Sunday, January 27, 2013

Serious Immobilities (first post)

On the fifty-seventh anniversary of his birth, I'd like to write about Arthur Jarvinen's longest piece of music. Possibly anyone's longest piece of non-repetitive music.  It lasts one day.  The score takes up 301 pages.

The piece is entitled Serious Immobilities.  It is a huge set of variations.  It has different layers.  It has different versions.  A piece this large requires two separate posts.  Find the second one here.

To understand Serious Immobilities you must first know the work on which it is based, Vexations by Erik Satie. Vexations is a short twisted piano solo for which its composer provided this (capricious, in my opinion) 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." 
Vexations was resurrected from obscurity and elevated to high art by composer John Cage.  It is now widely known.  Satie's instruction is interpreted to mean that the music must be repeated exactly 840 times in order to finish one entire live performance.

(Recently Mixed Meters presented this article about two early performances of Vexations here in Los Angeles.  It includes a 6-hour excerpt you could listen to.)

the cover of Serious Immobilities, 840 variations on Satie's VEXATIONS for piano solo by Arthur Jarvinen

Here's a bit of Art's own introductory program notes to Serious Immobilities:
Late in 1996 the Paris New Music Review sponsored a competition for piano solos of no more than one minute in duration.  I responded with a variation on the longest piano piece I could think of - Vexations, by Erik Satie.  ...  No sooner had I written my first variation than I realized the implication; I had to write 839 more.
Structurally the work unfolds as a sort of convoluted palindrome.  The first two hundred and ten variations form the core of the work, and can in fact be performed as a separate piece - Serious Immobilities, Part One.  Variations 211 through 420 are variations on the first two hundred ten in reverse order.  Then the entire piece retrogrades (though not very literally.)
Besides a piano and pianists, Serious Immobilities requires other equipment on occastion: an old-fashioned metronome (associated with references to composer Randy Hostetler, found in variations 33, 388, 453 and 808), a typewriter (as a rhythm instrument in variations 192, 229, 612 and 649) and a small portable cassette tape recorder (for the playback of parenthetical text in variations 686 and 704).

A number of variations have text which are spoken or sung by the performer.  Many texts were written by Erik Satie and others by Andrea Loselle, a professor of French, and by Arthur himself.  Variation 816 is entitled "A Mason Hymn" with text by H. Adamson (Perth, 1638), whoever that is.  Art tells us that these texts undergo variation much as the music does.
For variations employing my own texts I decided to treat the sentences as "language objects" for manipulation.  I tried to find the exact opposite of each individual word, and if that was too difficult, the smallest possible group of words.  This accounts for the somewhat bizarre, though still completely sensible, aspect of some of the later texts.
Some variations involve musical styles and theatrical presentation.  A lounge act with a performer who talks to the audience, a waltz to be played with Straussian feeling and a jazz pianist all appear periodically.  Improvisation, carefully restricted by the composer, is required of the pianist in spots.  Variation 19 Shadow Play carries this instruction:
This variation is to be "played" silently.  Finger the notes, but do not depress the keys.

(click any sample for a closer look)

Variation 1, that one he wrote for the one-minute music competition, is entitled Hexations.  It consists of a very slow variation of Satie's music (the tempo marking is quarter equals 13) plus a Composer's Note to be read simultaneously by the performer.

Variation 840, the final one, entitled Transvexions, has tempo indication of quarter note equals approximately six and one half beats per minute.  Art adds "Way Damn Slow!" to drive home the point.

Here's the text to Hexations:
I have thought a lot about the subject of the lengths of musical pieces, long ones in particular.
The late works of Feldman, for example, seem to me to be arbitrarily long.
As much as I admire and enjoy them, I remain unconvinced of any real reason for their extreme lengths, beyond the composer's desire to make them long.
To specify that a work for solo piano be no more than one minute in length seems equally arbitrary, especially since it can be as short as one second and still qualify.
In approaching this project I decided to base my work on the longest solo piano piece I could think of, Vexations by Erik Satie.  This is the quintessential arbitrarily long piece, requiring 840 literal repetitions of the basic material.
Vexations is composed entirely of three-note chords.  I have retained the original rhythms, but combined adjacent sonorities into hexachords, thus Hexations.  I also eliminated the repeats.
(The text from Variation 840, Transvexions, in it's linguistic palindrome, is included in the second post.)

Half of Hexations can be heard in this video:

Variation 420 (one of those in Art's palindromic structure which corresponds to Hexations) is entitled Hexplanation.  In it he reveals more about the Paris New Music Review competition.
The competition judges chose fifty winning works.  Hexations was not among them.

In an article like this it's tempting to discuss only the variations which stand out, to emphasise those that grab our attention with theatricality or other means.  It is important to remember that those moments which use text or sound effects or musical style references are really a small minority of Art's 840 variations.

The overwhelming majority of Serious Immobilities is music clearly in the spirit of its source material - simple, slow, spacey piano music.  Static music that is somehow always moving.  Variation after variation washes over us one after another - like waves, each one is slightly different, some are very different, but most are the same as the last, the same as the next.

Art takes the puzzling Vexations harmonies as a starting point for his own concerns as a composer.  He deals with pitch, tonality, consonance, dissonance, tension and release.  His compositional "games" - that's a word he himself would use - are at work throughout Serious Immobilities.  Although these processes are hard to unravel afterwards, through them we sense Art's own spirit.

Finally, after a while, it starts to dawn on us that hearing this music could be compared to the mythical act of nailing jello to a wall.  Under the assault of analysis, it will always morph in messy, unpredictable ways.  A work of this scope naturally avoids easy description.  By combining Satie with Jarvinen this effect increases exponentially.  Its very elusiveness is the attraction.

Serious Immobilities is never going to explain the conundrum which is Vexations.  I suspect Art may never have expected such an outcome.  I wonder if he himself claimed to understand the Satie better once he had finished.

What Serious Immobilities does is to take up residence inside the sound world of Vexations.  From there it takes its own sweet time to explore the strange Vexations countryside.  We can hear many unusual musical "sights" filled with exotic audio "flora" and unconventional acoustic "fauna".

Arthur Jarvinen has shown us this landscape where Satie's vision is mixed with his own.  Knowing the sources, it should come as no surprise that the final result is just as puzzling as the original.  Whereas Vexations made us scratch our heads, Serious Immobilities also makes us scratch our heads.

Jarvinen may give us a more animated and colorized experience than Satie but we are none the wiser because of it.

I'm pretty certain that was never the point.

There is more about Serious Immobilities in the second post.  You'll read about various versions and  layers (e.g. Spineless Dog).  There will be audio samples and a history of the several performances of Serious Immobilities.  Also watch for information about the 77 minute long compact disc, performed by Bryan Pezzone, available on Los Angeles River Records.   If you want that disc there's even a special Mixed Meters discount offer. So read on ...

Mixed Meters could not have produced these posts without the help of Lynn Angebranndt.  She gave me permission to post excerpts of the piece.  Thanks, Lynn.   Also major thanks to Daniel Rothman of Los Angeles River Records.

Visit Arthur Jarvinen's own website.  His music is available from the Leisure Planet.  Another epic Jarvinen work (very different than this one) is The Invisible Guy.

Mixed Meters wants to do what I can to celebrate the life and work of Arthur Jarvinen.  Here are all MM's Jarvinen posts.

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