Thursday, January 12, 2012

Preparing to hear a concert of Art Jarvinen's music

January 27 of this year would have been composer Arthur Jarvinen's 56th birthday.  On that date there will be a concert celebrating his life and music: 9:00 P.M. at Beyond Baroque in Venice California. (You can find temporal, geographical and economic details for the event here.

The concert is part of a critically acclaimed series entitled Beyond Music.  It is programmed by composer Daniel Rothman, a close friend of Art's.   Daniel has made performances from past concerts available on video at the Beyond Baroque Music YouTube Channel.

There will be two works on this concert.  They are excellent examples of Art's chamber music and will serve as a fine introduction to his more serious endeavors.  Of course Art wrote in many other styles and genres.  No one should imagine that this concert, or any two pieces, could provide an overview of his complete body of music.

The two works are A Conspiracy of Crows for three oboes, which will be performed by Kathy Pisaro - two of the parts will be on tape - and 100 CADENCES with four melodies, a chorale, and a coda ("with bells on!")  for string quartet, performed by the Formalist Quartet.

I have found two interviews in which Art discusses A Conspiracy of Crows.  The first can be found in this fascinating 2007 online interview with musician John Trubee.
Then there's A Conspiracy Of Crows. It's a piece for three oboes in which I didn't consciously choose or compose any of the notes. I just used a series of numbers based on the years of the 20th Century - 1900 1901 1902...1999 - translated into fingering diagrams. I had no way of knowing what would come out, but I had a very good idea of what I thought the piece would "probably" sound like. I never heard a note of it until it was recorded here at my house last summer. It's one of the most beautiful things I've produced, and it fully matched my expectations. My wife is almost frightened by things like that, that I can intuit or anticipate these things. That's why I'm a composer, and some people aren't. 
The second, longer, less edited quote comes from a radio interview with the duo Kalvos and Damien.  Look for show #539 - it's a wide-ranging discussion with Art highlighting a variety of his music. There are plenty of recordings including a segment of A Conspiracy of Crows.  (It's the last piece in the two-hour show.)
The piece is called A Conspiracy of Crows.  To me, one of the intriguing things about this piece, is that, over the course of its twenty minutes, the three oboes are playing such a fascinating range of odd timbres, weird things that sound almost like they were meticulously composed, beautiful random textures, microtones, multiphonics.  The complexity of the sound of the piece, and the kind of richness of texture and timbre and so forth -- I could never have composed.  And literally, there is not one single sonority in the piece that was deliberately selected or chosen by me for any musical or compositional reasons.

All I did was come up with a mindlessly simple progression of numbers which is just the Twentieth Century - 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903 all the way up to 1999.  And assigned each digit from zero through nine to one of the fingers that an oboe player uses to play the oboe.  And it was a short step from there to just produce 400 fingering diagrams with absolutely no thought whatsoever to what comes out of the oboe when you blow into it with your fingers in that position.

It's my most Cagean piece in that it's using a kind of completely unpredictable, well organized - there is this progression of numbers so there are recurring motifs.  Zero is always a reset, so as you go through 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903 there is a logic to the way the fingers are moving and the kinds of fingering diagrams that are being produced.  But no intention or even no concern on my part as to what comes out of the oboe as a result.  So it's very Cagean in that I couldn't predict the results.

I just think its one of my most successful pieces and kind of unique in that it does rely so heavily on non-intention on my part.

The second piece on the program is Art's string quartet entitled 100 CADENCES with four melodies, a chorale, and a coda ("with bells on!")   The recording of this piece by the Formalist Quartet, who will also perform it on January 27, takes nearly 50 minutes.  They recorded it in composer Lou Harrison's hay bale house near Joshua Tree, a place with which Art felt a strong spiritual connection.

Art dedicated 100 Cadences to Stephen "Lucky" Mosko, in memoriam.  Lucky Mosko (1947-2005) was Art's composition teacher at CalArts and someone Art respected highly.  Art felt a great loss at Lucky's death and I know that he felt great responsibility in the writing of a piece to honor and remember Lucky.

It seems quite reasonable to look for clues to 100 Cadences in Art's comments about Lucky's music.  In 1995 Art wrote this biographical sketch of Lucky.  Here's a quote:
When speaking about his own music and methods Mosko often refers to "games". Not the usual games we all know, but self-devised rules of procedure and methods of personal amusement.
Art's own description above about about his method in A Conspiracy of Crows seems like a similar "game" method.  Presumbably such compositional activities went into 100 Cadences as well - although I have no clue what they are.  (I find it interesting that both pieces on this concert involve the number 100 in their structure.)

Art also wrote about the perception of time in Lucky's music:
This moment-form is an outgrowth of Mosko's enduring fascination with music's ability to alter conciousness, especially our temporal perceptions. Ideally, for him, the listener will not be able to say with certainty whether a piece just heard was five minutes or five hours long.
Art must have approached a piece of such length with careful thought.  Choosing to divide the work into 100 sections and to make each one a "cadence", a fundamental element of music theory which appears at the end of a musical phrase, reveals a good deal about how Art wanted a listener to experience musical time.

Wikipedia defines cadence as: "a melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of repose or resolution [finality or pause]." A cadence has the essential quality of conclusion.  Art made this idea the central focus of his piece.

Of course, Jarvinen's cadences are a far cry from the schoolbook dominant/tonic jobs you might have studied.  They move slowly, avoid simple harmonies and mostly keep all the voices in restricted ranges.  The slow progress of the cadences is broken by solo cadenzas for each player.  These are the Four Melodies.

Midway through 100 Cadences is the Chorale, which Art subtitled "The Hymn of All Life Changing".  The Formalist Quartet has shared their recording of the Chorale on their Bandcamp page.  Here it is:

You can find several definitions of the idiom "with bells on!".   Art appended this phrase to the title of his piece in both parentheses and quotation marks, sometimes even adding the exclamation point.  All meanings of "with bells on!" point to excess enthusiasm or intensity of experience.  While the coda to 100 Cadences does end with the players ringing small bells, it is not an ending of energy.  Rather, it is a conclusion of sober reflection and great loss. 

100 Cadences is discussed in this paper entitled Listening to Nothing in Particular: Boredom and Contemporary Experimental Music by Eldritch Priest.  As you might guess from the title, the notion of time passing and how it is perceived comes up.   Priest writes:
I heard a string quartet a while ago by Los Angeles composer Art Jarvinen titled 100 cadences with four melodies, a chorale, and coda ("with bells on!"). As the title suggests, the piece keeps ending, over and over again, each time promising to conclude a musical adventure that never was. Over forty-eight minutes, the consecution of endings, punctuated by solos and glimmering silences, draw out an irritatingly radiant array of mock-perorations. And I am always more or less aware of this: More aware when the sheer materiality of these several endings intrudes upon my sense of contemplation, and less aware when, like Swann listening to Vinteuil's sonata, I am taken away by time passed. I am alternately with the music, my attention buoyed by a procession of simulated extinctions and untimely non-events, and beside the music, dreaming counterfactuals, shifting backward, forward, side to side in fantasies of otherwise. Buoyed in the messy imminence of a perpetual conclusion, my attention floats on nothing in particular, nothing but a series of loose intensities that are now and again interesting, or boring, or both.
Priest provides a pdf score of the first dozen cadences of this piece together with an mp3 of the same.  Here's the first system of the score (click to enlarge):

Priest's telling notion that "I am alternately with the music, ... and beside the music" speaks volumes about how to listen to and, ultimately, understand 100 Cadences.

Articles about Arthur Jarvinen have appeared often on Mixed Meters since the beginning.  Click here to see all Art Articles on Mixed Meters.

Art briefly wrote articles for Mixed Meters under the pseudonym Mister ComposerHead. These, equally briefly, became the Mister ComposerHead blog

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