Ojai North! at UC Berkeley

Each June, Ojai, CA is a scene of intense music making as musicians and composers gather for the West Coast’s longest-running festival of contemporary music. In the Bay Area we are fortunate that for the last three years Ojai’s four-day festival was followed by a partnership with Cal Performances (renamed Ojai North!) for a second complete run in Berkeley.

This year, choreographer Mark Morris (famed here for his Hard Nut), assumed the rotating mantle of Artistic Director, to put an unusual imprimatur on a festival that rarely emphasizes dance. And not only does Morris bring his famed dance troop, but he brought an excellent ensemble of musicians as well, for a series of concerts that began with Stravinsky and then explored mavericks of the American twentieth century, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and Lou Harrison.

This was coincidentally the hundredth year since Stravinsky burst upon the world scene with Rite of Spring, a work that not only challengedMark Morris-photo by Sarah Schatz Western musical and rhythmic sensibilities, but was coupled to Nijinsky’s shockingly “primitivist” choreography. As it was a seminal moment for the development of both contemporary music and modern dance, Morris appropriately opened the festival with his own new choreography to The Rite of Spring, accompanied by an electronic/ jazz remake by The Bad Plus.

I was fortunate to see the Bad Plus in October of 2012 when SF Performances brought them here (see Oct. 16, 2012 Piedmont Post) and gave them a rave review for their no-holds-barred update of Stravinsky. This year I was also interested in the American mavericks, and went to six concerts (and a movie!) on Friday and Saturday, June 14 and 15.

That opportunity to steep oneself in a potpourri of events is part of the lure of this challenging festival, and this year cultivated an overview of an American century. Ives’ facility with older forms was a departure point for his bi-tonal experiments (tackling different key signatures at once) and for his mash-ups of classical and popular melodies, predating Poulenc’s madcap virtuosity in Paris. Then Henry Cowell threw key signatures nearly out the window, hammering on a piano with fists and forearms in joyous exuberance. Finally, Lou Harrison blended classical and unorthodox forms—Bach fugues, Arabic scales, Javanese gamelan and Indian percussion—and served them with a twist of ancient Greek tuning. His embrace of world music and wild experimentation became a focal point for the festival, which featured Eva Soltes’ feature-length documentary on Harrison.

Along with some stunning concerts by committed musicians, one thread that kept this series relevant were the many works by John Luther Adams, a contemporary Alaskan composer (and not to be confused with famed minimalist John Adams). Friday’s concerts were especially intriguing. At Hertz Hall, Joshua Gersen began by conducting the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble in Lou Harrison’s Suite for Symphonic Strings. It was inventive and essential, roving over a lifetime of experiments. Estampie opened with Egyptian-sounding cross-rhythms around melodic nodes, as simple and complex as the eight-fold patterns of Arabic art. Then came Chorale, a slow wheeze of lower strings budding into spring-like growth. It built with rich and indeterminate harmonies into a block of sound as impenetrable as a ship, then simplified into high violin harmonics and bass doubling of the notes, many octaves down. Harrison moved from rigorous to slippery, from canonic variations to chromatic dissonances.

Following was Adams’ tribute, for Lou Harrison, a strange homage to one who celebrated freedom. The MMDG Music Ensemble was joined by the American String Quartet and two pianists, played by the exceptional Colin Fowler and Yegor Shevtsov. Huge long-held string chords created a cloud of harmonies that encompassed passages from the two pianos. One rumbled in waves while the other stabbed its way up a strange scale by pairs of notes. The central Quartet reprised the climbs, all rough surfaces and brilliant edges. Adams created an imposing edifice, but its development, increasingly hypnotic over the next hour, was glacial. While many in the audience were sorely tested, and some were bludgeoned into unconsciousness by that wall of sound, I found my way to a strange self-acceptance. Like the stages of grief, anger followed denial at Adams’ challenge to the audience. And then, after a period of pure animal receptivity (or the cessation of all brain activity), I found myself literally on the edge of my seat, pushing forward to gain entry into something I couldn’t consciously glimpse. Although the music was static, I apparently had changed.

When someone (a plant, no doubt) shouted, “Do it again!” I sympathized with the zeal of a convert, before realizing that they were facetious.

The next morning we heard another moment of experiment, when Ethan Iverson, pianist of The Bad Plus, performed an early work by John Cage, Four Walls. Cage and Harrison were long-time friends, and encouraged each other’s questioning of the underpinnings of performance and art.

Cage wrote Four Walls to accompany Merce Cunningham’s dance choreography, but it was only performed once. The limited palette was meant to be an in-your-face commentary on art, dance, performance, and the nuclear family. Written entirely on the white keys, its modal severity represented a clash with Harrison’s penchant for deeply felt pentatonic (the black keys!).

But Iverson’s obsessive immersion gave it a depth Cage could not have expected. Each of his notes was a statement, and he inhabited the rhythmic chords viscerally. This was a reinterpretation of a caustic wit through the powerful gestures of a jazz artist, and creating art out of disaffection.

But the festival wasn’t all “work” or “challenge.” At 10:00 p.m. on Friday, a glade of the campus was littered with percussionists, San Diego group red fish blue fish performing Adams’ songbirdsongs. We listened to the call of birds, measured by bright piccolos and xylophones and mournful ocarinas, and the audience whispered and walked with dogs through the night grass.

—Adam Broner

Photo of artistic director Mark Morris by Sarah Schatz