OJAI MUSIC FESTIVAL: PUSHING BOUNDARIES, STRETCHING LIMITS

Since 1947 the Ojai Music Festival has drawn people from around the world to this small California town to explore the frontiers of classical music and beyond. With live-streaming, people are able to enjoy the music anywhere in the world. 
 
OJAIU, a massive open online course (MOOC), is relatively new component of the Festival designed to enhance the experience. This year’s course The Beat of the World - The Art of Percussion, will be taught by Music Director Steven Schick.
 
 

OJAI MUSIC FESTIVAL: PUSHING BOUNDARIES, STRETCHING LIMITS

Since moving to Ojai in 1998, my husband Mike and I have never missed attending the Ojai Music Festival, it is after all one of the reasons we chose to live here.  The Festival is one of the things that make Ojai special. Or perhaps the arrow of causation points the other way, and the Festival exists in this place because it is magical.  While Ojai is a scenically beautiful place, there is something else about it that has drawn a disproportionate number of artists, dreamers and thinkers to this small valley, something intangible, a culture that that musicologist Christopher Hailey alludes to in his essay about what sets this non-profit organization apart.  
 
In the Ojai Spirit
‚ÄčFor more than six decades the Ojai Music Festival has been a laboratory for the special chemistry that results from combining insatiable curiosity with unbounded creativity. The formula is simple: Each year a music director is given the freedom and resources to imagine four days of musical brainstorming. Some have approached their task with caution, fearing that Ojai might be like other places. But, of course, it’s not. More often this unique blend of enchanted setting and an audience voracious in its appetite for challenge and discovery has inspired a distinguished series of conductors, performers, composers to push at boundaries and stretch limits. 
 
At its inception in 1947, under the guidance of Festival founder John Bauer and conductor Thor Johnson, the Festival featured a balance of classics and more contemporary fare. By the time Lawrence Morton took over as Artistic Director in 1954 the emphasis had shifted to new music and Ojai soon became the showcase as well as a home-away-from-home for such 20th century giants as Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Lou Harrison, and Olivier Messiaen, not to mention two Southern California “locals”: Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. It was Morton who established the tradition of rotating Music Directors and with this innovation each year’s Festival became the reflection of a succession of larger-than-life personalities, including Robert Craft (joined in 1955 and 1956 by Stravinsky), Copland, Ingolf Dahl, the late Lukas Foss, Boulez, Peter Maxwell-Davies, as well as such rising stars as Michael Tilson Thomas, Calvin Simmons, Kent Nagano, John Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and David Robertson. Through the years Ojai’s Music Directors have invited distinguished soloists, first-rate chamber ensembles, and world-class orchestras to join them in exploring the intersection between new music and everything from jazz and improvisation to electronics and computers; dance, theater, and experimental staging to social and political issues, not to mention repertory that might go back to the Middle Ages or reach across the globe. 
 
Looking back, it would be difficult to identify any overarching aesthetic premise, though from year to year there has been no shortage of agendas. Rather, the thread running through these past decades has been this Festival’s consistency in promoting creativity and innovation. Here in Ojai hallowed masterpieces and in-your-face experiments can be uneasy bedfellows sharing a berth that is a pedestal of repose for one, a trampoline for the other. And that rumble you hear? It is the steady grumbling from an audience whose outspoken views on any and every subject are the entitlement of its loyalty. Its passion is the true barometer of the health of this Festival. No smugness here; no indifference, either. This is a place for enthusiasms, often excessive, and opinions, sometimes vociferous, and a hunger for shared discovery that reaffirms, year after year, why music matters in the first place. 
    -Christopher Hailey 
 
 
 
 
The emphasis on creativity and innovation is certainly what has brought Mike and me back to the Festival year after year.  It is always surprising, invigorating and entertaining.  We love that the Festival is, as someone once described it, “cutting edge, adventuresome…pushing the limits of what we think music might be.”  The one thing the Ojai Music Festival never is is stodgy. 
 
 
 
 
“I love the town, and I admire what the festival has stood for since its inception. It has always been a very adventurous festival, one that has encouraged new artists and very interesting elements of the avant-garde. At the same time, it has focused on the qualities of the recognized masterpieces of the musical civilization. I don’t mean that to sound ponderous. Everything about Ojai is so relaxed and natural. That’s one of the great charms of being there.” 
- Michael Tilson Thomas 
 
The Ojai Music Festival 2015
To give you a flavor of what the Festival is all about, here is a small sampling of the treats that await this year’s festival goers:
 
A tribute to Pierre Boulez. 
Pierre Boulez, who celebrated his 90th birthday this year, was music director for the Festival seven times.  On Wednesday, June 10th Festival goers will be treated to the West Coast Premier of Beyond the Score ® A Pierre Dream: A Portrait of Pierre Boulez:
“A phantasmagorical acoustic and theatrical journey through a lifetime of Pierre Boulez’s musical adventures, innovations, and discoveries. Performed within an extraordinary set designed by Frank Gehry, this multimedia event will mix live performance with archival footage and new interviews with Boulez.”  
 
“Looking back over Ojai history, the Festivals has a history of giving people a chance before they become really recognized for their talents. Stravinsky, Boulez, Tilson Thomas. It is an important pivotal point for a lot of artists…And there is the unusual mingling with people. Real people. The absence of slickness. No pretense. No feigning or pretending. That is refreshing” 
- Kent Nagano 

Flutist and MacArthur Fellow Claire Chase and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) will be making their debut Ojai appearance. Chase describes ICE as “a group of 32 creative misfits, a bit like a contemporary music circus…artists that operate at the crossroads of different disciplines, different genres.  Music that we don’t know what to call yet, that is the music ICE specializes in…We aren’t interested in what we call it. We are interested in making it.”
 
 
"Ojai's marvelous and improbably large fan-base reacted to everything that we threw at them with visible fascination, audible excitement and a spirit of adventure that I've not seen elsewhere!" 
– eighth blackbird 
Pipa virtuoso Wu Man will appear on Saturday night and Sunday morning. The pipa is a four-stringed instrument also known as the Chinese lute.
 
 
 
Renga, an ensemble based at the University of California - San Diego, which describes itself as “a progressive form of shared artistic vision” will perform in two concerts on Saturday. 
 
 
 
“Ojai is like a dream. For me personally, it was a great reality where my two cultures met. I couldn’t believe that I was staying right there on famous Ventura beach, the heart and soul of California surfing. And there up the hill in Ojai was the heart and soul of American great music-making.” 
- Richard Tognetti (Australian Chamber Orchestra) 

Love Music?  Enroll in OjaiU!
 

OjaiU, a massive open online course (MOOC), is relatively new component of the Festival.  This year’s course The Beat of the World - The Art of Percussion, will be taught by Music Director and master percussionist Steven Schick. The course is free and available to all who are interested, whether you are attending the Festival or not, but you must sign up at www.ojaiu.org to participate.  There will be four classes, with one course going live on Monday of each week in the four weeks leading up to the 2015 Ojai Music Festival -  May 11th, May 18th, May 25th, and June 1st.
 
Participants who complete all four classes will get an OjaiU signed certificate of completion and be invited to a graduation gathering with other OjaiU students and artists during festival weekend.  One participant may be chosen to be an intermission guest during the streaming broadcast of one of this year’s concerts.
 
The course is intended to give insights into the music and ideas of the 2015 Ojai Music Festival, but the course stands on its own as a discussion of music. For those who come to the Festival, it should give additional perspectives with which to experience it. Those who can’t be here can listen online to free live streamed broadcasts of performances during the week of June 10-14, 2015 or to archive streams.
 
The OjaiU Curriculum:
Class #1 - World Beat  
The world works on rhythm. From the movement of the planets, night and day, the tides, the seasons, the heartbeats of every living creature, the world runs on rhythm. It’s the fundamental unit of life, and we feel it at our core.
We’ll explore how rhythm is baked into the world around us and even in ourselves.
 
Class #2 - The Physicality of Sound 
What makes something a musical instrument? A piano is a piano, a violin a violin. But a percussionist creates and recreates his instrument unique to every piece and performance and how it relates to the space around it. Moreover, the sound produced is dependent not only on what you hit, but how you hit it.
Percussion isn’t just about rhythm. It creates color, texture, melody, harmony. Percussionists often get their sounds from non-traditional uses of ordinary objects. So can anything become a musical instrument? If so, how do you define its “proper” use in a piece of music? How do abstract sounds become “music”? How do percussive instruments “fit” together?
 
Class #3 - Stories in Sound: 
Percussion is story-telling – physical story-telling, made so by the act of producing it. How you hear something depends on how you see it. Theatricality also plays a role. Percussion in part as theatre? How does the story change when you change the ways in which the sounds/music is produced?
Context is everything. How you produce the sound is fundamental to how you perceive it. Where it is produced also matters to how you experience it. So what makes a good percussion narrative? Percussion has a visual component that we in the audience experience. How does the visual setup and physical performance impact how we hear/experience it? How the composer – and ultimately the performer conceive the performance? Performance of percussion has a physical similarity to dance. How much consideration does a percussionist give to visual choreography?
 
Class #4 - Hitting Things: A Vocabulary and a Language
We’ve seen how the language of percussion has evolved from reinforcing music to creating new musical language. For any art form to evolve, it has to create a community of practice and develop vocabulary and language. Let’s look at traditional percussion notation.
When did percussion outgrow traditional musical notation? Was there a philosophical shift that needed to take place? If so, what? … How do we transmit the sounds of non-traditional “instruments”? Let’s make a link between the language of “art” percussion and the language of jazz percussion.  Let’s make connections between percussion used in movie scores to amplify story/emotion and how percussion helps set tone and pace. Finally, let’s complete the circle from the first class and give examples of how music/percussion has now come to be used to amplify/mediate our environments around us. Setting mood, context, etc.
 
Join me in class if you can and, even better, meet me at Libbey Bowl in June, too!
 
Many thanks to Gina Gutierrez, Director of Marketing and Communications and Interim Chief Operating Officer of the Ojai Music Festival for her assistance in suggesting, gathering and giving permission to use the following:  Christopher Hailey’s commentary, photos of prior festivals, Ojai Music Festival videos, artists’ quotes and the text regarding OjaiU, which is presented here nearly verbatim from the OjaiU website.
 
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