Monday, December 31, 2007

On the Beach at Rose Parade 2008

Mixed Meters brings you pictures of preparations to watch tomorrow's Rose Parade - along Colorado and Sierra Madre Boulevards in Pasadena. It seems to me that spending an entire night on a Pasadena street is like going to the beach. At the least the equipment is similar.

Before Rose Parade 2008 (c) David Ocker
Before Rose Parade 2008 (c) David Ocker
There are rules for the parade watchers - which include NOT throwing tortillas at people in the parade.

In the upper right corner of the next picture you can see snow in the mountains. Click any picture to make it grow.

Beach Umbrella - Before Rose Parade 2008 (c) David Ocker
Beach Umbrella - Before Rose Parade 2008 (c) David Ocker
I've posted more pictures at Flickr including pictures of Recreational Vehicles and Porta-Potties all in a row.

Beach Chairs - Before Rose Parade 2008 (c) David Ocker
Beach Blankets - Before Rose Parade 2008 (c) David Ocker
Mixed Meters' pictures from the 2007 Parade are here.

The Curb Is Like The Beach Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Schmap? Yep. It's a website. A travel website. They asked my permission to include my picture of a sign reading "Magnet Therapy Here" which was taken at the Hilo Farmer's Market. I agreed.

Here's the picture as it appeared on Flickr and Schmap (What is happening to our poor language in the name of business names which do not provoke lawsuits?)

Magnet Therapy Here - Hilo Farmers Market (c) David Ocker
Here's the direct link to Schmap's Hilo page. Apparently they use Flickr to find travel photos. Cheaper than hiring a professional travel photographer. They gave me credit and linked to my picture on Flickr. Thanks, Mr. & Ms. Schmap!

Confession: I Photoshopped this picture heavily. You can see why if you look at the original unretouched (but reduced in size) photo. The sun was shining through the sign and it isn't really advertising "Magnet Therapy" - although I'm guessing it once did. It really says "Parking $1" on the other side. (Click any pic to enlarge of course.)

Parking $1 - Hilo Farmers Market (c) David Ocker

And by the way, I've recently uploaded even more pictures I took in Hawaii to Flickr. Click here for the whole darn collection. They run the gamut; you don't know what to expect. I might add yet a few more as time goes by, but basically in my mind, this project is finished.


These will give you a better idea of what it was like. One side was fruits and vegetables, many of them familiar to me. The other side was filled with tourist crap. You'll have to imagine the intense heat and humidity on your own.

Hilo Farmers Market - (c) David Ocker
Hilo Farmers Market - (c) David Ocker
Unattended Children Will Be Sold (c) David Ocker
I wish I had gotten a picture of the guys dressed in full Scottish regalia (um, like, kilts) -selling traditional musical instruments of the British Isles. Click here or here for who it might have been. Maybe.

Hilo Farmers Market Green Beans - (c) David Ocker
Hilo Farmers Market Rambutan - (c) David Ocker
Rambutan? Thank you, no. I didn't care for them.

Visiting Hilo? We enjoyed our stay at the Bay House B & B in Hilo and dinner at Cafe Pesto.

RambuTags: . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Found Cartoon - Fink

The poor condition of this 5 miles-per-hour sign, at our local high school, has always intrigued me. But today a little piece of paper was attached to it. Turned out to be an inexplicable cartoon, possibly of a small bee or insect possibly named "Fink". Fink has big eyes and wings and is outlined in yellow highlighter. You can decide what you think it is.

5 mph sign with Fink cartoon attached
Fink cartoon
Click the pics to make them larger. Here's another recent found cartoon "It looks at the atom".

Fink Tags: . . . . . .

Monday, December 24, 2007

30 Second Spots - Jingle Bills

It's become a Mixed Meters Tradition to post some of my original holiday music - this year again based on a tune you'll recognize. What could it be?

A penguin on an igloo for Christmas
It's just the right length for holiday music (30 seconds exactly). It will leave you in a state of unsatisfaction, wanting more; asking for another 5, maybe 10, seconds at least.

Click here to hear Jingle Bills © 2007 David Ocker - 30 seconds

Want more alternative holiday music?

The best Christmas song ever (seriously) - Joseph Spence does Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. There are some other good Christmas tunes here - like by Zoogz Rift.

the Christmas Trinity - Santa, Snowman and Penguin
Another great Christmas song - Santa's Secret by Johnny Guarneri and Slam Stewart.. More tunes in the same vein at that site also. (BTW - Santa's secret is something that he smokes.)

the Christmas Trinity - Santa, Snowman and PenguinAnd of course I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas. Doesn't everyone.

the Christmas Trinity - Santa, Snowman and Penguin

I've posted a collection of pictures of Christmas Penguins at this link. Most have not not seen the light of Mixed Meters before. I have more pictures that I will add later.

Mixed Meters is one of the few blogs on the Internet (or anywhere else) to celebrate the elevation of Penguins into the Christmas Zoological Trio - Santa Clauses, Snowmen and Penguins. The Penguins are usually wearing a scarf or Santa hat - and are colored blue as often as black.

Last year's post Stalking the Christmas Penguin explains why Christmas Penguins will confuse the geographically-challenged American public.

Another MM post with pictures of Christmas Penguins. And another. which deals mostly with Christmas music at S'bucks. By the way, as far as I know, Starbucks never played a Hannukah tune this year, not that I expected one. But they did play one classical piece (just one) - Fur Elise by LvB. (That's one more classical piece than they play the rest of the year.)

Last year's Mixed Meters Christmas Music: two 3-Minute Climaxes - Jingle Bulls and Jungle Bells.

Santa, Snowman and Penguin Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fascism - Then and Now

I'm hard on the books I read. I don't/won't/can't spend much of my time reading, I carry whatever books I finally decide to read around with me for months finding a few minutes here or there for a chance to read a few pages now or then.

I cram books in my computer bag. I crush, crumple and bend them. I spill things on them, mostly coffee. Books probably hate me. The ones I pick definitely are not new when I finish with them. Do not loan me a book whose condition you value.

Our current U.S. administration has gotten a bad rap - deservedly so, in my opinion. George W. Bush may be the worst president ever. Critics of America's lurch to the right have occasionally compared George II to Hitler. (Here's a listing.)

I was very concerned whether there was any truth to this comparison. How much should I worry.? I decided to read a book to find out.

I choose a 3-volume history of the Nazis by Richard J. Evans. The first book, The Coming of the Third Reich, is about the Weimar Republic and how the Nazis managed to get into power in the first place (they never won a fair election but they did beat a lot of people up).

Richard J Evans - The Third Reich in Power cover
I just finished the second book, The Third Reich in Power, which covers the "peacetime" years of Nazi control, 1933 to 1939. It deals with the consolidation of the dictatorship and the intentional redirection of an entire nation towards inevitable war under a single political party.

Just over 700 pages of text is not very much when you're describing all the ebbs and flows of an entire country in the throes of turbulent change, but Evans' style is easy to read and he organizes his material clearly.

The third book by Evans (about World War II) hasn't been announced yet. I wonder how the story will turn out.

The Germany described in these books was more bizarre and more malevolent than any possible future United States. There are a lot of jaw-dropping moments in The Third Reich in Power. You could never make stuff like this up and expect anyone to believe you. Far from showing me how the U.S. and Nazi Germany were alike, these books reveal the extent of the differences.

My suggestion to a person making a comparison of the US and the Nazis would be "Go read a book." Evans' books would be a good choice, but any book would probably suffice. Then remind that person that the U.S., unlike Germany in the 30s, has had a functional, albeit imperfect, democracy for an awfully long time.

For example, we can all be pretty sure that, come the evening of January 20, 2009, George II Bush will no longer be POTUS. The selection of his successor, although it will have been infused with outright lies, insidious half-truths, unreasoning emotion, blind faith and sky-scraping mountain ranges of big money both foreign and domestic, will not have involved widespread bloodshed or mass imprisonment. Maybe a little computer fraud and some intimidation of potential voters who don't speak the English so good. The US is a long way from perfect.

George W Bush praying with the spirits of Washington and Lincoln
Still, while reading The Third Reich in Power I was aware of one troubling similarity with contemporary America: Faith.

The intense irrational faith of the Nazis (that their race was superior and destined to rule the world) seems to parallel the intense irrational faith prevalent in the U.S. today (that our country has been chosen by God to lead the world.) Hitler said he was chosen by "Providence". We just use the word "God" instead. If America's faith in ourselves, aided and abetted by a bit of frenzy whipped up by the corporate media, somehow gets US into marching in lockstep then anything could happen. We could even go to war half way around the world for no good reason. (Saddam was not harboring Al Queda.)

Oh right. I was talking about faith. Here's a quote (in this post) by an "Ex-Southern Conservative" Christian who was discussing the 2004 Presidential election:
If I were still a conservative Christian I can tell you exactly how this election would look to me right now. Kerry is an immoral man of the World, and I thank God that Bush, a man of clear moral integrity who is out to defeat Satan regardless of the forces that stand in his way, has been blessed with victory. He didn't win the election--God chose him as the leader of this nation.
Sinclair Lewis said
"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
I'm not suggesting anything is inevitable - we have a long way to go before "it", meaning something as bad as Nazism, can happen here in the United States. I think it would be a good idea if we made sure that "it" doesn't ever happen here. The best way of making sure is not to deny the possibility.

Tennessee replica of Statue of Liberty holding a cross
Beyond the issue of faith, I found the Nazi treatment of the arts, especially music, particularly interesting in The Third Reich in Power.

Among the interesting bits Evans tells how Hitler once gave Nazi officials one thousand free tickets to Der Meistersinger. Hardly any of them showed up and the Leader was furious. So the next year he made attendance mandatory. The officers showed up and fell asleep. Apparently lower echelon Nazis didn't care much for the music of Richard Wagner. After that Hitler had the tickets sold to the opera-going public (pp.200-201).

The subject I found most disturbing, for obvious personal reasons, was Nazi policy toward Jews. Never more than 1% of German population, Jews were cast by Nazi propaganda as the cause of every problem. By 1939 Germany was largely free of Jews thanks to draconian legal discrimination and carefully orchestrated violence. But in early 1939 Hitler made his first public reference to what would happen later, saying that a world war would result in "the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe." (pp.603-604)

Looking back from the United States of 2007, a Golden Age for Jews who have achieved more wealth, influence and equality than in any other society ever, it is really essential for all Americans to remember how evil another country could become.

A nation of well-meaning people were led to do bad things in the name of Providence and Fatherland. Let's make sure nothing similar happens here in the name of God and Homeland Security.

Other Mixed Meters posts referring to Hitler or Nazis:

The story about the Statue of Liberty replica with a cross is here.
The praying George II counseled by the spirits of George Washington and Abe Lincoln comes from the Presidential Prayer Team.
A fascinating article about Israeli Nazi-themed pornographic novels is here.

Nazi Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

30 Second Spots - Boarding Pass

I ended my trip to Palo Alto/Stanford University/Dinkelspiel Auditorium/Son of Chamber Symphony by sitting in the San Jose International Airport for too many hours.

So I whipped out the laptop and wrote this piece, Boarding Pass , which I named after the little piece of paper without which you cannot go through security into the "concourse" nor can you board a plane out of the "concourse."

A concourse is like purgatory ("a place of temporary suffering"). The difference is that I've been in a concourse. I guess that makes the boarding pass a kind of sacred scroll.

Here's a panoramic picture that I took in a concourse at the Burbank Airport on the same trip (click it to make it bigger).

CNBC Newstand at Burbank Airport(c) David Ocker
In the San Jose airport you could hear announcements from adjacent boarding gates with equal clarity. Curiously, the people making these announcements were not aware of this and, as a result, I was often reminded of a Glenn Gould radio show. I don't think this image affected the music of Boarding Pass.

Copyright (c) December 1, 2007 by David Ocker 43 Seconds

Here's another picture of Dinkelspiel Auditorium. It reminds me of the word "autumnal". The previous Mixed Meters post and 30 Second Spot entitled Dinkelspiel is here.

Shadows in the lobby of Dinkelspiel Auditorium Stanford University (c) David Ocker

Boarding Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Friday, December 07, 2007

Days of Infamy

December 7 ("a date which will live in infamy") has to move over to make room for new days of infamy. Click here for a Google search to see how the term is being used. Clearly 9/11 is in second place in the Day of Infamy pantheon. The day Gene Robinson was consecrated an Episcopal bishop is gaining ground. Clearly it's getting easier to make a day infamous than it used to be.

NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette in Pearl Harbor Sept 2007
News reminders about the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor reminded me that I had visited Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor on our trip to Hawaii in September 2007. The NOAA ship (the Oscar Elton Sette) that Leslie traveled on was docked there. Her equipment needed to get on board. I went along as a schlepper.

Pearl Harbor panorama looking west from Ford Island Sept 2007
Here are two composite panorama shots. The top one is looking west into Pearl Harbor from the NOAA ship. Here is a page about the attacks that happened on this side of the island. (The Arizona was on the other side.)

Below is the lab in which Leslie worked. You can see NOAA diver Amy Hall with Leslie behind her. The two panorama pictures are the same size but the harbor is big and open while the lab is small and cramped.

Laboratory on the Oscar Elton Sette
Ford Island is usually off-limits to the public - not that there's much to see. Visitors are ferried out to the Arizona Memorial by boat. Here's the Memorial.

Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor
Here are some of the historic buildings on Ford Island. There is a plan to restore these buildings (they need it) and make them a Pacific center for NOAA. (Click here.)

Building on Ford Island Sept 2007
Building on Ford Island Sept 2007
Hanger door on Ford Island Sept 2007
Building on Ford Island Sept 2007
All the pictures get bigger when you click them - especially the panorama shots. Many of the pictures were taken from a moving truck.

Infamy Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

30 Second Spots - Flight of the Rhino

Instead of attending another new music concert last night I opted to write another short piece at Starbucks.

The night before I had asked barista Lindsay to name my piece; she called it The Medallion. (go to it) When barista Israel heard us talking he was quite animated in suggesting that the title should have been "Flight of the Rhino". But once I choose a title I don't often change them. It seemed more appropriate to write another piece in order to save Izzy's excellent title.

Reclining Rhino at LA Zoo (c) David Ocker
When I played Flight of the Rhino for Izzy he said (more or less) "It's just the way I imagined it in my dream. He's wearing glasses and a cape." Not that he told me anything about that before I wrote the music.

When I played FotR for Leslie she said "That's painful." Maybe she was responding to the gratuitous use of microtones. I suspect this piece requires a sequel: Landing of the Rhino. Stay tuned.

Copyright (c) December 4, 2007 - David Ocker - 42 seconds.
Listen here.

Meanwhile, yesterday's post The Medallion got a curious response from Daniel Wolf, proprietor of Renewable Music. I can understand his confusion at my blythe concatenation of several of my own issues into the introductory paragraph while glibbly omitting any background.

When Leslie read his comment she said "Honey, somebody takes you seriously." She says she meant it as a joke, but I think she was surprised. I'm always surprised when someone takes me seriously.

The Rhino's Butt at the LA Zoo (c) David OckerHere's Daniels comment in purple prose:

I'm afraid you've completely lost me with this post. You've implicitly criticized music that not only you haven't heard but that you've now gone out of your way not to hear, and along the way used "European" as an epithet and put another composer down just because you haven't heard of him. Can it simply be that somewhere along the line you lost your faith and/or interest in new music? (It happens, so what?) But instead of putting your energy into making, studying, or promoting the music that you do like, you're stuck in the rut of putting down the music you no longer like.

There are too many forces out there there trying to strike down the music that other people happen to like to make, and not enough forces out there simply putting music they cherish out there without acting as if music were a zero-sum game. Music ain't a zero sum game, and playing it that way is needlessly mean-spirited.
I started to write a response but it became instantly clear I would need ages to complete it. Instead, I used my Starbucks time to write down some short declarative sentences about where my head is at in my imaginary career as a failed composer. I'm suspect they will also be provocative.

As I was writing I realized that I was creating a manifesto. Here it is folks, in no coherent order:

  1. I lost my faith in new music years ago. Also my respect for certain "important" composers.
  2. I did not lose my interest in new music although I expected to.
  3. Living with this faithless interest has become the central issue of my middle-age creative musicianship.
  4. I believe music can and should be challenging and involving and beautiful and provocative without being ponderous or academic.
  5. There is a certain existential tension between these ideas and the way I earn my living: as a copyist of new pieces by "important" composers.
  6. I no longer enjoy attending concerts. Exceptions do occur.
  7. I prefer listening to recordings. iPod is good.

    Lion at the LA Zoo (c) David Ocker
  8. My time is limited. Life is short. Too short to listen to ugly music.
  9. I feel fully qualified to predict from the music I already know whether I will enjoy music I haven't heard yet. You can't listen to everything. You have to have favorites. If you don't like something, say so.
  10. The "important" centers of new music are in New York and Europe. California is the boonies and our new music scene is vastly underdeveloped for our size and economic clout.
  11. What hapens in the centers of new music has become of only minor passing interest to me.
  12. The New Music Pie is fixed in size. Maybe it's even shrinking. That would make new music a negative sum game
  13. New music programming is more often based on the "importance" rather than the talent of the composers.
  14. Recent programming by the Monday Evening Concerts and the Green Umbrella has disappointed me as overly Eurocentric.

    Lioness at the LA Zoo (c) David Ocker
  15. Although I may not enjoy or attend new music concerts I support them and hope for their success. I once found them useful and others still do.
  16. I enjoy "making up" music. I never refer to myself as a "composer" without adding the adjective "failed".
  17. The choice between spending my time making up my own music and attending a concert of music by composers from traditions for which I have little tolerance or enthusiasm is easy.
  18. I want my music to derive as much as possible from my immediate surroundings and culture at the current moment. Starbucks is the perfect metaphor for this.
  19. Every piece of music should have elements immediately appreciable by any listener, from novice through professional.
  20. I enjoy giving my pieces misleading titles.
  21. Music is a fundamentally an abstract art and should avoid the overuse of lyrics.

    Antelope at the LA Zoo (c) David Ocker
  22. I want my music to be unpredictable.
  23. I have no interest in being part of an established musical movement or tradition, even as I am probably falling into the traps associated with certain California Maverick composers.
  24. I have no reason, desire or ability to express the eternal verities through my music. Indeed, I doubt eternal verities are eternal, veritable or even expressible through music.
  25. I've learned as much from negative examples and bad teaching as from positive and good.
  26. I want to personally enjoy the acts of writing my music and listening to it later.
  27. Writing about my music is difficult for me. I would like people who hear my music to enjoy it without having to read about it.
  28. I can no longer say I've never written a manifesto.
Chimps at the LA Zoon (c) David Ocker
I doubt I've answered Daniel's criticism. I've probably provoked more. I wonder how many, if any, of these points he'll agree with. And that gives me an idea:


Give yourself one point for each of the above statements you honestly think is also true for you. For example, if you have lost your own faith in new music give yourself one point for number one. Post your total scores in the comments. I'll write a 30 second spot named after anyone who scores either a perfect 28 or a perfect zero. Honesty in your answers is appreciated but not mandatory.

Leslie took this picture at breakfast last Sunday. A Funny Comedian with A Failed Composer Fondling a Coffee Cup.

Funny Comedian with Failed Composer Fondling Coffee Cup
All pictures in this post are of animals held captive in California but not native to it. All but the last were taken at the Los Angeles Zoo. Click any picture to see it get bigger.

Manifest Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

30 Second Spots - The Medallion

Monday night, December 3, 2007, was the first Monday Evening Concert of the season. The program consisted of a piece from the wrong end of Igor Stravinsky's career, another European composer I'd never heard of and yet a third European composer I'd prefer never to hear again. Here's the program listing.

One of the pieces is described as
a radical, searing journey exploring man’s primitive connection with God.
which is the sort of presumption we seem to expect from our most honored composers. We must want them to deal with lofty subject matter in their music. Maybe we assume that theology somehow gives music a purpose. Or maybe composing music gives insight into the unknowable. I've always felt there are many similarities between music concerts and church services.

Stanford University Storm Drain Cover (c) David Ocker
Rather than confront my dislike and distrust of such posturing I decided to spend the time of the concert writing a little of my own music. So I hiked up to Starbucks just before 8 and returned just before 10 carrying 30 seconds of brand new music.

Listen here.

Copyright (c) December 3, 2007 David Ocker - exactly 30 seconds.

I couldn't think of a title. Nor could I find a found title from any overheard conversation. So I asked one of the baristas to pick a title without listening to the music. It happens that the person I asked, Lindsay Kraft, is the granddaughter of composer William Kraft (who had conducted the Stravinsky on the very concert I skipped.) I think Lindsay chose well.

There's nothing deep about The Medallion - it's just a small obscure view of where my head was at musically between 8 and 10 p.m. on Monday December 3, 2007. An abstraction of obscurity.

Enjoy it the way you would biting into a hot chili pepper or seeing a beam of bright sunlight on a dead flower or a brief hacking cough you can't control or feeling a cold unexpected burst of wind when you're not wearing a coat. In other words, a short moment of discomfort. Those are probably the best moments to reflect on your own primitive connections to God -- assuming she even exists of course.

Stanford University Storm Drain Cover Design Done in Stone (c) David Ocker
The pictures are from my wanderings around the Stanford University main quad last Friday. First I was struck by the ornate storm drain cover. Then I noticed that particular design was used repeatedly. It is sort of medallion like.

Medallion Tags: . . . . . .

Monday, December 03, 2007

David Ocker, Boy Music Critic

Don't be fooled, this post is actually about Domenico Scarlatti, whose music I will eventually compare to that of John Coltrane and Erik Satie. But the story really starts over 35 years ago at Carleton College in Northfield Minnesota. And it ends with the line "Once Upon A Time".


Many of my most positive opinions about music were formed while I was an undergraduate at Carleton. (as opposed to many of my, um, less positive opinions (now well known to my three readers) which I developed while in graduate school a few years later.) Here's a picture of me on my first day as a Junior at Carleton. 1

David Ocker autumn 1971 Evans A in The Chair
To honor the positive accomplishments Carleton made towards educating me I send them token donations every year. In exchange they send me wall calendars so saturated with nostalgia that I instantly toss them out.

These days Carleton also emails alumni newsletters replete with something called "E-NEWS". Recently E-news announced that every issue of the school newspaper, The Carletonian, had been digitized and posted online at ArcaSearch.

I immediately did the most natural thing, I searched the archive for my own name.

It turns out that during my senior year I wrote a number of concert reviews and promotional pieces. I had completely forgotten all of them except one.

For example, I have absolutely no memory of the concert I was flogging in this article Band Concert on Pastoral Lilac Hill on May 17, 1973. Here's a picture of the Carleton Band (obviously not on Lilac Hill, but you can see me playing clarinet to the left of the conductor, framed by the wye of the tree.)

Carleton Concert Band 1973
The one article which hadn't escaped my memory was a review of the William O. Smith/John Eaton Lucas Lectures. Eaton and Smith - It Sounded Better From the Lobby on January 18, 1973. It was very positive article in spite of the subtitle. I also wrote a promo for those concerts: Eaton, Smith, New Music on January 11.

I'm sure that event has stayed in my memory because meeting clarinetist William O. Smith really did change my life. I spent the next couple of decades trying to be an avant-garde clarinetist. I never saw Smith again - but I did continue to explore the boundaries of clarinet performance and even played his solo clarinet music from time to time (for example, check out the program at the end of this post). He deserves a long overdue thank you.

Here are three more reviews.

Contemporary '73 (music by Bartok and Crumb, February 15, 1973)
It's Too Bad They Wore Tuxedos (The American Woodwind Quintet - Nov. 11, 1972)
I Adore Philador (March 8, 1973)

Reading these brought back a flood of useless memories.


In the review of the Philador Trio (playing 18th century Italian baroque music) I was clearly out of my element. But this paragraph stood out from the antique typesetting:
In my biased opinion, the 490 odd Demenico (sic) Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas are the most enjoyable pieces ever written (and I will defend myself against all who disagree, but I will never deny that I am right). It is not odd, therefore, that I thought that the performance of five of these sonatas was the high point of the concert. No more discussion is necessary.

Two realizations made reading this bit of boyhood music criticism fascinating:
  • My enthusiasm for Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas has remained the same (or maybe even increased) over 35 years. 3
  • My propensity to make grand sweeping generalizations of what constitutes good (or bad) music has remained the same (or maybe even increased) over all these years as well.
My initial exposure to Scarlatti was probably from the four sonatas on the album The Well-Tempered Synthesizer4. As a beginning piano student at Carleton I advanced far enough to play a few myself, naturally having my mind stretched while happily banging out some of the cluster harmonies on a piano. And I acquired a 3-LP set of Fernando Valenti playing several dozen sonatas, noting sadly that he had recorded hundreds of others which I could not find.

When I got to CalArts Valenti, who was on the faculty, gave an all-Scarlatti concert. He worked hard to bring the emotions of the pieces out - way out, nearly collapsing in "tears" onto the keyboard of his harpsichord at the end of one poignant sonata. Ever since then that performance has defined the phrase "milking it" in my mind.

Years later the first complete set of Scarlatti sonatas by Scott Ross became available on 33 compact discs.

A CD cover from complete Scarlatti Sonatas by Scott Ross
I found out about the set when the local Pacifica station KPFK devoted all their daylight airtime during a holiday weekend to broadcasting the whole thing. I listened intently. The presenter was William Malloch (here or here or here for bits of info) who rationalized the broadcast to the audience (and perhaps to the station management) as a tribute to Ross, an early victim of Aids, rather than as an opportunity to experience some great music. Whatever. It worked.

The form and style of each sonata is remarkably consistent throughout the cycle. A modern composer could never imagine writing so many similar pieces. The closest modern equivalent, if you ignored the issue of lyrics, might be a prolific popular songwriter.

Listening to the entire Scarlatti set made me realize that the 555 sonatas form one huge piece of music, a single hours-long work. The sonatas are so similar that each becomes just a moment in a huge meta-structure, not "movements" (as in a symphony) but more like "choruses" (as in a jazz solo.)

Multiple Scarlatti sonatas become a bubbling stream of constantly fresh ideas in which twists of melody, harmony and rhythm are always floating past. The underlying sonata structure provides some cohesion. The overall effect reminds me of John Coltrane soloing on, say, My Favorite Things - putting out idea after idea while the rhythm section vamps happily in the background.

If you consider the massive length of the combined Scarlatti sonatas they can be compared to another keyboard piece, Vexations by Erik Satie. Vexations is a short gnarly dissonant bit of piano music which the composer instructed was to be repeated 840 times during a single performance.5 Of course the actual musical content couldn't be more different. Scarlatti is tasty and rich - a true physical pleasure. Satie is just a few seeds and stems, memories from the bottom of the bag.

I also own a complete recording of all the Haydn symphonies conducted by Antal Dorati. This represents about the same quantity of music (and same number of discs) as the Scarlatti. The difference is, as you progress from symphony to symphony chronologically, you can hear Haydn working out his ideas, changing over time. He created the form by trial and error, adopting and discarding things. This is completely different than the way I perceive the Scarlatti. I'm not suggesting a value judgment between these two massive bodies of music. Rather I'm making an observation about the purposes, personalities and careers of the two composers as viewed abstractly through the artificial lens of nearly three dozen compact discs each.

Finally, I've noticed that my interest in Scarlatti does not change according to the medium or performer to which I listen. My iPod currently has four different interpreters - Ross, Valenti, Horowitz and Carlos - on harpsichord, harpsichord, piano and Moog. I enjoy all of them.

My affinity for Scarlatti is directly to the music itself. There is some ineffable, magical quality of his writing which resonates naturally with me and my tastes andmy preferences. It's a wonderful thing - which I can't really explain - and which I don't really understand.


1 Note the chair I'm sitting in. Here's the same guy (me) sitting in the same chair 20 years earlier:

David Ocker - age 7.5 months (1952) sitting in the same chair
This was my Grandmother's chair. I wonder if it is still at Carleton, passed down from graduates to undergraduates year after year since 1973 - and hopefully cleaned or reupholstered on occasion.

2 The Complete Scarlatti Sonatas performed by Scott Ross on Warner Classics here. The Wikipedia entry on Scarlatti indicates that two more complete sonata cycles are in production, one on harpsichord the other on piano.

The Scott Ross wikipedia link.

Pdfs and funky sound files of a bunch of sonatas available at the Werner Icking Music Archive.

Domenico's picture came from here where you can find Midi files of all the sonatas.

3 Here's another Mixed Meters article about a college-era favorite composer about whose music my opinion has since changed.

4 Listening to the Well-Tempered Synthesizer album for the first time after several decades was a real trip for me. At first I was shocked by the "antique" analog synthesized sounds. But after a short time my disbelief was suspended and I relived a perfectly wonderful experience. I also realized that my use of stereo effects in my current music probably ultimately derives from their use in the Switched On albums.

5 Personally I think Satie was joking when he wrote the instruction to repeat so many times. The piece is no more scrutable after the last repetition than it is after the first. Someday I should write about my experiences playing in two complete performances of Vexations. One of them was organized by composer Carl Stone and broadcast live over KPFK. Once upon a time KPFK was quite a wonderful place to experience interesting music. Once Upon A Time....

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