Monday, June 29, 2015

Pilgrimage to Ojai

Joss Whedon, until he started directing super-hero epics at least, had this unique knack for turning your expectations upside down. I particularly remember one episode from Angel, an underrated series, where Angel is sent to visit a swami in Ojai, which is where you would expect to find a swami, for some therapy. Imagine his surprise when the swami opens the door and he turns out to be a burly, aggressively blue-collar, no-nonsense kind of guy with the demeanor of a retired traffic cop. He loves to put Angel through the wringer, asking him why he, a vampire, in a particularly sunny climate, drives a convertible of all things. When Angel gives a particularly implausible answer, the swami says, "pal, that car IS your problem!"

All this is a lot funnier if you know much about Ojai, a kind of rustic retreat for gurus, self-discovery and celebrities in recovery.

Every spring since 1947 a contemporary music festival has been held in Ojai, sixty-five miles northwest of Los Angeles. This year Alex Ross, of the New Yorker, attended and provided a fascinating write-up of the events. Here is a taste:
At the heart of the 2015 festival, which unfolded from June 10th to June 14th, was a solo program by [music director and percussionist Steven Schick], and its centerpiece was “Zyklus”—a magisterially ambiguous creation that combines precisely notated sections with more open-ended passages that leave considerable choice to the performer. Schick’s interpretation, which he has been honing for forty years, is a sinuous audiovisual ballet in which hard-hitting, rat-a-tat drum solos intermingle with subtle, whispery sounds, as of a tapped gong or a brushed gourd. Although Schick meticulously plans each performance, he gives the impression of engaging in intuitive action, as if no score existed and the music were all muscle memory. The distinction between idea and gesture was similarly blurry in his accounts of Xenakis’s percussion pieces “Rebonds” and “Psappha,” and it disappeared altogether in Vinko Globokar’s “?Corporel,” which calls for a semi-naked percussionist to make sounds with his or her amplified body, slapping hands against skin.
This is not the only contemporary music festival in California, Cabrillo also comes to mind, but it sounds like it might be the most interesting. There was lots to listen to:
In all, there were eighteen concerts (I saw thirteen), featuring forty-seven composers, most of them living.
Go read the whole article for the whole picture. Well, as much as possible, given Alex Ross' usual policies. What do I mean? Alex is an excellent writer and a strong advocate for contemporary music. But like all activists he is more of a booster than a critic. The contemporary world hates criticism of course as it is way too judgmental. Unless it is criticism of a Certified Oppressive Group™ of course. You know, Christians, White Males, Traditional Classical Music. So the problem with everything Alex writes is that he only writes about music that he likes to advocate, and everything he likes to advocate is automatically wonderful. So, out of those eighteen concerts, of which he saw thirteen, featuring forty-seven composers, the closest he comes to not saying every single piece by every single composer was just wonderful, was this brief passage:
Works are sometimes criticized for being too accessible; such was a not uncommon reaction to a piece performed at this year’s festival, Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops,” in which the cellist Maya Beiser spun out soothingly euphonious lines.
"Works are sometimes criticized" but not by Alex. Still notice the subtle hint that "soothingly euphonious lines" are bad--for being too accessible.

Out of forty-seven composers, I would expect that ten or fifteen would be writing interesting, compelling music, about twenty or twenty-five writing ok or pretty good music and the remaining five to ten writing bad, boring, agonizing, painful music. In Alex Ross' world, this latter group simple doesn't exist. Which is why I never really trust anything Alex says.

But, the festival still sounds like a great series of concerts, which probably vary considerably in quality and style, depending on who is the musical director (it changes every year), something else Alex doesn't talk about. So I am very, very strongly tempted to attend next year's festival. Get my ears blown back. Hopefully there won't be too much "semi-naked percussion".

Stockhausen, Zyklus, unknown percussionist:

UPDATE: One of my favorite things about Alex Ross' writing is his adroit use of what we might call the Dispensable Double Adjective/Adverb. It is this skill that has perhaps brought him so much of the acclaim he currently enjoys. There is a particularly savory example in the first quote above where he describes Stockhausen's Zyklus as "a magisterially ambiguous creation". You see, just saying it is "ambiguous" would be ordinary--heck, anyone could write that. It is more of a stretch to say it is "magisterial" because, for one thing, what does that even mean in this context? But combining them as he does: "magisterially ambiguous" is the creative brilliance that got him where he is today. Plus, half-a-point for using the word "creation" instead of composition. It is the kind of prose decoration beloved of those who also are hooked on Martha Stewart.

Some other examples from the article linked to above, so you see what I mean:

  • speaking, spluttering chorus
  • soothingly euphonious lines
  • coolly spastic “Dialogue de l’Ombre Double,”
  • sinuous audiovisual ballet
  • subtle, whispery sounds
  • free, impassioned rendition
  • helter-skelter, electronically enhanced cadenzas
  • jagged lightning streaks
  • vast, hushed creation
  • tonally refined and rhythmically vigorous accounts
  • staggeringly flexible vocal soloist
  • subdued, eerie fabric
  • darksome bitonal chords
  • incrementally shifting clouds
  • the blendings of harmonics were grand and dire
Sometimes the two elements of the device support one another, other times they contradict one another and on rare occasions, such as the last example, he reverses the order. But a lot of the time the pseudo-poetic effect comes from the fact that the two terms are simply irrelevant or incompatible with one another. And, of course, that they communicate next to nothing about the music itself!

But if you want a good-paying gig with a major media institution in the cultural field, using this kind of formula, combined with never criticizing anyone or anything, will likely spell success for you.


Marc said...

"It is the kind of prose decoration beloved of those who also are hooked on Martha Stewart." Ha!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for noticing that I was at least trying for a clever analogy!