In his first public statements last November, when it was announced that he was selected to be the music director for the 71st Ojai Music Festival, pianist-composer Vijay Iyer remarked, “I’m just glad that [artistic director] Tom Morris invited me to intervene, and to bring my people with me.” So is this historic festival, with more than seven decades of setting innovative classical music in the beautiful mountains above Santa Barbara, in need of some kind of intervention, maybe to save it from itself?
“It's funny because ['intervene'] has different connotations depending on who you're talking to,” Iyer says with a laugh, speaking from his home in Harlem on a brief respite from his extensive travel.
Over the past decade, the Grammy-nominated artist has become one of the most heralded musical minds in modern jazz. He is a three-time vote winner of Downbeat's Artist of the Year, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and a Doris Duke Performing Artist, and was invited in 2014 to join the faculty as a music professor at Harvard University. He is in high demand, flying around the world to collaborate with a global community of artists in settings ranging from solo piano to jazz trio with chamber orchestra. Iyer will be bringing many of those musical relations to Ojai this weekend for what promises to be, even by the standards of one of the more daring and forward-thinking classical music festivals in operation, a radical departure.
Although its usage of late tends to connote a dramatic attempt to end substance abuse, the word “intervene” literally means “to come between.” Or, as Iyer explains it in his case, “I guess I find myself between a lot of spaces, between a lot of communities, between categories. Sometimes I seem to be presentable in the jazz world and other times I am invisible to it. Sometimes I'm engaged by people in the classical music community or scene, but they don't necessarily track everything I do, or see everything I do as relevant.”
Iyer, who played violin as a child but taught himself to play jazz piano while getting his Ph.D. in physics at UC Berkeley, certainly defies any easy placement within the music world. “I guess a lot of the people whom I'm bringing along are people who have experienced that in their own lives.”
Iyer is talking mainly about the artists at this year's Ojai Music Festival who are members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the notable organization founded in 1965 that came to represent the African-American experimental music movement of that era, and became a microcosm of the civil rights movement. “They not only pushed against categories but they pushed against category, period,” Iyer says. “They really framed themselves as composers, in a time when no one was framing them as composers. They insisted on taking up an identity that wasn't seen as available to them.”
Pianist and AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams saw the link between artistic self-determination of African-Americans and the application of that ability toward the empowerment of their lives in general. He co-wrote in a 1973 article for the literary journal Black World that “the AACM intends to show how the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised can come together and determine their own strategies for political and economic freedom, thereby determining their own destinies.” Composer, trombonist, historian and AACM member George Lewis cites that quote in his recent book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and follows it with a statement of his own: “This optimistic declaration, based on notions of self-help as fundamental to racial uplift, cultural memory, and spiritual rebirth, was in accord with many other challenges to traditional notions of order and authority that emerged in the wake of the Black Power movement.”
What Abrams and Lewis (and now Iyer) seem to be saying is that being defined categorically by another is to submit authority to the one doing the defining, and redefining oneself is crucial to gaining freedom from that oppression. To define oneself on his or her own terms is a meaningful exercise in both artistic and political ways, and it’s “a power that has to be seized when one is an artist of color,” says Iyer, who as an Indian-American was inspired early in his artistic life by the work of the AACM, and is an outspoken advocate for civil rights and equality.
For decades, the AACM has sought to empower its members by defining them as artists, experimentalists and composers, which is why it’s significant to see their work recognized this year by the Ojai Music Festival. Morris, the festival’s artistic director, wholeheartedly endorses not only Iyer’s vision but also his integrity of character. In a statement, Morris says of Iyer, “What really distinguishes him, however, is not just what he does but who he is and what he stands for. Vijay believes a life in the arts is a life of service in imagining, building and enacting community that transcends heritage, nation and creed.” Tapping Iyer to lead the festival befits its legacy of eschewing tradition for progress, and Morris and his fellow organizers should be applauded for this latest step forward.
Abrams and Lewis will both be featured at the festival alongside fellow AACM luminary and woodwind player Roscoe Mitchell, in a rare appearance of a trio of legendary masters. (“It’s like having three presidents on stage!” Iyer says.) Other events include the West Coast premiere of Afterword, an opera written by George Lewis and based on the afterword of his book, A Power Stronger Than Itself; and the world premiere of a chamber version of Yet Unheard, written by composer Courtney Bryan to the text of poet Sharan Strange, which memorializes Sandra Bland, the woman from Texas who died suspiciously while in police custody in 2015.
There will also be a performance by flautist and University of Irvine professor Nicole Mitchell (who was also the first woman to serve as president of the AACM), and a concert by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, with Iyer on piano, electric piano and computer. Their duo album, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, received widespread acclaim as one of the best experimental-jazz albums of 2016.
“I’m not interested in adding to the pile of praise for Stravinsky. He’s not my favorite.” -Vijay Iyer
In addition to the contributions by AACM artists, Iyer is bringing in other associates from his recent musical past, including saxophonist (and longtime Iyer collaborator) Rudresh Mahanthappa, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, the Brentano Quartet, and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), who will perform a stripped-down version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, followed by Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, a work of music and film by Iyer and filmmaker Prashant Bhargava inspired in part by Stravinsky's famous piece.
Stravinsky himself once agreed to be the musical director of the Ojai Festival, the very same position Iyer holds this year. Despite the fact they are linked now both by this role and by their pieces about spring rituals, Iyer won’t take the bait in acknowledging the comparison. He’s not even really a fan. “I’m not interested in adding to the pile of praise for Stravinsky. He’s one of many great composers and musicians in the last 100 years. He’s not my favorite,” he flatly declares. “I guess I find I have to keep that tendency in check, to sort of put European composers, … especially this list of ‘great white men of Western music,’ at the center of everything. It's not of interest to me.”
It’s apparent Iyer would like the festival’s focus to be more on the living composers of color who will be present for the festival, rather than on the pale ghosts of those who have been honored before, no matter how famous. If anything, Iyer doesn’t want to be defined as a new Stravinsky for our time, even as the revolutionary spirit of the Russian composer's 1913 ballet seems to be at work at Ojai in 2017. Perhaps intervene really is to be meant with all the connotations that the word entails? Iyer doesn’t deny it.
“If somebody reaches out to somebody like me, maybe they are looking for something,” he muses, “that offers a stretch or push, or some kind of challenge to the existing order that they are a part of.” He concludes, “So I guess if that’s where you already dwell, then it offers people a chance to rethink their own assumptions about the stability of their environment or their own presumptions of what music is.”
The Ojai Music Festival takes places Thursday through Sunday, June 8-11. Tickets and more info available at ojaifestival.org.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly mentioned Anthony Braxton as one of the performers at this year's Ojai Music Festival. Although ICE and Erica Dicker will be performing compositions by Braxton, he will not be appearing at the festival. We regret the error.]
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