The Ojai Music Festival, now in its 71st year, has long been known for surprising audiences with the diversity of its concerts. But in recent years it has quietly pioneered a new idea in its programming: free events.
Of the 15 musical offerings to take place during the annual festival this year, six will be free. (Tickets will be required, even if free, and can be had before the festival, or at the time of performance if still available.) Included will be a free Saturday late-night concert, beginning at 10:30 p.m., featuring musical director Vijay Iyer.
Iyer and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), a large group of classically trained musicians specializing in new music, will play one of his most notable recent pieces, inspired by an Indian festival of spring, called “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi.” That will be followed by a moving piece in a mostly classical mode called “Time Place Action,” which he will perform with the Brentano String Quartet.
When asked about the number of free events, Iyer — a widely lauded improviser inspired by classical composers as well as artists such as jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, pop star Michael Jackson and hip-hop originator DJ Kool Herc — stressed that he agreed to take on leadership of the festival this year in part because it gave him the chance “for a different kind of outreach.”
“I like the fact that when I have a chance to perform at outdoor parks or in museums for free, you get a different kind of walk-up crowd,” he said. “You get all kinds of people, people who are out for a stroll, students, kids, families. With people who are out for an adventure you can sometimes catch them listening to the music in a different way, in a way that we as performers can learn from.”
Iyer explained that he played daily at the Metropolitan Museum for a month last year, in many cases in relatively small rooms for whoever happened to walk in.
“I did a residency at the Metropolitan Museum and we put on 100 concerts in a month. If you know New York, you know that everybody goes to the Met, and the kind of people that we experienced there were not our standard audiences. We had very different kinds of people, and the sense that everybody was in it together — there was a lot more spontaneity. The fact that it was free kind of transformed people’s relationship to the music; it was not a commodity.”
Freedom to explore is crucial to Iyer, in music and in life. As an improvisational artist, his music-making requires listening with close attention, and he thinks we as a nation would benefit from a lot more listening with empathy.
“Being able and willing and patient enough to really hear each other only seems extraordinary when we’re in a context marked by its absence,” Iyer said, with an edge of asperity. “You might describe our cultural atmosphere today as being like our political atmosphere, which is characterized by a failure to listen.”
Iyer played violin growing up, but entered college at 16 intent on a career in physics. Gradually over the course of his time at Yale and Berkeley, he put more and more of his time into playing the piano, and shifted his focus from science to music. Since graduating he has found success in numerous realms: as a pianist, a composer and a Harvard professor. Although inspired by jazz legends such as Thelonius Monk and Muhal Richard Abrams (who will lead his famous trio in a free concert on Sunday morning), Iyer doesn’t like to be restricted to one form. He writes music for chamber groups, violin and piano, and improvises on Mozart as well as Thelonius Monk and Michael Jackson.
Tom Morris, artistic director of the music festival since 2004, points out that diversity has always been part of the Ojai Music Festival, going back to the early days with legends such as jazz innovator Eric Dolphy and Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar.
“If you look at the schedule this year, you will see programs featuring Mr. Mozart and Mr. Bach,” he said. “And that’s in our tradition. But I admit that the breadth of our offerings is widening because that’s what’s happening in music today. Genres are blurring, and nobody is quite sure what is classical and what is contemporary and what is chamber music.”
Like every year, the festival boasts an impressive lineup. Composer George Lewis, pianist Abrams, woodwind artist Roscoe Mitchell, flutist Nicole Mitchell and violinist Jennifer Koh are just a few of the notables taking part in both free and ticketed programming. On Friday, Abrams, Mitchell, Lewis and Tyshawn Sorey will also take part in a talk about the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. It’s this caliber of talent and diversity of offerings that brings the Ojai Music Festival international acclaim.
Morris chose Iyer as music director this year in part because he likes to work with artists who will use their creativity to develop an enveloping program that expands beyond events in Libbey Bowl and even outside of Ojai. These include free events, daybreak events at Besant Hill School in Upper Ojai (vocalist Jen Shyu and flutist Mitchell will be featured this year) and visual, musical and kinetic installations in Libbey Park.
“The free events have been a big hit with everyone,” Morris said. “So many people — about 75 percent — come to the festival from outside of Ojai, that we like to have a continual parade of events that people can go to, and not just in Libbey Bowl, but outside of Ojai, in and around the community.”
Iyer, too, likes a diversity of offerings. He continues to listen to all kinds of music, but still has a place in his heart for pop superstar Michael Jackson and, on his solo record, improvises with eloquent affection on Jackson’s classic song “Human Nature.”
“I grew up with that record [Thriller],” he said. “I was about 10 when it came out and I cherished that record. I’ve listened to it thousands of times and I wanted to honor him in some way. . . . I started playing that song in a sound-check just after he died, and my trio joined in and it was like, well, I guess we’re playing this song now. It’s become part of our repertoire.”
The Ojai Music Festival takes place June 8-11. For schedule, tickets and more information, call 646-2053 or visit www.ojaifestival.org.