Santa Cruz native Scott Ordway will be on hand July 29 when the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music presents the world premiere of his multimedia meditation on life amid the threats of drought and wildfire.
In the summer of 2020, Scott Ordway’s life was in Philadelphia. But his heart was in Santa Cruz. And his family? They were somewhere in between.
The accomplished composer, multimedia artist, and music professor has lived in the Northeast for close to 15 years, but he’s Santa Cruz born-and-raised. When the ruinous CZU Lightning Complex fires ignited in Santa Cruz County, Ordway’s first thoughts were with his parents’ home in a mountainous area near Scotts Valley, distressingly close to the worst of the fires.
His parents, Fran and Mark Ordway, had decided long before the fires to drive across the country from California to Pennsylvania to see Scott, his wife and their two daughters — the youngest a newborn.
“It was at the height of COVID,” said Ordway. “So they were reticent to get on a plane. But they’re retired and excited about seeing their grandkids. So they jumped in the car. And they were somewhere around Montana when the lightning struck.”
By the time the Ordways reached the middle of the country, the CZU fires had spread ominously, and they found themselves facing a stressful decision: Do they turn around and head back to Scotts Valley? Or continue on to Philly?
“They kept coming toward us. But we were all frantically staring at these fire maps, refreshing our phones twice an hour.”
In the end, the Ordways’ family home was spared. But the aftermath of CZU lingered, at least in the mind and artistic imagination of Scott Ordway.
Ordway, 38, will revisit Santa Cruz at the end of month for a special moment in his creative life. The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is presenting Ordway’s ambitious composition “The End of Rain,” with the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth on Friday, July 29, to open the festival’s landmark 60th anniversary season.
“The End of Rain” is a Cabrillo Festival-commissioned work, and the July concert will mark its world premiere. It is a multimedia meditation on fire, drought, and the new reality of life in California, including Ordway’s composition accompanied by his own documentary video and photography.
“The End of Rain” is not, however, solely based on Ordway’s family’s experiences or his impressions of the situation from his faraway perch on the East Coast. It is instead akin to an act of journalism, or oral history. He employed a method he calls “crowdsourcing text,” collecting simple and direct stories from Californians touched by wildfire, a technique he’s used in his work before.
“I’ll ask dozens or hundreds of members of the public to respond to a particular theme or question, and then extract a poetic text for music from that large set of raw material.”
In the case of “Rain,” he collected accounts and anecdotes from about 225 people, constituting about 80,000 words of text. From that material, he distilled the themes, the images and the language that would make up the poetry and lyrical content of the piece
I’ve found as an artist, when you ask people to speak in their own words, there’s incredible poetry that comes out of that in little flashes.
“I just asked people to describe what they’ve seen, heard and felt in really simple and direct language,” said Ordway. “I’ve found as an artist, when you ask people to speak in their own words, there’s incredible poetry that comes out of that in little flashes. You’ll end up with a lot of strikingly beautiful lines, which take on a whole new resonance when set to music.”
Part of that collection effort took place on the ground in Santa Cruz County. Ordway visited six classrooms in county middle and high schools, to hear the stories of young people affected by the CZU fires. He also put together focus groups that included, among others, Bonny Doon volunteer firefighters and survivors of the catastrophic Camp fire in Paradise in 2018.
While he was collecting the textual content of the piece, he was also visiting many of the fire-ravaged areas of Northern California to collect video and still photography. He’s also publishing a hardcover book based on his photography of California that will be available at the end of the month, just a few days before the debut of “The End of Rain” at Cabrillo.
California, and specifically Santa Cruz, are extraordinarily important places for me, but that’s not quite a substitute for having been there myself.
“California, and specifically Santa Cruz, are extraordinarily important places for me, but that’s not quite a substitute for having been there myself,” he said. “So I felt that it would be not quite sufficient to write a work that simply expressed my own point of view on these events. It was really important to me that the work be grounded in the experiences of people who had lived it in a really immediate way. And so, the way I saw my role was, was much more curatorial, or editorial.”
Gathering the material for “The End of Rain” also served as an opportunity for Ordway to learn something about his native region.
“One of the prevailing themes is just how important landscape and the natural world is to citizens of Northern California in particular. The way people talk about the land around them is with a kind of astonished reverence. It’s really central to the way people see their identity in this part of the world,” he said. “I think that I would have suspected that, but the responses really confirmed that to a much greater extent than, for example, Philadelphians, where the landscape of the Delaware Valley is not as central to the identity of the average Philadelphian as the landscape of Northern California is to the average citizen there.”
The Cabrillo Festival enjoys a strong reputation among composers and musicians on a national and international basis. But for a Santa Cruz native like Ordway, having his work programmed at Cabrillo marks a career pinnacle.
“There’s no festival in the country that would be a better place to premiere this particular piece than Cabrillo,” he said.
As a young teen, the Harbor High School grad first dabbled in pop/punk music, hanging out at Caffe Pergolesi and The Catalyst. But when he gravitated toward orchestral and chamber music, the Cabrillo Festival assumed an enormous role in his developing imagination.
“It was the festival where I was introduced to some of the composers who have been really influential to me in subsequent years. So, for me, it’s a dream come true to have a commission from Cabrillo and then specifically to have a commission to write a piece for Roomful of Teeth, who are also idols of mine. [The Cabrillo Festival] is such an institution in the field of contemporary music, and the caliber of both composers and performers that comes to Cabrillo is so unbelievably high. Unless you’re really tuned into that scene, you might not even be aware of just exactly how remarkable the festival is.”
Scott Ordway’s “The End of Rain,” with the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music Orchestra and Roomful of Teeth, has its world premiere July 29. Cabrillo’s 2022 season opens July 24 and runs through Aug. 7.