Ojai Festival on Historic Journey

Rhiannon Giddens Programs All Music

By: - Jun 22, 2023

At the 2023 Ojai music festival, Rhiannon Giddens, musical director, and a supremely talented group of musicians, presented a program that challenged the audience to take a musical journey with them around the world.  

Music of the Orient, tribal music and rhythms from Africa and the Middle East was in our country long before what is known and recognized as Western classical. Peoples were subjugated, and erasing their music was an effective technique to help bury humans.  As Western civilization developed, this music was left off the modern music vessel.    

The music in this year’s festival pressed us to acknowledge the past, and heed the present, while aware that the journey into the future is ongoing.  

The journey begins with Western classical music of the court, music most Westerners are accustomed to hearing.  Imagining music as a vessel moving through space and time, as the music festival progressed, the musicians became the vessel as they merged with their instruments and steered the audience from the music of the Western nobility to the music written in the sands and mountains of the Orient, the greenery of Africa, forests and frozen landscapes of Northern Europe.  

Western Classical music took the audience to familiar, pleasant places.   However, the music would go where some would prefer not to go or even acknowledge as in the music in Omar’s Journey, a concert version of Gidden’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera.  This version was conducted at Ojai by her co-composer, Michael Abels.  

The listener is confronted with themes of the enslavement of an educated man who survives with his faith in a non-Christian religion and spiritual support as he is visited and nourished by deceased ancestors (especially his mother).   

The same theme of spirituality and sense of self and culture is presented in Ghost Opera by Tan Dun. Key to these two works is the way the music displays the influence of ancestors from the past to bring us to the present.

Vis-à-vis by Lei Liang presents a lively dialogue between the percussive instruments and the pipa.   They approach each other, and feel each other out. Excitement grows as they challenge each other and end as friends.

The music vessel continues its journey through time and space.   However, the musicians of this year’s Ojai festival ensure that all are aboard.  They show us the way to a future where music is not Western, or non-Western.   Other non-Western music and new music will be brought aboard. The music of the world speaks to all.