Thursday, January 27, 2011

Arthur Jarvinen's Birthday

Art Jarvinen's birthday was January 27. He would have been 55 this year. I once mentioned to him that he shared his birthday with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a fact which impressed me more than it did him.  More interestingly, he shared his birthday with his wife, Lynn Angebranndt.

This is a three part post.  Each part is Jarvinen-related. The first is about a concert of Art's music given recently by students at Cal Arts. The second is about a radio show featuring Art's music. You can listen to that online. Finally, I have news of an upcoming live concert performance of While You Were Art, the infamous synthesizer track Frank Zappa named after Art Jarvinen.

Arthur taught composition at Cal Arts for many years.  He was also an alumnus.  So it makes sense that Cal Arts would present one of the first concerts of his music after his death.  Last Sunday, January 23,  an ensemble of students lead by Amy Knoles performed a dozen works by Art Jarvinen.  They named their concert The Art of Art.

They framed the event with instrumental chamber music - opening with Egyptian Two-Step (which features antiphonal spray cans as part of the rhythm section) and ending with White Lights Lead to Red.   Solo pieces included The Door That Doesn't Open (for marimba and amplified heartbeat) and Carbon (for solo bass clarinet).

There was a tango setting of a poem by Charles Bukowski (Art wrote a number of tangos) plus selections from Arthur's album Edible Black Ink for guitar and bass.  And there were several of his performance pieces which Art called "physical poetry".  One of them was Pop Tarts in which the performer fires a dart gun at an airborne strawberry pop tart as it is expelled from a toaster. 

The enthusiasm and talent of the ensemble was impressive.  Some of the music is fiendishly difficult.  The less technical pieces made me reflect on how Art's own persona contributed to his music.  He was direct, focused and unwaveringly intent as a performer.  Time and again I can remember him performing his musical rituals, riveted to the task.  And, for a few moments, he could share this mental concentration with his audience.  New performers of his music have the task of finding that same concentration in future performances.

(You can read a remembrance of Art by Zona Hostetler, the mother of a colleague of Art's, Randy Hostetler, who passed away at a very young age here.  She describes a performance of Pop Tarts by Arthur himself.)

Jack Vees was a close friend of Art. They met as students at CalArts.  Last December Jack visited radio station WRIU at the University of Rhode Island and played several hours of Arthur's music on a show called Music For Internets.  Better yet, the show is archived online if you want to listen.  Here's a direct link to the audio file.  (The show begins at about three and a half minutes.)

Throughout the show Jack paints a portrait of Arthur through his personal reminiscences and by choosing two different kinds of Art's music. 

On one hand he picks chamber music - Murphy NightsThe Vulture's Garden and  Goldbeaters Skin. He also plays selections from Art's string quartet 100 Cadences which was written in memory of Art's teacher Lucky Mosko.  There are also excerpts of keyboard works including Queen of Spain (based on music by Domenico Scarlatti) and Serious Immobilities (yes, it's a 24 hour solo piano piece based on Vexations by Erik Satie).

On the other hand there are pieces by several of Art's more (or less) popular music-influenced groups.  Two hysterical tunes by The Mope (“Five Ugly Guys With No Record Interest”)  are Agent Jerry (a spy surf tune like Art's Invisible Guy series) and Drunk Poets Die Young.  Another group, Some Over History is represented Erase the Fake and Cheap Suit Tango.  And there's a cut from Art's Beatles parody: Sgt. Pekker.

Jack also throws in two cuts by Captain Beefheart whose music was a strong influence on Art.  Of course Art had far more influences than you can grasp from just a few minutes of Beefheart.  All together, the show makes a fine introduction to the music of Arthur Jarvinen.

("Blue" Gene Tyranny's review of the album Erase the Fake by Art's group Some Over History can be found here.)

Another oft-mentioned influence on Arthur Jarvinen was Frank Zappa.  Art was employed by Frank for a few years doing work similar to that which I did.  The best known moment of Art's time with Frank was the infamous While You Were Art "performance". 

That was when the California EAR Unit, including Art on marimba, pantomimed to a recorded synthesizer performance of a transcription of a live Zappa guitar solo called While You Were Out.  It was renamed While You Were Art for that occasion. The Unit did this at the "prestigious" Monday Evening Concerts and no one in the audience noticed that they hadn't actually played the piece.  An awful lot of bad feelings were generated afterwards.  Art himself, after investing much hard work to get Zappa to write a piece for the EAR Unit, keenly regretted the results.

You can read my own telling of what happened and why it was important to me personally in the While You Were Art section of Bill Lantz's monumental David Ocker Internet Interview.  Be sure to click on the white buttons marked Art's Comment! to read the amendations which Arthur added later.  Since Art didn't like talking about this episode during his lifetime, these comments are all the more valuable now.

This coming February 5th (that's a Saturday), at Pomona College there will be a live performance of While You Were Out/Art.  The electric guitarist will be Pomona music professor Joti Rockwell who will play the original guitar transcription (While You Were Out) to the accompaniment of Zappa's later commercial release of the synthesizer tracks (While You Were Art).  The version of the piece played at the Monday Evening event was later suppressed by Zappa.

Here's information about the concert.  It's part of a yearly concert series of electronic music called the Ussachevsky Memorial Festival organized by yet another Pomona prof. Tom Flaherty.  There's a flyer to download here.  (In the 1960s the ersatz college student Frank Zappa briefly studied composition with music professor Karl Kohn at Pomona College.  Kohn is still professor emeritus there.)

Joti Rockwell kindly shared his notes for the concert with me.  He discusses why this piece and the event associated with it is important for academic study.  Here's an exerpt:
By musically comparing the two versions at the historical edges (1981 and 1986), one cannot help but imagine what might have resulted had the collaboration for the 1984 concert gone more smoothly.  Reflection and examination of this sort was the hope of Art Jarvinen, the piece’s namesake, and it will perhaps lead to a better understanding of Frank Zappa, electronic music, the history of music in Los Angeles, and the meanings of contemporary music.

Art's Music Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In Which David Writes New Notes For A John Adams Piece

Last summer I wrote my own program notes for Short Ride In A Fast Machine.  The notes explain why.  Afterwards there's a short Q&A with the composer.

The goal of this little essay is to tell you about John Adams' Short Ride In A Fast Machine and to include tips on what to listen for during a performance and also to explain why my own name appears on the final page of the orchestra member's parts and how that led to my writing this essay for the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra performance. The real trick will be to keep it short enough so that reading these program notes takes less time than listening to the piece itself, just over 4 minutes.

Short Ride In A Fast Machine was composed in 1986 for the Great Woods Music Festival in Massachusetts where it was played by the Pittsburg Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. It is subtitled "Fanfare for Great Woods" but Short Ride is really too long for use as an actual fanfare, a ceremonial introductory piece. In 1985 John wrote a companion fanfare called Tromba Lontana. That is as quiet as Short Ride is exuberant.

John explained the title: “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”  (Yes, I certainly remember riding in my brother-in-law's Corvette and swearing never to do it again.) Unlike the famous 1923 musical depiction of a short ride on a steam train, Pacific 231 by Arthur Honegger, Short Ride In A Fast Machine isn't really a tone painting. John Adams' machine is pure musical adrenaline. There are plenty of twists and turns. It starts out a full speed and never even thinks of slowing down. By the end the chances are good you'll want to hear this ride again.

Short Ride is constructed on a rock steady beat played by the lowly woodblock. The other instruments, mostly, try to distract you from this solid foundation. The snare drum is one of the first offenders and then the low brass insist on playing four notes while the woodblock plays only three. My best advice: If you lose track of what's going on, keep listening for that woodblock. Eventually all the brass play longer notes over the charging rhythm and the piece ends with a short recap of the opening.

Short Ride may have a steady tempo but it doesn't have a perceptible meter, the regular alternation of strong and weak musical beats. If you watch the conductor, of course, you can see the meter, but you can't hear it. Short Ride is not in two like a march, or in three like a waltz, or in any meter. Instead there is a constant unfolding of rhythm without obvious downbeats. This feature has become a hallmark of John Adams' musical style.

Short Ride In A Fast Machine is early John Adams. It was composed at the same time he was working on his breakthrough opera, Nixon in China. Just one year earlier, in 1985, John had finished his first large symphony called Harmonielehre. I was asked to help prepare the performance materials, the parts, for Harmonielehre. The job is called "music copying". It's certainly more technical than it is artistic and most concert audiences know nothing about it. The task is to put the information each player needs into their individual parts as clearly as possible. Of course these days it's all computerized but back then everything was done by hand, using fountain pens and straight edges and translucent paper called vellum. The vellums were reproduced in small quantities by an ozalid machine, an ancient beast mainly used for blueprints. Ozalid prints smelled strongly of ammonia.

After I had finished my graduate music studies I managed to support myself as a freelance music copyist. I never suspected it would actually become my career. Because of my work on Harmonielehre John asked me to be his regular copyist, a job I still hold. "What's wrong with you?" he said back then, "You don't make mistakes." (If only.) But being John's copyist was never a full time gig and I felt the need to advertise my talents to other potential clients. In my imagination a good way to do this was directly on the music itself. So I wrote "Copied by David Ocker" at the bottom of the last page of each part. Sometimes I even added my phone number. No extra work ever came my way because of this. Eventually I wised up.

Surprisingly, the parts I copied in 1986 for Short Ride In A Fast Machine appear to still be in use today and my name survives on the last pages. I learned this from Janet Polasky, bassoonist in the Portsmouth Symphony. Janet and I knew each during a previous millennium as undergraduates at Carleton College. We played in a woodwind quintet together. Today we've re-established our friendship, at least in the Facebook sense, and she suggested I write these program notes. I'm happy to oblige. I'll probably reproduce them in my egocentric blog at, which - like this essay - is mostly about me.


MM:  Way back then, how did you feel about my advertising myself at the end of the parts?

JA: I never had a problem with your "advertising." You worked hard and always delivered on time, and if you got some extra jobs as a result, all the better.

MM: Do you remember saying "What's wrong with you, you don't make mistakes."? (it was an answering machine message)

JA: I don't remember anything I said into an answering machine ever---other than "Are you there? I know you're there! Please pick up!!"

MM: Do you agree with Leslie that the first sentence of my program notes was way too long?

JA: No, not too long. I'm the one who writes things that are too long.

Remember that "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" first had the horrible title "Fanfare for Great Woods." I was obliged to use that title for the first performances because it was a request from MTT to compose a piece for him to conduct to celebrate the very first concert ever at a new outdoor pavilion called "Great Woods" in a town about an hour south of Boston. The only thing I recall about the premiere is that the grounds weren't yet finished, that there were Porta-potties in the parking lot, and that the night before there had been a horrific June rainstorm, causing floods of water to muddy up the still unplanted grounds surrounding the auditorium.

And, oh yeah: "Lincoln Portrait" was narrated by Michael Dukakis, then still governor of Massachusetts. He delivered the lines with all the dramatic thrust of someone ordering plumbing fixtures at Home Depot.

We Get Emails:

(Jan. 5, 2011)

Hi David,  Just wanted to let you know what a great laugh I had today whilst practising “short ride in a fast machine” when at the end of the piece I read “David Ocker: Tired Music Copyist”.

All the best from Hamburg, Graham Cox (Keyboards, Bamberger Symphoniker)

The Portsmouth Symphony is NOT the Portsmouth Sinfonia.

John Adams, on his blog Hell Mouth, writes about what really happened when preparing the parts to Harmonielehre.  (Note: I am NOT any of the copyists John mentions nor was I even aware of most of his story - although I did recently leave a supposedly tongue-in-cheek blog comment - for which I apologize.) 

Fast Machine Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ten Most Influential Classical Composers

A New York Times music critic is spending his time picking the "ten top Classical composers of all time."  He's seeking the "greatest" composers.  The essential criterion will be, I suppose, the opinions of classical audiences.  After all, composers become great because people keep listening to their music. 

This idea got me thinking about which classical composers have the most influence on living composers.   When living composers are lucky enough to get performed they often must share the bill with the honored dead ones.  Those dead composers bring us musical ideas from the past.  Some of those ideas, but not all, still have life to them. Presumably living composers are commenting, in some fashion, on what has come before.

I suspect there are plenty of contemporary composers like myself who were inspired to take up the craft by the musical classics.  Most likely we still feel the weight of that tradition, along with other influences, when we sit down to write.  This is true even if we are not as interested in classical music now as we once may have been. 

Please note that the reasons I'm about to give for including these particular names won't seem particularly positive.  Regular readers of Mixed Meters will not be too surprised by this.  If you happen to be a composer (and who isn't) I'm sure your opinions will differ.  If you're not a composer, this might make no sense at all.  There's a comment form where good natured responses will be published.

Here's my list.  The links all lead to earlier Mixed Meters articles.

Johann Sebastian Bach   Finding a balance between beauty and technique, between inspiration and academicism is always an issue for composers.  It's a matter of simplicity versus complexity, freedom versus control.  Bach used dry, complicated musical rules and produced perfect elegance with them.  It's an unattainable standard.  How depressing.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  Yes, he wrote some of the greatest pieces ever.  He's possibly my favorite composer.  But the real burden of Mozart for modern composers is that he was so blasted young.  The cult of the young genius lives on strongly.  These days a 30-year old composer who hasn't made it yet, won't.  We may well ask whatever happened to Jay Greenberg (who isn't even 20 yet.)

Ludwig van Beethoven He wrote some great music.  But he did two things wrong.  First, he invented the tormented composer, the Great Artiste who pours out his stormy inner life through music.  These days that idea seems really old.   Second, he went deaf - which by rights ought to be a compositional kiss of death - but Ludwig wouldn't stop writing.  Worse yet, once deaf, he wrote an unendurably grandiose symphony with one hummable tune and a few lyrics of desperate hope.  Modern audiences still can't get enough of that one.  How's a modern composer going to compete?

Richard Wagner  Mixed Meters has been bashing Wagner for over a year now.  He deserves it for the villainous political ideas which have so easily shackled themselves to his work.  But his musical innovations, possibly the most influential ever, still cloud contemporary music.  And the vast scope of some of his works, especially the Ring, ought to provoke us into keeping our music on a more human scale.     

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky  Maybe a surprising choice.  He's never been one of my favorites, but he has symphonies, concertos and ballets that audiences can't get enough of.  It's not just about shooting off canons.  I think it's about his melodies.  Contemporary composers don't seem to write melodies.  We might have lost the ability.  More likely, however, we know that if we try to compose hummable tunes, the audience will reject them in favor of ones they already know and love.

Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel  These two count as one.  (They both wrote the same string quartet.)  Audiences have come to love their lush sound worlds.  Some contemporary orchestra composers  have recognized that they can't go far wrong by imitating the colors and textures of Impressionism.  In other words, when a new piece restricts itself to musical techniques at least 100 years old, ones that Ravel and Debussy would have understood, the audiences will go home happy.  

Arnold Schoenberg Audiences still revile Schoenberg's music.  I don't blame them.  But as the spirtual inspiration behind the serial tradition and the technique of pre-composition and the emancipation of the dissonance and the notion of "composer as professor", he's still a potent nagging voice inside any composer's head.  Also, it never hurts to reflect on how Schoenberg's career (but not his influence) was ruined by the politics of his countrymen.

George Gershwin Along with Sondheim and Ellington, Gershwin was specifically disqualified from the New York Times ten greatest competition.  While the first two don't seem like classical composers to me, George most certainly does.  Think about the popularity of his rhapsody, his concerto and his opera in concert halls.  This popularity manifests itself in ever so many pleasantly upbeat Pops concerts.  The notion of harnessing vernacular music to make a serious piece more accessible is very alluring to any composer.

John Cage His music is a long long way from the standard repertory.  Infinitely far away.  He has absolutely no chance of getting on the New York Times list.  But a serious composer has to come to terms with Cage's ideas.  And that's what his music was about: ideas.  Ideas and not much else - in my opinion.  A decent composer's education should fry the brain with Cagian philosophy.  After that you can ignore him, but he won't really go away.

Philip Glass  He's also disqualified from the Times list because he's still alive.  But I think many other composers look at him with a combination of awe and disgust.  Awe because he's so successful - with a steady string of commissions for symphonies, operas and film scores.  Disgust because we can't find a simple compositional style of our own, the way he has, one that's both direct and elegant and will bring some of our own listeners into the concert hall so we don't have to worry so much about what the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky fans think.

Don't be fooled into the notion that the great classical composers are the only influences on us lesser lights.  There are hundreds of semi-greats who can also look over a composer's shoulder if we let them.  Composition is an old art, highly developed.  There have been countless branches and offshoots.  The heavy weight of this past can be stifling if it is taken too seriously.

And any half-way decent composer is also influenced by many other types of music besides classical.  But this article was inspired by a purely "classical music" project - a futile effort to quantitatively rank composers on what must be, in the end, purely subjective judgements.  To me it sounds like a fools errand.


Due to multiple comments I'm adding a bonus selection, a runner up.

Igor Stravinsky  He made it clear that staying current and staying famous is the most important thing for a composer.  During his career he was three different composers,  radically changing his musical style twice, both times taking ideas from others.  It would have been a gracious gesture on his part to adopt serialism before his neighbor Schoenberg died.   But had he been a really nice guy he would have stopped composing in the 1920s and given two other composers a chance to be famous in his place.

Ten Greatest Tags: . . . . . .

Monday, January 03, 2011

Burn in Hell? Rose Parade 2011

Mixed Meters has documented some aspects of Pasadena's own Rose Parade which you're not likely to see on television.  You won't find pictures of floats or marching bands or equestrians here.

In the past I've given you pictures of trash, beach blankets and sun umbrellas, this post (including pictures of part of a horse and part of a band, plus a video of noisy tow trucks) and pictures of photographers at the Doo Dah Parade.  You can see more of my Rose Parade pictures on Flickr.

Here's a picture of the snow-capped Mount Something, in the distance, as seen from Colorado Boulevard.   Note the sponsorship on the banner.  For your enjoyment I photoshopped a number of light poles out of this picture.

This year I present pictures of
  • high tech amusement before the parade (I saw several desktop computers, one of which had 2 computers.  There were also xbox setups powered by generators.)
  • some of the omnipresent temporary fencing used to control the crowds (the Do Not Enter sign is year round.)
  • an empty bottle of cheap vodka (I'm sure public drinking is discouraged but I doubt this was the first time it has ever happened)
  • a team of horse shit removal engineers (there were 22 equestrian units in the  parade, hence 22 similar trios of sweeper, shoveler and can pusher.  I wonder what happened to the 22 buckets of shit afterwards.)
  • sign carriers who follow the parade (mostly exhorting the crowds to fear eternal damnation - I guess they regard Pasadena as an awfully sinful place and the parade as some sort of pagan ritual.)

The pictures will enlarge if you click them.

Here's a video of post-2010 Rose Parade preachers with megaphones. "Will you be saved, older man? Will you be saved, older woman?" 

Burn in Hell Tags: