Emerging from Trouble at Ojai Music Festival

The 71st Ojai Music Festival took place in Ojai, CA from June 8-11, 2017 with pianist and composer Vijay Iyer as music director. Since its beginnings in 1946, the festival has programmed music that mixes the new, the old, and the unusual. As such, it is a near-perfect home for a music director like Iyer, who views music not in the limited terms of genre or style but rather of community, people, history — a bustling convergence of the humanities and social sciences. For Iyer, a musical composition, however mechanic or digitized, does not exist in a vacuum, and cannot be extricated from communal social codes and norms giving rise to its conception and providing certain limitations in its reception.

In performance, too, Iyer thinks deeply about the exchange of energy and agency via power relations on stage, and in the American premiere of his work Emergence for trio and orchestra at Ojai on Thursday June 8, authority was in flux. One constantly asked if the conductor (Steve Schick) was leading, or the trio (Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump, and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey), or the orchestra (International Contemporary Ensemble with Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble). Or perhaps the composer was getting the better of them all. As a piece, it restlessly guides the listener through a series of brightening doorways, and on Thursday each arrival felt right and yet somehow unbelievable, like, “how did we get here?” The magic of Emergence lay in its balance of structural clarity and improvised pathways that allowed for a confluence of smoke, mirrors, and sheer satisfaction.

Vijay Iyer and Crump--Photo by David Bazemore

American Premiere of Emergence with Vijay Iyer and Stephan Crump–Photo Credit: David Bazemore

It began with an inquisitive chord, rolled casually by Iyer. As he continued, one imagined skipping stones and watching the ripples dissipate against a current of Crump’s persistent bass pedal. The string entrance was able to fly under the radar, and suddenly, Sorey’s grooves began to literally emerge, organically, but seemingly out of nowhere. When everyone onstage had joined in, Emergence continually re-revealed itself as a quotidian step, a caffeinated dance, a interruptive double bass cadenza, and a subtle drum and bass club beat. Eventually, the strings ditched their symphonic sheen for an addictive disco sound before the chrome ball abruptly shattered. Falling, or perhaps teleporting, through the dance floor, the listener found themselves in a dank basement, first stumbling in the dark and then examining cobwebs on the ceiling. One thing Iyer is remarkably good at is examining the other side of the coin of any well-constructed musical idea, taking the raw and the cooked as an inseparable unit. To bring Emergence to a close, the whole unit joined forces in mimicking electronic noises (think internet dial-up circa 2000), while all the double basses kept a stereo pulse, ICE and Oberlin on one side, Crump on the other. The chaos built towards a final arrival before dissipating into nothing.

Iyer’s new violin concerto, entitled Trouble, is one of a few new works of concert music that ruminates quite specifically on minority experience in the United States. Under Iyer’s leadership, the festival’s commitment to illuminating these works was clear and timely, and Trouble spoke to all minority experiences. Written by an Indian-American man and performed by the Korean-American violinist Jennifer Koh, the work’s second movement is dedicated to Chinese-American Vincent Chin, whose murder in 1982 “signaled an ongoing pattern of violent hate crimes against people of color” according to Iyer.

World Premiere of Trouble, with Jennifer Koh and Steven Schick--Photo Credit: David Bazemore

World Premiere of Trouble, with Jennifer Koh and Steven Schick–Photo Credit: David Bazemore

In this movement, the persistent seconds and sevenths coming from the solo violin signal the dissonance of forced assimilation, while the preceding “Normale” was a kind of nervous Moto perpetuo for the virtuoso, above the orchestra’s Copland-esque chords on top of off-putting pedal-points. Other parts, like the scratchy violin drone against a lonely flute melody in “Prelude: Erasure” communicate a kind of baseline psychological harshness and uncertainty common to targets of discrimination. In the finale, “Assembly,” Koh broke away in a scalar fit of desperation, signaling an unsupported dream, a faint glimmer of hope, or a glimpse at freedom–she seemed rise out of sea of orchestral cacophony. She thoroughly commanded the piece, fully pushing the possibilities of her instrument, and fully accepting the vulnerability that she had to communicate in the rare role of an antiheroic soloist.

To close out the evening, Iyer was joined by the 75-year old AACM legend Wadada Leo Smith to present their recent collaboration, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, an odyssey through Martian sonic terrains. Iyer played the role of mad scientist, swiveling between a beat-machine, a synthesizer, a piano, and a Fender Rhodes keyboard, creating bass-heavy and spacious backdrops on top of which Smith’s thick and yet piercing trumpet ruminations drew up deep and yet alien forms. One was alternately tugged in and projected out of their gravitational pull in seamless chapters that were not so much variations on a theme, but always logical steps forward. Of particular note was the pregnancy of all of Smith’s pauses. Never before have I heard such engagement with the negative sonic space: an unpredictability with each stroke. And as for the cosmic rhythm? One could say it lay pulsing between the two of them. I found myself focusing not so much on the music as on the dynamic and energy flow between Iyer and Smith, the tenderness of each exchange or the matched intentionality of all of their statements.

A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke with Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith--Photo Credit: David Bazemore

A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke with Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith–Photo Credit: David Bazemore

After forty minutes, their journey came to a conclusion, and Smith walked slowly over to Iyer and let his forehead rest on his shoulder in what seemed to be a spiritual embrace. Seconds later, Smith nearly collapsed. The drama of physical reality crashed down on a profoundly metaphysical experience, while gasps ensued and doctors from the audience rushed the stage, guiding him out. Minutes later, Iyer came out for second bow and indicated that he was just dehydrated, shortly thereafter tweeting, “Mr. @WadadaLeoSmith is doing okay! Thank you, @Ojaifestivals.” It was a visceral sign that musicians, however intangible and magical their creations, are bodies, vulnerable and imperfect. Thank you, Mr. Iyer, for the reminder.