5 Questions to Vijay Iyer (2017 Ojai Festival Music Director)

Composer, pianist, and educator Vijay Iyer is Music Director of the 71st Ojai Music Festival, June 8-11, 2017. 

What was your approach to curating the 2017 Ojai Music Festival program?

We are programming music and people who inspire me and whom I’ve known and trusted through 20 years of musical exploration and collaboration. It was a very organic process working with (Ojai Artistic Director) Tom Morris over a two year period. Much of this music Tom did not know, but he was very enthusiastic about my ideas and he’s gotten very excited about this program. We will present a wide group of people I have collaborated with over the years in multiple musical communities; the idea of genre just doesn’t pertain anymore. We will feature improvisational forms with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, a new fully-notated violin concerto with Jennifer Koh, a multi-media piece with video by Prashant Bhargava, the Brentano Quartet playing my music plus Kurtag and Mozart, and much more

 Q2 Music Preview of the 71st Ojai Music Festival in The Greene Space

Many of the performers on the program have connections to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM); what is AACM’s importance to the music of our time?

AACM transcended the 20th century construct of genre. The founders – people like Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Myers, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill – were unafraid to seek influence from multiple sources around the globe. They redefined the concept of music composition and who gets to be a composer. The organization has thrived for over 50 years by providing opportunities for affiliations and collaborations, mentorship and teaching relationships, and overall support for members’ works. You have Nicole Mitchell writing music which should be regarded as chamber music, but still reflects the Black aesthetic. You have George Lewis writing operas. AACM members have a self-made quality, a new compositional language expressed in their own voice. Improvisation and experimentation with instruments are important elements, yet there is always a presence of honesty, genuineness and realness about the works. AACM’s influence is vast in all contemporary music, comparable to that of Ornette Coleman, and it extends even into the Punk and DIY music scenes. AACM artists have a drive to experiment with various sound-making objects and techniques that is essentially a critique of the concept of virtuosity.

What influence has George Lewis had on you and why did you select his opera Afterword for Ojai?

George has had a tremendous impact on me personally and on contemporary music overall. In the last decade George has explored a new frontier, writing strikingly alive through-composed works for chamber ensembles and orchestras. George has worked extensively with ensembles like ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), virtuosic musicians steeped in western tradition but willing to meet the challenge of breaking free of those classical restraints. For example, improvisation, which has not been common in most new music, is a prominent feature in many of George’s works. He challenges the notion of who is inside and who is outside. George’s legacy is so broad, including IRCAM, Spectralism, computer-generated improvisation and composition. He’s constantly innovating with the language of music. He has lots of interesting ideas up his sleeve and I always want to hear what he’s doing.

World premiere of George Lewis’ Afterword at MCA Chicago

George’s Afterword is a major work that tells a very important story. The libretto is drawn from his revolutionary musicology book A Power Stronger than Itself – The AACM and American Experimental Music and the many interviews with AACM members that were part of his research. The opera follows the five decades of the development of AACM. You are there for the very first meeting, staged in an abstract way. As the opera unfolds you feel like you are inside an M.C. Escher drawing, as it contains the codes of self-generation

How did you come to program Courtney Bryan’s Yet Unheard?

I attended the premiere of Courtney Bryan’s Yet Unheard, with text by Sharan Strange, presented by the activist ensemble The Dream Unfinished Orchestra last July in New York. I was so moved I decided to bring it to Ojai. The piece conjures the spirit of Sandra Bland who died in police custody after a seemingly wrongful arrest. This is beautiful, haunting, gripping music flowing right out of the intensity of current events. I feel like we need a piece from the voice of an African American woman and one that addresses the issues of social justice. It will be interesting to see how the Ojai audience responds. Yet Unheard will be the last piece of the night, sending people home with this hard message to ponder. It is easy to participate in #RESISTANCE on social media, but more difficult to bring people into a spiritual meditation on this horrific reality. Sandra Bland is there, as singer Helga Davis really channels her.

What led to the formation of your quartet with vocalist Aruna Sairam, tabla player Zakir Hussain, and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa?

This is a dream ensemble 20 years in the making. I have worked with Rudresh Mahanthappa since the mid-1990s. He’s been a very important part of my life. We are both children of Indian immigrants coming of age in the 90s. Zakir Hussain came to the U.S. from India right around the time I was born. He worked with Ravi Shankar and with so many important American artists like Alice Coltrane, Carlos Santana, and John Handy. He’s one of the founders of what we now call World Music finding the ways to work through rhythm as the unifying source in all streams of music. 40 some years on, Zakir is still the greatest tabla player in the world and one of the great innovators of American music. He’s a prime reason music sounds like it does today. We met in the 90s but first worked together at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music two years ago. We’ve been plotting and scheming to do more work together. Aruna Sairam is one of the best vocalists in the world. She is an icon of south Indian Carnatic music and an innovator who moves across traditions in many different ways. She first contacted me when an interview with me appeared in the Times of India, and we were able to bring her to the Banff workshops as well. I couldn’t be more excited about presenting the music of this quartet for the first time at Ojai.


June 8-11, 2017: 71st Ojai Music Festival in Ojai, California

June 15-17: Ojai at Berkeley on Cal Performances in Berkeley, California