I can confirm my presence at the Ojai Music Festival last weekend. Ojai, a little Ventura County town of 8,000-ish where a lot of celebrities go for chakra realignment, has put one on every year since 1947. All the performances happen inside the Libbey Bowl, formerly known by me as a wooden shell under which to see Leo Kottke play guitar. Though they’ve now rebuilt it swankly, they haven’t re-graded the lawn yet; I kept my eyes closed almost the entire weekend, missing only the sight of other attendees’ heads.
This only assured my unsurpassed purity as a listener, since, hey, music’s all about sound, right? In this way, I most purely absorbed Peter Schulthorpe’s Irkanda I (unrelated taste of his stuff here), Giacinto Scelsi’s Anagamin, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, and Webern’s Five Pieces for Strings. The schedule offered other flavors too, up to and including 18-piece jazz, but I mainly go in for what gets called “20th-century classical.” (The 21st century doesn’t seem like a slouch so far, either.) You don’t see too many festivals dedicated to it around these parts. This one didn’t give itself over to the stuff, sure, but at least it had plenty on offer!
Every performance I attend that even kind of falls under the “classical” heading gets me thinking about a problem Alex Ross assesses so well in Listen to This:
I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype.
When people hear “classical,” they think “dead.” The music is described in terms of its distance from the present, its resistance to the mass—what it is not. You see magazines with listings for Popular Music in one section and for Classical Music in another, so that the latter becomes, by implication, Unpopular Music. No wonder that stories of its imminent demise are so commonplace.
He imagines the plight of the fledgling concertgoer:
I am now enough of a fan that I buy a twenty-five-dollar ticket to hear a famous orchestra play the “Eroica” live. It is not a very heroic experience. I feel dispirited from the moment I walk in the hall. My black jeans draw disapproving glances from men who seem to be modelling the Johnny Carson collection. I look around dubiously at the twenty shades of beige in which the hall is decorated. The music starts, but I find it hard to think of Beethoven’s detestation of all tyranny over the human mind when the man next to me is a dead ringer for my dentist. The assassination sequence in the first movement is less exciting when the musicians have no emotion on their faces. I cough; a thin man, reading a dog-eared score, glares at me. When the movement is about a minute from ending, an ancient woman creeps slowly up the aisle, a look of enormous dissatisfaction on her face, followed at a few paces by a blank-faced husband. Finally, three grand chords to finish, which the composer obviously intended to set off a roar of applause. I start to clap, but the man with the score glares again. One does not applaud in the midst of greatly great great music, even if the composer wants one to! Coughing, squirming, whispering, the crowd visibly suppresses its urge to express pleasure.
I like the steps operations like the Ojai Music Festival take against this — e.g., letting you bring in a couple boxes of pizza, like we did, and eat it with your Schnittke — but most of the battle remains. Gray comb-overs still dominate, and the bizarre practice of applauding — of reacting — only at the appointed hour remains, even when the audience sits in lawn chairs biting into sausage-and-anchovy and pouring surreptitious beers. Tenacious elements of the preservatory culture still surround this music, just like they’ve begun to surround jazz, and I fear they’re slowly but surely cutting off its air supply.