Thursday, August 30, 2012

Vexations in Los Angeles

(Listen to a live recording of Vexations while you read.)

Vexation n.
  1. The act of annoying, irritating, or vexing.
  2. The quality or condition of being vexed; annoyance.
  3. A source of irritation or annoyance.
a noted musical work by Erik Satie.

I think Erik Satie's Vexations is one piece of music with a perfect title.  A title should give you some insight into the music itself.   And in the case of Vexations, if the music itself were not annoying, irritating or vexing enough (and it is aplenty), the composer compounded the annoyance with his instruction:
"In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities"
If you spend even a short while thinking about and listening to Vexations you'll end up scratching your head.  That is a good thing.

John Cage, whose 100 birth anniversary is being celebrated far and wide at the moment, reveled in music which made listeners think.  It was Cage who brought Vexations to the attention of the music world.  In 1963 he organized the first complete performance in New York City.

This piece is now so associated with Cage himself that complete Vexations performances (which take upwards of 18 hours) are presented in Cage's memory.  I know of two coming soon in California, one on the Berkeley Arts Festival and the other on the Jacaranda Series in Santa Monica.  Check them out.

This Mixed Meters post will feature two decades-old complete local performances of Satie's Vexations.  I was lucky enough to be a performer in both of them.

The first was on radio station KPFK on September 6, 1981 - all 840 repetitions were performed and broadcast live.  For 19 hours there were no station identifications.

The other was performed at a West Hollywood art gallery and was organized by the composer Randy Hostetler as part of his Living Room concert series.  It happened on August 1, 1992.

We'll go in reverse chronological order:

Composer Randy Hostetler lived from 1963 to 1996.  His short life and his music are honored and recounted at   His piece "8" for piano and eight ball (in the side pocket) is a good introduction to the spirit Randy brought to his work.  Randy's close friend Art Jarvinen wrote 8 revealing stories about Randy.

One of Randy's projects was a concert series entitled The Living Room Series.  On one of these he produced Vexations. Here's the silk-screened concert poster:

Click on the poster for an enlargement.  Here's the text:


vexations by erik satie

1 august 1992, asher-faure gallery, 612 n. almont drive, west hollywood
beginning at 7 am and running continuously for close to 24 hours
for more information: 310 271-3665

scheduled pianists: gaylord mowrey, michael fink, jim fox, christopher hobbs,
david hatt, lorna eder, randolph hostetler, david ocker, chas smith, sandra brown,
david peck, francesca talenti, michael webster, brian howrey, wendy prober,
joe metzler, dan lawrence, sarah simons, daniel mettler, alan zychek

designed and printed by i.c. and a.b. at the rollins printing office of the school of art, yale university

(If you click on the address you'll be taken to the Google Street View.  Next click on the double arrow pointing toward the building and you can look around inside the now renamed gallery.)

Here are some memories of that event.

Alan Zychek:
I remember Vexations, that was a wonderful day over in WEHO. There was the vexation room with the piano and rugs. Outside the room there was food, drink and good times.  I think there was someone asleep under the piano when my turn came. I remember trying to discern stylistic nuances when the next player took over, but finding none. It was as if the piece neutered any personality a pianist would normally strive for.
I also remember Randy's LR concerts.  He placed mirophones throughout the entire space, inside and out -  and the back room is where you could listen to a mix of random conversations in real time.  Good luck and thank's for dislodging some wonderful memories. 

Jim Fox:
One thing I remember about the '92 Vexations performance was its lovely mix of the sacred and the profane. In the gallery itself, where the music--ever different, yet ever the same--slowly and quietly spun forth from the assembled musicians, I recall that the mood was sacredly hushed. The tempo shifted from player to player, sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically. Interpretations of a pass through the single page of notes drifted, sometimes as willed, sometimes as fatigue dictated. Well-schooled fingers milked its chords for all they could find and less-schooled ones went about the task in a workmanly fashion, and sometimes a note or two disappeared beneath the keyboard. 
Listeners were strewn about the floor or draped over chairs or even sitting on the edges of chairs, as if waiting for one of the players to keel over. They generally gazed into space or stared intently, chins cradled in hands, at a performer. (Many seemed lost in near-sleep or reverie.) Some performers and some listeners were there for the duration (or some reasonable facsimile of it), some seemed to merely pop in for a few moments. 
But just outside the gallery doors--on a concrete patio as I recall--was a wonderful, long-winded, nearly off-the-rails (or perhaps that was just me) party, a spontaneous and at times slightly raucous celebration among new and old friends, blessed by a broad sense of camaraderie, and fueled by the consumption of much volatile liquid. And that day's odd blend of the sacred and profane seemed altogether Satie-esque in a good and simply simpatico way. 

The 1981 KPFK performance of Vexations was organized by the station's music director Carl Stone and assistant Lois V. Vierk.  The event was scheduled as a special event for Labor Day weekend.  The station would often suspend regular programs on holidays in favor of unusual programming.

Here's a page from the KPFK September 1981 Folio, their program guide.  Even then Vexations was associated with John Cage's birthday.  At the time he was turning 69.   A 12-hour broadcast of Cage's Empty Words is announced for later in the month.  In that folio you can read a 3-page interview of Cage by Roger Reynolds.

Carl sent me the thank-you announcement from the October 1981 Folio.  (That month also announced the resignation of both Carl and Lois from their positions at the station.)
The performance of Vexations by Erik Satie was one of the larger and more fun undertakings of the Music Department. Carl Stone and Lois Vierk co-ordinated the schedule of the 18 pianists who played in half-hour shifts. They were: Gloria Cheng, Paul Reale, Bob Fernandez, Gaylord Mowry, Mike McCandless, Lorna Little, Zita Carno, Reymond Berney, Heidi Lesemann, Del ores Stevens, Alan Oettinger, Felix De Cola, Richard Grayson, Milus Scruggs, Lucky Mosko, Ani Schwartz, David Ocker, and Leonid Hambro.

Audrey Tawa stayed from 6 am to 1 am the next day with the task of keeping an accurate tally of the 840 repetitions demanded by the composer. Ahna Armour prepared a grande bouffe for all the participants, and Kathy Harada stayed to make sure things went smoothly. Special thanks to David Ocker for staying at the piano for an extra hour to finish up.

By the end of the 19 hours, the station had received a total of 89 phone calls to comment on the broadcast: 67 favorable and 22 not. Below is a sample of some of the telegrams and letters the station received in the days that followed.
You can read the sample of telegrams and letters here (search for "Vexations".)  Note the "special thanks" to me for playing the clean up position.  I tell the full story of that below.

Here are a couple personal recollections.

Heidi Lesemann:
Carl had set it up so that we paired with another pianist for 2 hours, each of us taking half hour shifts, as Carl said. My partner was Dee Stevens. The music was easy, about 12 bars, but I was very nervous coming into the studio. I had been listening to it for a couple of hours beforehand. When the half hour was close, the relief pianist sat with the first pianist and slid into place in the keys as the first pianist slid off the bench. Seamless. I remember feeling like I was part of an historic event! Honored to be part of it.
Lois Vierk:
I remember organizing the event with Carl. It actually wasn't too hard to get together because the musicians were so gracious with their time and energy. And Audrey Tawa was, as always, a terrific person to work with.
Audrey Tawa was the person charged with tracking the number of repetitions.  She had a mechanical counter, a little chrome job with a plunger.  Each push on that increased the count by one.  She pushed it for each phrase.  One repetition - out of the 840 - consists of four phrases.  Therefore the magic number which needed to be reached on the counter was 3360.  

Before I went to the studio that day I made a home air check of the broadcast.  I recorded off the air onto a 10 1/2 inch reel-to-reel half track tape deck running at 3 3/4 inches per second, the slowest possible speed.  I recorded in mono in one direction.  Later in the day I flipped the tape over and recorded the other side of the tape.  I put the tape in a box.  It remained untouched for nearly 31 years.

A few weeks ago I found the tape and digitized it.  I have the same tape machine which still works!  I improved the sound as best I could and combined both sides into one file.  The total length is 6 hours, 24 minutes and 45 seconds.  I've uploaded this recording and you can listen to it.

Listen to Erik Satie Vexations - 1981 KPFK live broadcast

Yes, the sound quality sucks.  There is wow and flutter.  I think the piece transcends the poor sound quality.  Unlike other recordings you might find online, which likely have only a few repetitions, this has several hundred - about one third of the entire piece.

I do not know who the specific players are.  I'm pretty sure none of them are me.  If you listen carefully you can hear the style change as the players change.  Some are very precise and repetitive.  One in particular has problems.  Another seems to be trying to play each repetition slightly differently.  The tempos change, at one point quite abruptly.  Hesitations.  Mistakes.  If you listen long enough these little variations will no longer matter.  At that point I suppose you will have achieved Serious Immobility.

Here's the story of my extra hour ...

In 1981, like now, I kept a strange schedule of sleeping and waking.  Since I was staying up all night I chose a time slot in the Vexations schedule when I would be wide awake - i.e. the middle of the night for everyone else.  That's why I was one of the last pianists.  I think I was alternating with Lee Hambro.

It's impossible to know ahead of time precisely how long a complete performance of Vexations will last.  Carl and Lois had arranged for enough performers to cover 18 hours, thinking that would be sufficient.  But as that evening wore on, as Audrey kept clicking her counter, it became clear that 840 repetitions would take more time.

By then most everyone had gone home.  The people who had been there all day were exhausted.  On the other hand, I was wide awake.  It was still "morning" for me.  That's why, after I had done the two half hours for which I had signed up, I found myself back in the studio playing the rest of the piece.  How long would that take?

Studio A, a room with a very high ceiling, was dark except for a reading lamp on the music.  The piano was positioned so the player could not see into the control room.   It was a very isolated experience to sit there alone, nothing at all like performing in front of a live audience, even a small one.  The music contributed to the isolation.  It is quiet.  I repeats.  It meanders.  It repeats.  It repeats.  Vexation, indeed.

After a while I noticed that the sound of the piano was changing.  Strange.  I was shocked because pianos don't do that and KPFK had an excellent instrument.  As I kept playing over and over and over - hoping that someone would open the door to tell me that this was the last repetition - but no one did - I became increasingly certain that the sound was indeed slowly morphing.

As I listened more and more carefully to each repetition it became indisputable.  I could hear beats in the sound.  Beating is an indication of mistuning.   The piano was going out of tune!  Yes, it was. The effect became intense and I became quite anxious because of it.  Strings on a piano do not simply begin to slip, except what I was hearing could only be explained by exactly that.

Finally ... finally the door opened and I was told to stop.  After a suitable short silence Carl would have announced the long delayed station identification "KPFK Los Angeles" and then gone on to explain what had just happened.  I stood up, stretched and left the studio.  Someone introduced the overnight program ...

Once I was certain that the microphones were off, I returned to the piano to test the tuning.  I played some octaves and open fifths - intervals which are not found anywhere in Vexations and which easily reveal how well in-tune an instrument is.  To my astonishment, the piano remained in perfect tune.  My jaw dropped because the out-of-tune sound had been completely in my head.  Vexations had warped my hearing, an unmistakable hallucinogenic effect.  Vexations had drugged my brain.

That's the only time anything remotely resembling that kind of effect has ever happened to me.

Gaylord Mowrey, who performed in both of these Vexations performances, sent me some of his thoughts.  He wraps things up nicely, mentions performances of which I was unaware and reminds us of an important work inspired by Vexations.
David, I appreciate that you brought up the Satie Vexations events in this forum. It has always been a pleasure to be a "Vexadigitator" (Randy's term) in all these events.  
You probably are aware that during the 24 years I was involved with the California State Summer School for the Arts, the last 15 of which were at CalArts, I organized 14 consecutive yearly presentations of Vexations with students and faculty and friends, always a strangely moving and transformative experience for many. 
The piece is so controversial and challenging, so quirky and vexing, that almost everyone who give themselves to it for any length of time must come to terms with its aesthetic, somehow. And the original material is so rich that it grabbed Art Jarvinen to create the massive variations - some of his deepest work.
Gaylord is referring to Art Jarvinen's piece Serious Immobilities, 840 distinct variations on Vexations, which will someday will be the subject of another Mixed Meters post.

UPDATE:  Arthur Javinen's massive work, Serious Immobilities, was eventually described in two Mixed Meters posts.  Read the first one first.

I'd like to thank all those who contributed their memories of Vexations in Los Angeles for this post:
  • Zona Hostetler
  • Eric Hostetler
  • Carl Stone
  • Lois Vierk
  • Heidi Lesemann
  • Alan Zychek
  • Jim "Mr. Memory" Fox
  • Gloria Cheng
A recent Microfest program in Los Angeles featured Vexations performed on specially re-tuned keyboards.  You can hear samples here.

Another remembrance of the Living Room Series performance of Vexations.

840 Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics and Politics

It's hard to know what to believe in the run-up to this years Presidential election.  The Republicans and Democrats are now pretty much lying through their teeth every time they open their mouths.  There's still more than two months to go.  Of course you can refer to fact-check websites - but you can't even be sure those tell the truth.

As a public service of sorts, Mixed Meters is presenting some big lies to watch out for over the remainder of the campaign.  I guarantee that I'm making these up.  Well, that's not completely true.  Some of the ideas come from online news stories which I didn't really believe to begin with.

If any of these stories actually do happen to come true there can only be one reason: truth is stranger than fiction.

Disclaimer ... I have no inside information.
Disclaimer ... I am not a psychic.
Disclaimer ... these are not ntended to be funny.

Hurricane Isaac gives the Republican convention a near miss.  The name Isaac reminds many Republicans of Jews and several delegates take this as a sign of the End Times and impending Rapture and are severely injured by debris when they stand outside in a heavy storm.  The convention resolves to abolish the National Weather Service in order to prevent future hurricanes.  

Pat Robertson claims that the hurricane is God's punishment because the Republican party allows Blacks and gays to vote for their candidates.  Many prominent Republicans ask him to leave the party but he refuses saying God has told him that gay and black Republicans do not really exist.  While Blacks represent only 1% of the delegates, they are shown on screen 23% of the time.

It is revealed that Paul Ryan has had a long term sexual affair with a female Wall Street investment executive.   The woman produces a RED dress which she claims is stained with his semen.  When pictures of the two of them together surface, Ryan explains that he only wanted insider trading information that he could pass along to his blind trust.  Asked about this, Mitt Romney compliments Ryan's business ethics.

It is reported that face recognition software at the Democratic convention identifies 30 Tea Party organizers, 10 convicted felons, two of Osama bin Laden's sons and Pope Benedict in the vast crowd.  None of the identifications are proven correct but most news sources do not print the retraction.

At a fund raising dinner Ann Romney asks a black man in a tuxedo to hang up her coat and get her a glass of chardonnay because she assumes that he's a butler.  It turns out to be Herman Cain.  Herman, interviewed the next day on Good Morning America, says that he thinks Ann is a tremendously sexy woman.

The frequency of mass shooting using automatic weapons approaches one per week as election gets closer, including at least two at mosques and one at a political rally.  Both candidates respond immediately to each event saying things like "oh, that's too bad", "I'm so sorry" and "I don't know what more we could do to stop this."

Secret Service agents subdue and arrest a man wearing what appears to be a suicide vest at an Obama speech.   The "explosive canisters" are actually insulated beer can holders and the "wires" are tubes through which he can drink.  The man has a tattoo which reads "God Guns and Beer" which quickly becomes the title of a new Ted Nugent song.

In the Vice-Presidential debate Paul Ryan describes the policy differences between the two parties as being "as simple as black and white".  Although he denies that he is talking about race, "Simple As Black and White" buttons and bumper stickers are distributed by the Republican Party for the remainder of the campaign.

A Democratic SuperPac runs a "Harry and Louise" style ad campaign showing the now elderly couple worried about Medicare and Social Security under Romney/Ryan.  The Republicans blast the ads as "un-American" not because of anything in the script but because the couple is no longer portrayed as white.  Instead the new actors have indeterminate mixed racial characteristics.

Making an issue out of Attorney General Eric Holder, Republicans start showing the movie Fast and Furious at campaign events and simultaneously hold gun sales nearby.  Showing the movie is declared a violation of copyright but selling guns at political events is deemed legal.

When asked about the Guantanamo prison at the Presidential debate, Romney actually compliments Obama saying "I wouldn't do anything differently than the President on that."

The Republican party asks the Koch brothers to stop making donations to Republican Super Pacs because those funds already have far more cash than they can spend.  Offended, the Kochs offer to pay Paul Ryan's taxes while he is vice-president.

The man whose hair Mitt Romney forcibly cut as a school boy because he was thought to be gay comes forward and admits that he indeed is gay, lives in Massachusetts, is married to another man and the couple is raising two adopted boys, whose names, by a staggering coincidence, are Willard and Paul.

A Republican congressional candidate charges that Osama bin Laden is not dead and is really living in Chicago under the FBI witness protection program.  To counter this a picture purporting to be the dead Osama is leaked but it is eventually identified as a still photo from CSI New York.

Mitt Romney, trying to bolster his credibility as someone who can create economic growth, refers to his time as governor as the "Massachusetts Miracle".   Democrats laugh but don't remind him about what happened to Michael Dukakis.

Controversy erupts when Republicans use a picture of Michelle Obama working in the White House garden which shows her skin tone many shades darker than it really is.  After suggesting that this is merely dirt on her face, Mitt Romney also quips "Latinos make better gardeners because their skin reflects more sunlight."

Television stations in toss-up states start preempting nightly news so they can sell more political ads.  One station sets a record by broadcasting the same clip 14 times in a single hour.  Sales of feminine hygiene products, McDonalds fruit smoothies and lite beer plummet because, without constant advertising, consumers forget they need those products.

News reports report that Osama bin Laden, who has been living in Syria under an assumed name, has asked the U.S. for asylum to escape the turmoil there.  To counter this a picture purporting to be the dead Osama is leaked but it is eventually identified as the same still photo from CSI New York.

Calls for Mitt Romney to release his tax returns so overwhelm the political discussion that he actually releases his returns revealing that he would have lost money and paid no taxes in most years except for his investments in contraceptive pharmaceuticals, Nevada brothels, riverboat gambling, privatized prisons and Iraqi oil companies.

Obama, courting the remaining three hundred undecided gun-owning Democrats in North Carolina, visits a shooting range for target practice.  He fires 20 rounds, hits the target once.  The NRA responds by issuing press releases claiming that lives would be saved if more people including Obama would carry concealed weapons and offering the President a free Glock after he leaves office.

Mitt Romney alludes to Barack Obama's birth certificate so often that he asks Donald Trump to appear at his campaign stops, but when the two get into a shouting match each telling the other "No, you're fired" the relationship ends abruptly.

Protestant voters in Western states pledge to convert to Mormonism if Romney wins.   When told that Mormons are expected to tithe, they modify their promise to convert only their ancestors.  Taking a cue from Mormon baptisms, the Democrats symbolically re-register "liberal" Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon as Democrats.  Republicans immediately charge them with ancestral voter fraud.  Democrats respond by re-registering Ronald Reagan as a Democrat as well and also paying his back dues to the Screen Actors Guild, bringing his union membership up-to-date.  Republicans try to re-register Joseph McCarthy as a Republican but are surprised to discover that he already was a Republican.

Many right-wing candidates sign a pledge agreeing with Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri that women who are "legitimately" raped will not get pregnant.  Polls show that 43% of the electorate agree that this is a logical argument against abortion.  It is also shown that over 85% of Republicans disbelieve the theory of evolution and 18% have doubts about the theory of gravity.

It is revealed that Ayn Rand, then in her sixties, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, then in his twenties, had a brief sexual affair at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

Members of the Occupy movement and supporters of Ron Paul, trying to prove they are not hopelessly marginalized in this election, throw rocks at one another.  When they run out of rocks they throw mud.  When the mud runs out they use their own excrement.  This becomes the top news stories for 6 days running.

Obama is accused of racism when he tells an audience that members of the KKK in full regalia should not be allowed to attended Tea Party rallys, as happens in several small Southern cities.

Paul Ryan, trying to capture some Gen-X voters, jams on stage with Kid Rock, Pat Boone and Gene Simmons - all Romney supporters.  Hank Williams Jr. makes a surprise appearance and tries to get Ryan to tell the crowd that President Obama is really an alien socialist Muslim.  Video of the event quickly appears in television ads for Obama.

Democrats, shaking Etch-a-Sketches to protest Romney flip-flops, discover one Etch-a-Sketch has accidentally produced a picture of Jesus looking suspiciously like Jim Caviezel in that Mel Gibson movie.  The unit sells for a 7-figure amount on E-Bay.  The buyers are revealed to be David and Charles Koch who suddenly become the largest contributors to the Democratic campaign as well as to the Republican.  As soon as they take possession of the unit Charles shakes it and clears the screen.

In the last few days of the campaign a tired Vice President Biden accidentally refers to "President Osama".

Knowing that Americans cannot focus on foreign affairs during an election, Israel secretly bombs Iran to no effect.  Iran claims that they were actually attacked by U.S. Predator drones.  U.S. news media fails to cover the story at all and both candidates deny the reports from Iranian news sources.   Years later it becomes known that both Israel and the U.S. attacked Iran simultaneously - a total coincidence.

The night before the election Mitt Romney makes a nationwide television broadcast in which he says that the election is not really about the economy or about jobs or the fact that Obama is a Black alien Muslim.  "This election is about God, Guns and Beer" he screams.  He then hoists a cold Miller as a choir starts to sing the new Ted Nugent song, now the official campaign theme song, "God, Guns and Beer".  Romney pumps the air twice, then high fives and chest bumps Paul Ryan who has been standing nearby.

On Election Day fistfights between voters and Republican pollwatchers challenging their right to vote are too numerous to count.  Repeated instances of concealed weapons being drawn to stop suspect voters are reported.  In one Texas town, a "citizens committee" surrounds a polling station allowing only White people with Southern accents carrying weapons to vote.

In several toss-up states thousands of people line up at over-crowded polling stations but are not allowed to vote before the polls close.  One state's vote count is deleted by a computer virus.  Lawsuits are filed in eighteen states challenging state-wide election results.  The winner of the Presidential race and the balance of power in the Senate is not decided until Pearl Harbor Day.  Half the U.S. population spends the next 4 years refusing to believe that the sitting President holds his office legitimately.

If you found this depressing, I have news for you - the truth is bound to be much more of a downer.  I had hoped that writing this post would somehow be cathartic.  I was wrong.

If you found this one-sided, I have news for you - I'm a liberal progressive and proud of it  If you're an easily-offended fascist Republican Tea-Party fundamentalist my best suggestion is that you go away and get your own blog.

Ayn Ryan Tags: . . . . . .

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Peter Schmid Quartet Plays Waiting For The Trickle Down

Peter, Lori, Cornel and Luis manage to play every crazy thing I throw at them.  I don't know how they do it.

In this track, Waiting for the Trickle Down, the guitar and bass are both electric and the drums are hand drums.  Since, like Godot, the Trickle Down never comes, this is kind of a sad and mournful piece.  Leslie says this is not my best work - and she makes a good point.

Click here to hear Waiting for the Trickle Down - by David Ocker © 2012 - 501 seconds

The quartet is:
Peter Schmid, piano
Lori Terhune, electric guitar
Cornel Reasoner, electric bass
Luis 'Pulpo' Jolla, hand drums

Recorded at Aphrodita Japonica Studios, Pasadena, California.  You can hear all the tracks by the Peter Schmid Trio and Quartet on the Peter Schmid Quartet Page.

"The Trickle Down" of course refers to the widely believed but even more widely discredited economic theory first implemented during the term of "Saint" Ronald Reagan.  It is currently being preached by Willard "Mitt" Rmoney and Paul "Ayn" Ryan.

Their idea was that giving more money to rich people would benefit everyone because the rich would use that money to hire the poor.  Since it was the rich people who created this crazy plan, the only poor people who have been helped are the ones with jobs selling yachts and fancy sports cars.

Here's a chart showing income distribution in the United States since 1947.  The income of the top 1% - indicated by the red triangle - has experienced cancerous growth since the start of the Trickle Down era, indicated by the arrow.

This chart came from the blog

Trickle Down Tags: . . . . . .

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cool and Warm, Dylan and Waldo at SFMOMA

Early this month I spent an afternoon wandering on my own through downtown San Francisco.   I started with Bánh mì in Little Saigon where I happened upon this stone monster.

Then I walked to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  I was pleased to encounter a large Mark Rothko painting entitled No. 14, 1960.  It was hung in a very appropriate cathedral-like setting.  Rothko's work had been inspirational for me at one time, as had many painters and composers from 1950s New York.

When I resolved to take a picture of the Rothko, however, I encountered a problem: there were lots of people standing in front of the painting, looking at it and at the other works of art.  I waited for a clear shot.  I wanted to capture the work together with the vaulted ceiling.  I never got that chance - but I took lots of snaps anyway.  Here are all of them concatenated into an animated gif.  Pick your favorite.

Next to the canvas was a small sign identifying the work and providing a paragraph of description written by an anonymous art expert.  Quite rightly the author discussed how the considerable interaction of the color fields and varieties of surface texture combine to form a "doorway into another, transcendant reality".  Yes, that seems about right.

The title of the painting, like, say, the title "Symphony No. 5", neither contributes nor detracts from the transference of meaning.  It merely gives an ordinal position in a series of presumably similar works.

Another painting also caught my attention.  It turned out to be less meaningful and, thanks to its title and its own paragraph of description, considerably funnier.  Here's the picture I took of it.

Using the evaluative scales of "unity and variety" or "repetition and variation", this piece racks up nearly perfect scores of both unity and repetition.  There's not much going on.  People were not paying it much attention.  Getting a clear picture was easy, focusing was hard.

The point-'n-shoot in my pocket couldn't focus because the painting is completely covered in (to my eye) perfectly even flat battleship gray.  Well, there is a small strip at the bottom which is only partially painted in the same flat battleship gray.  Here's a closeup of the small strip at the bottom.

An artist named Brice Marden, someone new to me, painted this work in 1966 or possibly 1986.  He called it The Dylan Painting after Bob Dylan.  A video of him discussing this painting is here.   In the video he talks about the variations in the surface.  Although I got very close to the canvas, I did not notice variations.  He calls the strip at the bottom a "history" of the painting, apparently created with the drips from the top section.  Ah, I hear the merest, faintest echo of an action painting.

This is different from the Rothko in that the title apparently conveys some important aspect of the meaning.  To be perfectly honest, I can't see what a monochromatic canvas has to do with Bob Dylan.  Mixed Meters' three readers know that I don't much like Dylan's music, although I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as a poet.

Here's the little paragraph of description posted next to The Dylan Painting.  (You can see my reflection in the plastic.  Clicking on it might make it easier to read.)

I burst out laughing when I read:
Its mauve-gray surface is simultaneously cool and warm, paralleling Dylan's tough yet soulful music.
In other words we are supposed to accept that this canvas, one with virtually no distinguishing variations whatsoever, is intended to encompass the polar opposite qualities of coolness and warmth at exactly the same time and also that we, following the suggestion of the title, are supposed to understand this as a reference to qualities in the music of a particular popular singer/songwriter (as identified not by the artist but by a commentator), which might be true enough descriptions of the music but because these qualities are subjective and imprecise they are in no way opposites of one another and hence, are not analogues of coolness and warmth in the painting.

In other words, maybe the person writing the description was making a joke for us musicians to enjoy.

Later I visited a trendient coffee shop on the top floor of the museum.  While waiting in line I casually snapped a picture of the San Francisco skyline out the window.

I was intrigued with the mass of air conditioning equipment on the opposite roof so I zoomed in for a couple shots just of that.  Remember that the point and shoot in my pocket has a very small screen.  Also I was getting mildly annoyed that the line was moving so slowly.

It wasn't until I got home and looked at these pictures on the large computer screen that I realized who I must have been seeing subconsciously in the picture ... Waldo, a famous reclusive character who is neither tough nor soulful.  His face is shaded by a real hat.  That's probably why I didn't recognize him.

These three pictures are uncropped just as I shot them.  And I honestly had no idea at the time that I was taking a picture of anything besides an interesting jumble of pipes and ductwork - a found, functional sculpture by an anonymous artist.

This post describes just three encounters I had with visual images during my visit to the museum.  My comments reveal certain things about my personal perceptions, preconceptions and expectations of art and art institutions.  When visiting museums, I try to linger in front of the most promising pieces and occasionally break up my tour by finding a comfortable seat for people watching.  Those people, of course, see different things, react in different ways.

I saw plenty of other artworks as well - probably too many.  Some will stick around in my memory until I finally absorb whatever meaning they might have for me.  Others struck me as just witless or stupid headscratchers.

I left with a certain mental confusion.  I had seen and considered jumbles of images and junkyards of ideas, a visual cacophony.   In each new gallery some voice screamed for my attention, shouting yet more ideas and concepts.  These were then swallowed by another din of yet more artworks in the next room.

Outside, I felt relieved by the simplicity of a bustling city street with a stiff breeze and clear blue sky.  I felt no desire to visit an art museum again any time soon.

Dylan Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Saturday, August 04, 2012

David Raksin Centenary

(If you read this entire article you'll learn how I once broke into David Raksin's house and why I can never think of that event without also thinking of bad cheesecake.  Now read on...)

David Raksin was born on August 4, 1912.  That makes today his centenary.  Although the year 2012 includes the 100th birth anniversary of composers more famous than David (e.g. John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow or Stan Kenton), here in Los Angeles, where he was a fixture in the music community, there are many who remember him with great fondness.

And our memories are based not just on his musical accomplishments - although writing at least one big hit tune and scoring a flotilla of movies is clearly enough to get him into the music history books.   We remember that David was a jovial guy with a keen intelligence and a ready wit.  He always had a story about someone famous that he had known (and he seemed to have known just about everyone).  Or he told a joke (often of his own creation).  Or he made a pun.  Or two puns.  Or a whole passel of puns.  David loved word play.

To prove the point about knowing famous people, here's a photograph of David in his mid twenties.  He's the guy on the right.  On the left is Charlie Chaplin, with whom David worked on the music of the movie Modern Times.  Working for Chaplin was David's big break.  In the center are Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Schoenberg.  David studied with Schoenberg.  (David wasn't really all that tall.  Those others were just short.)

David belongs to a very small number of musicians who easily bridged the gap between the classical music and film music communities in Los Angeles.  He was a walking history of music in Southern California.  When he died it was announced that he had written an autobiography.  I remember him talking about it and showing me a decades-old kitchen calendar which he was using as a memory aid.  That's a book I'd love to read.

David Raksin had long since become a fixture in the music community of Los Angeles when I arrived here in the seventies.   He seemed to be at every concert I attended.  I don't remember specifically when I was introduced to him but it most certainly was by composer William Kraft, who was an extremely close friend of David's from the 1950s until David's death in 2004.

David made fastidious musical manuscripts.  Often in many colors.  Each year David was in the habit of sending some clever hand-made birthday greeting to Bill.  One such encomium took the form of short choral piece which David entitled A Posy From Woolworths For Bill On His Birthday.  Bill framed this and hung it in his studio, but after many years it had faded well past easy readability.

So Bill asked me to decipher the page and reproduce it on a computer.  I used the Sibelius hand-written music font.  It doesn't look much like David's own writing (and it's monochrome to boot) but it gives the same feel.  The layout of the page is identical to the original.
Here's the text:
Love and fortune wax and wane
We are entangled in their webbing,
More or lesser men may flow down the drain,
But Billy Kraft will never ebbing.

David's nickname for Bill was "Krafty Bill".  Notice that in the tenor part he changes the last line slightly in order to work the nickname in.  I doubt the reference to Krafft-Ebing is accidental.

I once did some music preparation work for David.  I made the parts for a chamber music work entitled Oedipus Memnitai, which had been commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation at the Library of Congress.  That was a great honor for David.  He never called me for another job.  After his death I learned that it was the last piece he ever wrote. (The Speaking of Music interview - see below - concludes with a description and an excerpt of this piece.)

I also helped him prepare, at the last minute after he suffered a heart attack, for a concert of music by composer Alex North.  David was to conduct it in Spain.  When he arrived there some of the music - a piece I hadn't worked on - was missing.   David called and asked me to look for it in his studio.  David's ex-wife produced a key to his house but no one knew the code for the security system.  After some discussion, we unlocked his door and set off the alarm.  Fortunately the police were not alerted automatically.  We just waited, enduring the sound of a fortissimo trill on a solo bell, an opus annoyicus.  It continued until the alarm battery wore itself down.  Those were long minutes.   Once inside we could not find the missing music.

That night, on our way home from David's house, Leslie (who had been waiting in the car) and I stopped at the California Pizza Kitchen to sooth my alarm-wrenched nerves with dessert.  We chose a piece of New York cheesecake.  They served us the worst piece of cheesecake we had ever eaten or have eaten since: cardboard in a cardboard crust.  Ever since then, I have never thought about David Raksin without also thinking about bad cheesecake.  Or thought about CPK without thinking of David.  Aside from that one awful pastry, however, which certainly wasn't his fault, David earned an absolutely stellar place in my memory.  He deserves nothing less.   It was a honor to have known him.

If you don't know about David's accomplishments or want some idea of what it was like to be around him, I recommend that you listen to this Speaking of Music event, in which David is interviewed by Charles Amhirkhanian.  It's as close as you can get to experiencing David Raksin, the raconteur, wit and name dropper.  You'll enjoy the story about David meeting Frank Lloyd Wright.

Here are some quotes I culled from this 90-minute interview:
"I can write thematic material faster than most people can make wrong chess moves."
"I would love to be able to say that I tried out for several porno films and didn't make it, but it wouldn't be true."
"You have no idea how music benefits from audibility."
"I could not see the Eastern university mafia permitting a guy who makes most of his living in films to get one." (i.e. the commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge foundation.)

The picture of David, Gertrud, Arnie and Charlie came from here.  The two pictures of the older David Raksin were posted on Facebook by Marilee Bradford.

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