NEW YORK — You hear choreographer Mark Morris before you see him. He’s humming as he approaches his front door, maybe a Tchaikovsky fragment, maybe something else. He doesn’t even know he’s humming, much less what it is, he says later, “but people know I’m coming, like belling the cat. I’d make a bad spy.”
But given his passion for music, all kinds of music, Morris should make a good music director for the 2013 Ojai Music Festival. Music is as embedded in his spirit as dance, he says a million ways, and any doubters can only take a look at the eclectic and packed schedule he’s put together. The 67th festival in the Ojai Valley, some 80 miles from Los Angeles, focuses on the inventive composer Lou Harrison and friends, promising 20th century music from dawn to way past dusk in the traditional Libbey Bowl and elsewhere.
“Everyone talks about Mark as one of the great choreographers, which he is, but I actually look at Mark as one of the great musicians,” says the Ojai Music Festival’s artistic director, Thomas Morris (no relation, “other than in the spirit of music”). “His creative process starts with music, he knows an astonishing amount of music, and he has an innate understanding of how music affects people.”
Mark Morris’ selection to lead the four-day festival, which begins in Ojai on June 6, wasn’t a surprise to the contemporary music community either. The very day that Thomas Morris planned to invite the choreographer to curate the 2013 festival, the executive spoke on the phone with soprano Dawn Upshaw. Upshaw, who curated the 2011 festival, said she had a great idea — why not ask Mark Morris to do a festival?
For potential Ojai visitors who are less familiar with Morris’ music background, the festival website has a short video called “Meet Mark Morris.” Luminaries he has worked with such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Yo-Yo Ma praise his musicality, while composer John Adams notes that in his experience, “Mark is the most musical of choreographers. “
For Morris, 56, the music has always come first and is, he says, “why I choreograph.” He has been choreographing and performing to live music since he was a teenager in Seattle, and the list of composers whose music has inspired his dances sweeps in a diverse range, from Bach, Beethoven and Bartók to Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson and the jazz trio the Bad Plus.
Morris has choreographed many pieces of Harrison’s music and considers him the centerpiece of a festival that also includes several people related to Harrison in some way. “People either love Lou’s music or have never heard it before,” Morris says matter-of-factly. “Because Lou is a link to the composers and a lot of performers in the festival, it became principally American music and American artists.”
Times music critic Mark Swed called musical maverick Harrison “the dean of West Coast classical composers” when the Northern California musician died in 2003 at age 85. As Swed pointed out in Harrison’s Times obituary — and Ojai visitors will experience first-hand -- Harrison weaved both Asian and Western influences through his compositions, including Indonesian gamelan music, which will be highlighted at the festival.
Harrison was involved in editing Charles Ives’ music, Morris says, and studied with Cowell, composers whose work will be featured at the festival. Many of the composers haven’t been performed much at Ojai, says Thomas Morris, adding that just four works by Harrison have ever been done there. Terry Riley’s composition “In C” has never before been performed at the festival.
On the roster too is John Luther Adams’ piece “For Lou Harrison,” which initially caught the choreographer’s attention with its title. Morris has said he liked the piece more and more as he played it, and Alaska-based composer Adams, whose piece “Inuksuit” was a highlight at the festival last year, also is featured prominently in this year’s festival.
Adams is known for composing music inspired by the outdoors, and Morris will make the most of that as well. Red fish blue fish, the San Diego-based percussion ensemble, will play Adams’ “Strange and Sacred Noise” at an outdoor sunrise program June 8. June 9’s program of Adams’ “Songbirdsongs” features piccolos, xylophones, bells, maracas, cymbals and, more than likely, Ojai birds.
There will be a free performance of music by composers Eric Satie and John Cage played on toy piano, performances by the American String Quartet, the Gamelan Sari Raras and more. Asked what such diverse performers have in common, Morris answers, “What they have in common is I brought them all together. I’m putting on a festival of music I want to hear, or why bother?”
The festival this year is bigger and broader, sending music lovers all over the Ojai Valley for not just music but also dance and fitness classes — including a program for people with Parkinson’s — as well as the usual films and lectures. The concerts start Thursday evening, when the Bad Plus plays its critically acclaimed arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and concludes with an evening performance June 9 in which a good many of the festival performers crowd onto that Libbey Bowl stage.
To get more in, Morris has broken up evenings into parts, he says, including the dance programs scheduled for the Mark Morris Dance Group on Friday evening. In addition to dances set to music by Cowell, Harrison and Ives that were already in the repertoire, Morris is bringing his new duet “Jenn and Spencer,” which debuted at the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Center in April.
The choreographer says he considers “Jenn and Spencer” a “bonus” piece.
“I found a piece of Henry Cowell’s music that I didn’t know and which I found because of my work on the festival,” Morris says. “It’s a very fine piece of music, and I squeezed in the time to make up a duet to it. I didn’t know that was going to happen at all.”
Then again, for Morris, it always starts with the music. “I find a piece of music that I like, I study the score, listen to it and think about it,” he says. “I work bar by bar in the studio. I don’t see dances in my head. I make them up physically in the room with the dancers.”
He also wants that music live, whether it’s a pianist in the rehearsal room as he creates or musicians in the pit when his Mark Morris Dance Group performs. The MMDG Music Ensemble is featured in several Ojai programs, as it is whenever the company tours. Though many dance companies today perform to recorded music, Morris says, “I wouldn’t go on a tour without musicians, just like I wouldn’t go without dancers. In my view and my job, they are of equal importance.”
Such views, he says, have made him popular with music organizations. Morris and his dancers are regulars at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and the Tanglewood Music Festival each year, and he’s collaborated with top orchestras and opera companies around the world. He commissions music for his company, and he conducts from time to time. At Ojai, he’ll be conducting the June 9 morning concert in a program that concludes with Carl Ruggles’ “Exaltation,” a hymn featuring pianist-organist Colin Fowler, the American String Quartet, soloists and, he hints, the audience.
“This is a very special year at Ojai,” says red fish blue fish artistic director Steven Schick. “Mark Morris is a real musician. He thinks musically even when he works visually. We read about people who cross boundaries so fluidly, but we hardly ever get a chance to work with them.”
67th Ojai Music Festival
Where: Libbey Bowl and other locations in Ojai
When: Thursday through Sunday, schedule at https://www.ojaifestival.org
Costs: Some events are free. Passes for ticketed events $15-$270
Information: (805) 646-2053