experience that ultimately is swallowed up with ease.
One of the tricks of “in C” is that there is ambiguity on how long it can go on: Riley’s instructions state that “performances normally average between 45 minutes and an hour and a half,” while prefacing that by saying, “There is no fixed rule as to the number of repetitions a pattern may have.” By my reckoning, this rendition went on for a little under an hour. It was as pleasing an hour of “minimalist music” as I could have hoped for.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said later that evening for John Luther Adams’ composition, for Lou Harrison. Its relentless waves of arpeggios seemed harmless enough at first, but after more than 30 minutes, then 40, 50, and eventually over 60 minutes of similarly scaled music, it wore away at my attention and eventually my patience like breakers constantly crashing eroding away even the most rocky shoreline. It didn’t help that there were more false endings than Peter Jackson’s film version of The Return of the King — or maybe I just wanted it to end so badly that I interpreted it that way.
Judging by the audience’s vibe during the piece and the reaction after the piece, I was not alone. In fact, as soon as for Lou Harrison actually ended, one fan/heckler yelled out, “Play it again!,” eliciting a chorus of nervous laughter from some in the crowd. Did the person mean it genuinely or sarcastically? I can’t be sure, but judging by the tone he used, I’m guessing it was the second. The divisions in the audience became clearer when the composer appeared on stage for his bow; most gave polite, rather reserved applause; an enthusiastically rebellious few gave him a loud standing ovation.
Thankfully, the Saturday night festivities ended on a positive note. I usually find the music of John Cage intellectually interesting, but not often viscerally satisfying.
Not the case with the late night concert on Saturday. The collection of Cage’s works played by the percussionists of red fish blue fish were enjoyable, even compelling. It likely had to do with the short duration of each of the pieces performed. It also could have been the extreme contrast to the previous work, with the abstractness of water sloshing in conch shells and the seeming randomness of traditional instruments paired with pre-recorded radio broadcasts being the polar opposite of the unyielding tonality of the Luther Adams composition. It certainly helped to have such dedicated performers working their sublime and ridiculous instruments with the utmost focus.
Regardless of why, I found it all utterly refreshing. It was what I needed musically, and I left Libbey Bowl with my mind appropriately exercised and exorcised.
Ojai Music Festival: Saturday, June 8, 2013
11am; Libbey Bowl
Ojai In-C Players
Riley: “in C”
8pm; Libbey Bowl
MMDG Music Ensemble
American String Quartet
Joshua Gersen, conductor
Colin Fowler and Yegor Shevtsov, piano
HARRISON: Suite for Symphonic Strings
LUTHER ADAMS: for Lou Harrison
10:30pm; Libbey Bowl
red fish blue fish, percussion ensemble
JOHN CAGE: Six
CAGE/LOU HARRISON: Double Music
CAGE: Credo in US
CAGE: Third Construction
Photo credit: Thomas Norris for the Ojai Music Festival