For the first full day of music at this year's Ojai Music Festival, music director Steven Schick has programmed John Luther Adams' "Sila: The Breath of the World," a 75-minute wash of sounds produced by 80 musicians positioned around the festival's downtown venue, Libbey Park.
"It should sound like the park is humming," Schick said.
The Ojai festival has always prided itself on being adventurous and unpredictable, offering an immersive musical experience. But for the 69th edition, which runs five days starting June 10, the works and performers are more dizzying than usual. Of the 49 composers represented, 34 are living and 28 are new to the festival. And for the first time in its history, a percussionist — Schick — is music director.
Schick, 61, is a music professor at UC San Diego and author of "The Percussionist's Art" a memoir, history and analysis of the solo percussion repertoire. He comes with a long list of new music credentials, including nearly a decade as percussionist for the New York-based ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. In 2012, he became artist-in-residence for the International Contemporary Ensemble, another new music group based in New York.
"I'm older than the oldest major piece composed for my instrument," Schick said recently over beers at a restaurant in downtown L.A.
It was "a good day," he said, when Ojai's artistic director, Thomas W. Morris, called to offer him the music directorship.
"At Ojai, there's an atmosphere of insatiability and curiosity," Schick said, "and to fill that with music you care about, well, I'm not sure I'll ever have another opportunity as tantalizing and thrilling as this."
Morris, himself a former percussionist, called Schick "a staggering percussion player, musical omnivore and gifted conductor."
On June 12, cellist Maya Beiser joins Schick — the two are founding members of Bang on a Can All-Stars — for Osvaldo Golijov's emotional "Mariel" for cello and marimba, the first piece they commissioned as a duo. By contrast, Beiser's community concert the next day erases the line between rock and classical music, with arresting transcriptions of work by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and others. The cellist is joined by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and guitarist Gyan Riley.
The festival also includes concerts with Wu Man. She plays a pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute. And then there is the premiere of Julia Wolfe's string orchestra version of "Four Marys," a work commissioned by Schick and Renga, a UC San Diego ensemble.
Though Schick can bang away with the most extravagant of percussionists, his art is more often subtle and quiet. Indeed, one of the festival's high points may come on Sunday morning when the sun rises over the Ojai Art Center to Morton Feldman's "For Philip Guston." A nearly five-hour trio with flutist Claire Chase, pianist Sarah Rothenberg and percussionist Schick, "Guston" is a tribute to the painter, who was the composer's friend. Since the concert starts at 5 a.m., people are being encouraged to camp out to Feldman's soft, contemplative sounds.
"The ending is as beautiful as music gets," Schick said, "when you arrive at a moment of clarity, two notes at a time, with a descending melody on the glockenspiel. You really think you've seen God."
This year's festival will also present a celebration of Pierre Boulez, the conductor-composer who turned 90 in March. Boulez was Ojai's music director seven times: His first stint was in 1967; his last, in 2003. By programming his works juxtaposed with composers he admired — Bartók, Ravel and Messiaen — Schick and Morris said they hope listeners will find Boulez's music less forbidding.
"The idea is to present Boulez as one of the old masters in the creation of music today," Morris said. "His music is remarkably transparent, even impressionistic. In one concert, we alternate pieces by Ravel and Boulez, and you won't know where Ravel stops and Boulez begins and vice versa."
All six of Bartók's string quartets will be performed, a first in Ojai history. According to Andrew Bulbrook, a violinist in the Calder Quartet, which is performing these works at the festival, Bartók's quartets represent the most enduring quartet cycle of the 20th century. "The bar never drops," Bulbrook said. "Every single one of them is a great work."
Schick conducts several concerts with his percussion ensemble, "red fish blue fish," and on June 12 he's scheduled to perform an all-percussion solo concert, including one of the first major works for percussion solo, Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Zyklus" (1959), and Iannis Xenakis' "Psappha" (1975).
In one of the most recent scores, Lei Liang's "Trans" (for percussion and audience), written last year in honor of Schick's 60th birthday, everybody is given stones to participate in the music-making.
But Schick said these compositions are relatively rare. The repertoire of major percussion pieces remains small and selective. "When Xenakis wrote 'Psappha,' every serious percussionist had to learn it, because it added 20% to the existing solo percussion repertoire that could live on and nourish us."
For Schick, who grew up as one of five children on a farm in Iowa, the bucolic atmosphere of Ojai provides a familiar musical setting, fusing art and nature. His mother, an amateur pianist, used to play Chopin late at night. "The wind would be howling," Schick said. "It was that farmhouse sound, the wind feeling like it arrived straight from the Hudson Bay."