The New New Music : Concerts: A new generation of composers will offer works the audience can relate to at the Ojai Music Festival.
The lights dim and a hush falls over the audience. Raising his hands and then glancing at the musicians before him, the conductor suddenly lets his baton drop.
The sounds that emanate from the orchestra, though, hardly inspire those in attendance to sit back and relax. The horns and clarinets produce a screech similar to geese flying into power lines. The violins and cellos wail and whine what seem to be random notes and many members of the audience can find no discernable melody. Forget trying to follow the percussion section. It seems to have gotten the wrong music altogether.
No, this isn’t a music director’s bad dream. For many concert-goers, it is a typical experience when sitting down to an evening of contemporary music.
Since composers such as Elliott Carter and Arnold Schoenberg burst onto the American concert stage nearly a half century ago to redefine music with atonal, often disturbing compositions, audiences have needed a lot more than program notes to figure out what they were hearing.
Even the next generation of modern mavericks--many of whom were influenced by jazz and blues of the ‘40s and ‘50s,--often made listeners feel that picking up a Ph.D. in music theory was advisable before picking up a concert ticket.
Tough, new music, of course, is nothing new to residents of Ojai. For the last 43 years, audiences at the annual Ojai Music Festival have been drinking up avant-garde music as if it were fine wine. And chances are good that this year’s festival, which runs Friday through Sunday, will continue to offer challenging music, especially when it presents recent works by Carter, the 81-year-old acclaimed American composer who makes his debut as this year’s composer-in-residence.
But audiences expecting to hear jarring compositions may be surprised by this year’s selections. Things have changed on the contemporary music scene, as evidenced by several works on this season’s program. A new generation of American symphonic composers has emerged--one that many feel makes music more accessible than some of its groundbreaking predecessors.
Several young composers at the festival began their careers as rock musicians before deciding to write serious compositions. Brought up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and raised on rock ‘n’ roll, this group’s idea of the Three B’s is less likely to be Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, than the Beatles, Butterfield and Bowie.
“This is music that a generation of listeners raised on American rock and jazz can relate to,” said Stephen Mosko, festival music director this year, and conductor of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, which will be in guest residency at the festival.
“It was almost impossible to come of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s and not be influenced by rock, jazz, avant-garde and ethnic music,” he said. “I’m finding that a lot of audiences feel much closer to this music, probably because there’s a commonality of emotions. It’s easier for them to grasp.”
What sets some of the younger composers apart may have as much to do with their backgrounds as with their kinder, gentler approach to modern music.
Steven Mackey, the 34-year-old composer of “Indigenous Instruments,” which will be performed Friday and Saturday, was an electric guitarist with a rock band during the ‘70s. When he enrolled as a physics major at UC Davis, it was only as a backup in case he didn’t make it as a rock star. Unable to read music, Mackey said, he signed up for a music course just to write better songs for his band.
That one course, he said, opened up a world he never knew existed.
“It’s probably very difficult to grow up in a place like England and never hear a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart piano concerto or a Schoenberg string quartet. In California, though, it was easy to do. I’d never heard any of it,” he said.
Hearing the works of different composers, he said, made him reevaluate his direction. “No one had ever read me this job description before,” he said. “That’s when I thought, ‘I can do this.’ I decided then that what I wanted to do was write music people would like to listen to.”
Mackey lacked a background in classical music, but he quickly made up for lost time. He switched from electric guitar to lute and soon toured Europe with the university’s early music ensemble. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music, and went on to earn both a master’s and Ph.D. in music composition.
Today, the New Jersey resident teaches music composition at Princeton University. He tries to teach his students the elements he strives for in his own music, “having a sense of freedom, of being derailed . . . like when Jimi Hendrix gets to wailing on his guitar,” he said.
“I tell them that we don’t need composition lessons, we need therapy. We need to stop trying to live up to some European paradigm from 150 years ago,” he said. The classical composers, “were a product of their culture and they were laying it on the line. But now we have to get ourselves and our culture into the act.”
Art Jarvinen, a 34-year-old composer from Sylmar whose work, “Murphy-Nights” will be performed Friday, also was an as
piring rock ‘n’ roll musician. Unlike his composing predecessors, Jarvinen’s idea of bold new music wasn’t Arnold Schoenberg, it was Frank Zappa.
“What got me interested in music was that I wanted to be a rock drummer,” he said. “As I got more involved in studying music, though, I had other musicians open me up to a lot of other possibilities, like jazz. Then I got committed to chamber music.”
Like several young composers, Jarvinen said he doesn’t view the transition from rock to contemporary avant-garde as that great.
“It’s not that big a leap,” he said. Although most rock aficionados probably wouldn’t recognize the structure of his chamber music composition, “Murphy-Nights"--inspired by an essay he read postulating the theory that if a lecturer lectured every night through infinity, sooner or later everyone in the audience would be named Murphy--rock audiences certainly would be familiar with many of the piece’s instruments.
“It uses instruments associated with rock and pop, freely improvised solos, and,” he said, “the overall feel is one of an infectious groove.”
Jarvinen’s musical goal is not to disturb audiences or alienate them. “It has to feel good. It’s like laying down a solid beat on a drum step. I think it’s possible for contemporary art music and straightforward rock to feed off of each other. Contemporary music doesn’t have to be inaccessible.”
One complaint many concert-goers have had about contemporary compositions has been just that: inaccessibility. Even symphonic musicians report that while they respect the music of such composers as Carter and consider many of his pieces to be significant, they have difficulty playing and listening to it.
“All of these things are true. But it also can be said that every major composer--including Beethoven and Brahms--is difficult to play in the right way,” said Ole Bohn, the Norwegian violinist for whom Carter’s “Violin Concerto” was written. The piece had its recent premiere with the San Francisco Symphony, and will be performed at the Ojai festival Saturday.
“But it also is a matter of understanding the music” and the technical difficulties, Bohn said, adding that many audiences have not given modern music the chance it deserves.
“You have to turn your mind in a different way. If you go into one of his concerts listening for a tune you can whistle along, you’ll be disappointed,” he said of Carter. “But if you come to experience long phrases, sound, excitement and poetry, you’ll get a lot out of it.”
History, according to Mosko, tends to support that idea. For hundreds of years, he said, “audiences have balked at new compositions and often rejected out of hand any piece that dared to break with tradition.” In a book of reviews of various composers works, Mosko said he found hope for what some people call the “ear straining music of today.”
“Even some of Beethoven’s work was criticized,” he said. “People heard it for the first time and said, ‘What is this?’ ”
Ironically, many musicians--including Bohn--are yawning at the youngest generation of composers. They don’t find their work challenging enough.
“The harmony and chords and structure have been heard before,” Bohn said. “I don’t get much out of it. I don’t find it very interesting. I actually find it very old-fashioned.”
Bunita Marcus, a 38-year-old former jazz clarinet player and composer whose work “Adam and Eve” will be performed at the music festival, sees it from a different perspective. The reason much new music sounds less experimental, she said is because it is.
“There was a lot of Sturm und Drang in the first part of this century, and 12-tone tried to express the First and Second World Wars,” Marcus said. Composers began challenging audiences through their music, “asking them questions: ‘Why are you alive? Why are you breathing? Can you take this sound or can’t you?’ ”
Through the ‘70s, she said, composers continued to confront audiences, experimenting with everything. “We didn’t really judge this music,” she said. “It was just, how far can the music go?”
These days, Marcus believes the need for experimentation isn’t as great.
Times aren’t as turbulent, she said, and that is bound to be reflected in the new compositions.
“The tide is definitely changing,” she said. “But it still takes guts to make a tune.”