Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Solstice Lights

Today, precisely at 5:16 P.M., is the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.  Summer solstices are the kind with a long day and a short night.  Elsewhere, somewhere far away to the south, today is the winter solstice: short day / long night.

In general, I like summer solstices better than winter.   That's because I'm the kind of guy who works at night and sleeps during the day but still wants to be awake for at least a few daylight hours.  During the depths of a Los Angeles winter the sun stays up just long enough for me to keep my nocturnal schedule but squeeze out an hour or two of waking daylight.  That way I avoid SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder.

There is one thing I don't like about the Summer Solstice: I know it means that the days will start getting shorter again bit by bit.  I believe the familiar yearly cycle will repeat yet again because it has done that so many times before.  I assume that eventually I will confront winter darkness one more time.  Then, at the Winter Solstice, I will take heart in the notion that days will begin to lengthen bit by bit.

"So what else is new?" I hear you ask - because this is not a particularly new idea.  Solstices and equinoxes were clearly known thousands of years ago to observant people who dragged huge stones forming massive structures so precisely positioned according to astronomical events that not even modern egos can deny that they must have known exactly what they were doing.

I wonder how many millennia before Stonehenge or Chichen Itza some human genius first consciously noticed the yearly cycle.  That must have happened an unimaginably long time ago.  That genius, whoever he or she was, probably also thought that lighting bonfires on the Winter Solstice was a good way to convince our friend the sun to return.  Whatever rituals were performed, they always worked.  The days always started getting longer.  And religions were formed.  Winter Solstice is a time of holidays in many different cultures.

Lights (like those bonfires) are an important aspect of the Winter Solstice celebrations and have gradually morphed in meaning through the ages.   In our electrified times strings of colored bulbs (or LEDs recently) are displayed on many houses.  These lights served as the first inspiration for my video piece, Solstice Lights.

The inspiration came indirectly from the Point'n'Shoot In My Pocket.  While on my daily walk I tried to take video of my neighbors' blinking Christmas lights.   Alas, Mister Point'n'shoot could not focus properly in the dark.  When I saw the results on my computer screen I knew instantly that I would use these glowing abstract circles of color in a piece of some sort.

I first assumed that would be a Jingle Bells piece - my yearly compositional effort to claim some personal control over the seasonal onslaught of Christmas music.   (Previous Jingle pieces are still available for listening.  You can find all the links at the beginning of last years Jingle post A Combination of Jingle Bells and the Internationale.  Lots of fun pictures of Che Guevara as well.)

Indeed, Solstice Lights does have one brief moment of Jingle Bells.   But the work took on a different cast after the death of my friend Arthur Jarvinen in October 2010.  Upon hearing the news I knew immediately that I would need to write a memorial piece for Art.

Arthur himself wrote several memorial pieces.  His very affecting gong solo Out of the Blue, one of the pieces performed as his own memorial service, was a tribute to composer Randy Hostetler who died at a young age.  Art wrote 100 Cadences, a  string quartet, in memory of his teacher Stephen "Lucky" Mosko.  That piece is very Feldman-esque in feel if not in length. 

The most amazing example of Jarvinen memorial work is a beautiful set of pieces called Three Gymnopédies (which will be performed next month by the Pittsburg New Music Ensemble - along with another of Art's works Little Deaths.)  Each of the Three Gymnopédies is dedicated to the memory of a person who died by gun violence.

While I didn't feel capable of writing a fourth Gymnopédie, I did want to create a piece with the feel of timelessness within some sort of cyclic structure.  After a period of collecting musical ideas, mostly in my head, I began work by assembling the video.  Then I composed the music.  The cycles within Solstice Lights are marked by harmonic overtone arpeggios.

Eventually I realized that a fragment from Arthur's piece Goldbeater's Skin, one I performed many times in the past, would fit perfectly into what I was writing.  The opening of the Goldbeater's Skin melody occurs twice, at 7'15" (simultaneous with Jingle Bells) and also at 8'16".   Solstice Lights was finished almost three months ago.  It was not until yesterday that I had the notion of posting it here to coincide with an actual solstice.

Solstices are about long cycles of time.  They are markers of the behavior of natural phenomena like the spinning rock on which we live and the moving bright light in the heavens.  Together these define the thing we call a "year".  Years are real things, not an artificial division of time into segments.  We humans use years to measure our lifetimes.  We often celebrate these yearly cycles with lights of some sort.

Arthur Jarvinen was someone keenly aware of the limits of the human lifespan, not just his own.  You can find references to death throughout his writing and his music.  Some are obvious, come covert.  He may not have known exactly how or when he would die, but I believe he knew all along, somehow, that he would not live into old age.  These are the things I thought about while writing Solstice Lights.  I hope my music communicates those ideas.

If I had to guess at his reaction, I would say that Art would not particularly have liked Solstice Lights, had he been able to hear it.  Like me, he was someone with strong personal independent opinions about music.  In writing it, however, I tried to remember something I heard him say several times, "You have to do your best work."  That's what I tried to do.  I'm certain Art would have understood that part.

Solstice Lights - music and video © 2011 David Ocker 640 seconds
I suggest playing this in high definition (480p) and full screen if possible.

A previous MM article about solstices.
Previous MM posts about Arthur Jarvinen. 

Last fall Carson Cooman composed a piece entitled  Journeybook: in memoriam Arthur Jarvinen for mixed sextet (bass clarinet, soprano sax, soprano voice (or trumpet), drums, violin and cello).  It was performed by the ensemble thingNY

Solstice Tags: . . . . . . . . .


Kraig Grady said...

thanks David; always a treat~!

Pasadena Adjacent said...

really beautiful on all counts

as a tribute