Friday, November 05, 2010

Arthur Jarvinen Memorial

On October 30, 2010, a memorial was held for my friend Arthur Jarvinen.  The well-attended service was led by Martin Mosko, a Zen abbot and elder brother of Art's composition teacher Lucky Mosko.  Before his death Art had been studying with Martin with the intention of becoming a Zen Buddhist himself.

At the service Art's music was played, rituals were performed and people had the opportunity to share their memories of Art.  Art's Mother and older brother were among those who talked, along with a number of Art's friends.

In this post you'll find the eulogies given by Jim Rohrig and myself.  Jim at various times was a classmate, a housemate and a bandmate of Art Jarvinen. Jim and his wife Dee McMillan were among those who helped Art's wife Lynn through this difficult time.

You can view a pdf of the program from the service.  It details the pieces, the performers and the chant used in the memorial.  The program also included this excerpt from Art's own writing:
A teacher of mine once said to me "You don't ask enough questions."  Ever since then, I have been trying to come up with the question worth asking.  Most of what I was taught were "answers" to "questions" that I didn't have.  Giving up the answer was hard.  Finding the question worth asking is even harder.  The answers are all pretty much there.  You just have to ask the right question.  What is the right question? You tell me! I just know it has to be MY question, or all the answers are wrong.  (from Arthur's last notebook).

My name is Jim Rohrig, and I’ve known Art since my first semester at CalArts. That was a while ago.

For those of you who may not have known Art, he was a complicated guy. He loved surf music, and he loved the music of John Cage. He loved camping out in the desert, and he enjoyed making Christmas gifts for his friends. He had a deep interest in mummies and Egyptian hieroglyphics, and he always had a bunch of cats running around the house. He liked listening to Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, and he thought the Carpenters had written some great songs. And he loved composing music, making drawings, building model train layouts and creating Christmas villages full of miniature zombies. He was a complicated guy

Art and I and Toby Holmes and Miroslav Tadic and Leonice Shinneman used to play together in an “alternative rock” band called The Mope, “Five Ugly Guys With No Record Interest,” although it probably wasn’t “alternative” in quite the way you might think. It was five guys with Masters degrees in music rehearsing up in the office space Leonice used to live in in a business park out in Canyon Country. We used to call it the most over-educated rock band in history.

I remember how Art used to talk about the idea of “Serious Fun,” and just about everything I ever saw Art do or create had large helpings of both of those two things, fun and seriousness. The Invisible Guy, Sgt. Pekker, Egyptian Two-Step, the Physical Poetry. There always seemed to be some spirit of whimsy or maybe just a twinkle in the eye in serious projects. Chris Garcia was telling me recently about the time he and Art and M.B. Gordy were about to perform a piece of Art’s called "Zone" down at LACC.  It consisted entirely of slowly scraping large metal gongs, creating something akin to the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. Only louder. And when Chris asked Art how long he wanted the piece to last, Art said, “Until the audience can’t take it any more.” He was a complicated guy.

Now it was always my experience that Art wasn’t shy about telling you exactly what he thought. He had a gift for being “direct.” Some might call it “blunt.” A little bit of an “acid tongue.” Maybe some of you here today can recall being on the receiving end of that “directness.” In fact, I remember one time somebody told me that Art had “the manner of an automobile mechanic”…although those weren't the exact words that she used, and I always thought that was a little unfair to mechanics.

But Art also had a gift for engaging with people. Back when Dee worked at CalArts we used to have these big Thanksgiving dinners. And she would invite all the foreign students over who didn't have any place to go, and they'd get to be the "Indians" and the rest of us would get to be the "Pilgrims." One year we were joined by Dee's sister and brother-in-law and their eight year-old daughter Rachael, the only child there that day. And as it turned out, in a crowd of 20 or 25 people, this eight year-old girl ended up sitting at the table next to Art. Now you can probably imagine what it's like to be the only child at Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of grown-ups that you’ve never met. And on top of that, she ends up sitting next to Art for the entire meal. This just didn’t seem like it was going to go well. But actually it did.

Art spent much of his Thanksgiving dinner that year entertaining eight year-old Rachael. He started telling her a tongue-twister he’d come up with called "The Seven Swarmy Swamis," and he told it to her over and over again. It just fascinated her. He’d tell it to her, and she’d start to repeat it until she stumbled over some word. And then she’d laugh. And Art would correct her and then say the whole tongue-twister again. So Art sat there telling her “The Seven Swarmy Swamis” over and over until slowly Rachael finally got the hang of repeating it back to him word for word.

When I first moved in with Art into the house on the 8th Street back in 1982, I didn’t have a clue about cooking. So Art started teaching me. In those days Art pretty much exclusively ate Thai food, so that’s what he taught me to cook. Now those of you who used come over to the house for dinner in those days will remember that Art had a particularly high tolerance for spicy food. In fact, he could eat food that was so hot it was thermonuclear. He didn’t eat any kind of dessert or anything that tasted sweet. At all. But he was all about eating food so hot and spicy it would cauterize your throat on the way down. And he loved cooking with these little green pieces of napalm called serrano chilies. They’re so nasty that once you touch them, you have to be extremely careful about what parts of your body you touch.

Art once explained to me that his recipe for Garlic Chile Chicken was a simple matter of ratios. First you cut up your chicken into little pieces and put that all in one pile. Then you mince enough garlic to make a second pile the same size. Then you chop up enough serrano chilies to make a third pile the same size as each of the other two. So the ratio was one-to-one-to-one.

I worked on a couple of collaborative projects with Art: the performance group Le Momo that he and Dee and I formed, and typopera, a sound/text piece that we created with Eve Beglarian. And the way the process worked was that Art would announce what his parts of the show would be, and then it was up to the rest of us to do whatever it was that we were going to do. By the time Art told you about any of his ideas, they were already thought out. He didn’t “spitball” ideas or talk them to death. That just wasn’t the kind of guy Art was.

Of course, there are as many different creative processes as there are creative people. When you look at Beethoven’s sketchbooks, for example, you see revisions piled upon revisions between initial concept and the finished composition, while Mozart’s scores show hardly any places where he’s crossed something out or changed his mind. By the time he put his music on paper, it was finished. So Art was a lot more like Mozart than Beethoven, although if you listen carefully to their music, you’ll be able to tell the difference.

I've celebrated just about every Christmas since 1982 with Art. Sometimes there were family obligations that caused Christmas to get postponed a little, but I think that's right around 28 Christmases we spent together, which is a pretty large percentage of all the Christmases I've been around for.

That first Christmas didn’t exactly get off to a great start, though. We were living together in Newhall, and I mentioned to Art that with Christmas coming up I was thinking about getting a tree for the living room. So Art responded that he would prefer that we not have any Christmas trees at all whatsoever in the house, although I don't think that was exactly the way he phrased it. But I went ahead and got a tree anyway. The next year I think we even had a few presents.

Between Dee & I and Art & Lynn and Miroslav, we didn't have much money for presents in those days. Usually we’d give each other things like silly glasses or plastic ears or simple toys or some kind of globby stuff that stuck to the wall when you threw it there. But to make up for it we had contests to see who could come up with the most creative wrapping. A lot of times the wrapping was a whole lot more interesting than what was inside. And of course, Art had some of the all time great packaging ideas. Now, his ideas tended more toward the "sculptural." And some times it was hard to tell whether the wrapping itself was the gift, or whether there might actually be something inside the sculpture. There were even times when the wrapping on his present was so soundly structural that he had to include tools for taking the wrapping apart.

I’ve got a lot of memories of Art. The time he started burning dried red chilies at my recital reception and released enough noxious gas to chase all the guests outside onto the lawn. The time we decided to have a beach party in February at our house up in Newhall, and Erika painted a huge picture of the ocean and some seagulls that we put on the wall just above the sand we spread out on the living room floor. Of rooming together on the road with the EAR Unit, and how we’d always be on the lookout for some good food when we were on tour. The Bad Poetry Soirees, and the Fourth of July pig roasts. Bruce the cat, and the big plans for the house in Vermont. All the fun we had living together on the 8th Street, and the time the S.W.A.T. team showed up in our driveway because the guy next door was running a meth lab in his garage.

One of my favorite memories of Art was from Christmas this past year. I’d bought a new DVD of a log burning in a fireplace to replace the old VHS tape that I’d somehow lost. So we had that playing on the TV while we opened presents. An old tradition of ours. I don’t remember if we made his mother’s Finn Pancake recipe—the one that Art liked so much—for breakfast, or not. But after we got done opening all the presents, we just sat in the living room and talked, Art and I and Dee and Lynn. We laughed about the Christmas that Susan and Harold were down, the time we had the bacon tasting. We talked about how many Christmases we’d celebrated together, the four of us. And about the year we’d all independently come up with a “food theme” for wrapping presents, and Miroslav had won the prize for wrapping something in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. We caught up on where Nate—the brother Art thought so much of—was spending his Christmas. And his mother. And the rest of the family. But mostly we just talked for hour after hour until it was late in the afternoon. I don’t even remember what it was that we talked about. I just remember that it was the best talk we’d had in a long, long time.

Art and I used to go out to the desert and stay with a friend of mine who had a cabin out near Joshua Tree. We’d play desert croquet and go hiking and sit up late at night. And I remember one time in particular when we went out hiking. It was the year that it snowed out in the monument, and the little pond behind Barker Dam had frozen over. It doesn’t snow very often out in the desert, and when it does, it’s magical. Having grown up in a number of little Midwestern towns, all of them really cold in the winter, Art was no stranger to snow. And so when we got out to Barker Dam, Art started making snowballs and heaving them out into the middle of the pond. Now since this was the desert and not the Midwest, the ice on the pond that day wasn't very thick. So the snowballs would actually break a little hole in the ice when they landed, and then the water underneath would make the ice above it "undulate" up and down in concentric circles slowly spreading out from where the snowball had landed. Art threw snowball after snowball out into the middle of that pond, each one making a small hole in the ice, and the ice slowly rippling outward. The rest of us just stood there watching. Art throwing snowball after snowball. And the rest of us watching. The ice rippling outward. I don’t know if they do this all the time back in the Midwest where Art grew up, or not. But it was pretty magical to us. So we decided to call it the "Jarvinen Effect."

My name is David Ocker. I don't remember exactly when I met Art Jarvinen, only that it was about 30 years ago. Most of our many interactions over the years have been about music. Art got a lot of sustenance from music. Music had great power for him.

He was a composer of great creativity. Of course, we expect all composers to be creative. He was also a unique composer. These days there are fewer unique composers than we might wish.

You could call Art a musical explorer. If you imagine all the music that has ever been heard by everyone - sort of the 'known world' of music - you could say that Art was more interested in the unknown music, beyond the edge.  Like 'terra incognita' on old maps, Art was interested in searching out 'musica incognita'.

Art Jarvinen was a multi-faceted musician. He had many musical influences and he wrote music in different styles. If you knew one of his pieces, you couldn't predict what another of his works might sound like. Even if you knew every piece he had ever written, the next one might be completely different.

And Art was a very talented performer. He could play music of the highest difficulty.  He did it very well.  And he knew how to write  challenging parts for other people to play.

But Art's greatest musical quality was enthusiasm.  He had so much enthusiasm that there was enough to share.  He gave away his excess enthusiasm. I'm sure there are others here today who, like me, were the recipients of Art's enthusiasm for our creative endeavors. I'll always be grateful to him for that.

Here's one example of how Art supported me. About 5 years ago I started a blog - and Art was an early regular reader, one of a very small handful. Often he would send comments about the things I wrote.  These comments always came by private email.  When I asked him why he didn't publish directly on the blog, he said that wasn't interested in a public discourse.

After a couple years of this, he sent me a very clever short comment about composing.  The first line was:
I like best the notes I could have written but didn't.

And at the end he added "And you can quote me."

I immediately asked him if I could post this message online and give him credit as "guest blogger".  He agreed as long as he remained anonymous.  He chose a pseudonym, his non de plume: Mister Composer Head.

Mister Composer Head started sending me more articles and for a while they came very quickly.  It's easy to start a new blog so I created one just for him.  It is called Mister Composer Head.  I listed myself as "Mister Composer Head's Amanuensis".  He would write the articles and I would post them.

After a few months Art stopped doing this.  But everything he wrote is still online and you can still read it.  It's easy to find with Google.  (Or click here.)

This month I went back to re-read what he wrote.  One story seemed appropriate to share today.

Here's the setup:  Art was writing about a party held in honor of his mother's 80th birthday.  At this party Art's wife Lynn and his niece, who he doesn't name, performed some spirituals.  They chose the music because it held particular meaning for Art's mother.    

Art first discusses his religious upbringing and his own level of belief.  I thought a lot about the right word to describe Art's belief.  The best I could come up with was "slight" -- but the fact is that Art reflected on the issue of belief quite a lot.  And he liked ritual.  He liked to create ritual.  He would have loved a service like this.

Art finishes the story like this:
So the cello and piano duo start up Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. One of my brothers, who does believe, just jumped up and went over by my wife and started singing. He was just moved by the spirit to burst out in song. I was so moved by how moved he was that I went and stood next to him, singing in full voice. Then my oldest brother came and joined us. Three brothers, not much faith among them, singing as one, a song that means a lot to one of them, maybe a bit more to the oldest, and very very precious little to me.

But it was the first and only time I have ever raised my voice in song with my two brothers. And you can't buy that kind of experience. Music that just happens, in a moment unplanned, for no real reason except I am not going to miss the chance to sing with my brothers! Hell, we didn't even harmonize. We just sang in unison. And we didn't really know the words, so we just recycled the first verse.

Then we sang Amazing Grace. I hate that song, and I hate what it means. But God, please give me one more chance to sing like that with my brothers. I still won't believe, but I will give thanks.

That was a blessing, and my mom was filled with joy. Not such a bad thing for music to do to a person, or family.

Other Mixed Meters Memorials to Art Jarvinen:
Arthur Jarvinen 1956-2010
Arthur Jarvinen - Carbon for Bass Clarinet Solo

The needle and toothbrush drawing is by Art Jarvinen.  It was the cover of the memorial program.

Art's graphical score Duet For One was sent to me by Alan Zychek, who created the computer engraving from Art's hand manuscript.  It comes from Art's book Experimental Etudes.

Robert Jacobson, guitarist on Art's "real soundtrack for an imaginary spy film" The Invisible Guy, took the picture of Art at a USC ceramics class about two weeks before he died.

Click on pictures for enlargements.

Memorial Tags:


Pasadena Adjacent said...

You guys did a really good job memorializing Art. I feel like I know him a bit. Was he a ceramicist, did he teach it?

David Ocker said...

Art was a musician - composer and percussionist primarily. His piece Ghatam is written for a host of ceramic instruments which were made by Stephen Freedman. I assume that was what he was describing to the USC students.

I searched for references to Ghatam on line and discovered this The Antenna Repairmen - Ghatam" which will explain better than I. The first 4 1/2 minutes are an introduction to the piece given by Art himself. Then you can listen.

The Repairmen is a percussion trio consisting of Art, M.B. Gordy and Bob Fernandez.