On the first day of the 2016 Ojai Music Festival, artistic director Peter Sellars hoped that the audience would respond “as personally as possible” to the weekend’s musical offerings. The hour-long late afternoon concert on Saturday was programmed with three pieces written as sincerely personal responses: to grief, to a mother’s love and resilience, and to a work of literature that is a personal response in itself. All were works by young female composers, on very different topics, and an ineffable feeling of love persisted from beginning to end.
The most anticipated piece (or so I gathered from the murmurings of the crowd) was the first, which probably should have been last. Caroline Shaw, the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music, premiered This might also be a form of dreaming, on text and ideas from Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. The source material, a collection of essays and prose poems, was written in 2004. It is a product of the beginning of an anxious, hazy time in America’s history: post 9/11, pre-Facebook and Twitter.
During Friday’s concert featuring Roomful of Teeth performing the Pulitzer-winning Partita for Eight Voices, I ended up sitting next to singer/songwriter Storm Large, who jumped to her feet cheering as soon as the first applause sounded. “It’s like the sound of thoughts bouncing around your brain,” she described it having just heard it for the first time. Partita is the sound of those thoughts in the abstract, and This might also… is the sound of thoughts reacting to things simultaneously specific and general; the loneliness of a hyper-connected world, the deluge of information offered us every time we turn on the news, the dada pastiche of the Internet.
Through her membership in Roomful of Teeth, Shaw has an unmatched understanding of the ensemble’s strengths and idiosyncrasies. As in Partita, those are audible in the piece’s fabric. The musicians were arranged in an arc, the singers in the middle and instrumentalists on each end. The three melodic instruments were those most akin to the human voice–cello, viola, and a bass clarinet which wailed like a saxophone. Ross Karre’s percussion set stood behind. “Here, I am here,” they sang in unadorned lockstep harmony, vast and intimate, before the second movement erupted into a chaotic maelstrom of spoken excerpts from philosophical texts and pharmaceutical ads. The third movement expressed the snap of sudden acuity crystallizing out of mental murk. “Sometimes you read something,” Roomful of Teeth sang again and again together, the words liquefying into a vowel flow from which emerged the conclusion. The musical pinnacle of the piece could have been a lost movement of Partita, gliding slowly through open chords towards a full-on yawp in unison from the women. “I am here, you are here,” the final movement reminded us, but we understood already.
Leila Adu‘s Alyssum for string quartet and harp and Du Yun‘s An Empty Garlic engaged on an individual level. Plucking together, the individual instruments of Alyssum became five fingers on a giant guitarist’s hand, though the choice of register was slightly tinny. Waves of lyricism and arpeggiated cells took over, and a percussive ostinato on a harp high A (for Alison, the composer’s mother) popped up at points. The composer-performer Adu shifts between vernacular and concert idioms easily, and Alyssum embodied a bittersweet sensuality that fell somewhere between bossa nova and Björk.
An Empty Garlic was wild grief, written by Du Yun for Claire Chase in memoriam of a mutual friend. Chase silently appeared on stage, an ominously chilly electronic soundscape rising in the background. She launched herself at a tam-tam, rattling and grinding metal sticks along the surface at full fury, before picking up her bass flute. Throwing her whole body into the music, slowly breathing in and whisper-shouting into her instrument, she demonstrated why she is truly one of the most vibrant performers on the concert stage. The music was most compelling when Du Yun’s electronics (run byLevy Lorenzo) were in tandem with Chase, amplifying her instead of responding to her; pipe organ-esque outbursts fell on the wrong side of overwrought.
As the light on the tam-tam changed color from red to lavender to yellow, the piece moved through distinct stages of grief: anger in a gasping litany, detached depression, final acceptance in clear tones with no resolution. Though undoubtedly meaningful, this love was a disquieting kind of love to end on, and the persistent warmth of This might also… would have been a better way to send the audience into the unseasonably chilly sunset.