Monday, January 27, 2014

Adult Party Games and Bad Poetry

After Arthur Jarvinen's death in 2010 I decided that I needed to commemorate his life and work here on Mixed Meters. Today would have been Art's 58th birthday. Mentioning him like this isn't much. It is something.

Last summer an adventurous group of composer performers called Varispeed played selections from Art's piece Adult Party Games from the Leisure Planet. They did this somewhere in New York State at a place called Mount Tremper Arts.  Here's a picture (which I found on Facebook, there are more):

Each of the suspended cards you see is one of the 'games'.   These are short text pieces which Art described as:
a growing collection of works which don't fit conveniently into any particular category.
I don't know exactly which games Varispeed chose to perform but it looks as though they found a beautiful place to play them.  Here's the list of some Adult Party Games:
Eskimo piece --
Illegal music --
White painting for Robert Rauschenberg --
The valedictorian squats and scurries --
First principles of aerodynamics --
Haed --
Schematic --
For Bill Mullane --
For Giovanna Caicco --
For Mark Cunningham --
Zone --
No --
For myself --
For Linda Tadic.
Of course  Varispeed blogged about their performance.   They included one game called Advice for Young Composers:

Click on any picture for an enlargement.  The text to "Advice for Young Composers"
Tonight, astrally-project to Aaron Kernis's work place and plagiarize the last three measures he wrote.  Repeat as often as necessary.
The first game on the list, Eskimo piece, is available for you to watch online.  It is performed by another of these endlessly mysterious New York composer/performer ensembles, this one called thingNY.  thingNY is probably from Brooklyn.  (I'm told that anybody who's anybody in the new music world these days comes from Brooklyn.)

An excerpt from a performance art piece from a 1970s collection called "Adult Party Games from the Leisure Planet". This work was part of a string of fluxus-like sound and performance works composed by the late CalArts composer Art Jarvinen.
Eskimo Piece calls for loads of "Eskimos" to run around on stage while floor mics pick up their footsteps, creating feedback. Art originally thought of this work as absurd and chaotic, but we decided to "premiere" it in a pulse-driven style, letting the feedback ring out a bit after each clash.
It remains absurd though. There are no real Eskimos in this piece. There are no Inuits. There are a few Canadians

Closer to home and less musically, I discovered a small cache of "memorabilia" from the mid-nineties.  This was about the time Leslie and I moved into our current home. The cache, actually a basket, included a stack of old mail - things like birthday cards and invitations.

One invitation was to a party on January 27, 1996, at the home of Lynn Angebranndt and Arthur Jarvinen.  The occasion, although it doesn't say so on the card, was their shared birthday. Yes, Art and Lynn were a married couple both born on the same date.

First, here are quotes from the card:
O openers of the way, openers of the roads to bad poetry,
perfected in the house of Art and Lynn.
It's time once again
The event of the season:
May the divine beings, who make men to stand fast, cause my poetry to stink.
May my mouth be opened and pour out really bad poetry.
But the best part of the card was that it was a pop-up.  I remember Art once telling me that he had gotten into pop-ups, so I assumed this card was his work.  Recently, however, Lynn told me that the pop-ups were actually her idea and her work.  A lot of work.  And very cool work, to be sure.  Of course the two faces on the card are those of Art and Lynn:

I don't remember whether I was able to attend this particular Bad Poetry Soiree.  I did attend some of them.  At one of them I read from the works of William McGonagall.  Here, in honor of the Bad Poetry Soirees, is some bad poetry by that poet.  This one is about the eternal war between rich and poor:


Mr. SMIGGS was a gentleman,
And he lived in London town;
His wife she was a good kind soul,
And seldom known to frown.

’Twas on Christmas eve,
And Smiggs and his wife lay cosy in bed,
When the thought of buying a goose
Came into his head.

So the next morning,
Just as the sun rose,
He jump’d out of bed,
And he donn’d his clothes,

Saying, “Peggy, my dear.
You need not frown,
For I’ll buy you the best goose
In all London town.”

So away to the poultry shop he goes,
And bought the goose, as he did propose,
And for it he paid one crown,
The finest, he thought, in London town.

When Smiggs bought the goose
He suspected no harm,
But a naughty boy stole it
From under his arm.

Then Smiggs he cried, “Stop, thief!
Come back with my goose!”
But the naughty boy laugh’d at him,
And gave him much abuse.

But a policeman captur’d the naughty boy,
And gave the goose to Smiggs,
And said he was greatly bother’d
By a set of juvenile prigs.

So the naughty boy was put in prison
For stealing the goose.,
And got ten days’ confinement
Before he got loose.

So Smiggs ran home to his dear Peggy,
Saying, “Hurry, and get this fat goose ready,
That I have bought for one crown;
So, my darling, you need not frown.”

“Dear Mr Smiggs, I will not frown:
I’m sure ’tis cheap for one crown,
Especially at Christmas time –
Oh! Mr Smiggs, it’s really fine.”

“Peggy. it is Christmas time,
So let us drive dull care away,
For we have got a Christmas goose,
So cook it well, I pray.

“No matter how the poor are clothed,
Or if they starve at home,
We’ll drink our wine, and eat our goose,
Aye, and pick it to the bone.”

Mixed Meters has many posts about the life and music of Arthur Jarvinen. All of them can be found by clicking this link.

Last year I wrote at length about Art's massive solo piano piece Serious Immobilities.  This has become one of Mixed Meters' most popular posts.

Art's anonymous blog Mister Composerhead is still online.  (Art told me that Aaron Kernis, referenced above in Advice for Young Composers, was the original model for "Mister Composerhead")

Art's lavishly annotated surf-music opera was called The Invisible Guy.   Listen.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Bald Soprano

I was a junior in high school when I discovered absurdity. I understood absurdity immediately because it reflected my life so perfectly.  Absurdity kicked me down the road of being a creative artsy type and it continues to have a strong pull on me to this day.  Thanks, absurdity, old buddy.

My first encounter with absurdity took the form of The Bald Soprano, the play by Eugene Ionesco, presented as a particularly arresting picture book.  Today, I guess we'd call it a graphic novel.  Here's the cover:

That's Ionesco himself substituting both tragically and comically for the O's in his name.  The full cast can be seen as well, left to right: Mrs. Martin, Mr. Smith, Mary the maid, the Fire Chief, Mrs. Smith and Mr. Martin.  The whole book is rendered in black and white.  Each couple's lines are rendered in a different type face, the women in italic.  Pictures, stark high contrast black and white, show who is speaking and give a sense of the action.  Here's the back cover:

I'm pretty sure I liked this play before I even opened the book the first time.  Here's the text of the cover:
ionesco THE BALD SOPRANO followed by an unpublished scene.  Translated by Donald M. Allen.  Typographical interpretations by Massin and photographic interpretations by Henry Cohen.  Based on the Niccolas Bataille Paris production. Grove Press, Inc.  New York
I found The Bald Soprano in the library - I don't remember now whether that would have been my high school library or the public library.  A couple of years later, in college, when I had an extra ten bucks, I ordered my own copy which I still have today.  When it arrived I signed and dated it: October 3, 1970.  This play, in this particular format, became one of my artistic touchstones.  Eventually I saw a live performance - which disappointed me greatly.

The scene is a middle-class English interior.  The plot is pretty simple, I guess.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith tell some stories.  Mr. and Mrs. Martin arrive and reintroduce themselves to each other.  The Smiths and Martins tell more stories, occasionally interrupted by the Maid and the Fireman who, unsurprisingly, tell stories.  Everything devolves into a screaming frenzy.  And then it ends by beginning again at the beginning - except that the Martins and Smiths have switched places.

Nothing makes any real sense, of course.  The lines make sense in only the smallest bits.  Responses have tenuous relationship to what has preceded.  I guess that's what makes it Theater of the Absurd.  It's definitely that aspect which seemed to me to correspond exactly with what passed for conversation in my family - although for completely different reasons.  My family came to its absurd interactions through a combo of age disparity, English as second language and hardness of hearing.  None of that has anything to do with Ionesco.  The resulting effects, however, were strikingly similar in my mind.

Here's a sample from the awkward conversation as the two couples are settling down for their social evening together:
Mr. Smith: Hm. [Silence]
Mrs. Smith: Hm, hm. [Silence]
Mrs. Martin: Hm, hm, hm. [Silence]
Mr. Martin: Hm, hm, hm, hm. [Silence]
Mrs. Martin: Oh, but definitely. [Silence]
Mr. Martin: We all have colds. [Silence]
Mr. Smith: Nevertheless, it's not chilly. [Silence]
Mrs. Smith: There's no draft. [Silence]
Mr. Martin: Oh no, fortunately. [Silence]
Mr. Smith: Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.  [Silence]
Mr. Martin: Don't you feel well? [Silence]
Mrs. Smith: No, he's wet his pants [Silence]
Mrs. Martin: Oh, sir, at your age, you shouldn't. [Silence]
Mr. Smith: The heart is ageless [Silence]
Mr. Martin: That's true. [Silence]
Mrs. Smith: So they say. [Silence]
Mrs. Martin: They also say the opposite. [Silence]
Mr. Smith: The truth lies somewhere between the two. [Silence]
Mr. Martin: That's true. [Silence]
In the book each of those lines gets two facing pages.  All the space represents the long silences.  The particular line "The truth lies somewhere between the two." has given me comfort many times in many different situations over the 45 years since I first read it.

Here's a pair of pages showing the (much more lively) responses to Mrs. Martin's story about seeing a man on the street who had bent over to tie his shoe:

Notice that "fantastic" is divided up among three actors.  (Click on any picture for enlargements.)   Later in the play:
Mrs. Martin: Thanks to you, we have passed a truly Cartesian quarter of an hour.
Fire Chief: [moving towards the door, then stopping]: Speaking of that - the bald soprano? [General silence, embarrassment]
Mrs. Smith: She always wears her hair in the same style.
One more page for good measure.  Here the Fire Chief is encouraged to tell a story The Dog and the Cow - which I actually set to music sometime during my college years.  (That, along with the only other song I ever wrote, has since been lost.)

So why am I dragging this subject up now - beyond the need for basic blog padding, of course.  There's a story about that:
Leslie and I were having dinner in a local restaurant last month, one of those new-style buffets with the old-style trick of showing you the desserts while you're standing in line still hungry.  We didn't have much to talk about.  At the next table was a family - mother, father, grandmother and three tweens, two with smart phones.  They had a lot to talk about, most of which didn't seem too important.  There was an amusing lack of communication and several crises concerning the food.  Leslie and I found ourselves watching them as carefully as we could without being obvious.  They might have been somewhat embarrassed had they been able to watch themselves.  Maybe not.  On our way home, Leslie and I discussed various unresolved questions (like which parent was the child of the grandmother and the color of the mother's panties).  I was reminded of my encounter with The Bald Soprano and I explained to Leslie why this literature was important to me.  When I got home I re-read it for the first time in a very long time.  It felt good to experience The Bald Soprano again.  It brought back a lot of memories, although you can be very certain that none of them involved my mother letting anyone in a restaurant see the color of her panties.

Used copies of The Bald Soprano are available on Amazon.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Images Without Meaning

I'm sure that you know what karaoke is ... pre-recorded music for which some talented or courageous or drunken person supplies the missing vocals.  Not being either courageous or talented, I would never try karaoke.

You might also know what Music Minus One is.  It's a company which provides "participatory" recordings.  Those have recorded with some important element omitted, like a solo part, so that a student or other instrumentalist who can't yet afford to hire her own orchestra can play along with the real thing.  When I was in college I had a MMO recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

I created a music video over the weekend.  Like karaoke and MMO, this piece lacks one important element which it needs to be a complete experience.  I'm leaving it up to the listener to provide that one element: the meaning.

Okay - music is by nature abstract and doesn't need meaning.  I've done my best not to give any external clues - like lyrics or program notes or a descriptive title.

I have provided, via video, some images to watch as the music plays.  Alas, these images were selected without regard for their meaning.  They also have nothing to do with one another.

The images are:

  • four slightly swaying roses against a blue sky somewhere in Pasadena
  • part of a fiber optic art work at the Huntington Library
  • steps of a moving escalator reflected in its shiny metal side panel 
  • the shadow of a tree on the USC campus as it blows in the wind as seen through a venetian blind
  • water droplets landing in a Monterey Park fountain to which someone had thoughtfully added soap 
  • a tree reflected in the lake at the Chinese Garden, also at the Huntington.

My up-tempo music clearly has nothing to do with these images.  The music does manage to make transitions somewhat in sync with the changing images and it's as close to rock and roll as I'm likely to ever write.  Not very close.

Images Without Meaning  © 2014 by David Ocker 190 seconds

Let your imagination run wild.  If you're the sort of person who makes up stories to fit the music you hear, or if you create your own mental images of music, and if this piece produces such creativity in you, please feel free to share in the comments.  Leslie, who already heard the music, said that she was expecting MONSTERS.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Before the Parade

The centerpiece of Pasadena's yearly Solstice celebration is a parade - the Rose Parade.  If you live in the U.S., I'm sure you know all about it.   We Americans assume you also know all about it even if you live in another country, so just nod your head and pretend that you understand what I'm talking about.  OK?

We, the staff of Mixed Meters, have an veritably un-American disinterest in the floats and bands and horses and fully-fertile nearly-adult young princesses that make up the parade, even though the route comes quite close to our central offices, high atop Mixed Meters Towers.

What we are interested in, however, is all the civic preparation which goes into such an event. Especially the clean up.  There's really a shit-load of cleaning up to do afterwards.

Click this link to see all of MM's Pasadena parade coverage over the years.

On Mixed Meters you'll have seen Rose parade trash, Rose parade religious fundamentalists and honking Rose parade tow trucks - but no floats, bands, horses or princesses.  This year we seem to have focused on heating devices used by the Rose revelers who spend the entire winter night outside waiting for the parade.

I spent New Years Eve with Leslie and friends in Old Pasadena, our trendient restaurant district.  At 11 p.m. I elected to walk home along the parade route, Colorado Boulevard.

The sidewalks had long since filled with people camping out overnight - preparing to sleep on the street just as homeless people do.  Except the authentic homeless don't sleep in plain view on major streets.  Nor do they build open fires nor buy over-priced luminescent trinkets and plastic noisemakers from wandering vendors nor make a mess by hurling eggs, tortillas and silly string at passing cars.  Those are privileges of upstanding citizenship.

I stopped occasionally during my walk to shoot video.  When I got home I quickly edited the clips and composed some music.  The music took longer, even though there's just a little over a minute of it.  Strange music.  Very strange.


A word about this music.  I downloaded a huge sample sample library from Samplephonics.  Sorry,  these freebies have since disappeared.  Largely intended for techno, pop or pretty much any form of music I don't do, I used this project Before the Parade as an opportunity to explore this huge collection of audio whatever.  It includes hundreds of samples.  I listened to only a couple dozen and used sixteen of them. I  think the result is kind of fun.  Also strange.  Very strange.

Here's the Mixed Meters' Rose Parade video from 2009. Honking tow trucks. Repent placards. You can see a gas station in the background - low test gasoline was $1.89 per gallon.