The Friday night concert at the Ojai Music Festival was the premiere performance of “Slide”, a musical work of theatre by Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert, and performed by the two with eighth blackbird as performer/musicians.
For the title, think of those cardboard holders of 35mm photographic images. The composition was named for a series of related psychological experiments in which subjects were shown out-of-focus images from slides, and asked to guess the subject of the image, which would then abruptly come into focus. In “Slide”, the principal character is the psychologist who ran the experiments, sorting through his box of materials from the tests, trying to decide what to keep and what to discard. He finds aspects of his own life suddenly becoming interspersed with the images of the slides and contending for interpretation, within focus and out.
For the performance of “Slide”, Steven Mackey was narrator and guitarist, and Rinde Eckert was the psychologist, Renard. The members of eighth blackbird served variously as members of a chamber group with Renard, or as friends, subjects, participants, and perhaps ghosts of Renard’s memories.
The work is identified as a song cycle of 11 songs, with supporting on-screen images, but the work moves continuously through the set, without pause. While watching and listening it is often difficult to be aware that one song scene has ended and another has begun, difficult until you realize this has happened. Mackey said that he tried to compose some music that could be out-of-focus, suddenly snapping into recognition.
The work of 80 minutes of performance is too complex to grasp in a single hearing. I, and I think most of us in the audience, felt the power and sweep of the music (especially of a “song” titled “Addiction”), without feeling that we had yet grasped the central image or idea. But while this was happening to you as watcher, it was too difficult to become a neutral, evaluating observer. The blackbirds, of course, did well in their on-stage performance roles, and Rinde Eckert was a compelling center. The music was fascinating; you wanted to follow it and know what it was presenting.
As “opener”, we had a short set by Tin Hat. I’m biased. Their music grabbed me when they opened with a middle-eastern, folk-tinged, blues-compatible version of Satie (which I could once play on the piano because the notes were easy to hit correctly). These musicians will appear later in the festival.
The Saturday morning concert was by Jeremy Denk, and he captured us. His recital opened with the Ives Sonata No. 1, the one completed thirty years later by Lou Harrison. The way Denk performed this, he created no doubts that this had been a faitful realization of Ives, nor that it was anything other than a major work by a major composer. What playing!
And then Denk came back and played the “Goldberg Variations”. Denk’s Bach was a composer who could have fun with a composition, and certainly did with this one, piling one variation on top of another, a keyboard “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Denk’s Bach liked musical jokes and the play of ideas; he wasn’t merely a composing whiz. With the quiet reprise of the aria, the notes then died away and we heard the crows in the oaktrees, and then the faint noise of traffic. Finally some clod in the audience had to show that he really knew the work had ended as he became the first to break the spell with loud applause. We hated to leave for lunch.