“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.
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.
Just to get rolling, I want to ask you, as I did on camera at Ojai, what you made of it when Tom Morris first approached you with the idea of serving as music director for the Ojai Music Festival?
It took me some time to figure out what it meant and wrap my head around it. I hadn’t known about the festival, and couldn’t quite determine the extent of it. It’s one thing to say it’s four days of concerts, but when you’re on the ground, you start to see the immersiveness of the experience and the ethos… there is a community ethos that predates me. [Laughs] They kept saying that it was my idea, but it’s not, obviously, because that is an ancient idea. When I ended up going to visit that year…it was 2015: Tom had approached me in January of that year, and in June I went to check out the festival. And I was there for almost everything.
2015 was Steven Schick’s year as music director.
Yes. And he was so omnipresent in the programming, but not in a way that drew attention to himself; more that he was really just serving the music, and it was really a broad range of things. It wasn’t that he put himself at the center. There wasn’t any kind of ideology or anything; it was just all these magnificent things that he’d been a part of that he wanted to share. And him as a conductor, of course, that opens a lot of doors. It’s a very versatile role. But then as a performer, all these things he had done as a solo performer, like Bone Alphabet, the Ferneyhough piece, or this Kurt Schwitters Dadaist monologue that he had worked with a French theater director to stage. Or the [Morton Feldman] trio piece, For Philip Guston – they did an early-morning, pre-dawn concert of that, him and Sarah Rothenberg and Claire [Chase]. And the breadth of his programming as a conductor – they did Appalachian Spring and stuff like that.
He was just really generous, and also, he was so present as an interlocutor. He had so many genuinely interesting things to say, and he was very open with the audience. There was something kind of Olympian about the achievement, beyond triathlon, just the stamina and clarity that he brought to it all. It’s funny, I’ve watched some of the videos that they’ve posted from Ojai, and I can see by Sunday afternoon I’m this hunched, hobbled, broken body – and I wasn’t even working as hard as he did. [Laughs] I have even more admiration for him now, having gone through a version of it myself.
I guess I felt the best thing I could do, just to get back to your question, was bring my people in, bring everyone in who’s been meaningful to me that I could summon for the occasion, and all the collaborations that have been central to my artistic life – that already cuts a pretty broad swath in terms of what I’ve done – but also people who’ve nurtured me and lifted me up, honoring them. As it coalesced, it became clear that if anyone’s going to hold me up as some kind of artist who blurs boundaries or breaks down notions of genre… I mean, that already is a tradition that I’m stepping into, and the reason that I’ve been able to do it is because of all these people who happened to be part of the A.A.C.M.
The A.A.C.M. nurtured them to become the individuals that they are, but it’s really about my experience with them as individuals that kind of added up to this perspective. So it became clear that if we were going to construct a narrative of some kind, that had to be central.
That notion of personal connection and honor is really significant. A potential Ojai audience member who didn’t know the breadth of your work and your background could look at your lineup and think, ‘This seems very eclectic, and it feels like you’re trying to make points about culture and politics.’ Which might well be the case, actually, but it’s because it’s all coming organically out of your own experience.
Yeah, I think that needs to be stressed, because I’ve seen it described as me reaching for predecessors, or for examples to support some thesis or something like that. And that’s not how I experienced it. I experienced it as, these are people who made me who I am. So let me think about that. Why is that? And who am I? [Laughs] I mean, I guess there is an autobiographical strand through it, but only in a sense of me trying to decenter myself in a way that brings in others who’ve been important to me.
The other aspect is that it’s seen as some kind of bold move to bring all of that to the Ojai Festival, of all places. I mean, if I were just curating any festival, anywhere, then it would make sense. But because it’s Ojai, I think there’s a sense that it seems to break a pattern because of the presence of so many composer-performers – which I think is also kind of an important model that de-centers the ensemble-in-residence model, where you feature the works of different great composers, when you bring people in to do their own work in whatever way that that manifests. And maybe they can share resources in a certain way by working with the same ensemble – but maybe they don’t. Maybe they just do their own thing, and then that sort of destabilizes the model a little better, or it creates a different kind of presence.
Tom admitted, in an interview I conducted and elsewhere, that he had to do some crash-course study to learn more about some of the people you proposed to engage. I sense that Ojai embraced your initiatives wholeheartedly and without reservation, but was there ever any sense of, “Oh, there’s too much improvisation… we can’t take our audience that far?” Or did they just say, let’s go for it?
Well, it was really me and Tom every step of the way. It was pretty incremental. My only concern was that it was too much of me, and he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you when you get there.” The fact that we had ICE there gave us a pretty nice range of possibilities. There were some ideas that didn’t make it, I will say that, but it was never because, “oh, that’s inappropriate.” It was really more “well, we gave it a try, but they’re not available,” or something else came up. Or else maybe it was too much of one thing. But it wasn’t too much improvisation – that was never a problem. [Laughs]
I think we knew pretty early on that George’s opera was going to be a centerpiece. And in fact, it was that year that they were doing some of the first performances of the work, and it came in stages. I remember in May of that year… I’ll never forget that week, because it was the week Prashant [Bhargava] passed. He died on the 15th, that Friday, and I was out with Brentano when I got the news – in fact, I was with Brentano and Jenny [Koh]. We were playing Time, Place, Action in San Antonio, and for some reason just coincidentally, Jenny was playing in the same building in a different hall.
We all hung out that night, afterward, and I got the call from Prashant’s sister. And then I just lost my mind; I don’t even know what happened. Basically they carried me back to my room, and Jenny and Nina [Lee, Brentano Quartet cellist] stayed with me and just kind of made sure I was okay. I was supposed to go to Detroit with Brentano, and instead they helped me book a flight home. I was home on Saturday, and then on Sunday I went to Chicago to be with his family for the funeral. I slept in Prashant’s childhood bed, and played piano at his wake.
Right after that, I came to New York, and I was supposed to leave for Europe that Thursday or Friday. That was the week that George was workshopping the opera at Roulette, so I guess it was the third week of May in ’15. So this was before I’d come out to Ojai; I just came to see George, and I came to one of the rehearsals and heard the piece, and sat with him for a while – or he sat with me, because I needed it – and we just started pulling it together, getting a sense of the extent of it.
Sean [Griffin] had different versions of the staging, so it was kind of about figuring out what the right scale would be for the space that we’d be in. And we actually were looking into different spaces when I visited Ojai the next month; there are other venues out there that we didn’t even use. In the end we just ended up streamlining it, keeping it all pretty central. So there was a lot of that kind of back-and-forth, about where should we put this, and when, and what’s the right arc.
I think Tom was just really good about just having some perspective about what would land right when, and what needed a certain kind of spotlight at a certain moment. And even the idea of what would go after Afterword… how do you follow that? Initially we had thought that the Trio should follow: George and Muhal and Roscoe. That would be pretty fitting. But George actually was resistant to that idea; he said, I think people need some space to actually digest the work, and I need some space – I don’t want to trot myself out as if to say, “Look, I can play the trombone, too!” [Laughs] It was wise of him to resist that.
And then to have Jenny there instead, playing a solo concert, was incredible. That was one of my favorite moments in the festival. She set the bar so high with that set; it was like, oh, this is what we all could be aspiring to. Not that there wasn’t other kinds of excellence at hand, but she’s one of the greats. And that performance in that hour with that audience, who had been through that much by then… it actually marked the midpoint of the festival, and the strength and the vulnerability and the openness, the stamina and the tenderness, the storytelling – there was so much in that performance. It still haunts me.
That was an extraordinary moment. For me, there were so many extraordinary moments, and they weren’t limited to the music. I can’t get over the notion of Steve Schick, speaking in our interview about seeing Muhal and Roscoe and George onstage during the talk before Afterword, very earnestly referring to that sight as “the Mount Rushmore of modern music.” He wasn’t saying “…of jazz” or “…of Chicago” or “…of improvisation.” It was, this is the bedrock on which everything else you’re seeing is built. To hear Claire Chase saying, “Without the A.A.C.M., there would be no ICE” – it just felt like finally these guys are seeing what it is that they planted 50 years ago come to fruition, and are being recognized for it.
I don’t know… I mean, they’ve been through waves of recognition. I was also overjoyed to see those dots publicly connected for others. I think we love to say things like, well, so-and-so is finally getting his recognition. And actually, that’s not what sustains an artist, or it’s not what sustains the art. For them, the work is its own reward, I think, and that’s what I’ve learned from the process, from being among them and working with Roscoe and with Wadada. The human connection that comes from music making, that’s the real reward, and that comes whether or not it’s officially deigned legitimate or anything like that.
And I know what that’s like. I’ve been making music since I was 3, and when I’m doing it, I feel the same way that I did when I was 3. That’s why we do it. The other thing is, to do it among others and to feel it land, to hear it being heard: that’s the power of the music, and that’s why we do it. Again, it’s not about individual recognition or about having your ego stroked; it’s because the music has its own power, and serving that is its own reward.
I was really struck by the intensity of audience engagement, that they were open to whatever came. I was stunned by the audience staying late into the night for the late-night concerts, whether it was Jenny solo or Courtney Bryan’s large-ensemble piece. I was amazed to see a robust crowd show up at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning to hear rigorous, uncompromising playing by Muhal, Roscoe, and George. How would you describe the quality of your interactions with the audience, in terms of what you were just saying about listening and also any one-on-one or small-group interactions you had?
I guess I was the “face,” so when I’d walk through town or just run to get a coffee or something, just be scrambling to find some food [laughs] – okay, I’ve got seven minutes; can I get a taco? – people would reach out. There was a lot of gratitude and kindness and genuine satisfaction, genuine joy. But I will say that, having been there before, I’d seen a version of that before. That’s what struck me when I went there in 2015. People were really there for it. It’s almost cultish. [Laughs] I was a little freaked out that there were people who’d been coming for literally 50 years to this festival. They’d say, “Yeah, this is our 53rd year!”
The idea that people were willing to venture so far outside the zone of what they knew already, and just engage fresh things, things that they hadn’t experienced before: that, to me, was a sign of the generosity of that audience. Many people go to a festival to hear what they already know, and what they already know they like.
Yeah, I guess that’s how a lot of festivals are structured. Or there’s a certain discovery narrative, where it’s about parading the “other.” Actually, that’s the logic of the international jazz festival, if you think about it, in these metropoles in North American and Europe. It’s basically serving white audiences and presenting images, presenting performative versions of blackness, to be consumed. I tried to push against that as well, because I was aware that that’s a pitfall when you enter into that dynamic: that you could be inadvertently self-exoticizing. I didn’t want it ever to feel like exotica.
The trio of Muhal, Roscoe, and George – I remember right after that set, Jane Morris, Tom’s wife, was in tears. It got her right in the heart. That’s the kind of performance where it basically dares you to go the distance with people who you might not have previously sensed a connection with. And it takes you right through the entire process, so that you don’t get left behind, and you become really involved in it in a way that catches you off-guard. It really gets you in the heart, and you think, wow, these are people who’ve committed their lives to creating experiences like this for people in the world, and sort of short-circuiting difference in a way that is more powerful than you can even imagine.
This isn’t like a “kumbayah” kind of statement – it reveals a profound humanity that you cannot deny. It’s funny, I’ve seen them in action many times – I remember one time I did a double bill with them in Slovenia. It was my trio and then them, this heavy moment for me. And, you know, not everybody in the audience is ready for it. I’ve played with Roscoe a lot and toured with him, and sometimes we’d send people running for the doors. [Laughs] You might lose 15 percent of the audience or something like that. People might leave. And everyone who stays has their lives changed, and the people who left just weren’t ready to have their lives changed. It’s not that the music is difficult, per se; it’s actually that the experience of witnessing something that true is heavy, just a heavy experience. So that, to me, was one of the core moments of the festival; it just crystalized that truth in a way that was undeniable.
I wanted to ask you about the inclusion of Courtney Bryan’s piece, yet unheard. What prompted you to incorporate that particular piece into your mix?
I heard that piece premiered last summer. I don’t know if you know about the Dream Unfinished Orchestra… basically it’s an activist project by people in New York’s classical music community. They premiered the piece last year, and I guess they must have commissioned it, because I don’t know how else it would have come about. It was actually a full orchestra, full choir, and Helga [Davis] as a soloist. So basically as soon as I heard it, I talked to Tom about it, because it just really hit me. It felt really important and necessary. It’s not like that theme is so distant from whatever narrative would emerge from our aggregate of programming – it felt like it was in line.
And also, Courtney – I was actually on her dissertation committee at Columbia, and George and Georg Friedrich Haas were her advisors, so it’s not like it’s way out of left field to include it. It just felt basically in line with a lot of what we were doing in a lot of different ways. And it was also to feature someone from another generation, and just give that piece a platform. It just felt like the right thing; it didn’t feel like a stretch at all. There was a live recording of the premiere and a score, and I obtained both of those. And I sat with them, and I showed them to Tom, and he liked the idea, too. We didn’t really have to think about it too much, because it just felt like this was completely in line with everything else. And Helga had been there before; she performed last year.
And then also, I think we had the sense that it would be good to have more vocal works. We had the opera, and we had this solo performance by Jen Shyu, and then we had Aruna [Sairam] coming on Sunday afternoon, but there wasn’t a lot of other presence of the voice at all. So it kind of felt like that would be a nice way to tie all those together.
That all registers affirmatively. Yet the permeability of the concert-music world to current events and ideas of social and political activism still seem to be… not controversial, necessarily, but an uneasy fit for some audiences, for whom the concert-music experience might suggest diversion or escape. So there again, you were trusting that the audience would go along with you. And I think that trust was borne out not only by a rapturous reception for the performance, but also in hearing people 20 feet away from me chanting Sandra Bland’s name in the concert’s aftermath.
Wow. That’s great.
What all of this leads to for me is the same question that I posed during our on-camera interview during the festival: It wasn’t as though you constructed some fantasy bubble in Ojai, but rather that you offered a kind of utopian vision of what cultural life could be like, and the question now is, how do we take this forward and make it permeate into more of our day-to-day existence? That’s the task of the listener. The way you put it earlier… you suggested that classical audiences aren’t necessarily open to certain kinds of content, or certain kinds of ideas. I don’t know what classical audiences are open to and not. We’re talking about a lot of different kinds of people, I hope. What I’ve learned as a performer is that I can’t generalize about audiences. All I can do is trust that the music will do its own work. You can’t predict how it will manifest, but you know that the music becomes a crystallization of a lot of different forces in motion, and it kind of refracts into the world in a way that will stay with people.
And then it’s about, like Wadada has said, how it transforms that life, so that when people go back into the routine part of living, they carry with them a little bit of something else. That line refers to some kind of irreducible power that we gain from that shared presence and from that experience. And the way it then propagates or manifests in the world, that’s not for me to predict or ascribe or assign. It actually just needs to do its own work, and that work is larger than any of us. I’m not trying to be evasive or mystical…
No, to the contrary, this is all very concrete and realistic.
Yeah. So I guess I felt like, it’s not like I’m giving people a homework assignment, but, you know, this is a large chunk of truth that people have to then sit with, and how it might affect your subsequent life… will you think of your life as before and after Ojai 2017? [Laughs] And what will change in the way you go about things? A work like Courtney’s really serves that question. But, like I said, so does that trio set with Roscoe and George and Muhal, and so did George’s opera. And, I hope, so did Jen Shyu’s solo set and Jenny Koh’s solo set. It can become this pivot in your life, where you suddenly have a different relationship to the world around you because of it.
Finally, could you talk just a bit about your project with Teju Cole, which you’re bringing to National Sawdust in July?
I’d love to. We’ve been buddies for a long time now, since the early 2000s. I just started running into him on the street, and it turned out that it was because we lived in the same neighborhood for a while. We’d find ourselves riding the same subway together, or at concerts together, or he’d be at my gigs. So I’ve just over the years gotten to know him, and gotten to be in conversation with him. That was before he became the literary star that he is today. That sort of human connection enabled us to contemplate the prospect of working together, and the first thing we did together was, basically, I did a large suite that was called Open City. It wasn’t that it was based on his novel, but it was kind of in conversation with the work. And he ended up becoming a part of it; he read excerpts from the novel with our ensemble music. That was in 2013.
Then when I did the Met [Breuer] residency last year, I just sort of thought, well, let me get… again, it was a similar thing: Let me just get all my people in the room. Let’s just figure out what we can all do over the course of this month, over these hundred or so sets. What can we accomplish? Every day of the month we did four to six concerts that I curated, so it was literally more than 100 events. Often we’d double up. So I just found out when Teju was free, and said, okay, we’re going to do something – we don’t know what.
I first tried to reconvene all the people in Open City, but that proved impossible. So I said, let’s just try something else. He said, well, I’m working on this book called Blind Spot – it involves photos I’ve taken, and I write about these photos. I said, all right, send me what you’ve got and we’ll make something together. I guess I programmed maybe six performances in those little slots that we had, and decided that we would just figure it out as we went along. [Laughs] It’s not that it was low stakes, but I was treating the whole thing as process. And it just kind of came together.
So it’s me and [bassist] Linda Oh and Patricia Brennan, who’s a vibes and marimba player, a really virtuosic player. You may have heard her with John Hollenbeck’s band. She had taken some lessons with me when she was at NYU, like 10 years ago, and she’s just fantastic. It’s the three of us and Teju: he just steps through the material, and we create it together. It’s actually been really lovely; we’ve done it a couple more times since then.
Now, the book’s out and the photos are on display, and it’s getting a really wonderful reception. But for us, it was, let’s try this thing… I don’t know what’s going to happen. [Laughs] It feels really nice. It’s a beautiful book, and very haunting – and very openly political, but in his sort of circumspect way. It’s not agit-prop at any moment, but a certain awareness emerges that, again, is about our shared humanity. And certain truths become undeniable.
Performances and interviews from the 2017 Ojai Music Festival are available for streaming on YouTube. Vijay Iyer and Teju Cole present Blind Spot at National Sawdust on Saturday, July 8, at 7pm; www.nationalsawdust.org