“My approach was that, instead of genre, we should talk about community,” Vijay Iyer told a near-capacity crowd that filled a local community center in Ojai, California, on a hazy but pleasant Thursday afternoon in early June. The audience had gathered to get to know Iyer: a celebrated composer, improviser, pianist, and bandleader, and the music director of the 2017 Ojai Music Festival. What distinguished a community, he explained, is that it is intergenerational, and continually renewing. The resulting aesthetic, he said, might be one of “openness, welcome, and tolerance.”
Founded in 1947, and refined shortly thereafter into its present status as a premier contemporary-classical destination curated by an annual rotation of music directors, the Ojai Festival has featured as its helm such august personages as Aaron Copland, Pierre Boulez, Peter Maxwell Davies, and John Adams. Under the leadership of Thomas W. Morris, who became Ojai’s artistic director in 2004, the festival has diversified its mix, ushering in fascinating variations wrought by music directors such as Pierre-Laurent Aimard, eighth blackbird, Mark Morris, and Peter Sellars.
In inviting Iyer, Morris opened Ojai’s gates anew to a flood of fresh experiences, this time provided by composers and performers whose performative practices varied greatly from what the festival’s regular audience members had come to expect – most visibly, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, George Lewis, and Wadada Leo Smith, representatives of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (A.A.C.M.), a revolutionary collective established in 1965 by artists associated with avant-garde jazz on Chicago’s south side.
The festival commenced on Thursday, June 8, with a concert featuring two Iyer concertos performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Steven Schick — Emergence, involving Iyer’s trio with bassist Stephan Crump and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey, and Trouble, a world premiere featuring violinist Jennifer Koh — and a transcendent rendition by Iyer and Smith of their celebrated duo work, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke. The June 9 lineup included a daybreak concert by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu; a late-morning recital by ICE; a midday program shared by flutist Claire Chase and Sorey’s Double Trio; and, in the evening, the west coast premiere of Afterword, Lewis’s opera inspired by the birth of the A.A.C.M., followed by Koh’s late-night solo recital, “Bach and Beyond.”
June 10 was similarly packed: a daybreak concert by flutist Nicole Mitchell – a younger A.A.C.M. figure, and its first woman president – followed by a late-morning ICE program devoted to a Ghost Trance Music composition by still another A.A.C.M. icon, Anthony Braxton. The Brentano Quartet, performing works by Mozart, György Kurtág, and Iyer, shared an afternoon matinee with Sorey’s Autoschediasm, a conduction (conducted improvisation) played by ICE. An electrifying evening concert featured ICE and Schick in a pairing of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, effectively miniaturized by Cliff Colnot, and Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, a sumptuous work created in response to Stravinsky by Iyer and Prashant Bhargava, a gifted filmmaker and Iyer’s dear friend, who had died tragically young in 2015.
Sharing that evening’s late-night program were the Brentano Quartet with Iyer and an ICE/Oberlin rendition of yet unheard, a vocal work by Courtney Bryan with words by poet Sharan Strange, inspired by Sandra Bland’s death in police custody, with Helga Davis as vocal soloist. The lineup on June 11 featured three auspicious groups: The Trio, comprising Abrams, Mitchell, and Lewis; Confluence, uniting Iyer with the magnificent South Indian Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, tabla master Zakir Hussain, and a longtime Iyer compatriot, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa; and Iyer’s Sextet, featuring Crump, Sorey, and three masterful horn players.
Like Iyer, I was at Ojai engaged in festival business: It was my duty and privilege to introduce all of the weekend’s events alongside cohosts Thomas Kotcheff and Alan Chapman, and to conduct substantial interviews with many of the key performers, for a global audience watching live online. (All performances and interviews were archived, and are available now for streaming.) Shortly before the festival concluded, Iyer signaled his interest in talking about all that had transpired during this brilliant, cathartic weekend; shortly after the subsequent Ojai in Berkeley satellite series at Cal Performances – and in anticipation of Iyer’s performance with novelist and essayist Teju Cole at National Sawdust on July 8 – we connected by telephone, and proceeded to unpack a profound experience.