Thursday, March 20, 2008

Old School

(Hey, later in this post you'll find a new 30 Second Spot to play. And it ends with a little story about Frank Zappa's music. Otherwise read on as I wander aimlessly through the Santa Clarita Valley and 35 years of my life.)

My friend Art Jarvinen asked me to substitute for him this week in two classes he teaches at the California Institute of the Arts, called "CalArts" by those in a hurry, the institution we both attended during the neolithic when the place was nearly new.

CalArts is where I studied for two years to be both a clarinetist and a composer. I hadn't visited in decades. Simply going to the place meant revisiting countless memories. I'm convinced that some are better unremembered.

After graduating, however, some people whom I had met at CalArts and some people they had introduced me to played a large part in determining my "career path". In retrospect I can't complain. As I was told recently, I must be a success because I'm making a living and my wife hasn't left me. Thanks honey.

Anyway, my clock radio got me out of bed Wednesday morning to strains of a Brahms clarinet sonata, a clear reference to my performer past (KUSC showed some mercy by only broadcasting half the piece.) After my morning puttering I drove up to the Santa Clarita Valley just to look around.

The buildings along Lyons Avenue and San Fernando Road hadn't changed much except for the names on the signs. I had no trouble finding the Saugus Cafe, a place I haunted as a CalArts student. It didn't seem to have changed much either. (See it on a map.)

Saugus Cafe outside shot California
Saugus Cafe interior shot California
Inside I overheard some people discussing Indian tribes. One mentioned that Sitting Bull was buried in Sioux City, Iowa, the town where I grew up. Wow, another unsolicited reminder of my past! (Although the Indian chief buried in Sioux City is War Eagle not Sitting Bull. Here's a picture of War Eagle's grave site. Here's another that shows his view from there.)

After lunch I crossed San Fernando Road and made this panoramic shot of the cafe - I think it captures a certain essence of the place. (Click it to enlarge it.)

Saugus Cafe San Fernando Road panorama shot
A few important transportation related pieces of earthbound flotsam attracted my attention - a hubcap and a caster. Yes, this is a very dry area. The high desert. Perfect for industry. Less perfect for human habitation.

found object hubcap
found object caster
I drove in the direction of CalArts which is located on McBean Parkway. When I first arrived here back in 1974 my friend Laurence Gold wrote to ask "What sort of people name a street McBean Parkway?"

I've always remembered L's question, partially because I didn't understand what bothered him about that name, but also because I had no good answer to give him. McBean was someone who worked for Newhall Land and Farm, the company responsible for the area's avaricious development.

Here's a picture, taken Wednesday, of a Newhall Land advertising sign near the CalArts campus proving that development continues. The backward pointing arrows tell people "Go back! The new tracts are back that way. Happiness awaits you in your new home". In this area what you're least likely to find at a place called "West Creek" or "River Village" ia any type of natural body of water.

Newhall Land tract development sign
I crossed over the freeway to where, during my student years, there had been only dry, barren chapparal and scrub. Now it is replete with the most standardized of tract housing and strip malls.

Naturally I gravitated toward the Starbucks. When I opened my car door I immediately saw a refreshing Starbucks ice blended drink which someone had left for me.

Spilled Starbucks drink parking lot
I sat at Starbucks long enough to create a new 30 Second Spot. I also heard an actual piece of classical music on their sound system (a bit of Rimsky Korsakov.) This is unusual because I've only noticed classical music in Starbucks at Christmas time.

My own little piece is not like Rimsky-Korsakov at all except for the use of sampled vocal sounds. It's entitled "For Just Like Two Minutes". I purloined the title from an otherwise unintelligible conversation between two young couples. "For Just Like Two Minutes" is 41 seconds long and is copyright (c) March 19, 2008 by David Ocker. Enjoy. Or not.

Finally it was time to approach the old school itself, now hidden behind the fully-grown trees which had been mere saplings during my student days. Standing before the front entrance I made another panoramic photograph. I was immediately struck by how little this view had changed. A few new signs, a few minor color changes and, of course, the trees were bigger. Click the picture to make that bigger too.

Cal Arts entry panorama shot
I wandered toward the cafeteria, site of some of my least memorable composition lessons ever, even though it boasted an awe-inspiring view in 1974 of green onion fields populated by migrant workers which was soon replaced by a view of now mansionized tract homes and green water-hazarded golf courses and which is now obscured by trees.

I had no difficulty navigating the long hallways, still barren save for signs announcing student events and opportunities. In B-Block, home to the music school, I confronted the same battered student lockers. I looked in on students learning African dance and music exactly as they had then.

Unlike the parking lot the inside was largely empty - possibly because of upcoming Spring Break. Student sartorial style hadn't changed much. I was clearly in a land where, outwardly at least, time had stood still.

Unlike during my time, the balcony around the music wing was open. I wandered outside to see this area I had never been allowed access to as a student. Here I took my final panoramic shot looking north towards more trees, more development and more mountains. Go ahead, click the picture.

view from music school balcony panorama shot
I have a theory that the perceived quality of a chamber music concert is strongly affected by the size of the audience in comparison to the available space. In other words, if the chamber is nearly full the concert always seems better. If too few people are spread over too many seats, however, interest wanes. And so it seemed to be with my two classes.

The first class, in a small windowless room nearly filled with people sitting in a circle, struck me as being more successful than the second, held in a larger room with just a few students who sat against the back wall, some eating lunch, with an obligato flute player on that balcony flauting quite audibly just beyond the plate glass window as we tried to listen to music. Especially in the first class I had that old deja vu feeling. I felt like I had repeatedly been one of them long ago.

Back in the seventies in similar classes in these identical rooms we endlessly tried to verbalize about the essentially meaningless and therefore ineffable but inescapable thing called music with the fervent, almost religious, hope that something, anything, might prove useful in the future.

And so it still seems.

From my experience I tried to hint that the things and the words of a Cal Arts education have not been terribly useful to me. But I do owe a gratitude to those of my fellow students, at least those I have managed to remain in contact with, who in so many ways have been really important influences. So thanks, Art, for asking me to substitute teach. But please wait a very very long time before you ask again.

trees reflected in Cal Arts windows
As I walked into the building Thursday, over near the Modular Theater, I could hear familiar music wafting from the Main Gallery. First I identified it as brass music, then as jazz (a strange sensation since there had been no jazz at CalArts in my years) and finally as Frank Zappa's piece Big Swifty.

It was being rehearsed by a brass quintet plus a drum kit. They were playing after the fashion of the Meridien Arts Ensemble. I watched anonymously as they worked out phrasing and tempo and tuplets and tried to find the right feel as they wondered who the strange old guy looking over their shoulders might be.

An hour later, after my class work was done, I walked to my car. Coming the other way was the Big Swifty trombonist. I introduced myself. He said they were hoping to learn the 3rd movement from Sinister Footwear soon. I'm definitely impressed.

a bit of wall at Cal Arts
Read about what Art Jarvinen was doing while I was subbing for him here.

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