Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Ojai Diaries: Part Three

IV. Fact: Stephen Hartke won the marathon. I got to know his music when I was an undergrad and he a professor at the University of Southern California (FIGHT ON), and so my roommate Chris studied with him for a little while, and I was dazzled by his jagged, yet straightforward, yet stylish scores (Hartke's, that is. Chris's were not that jagged). I'll get to his other big piece, Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen, in just a bit; meanwhile, Meanwhile was a perfect, perfect exploitation of everything 8th Blackbird does well. Built around the Matt "the Duv" Duvall's brilliant percussion chops—it was, as a number of pieces on the marathon program seemed to be, substantially gamelan-inspired—it gave the players a chance to switch instruments, switch positions onstage, work out complex rhythms, and indulge in some nitty-gritty contrapuntal writing. There was no wasted business. I mentioned lunch with the Mac in a previous entry; over his vej-mex entree, he said something I thought was pretty interesting about 8bb's programming: their first priority, he said, is "craft." Which I guess seems obvious, because not many people when you ask that question are going to answer, "We're really interested in playing a lot of sloppy crap." But at Ojai at least, it seemed to be coded with a few surprisingly conservative connotations. Well, maybe not too surprising, since they're a "Pierrot Plus" ensemble, that the definition of "craft" isn't too far from something Schoenberg might have approved of: dense textures; complex, oft-dissonant harmonies; & when the cultural vernacular crept in, it tended to be the sort of rarified vernacular that informs Pierrot and Tin Hat both. And Steven Mackey! Speaking of rarified vernacular. I am predisposed to dislike the music of Steven Mackey for reasons I am not entirely able to justify. Maybe it's purely a generational thing—the way he heard electric guitars played when he was a teenager had deemed "pretentious" by the time I was a teenager, and so I'm doomed to have my enjoyment of his guitar-playing and -writing tainted by an irrational and faddish distaste. Or maybe it's something more substantial than that—maybe I wish he were bold enough to sever his guitar performance from the performance practices of its native vernacular, the NEARRR, NEARRR, NEARRR note-sculpting of the 70s rock guitar solo. (Is that, in fact, a more substantial complaint? Not sure.) All of this aside, Heavy Light, for solo Steven Mackey (guitarring and stomping pedals), is a thoughtfully constructed piece with a few really stirring moments—that crazy barred theme that kept recurring over the speeding ostinato!—composed with real, yes, craft, and performed, like everything at the festival, with real virtuosity. Tin Hat singer/fiddler Carla Kihlstedt's was the most grueling set. Not just grueling for her, who simultaneously played a gutsy violin part, sang her heart out, AND grew a human infant within her womb (LET'S SEE TODD REYNOLDS DO THAT)—the set also dragged a bit; there weren't any printed copies of the texts (by Kafka), so first Lisa Bielawa gave a spoken introduction to the piece, and then Kihlstedt gave a spoken introduction to the piece, and then she spoke the text to each song before she sang it, even though a combination of clear miking and amazing diction made it possible to hear each word pretty clearly (from where I was sitting). Just for sheer wows, it might have been the performance of the day, and the musical writing was idiomatic, complex AND true to the text, but all the talking, combined with the limited range of available colors (one violin, one voice), combined with the fact that the descending sun was, during this piece, shining DIRECTLY INTO MY EYES, made the cycle seem extremely long. I've never been a great fan of John Cage's Construction No. 3. It's just never come together for me as a musical experience the way my favorite Cage does. But it's the bread & butter, yea the rice & beans of the percussion quartet, and it is a lot of fun to hear. It is a FIESTA. And the drummers who presented it (Greg Beyer, Nathan Davis, Todd Meehan, Doug Perkins—you might remember the Meehan/Perkins duo as ex-So Percussionists) were first-rate chamber musicians, pleasin' the crowd with high-energy, absolutely synchronized playing. Copious applause. More soon.

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