Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Harp of Life

Today, January 27, 2015, would have been Arthur Jarvinen's 60th birthday. It's been over five years since Art chose to take his final bow.  His decision left a lot of baffled and befuddled friends, family and colleagues behind.  He is missed.

Saxophonist and composer Eric Barber was a friend and colleague of Art Jarvinen.  And, for a while, his student.  Last fall Eric released a solo saxophone album entitled Harp of Life in Art's memory.  Here's the cover:

Eric provided this description of the album from his Bandcamp page:
This music is a tribute to my friend, mentor, and teacher Art Jarvinen. The years we spent together eating, playing, and discussing greatly influenced my musical approach and vocabulary. After his untimely passing in 2010, I began composing the music for this project. I think Art would appreciate the music, the meticulous dedication to the recording process, and the utter lack of any marketing potential or financial return on a multi tracked solo saxophone album. I miss him and will always remember the wonderful times we shared and all that he taught me.
Eric's precise order of "eating, playing and discussing" amuses me greatly.  Any friend of Art's will understand those priorities.  Via email Eric expanded on his relationship to Art:
I studied composition with Art for two years at CalArts (97-99) and he basically turned me on to everything good... Beefheart, Rweski, Feldman, Zappa. We had a duo called We Are Not Mailmen which was acoustic sax and his electronics setup. Our band Balkanova with Randy Gloss, Milen Kirov, and John Heitzenrater was a twisted Bulgarian gypsy wedding band with Art on bass, and we played a bunch of his originals too. And I had a trio with him with Art on drums, Scot Ray on trombone and Hammond. And I played a few cuts on Invisible Guy. Most of this was between 1999 and 2004. And we had a lot of Thai food, sea bass, and saunas along with all the Halloweenie fests and pig roasts. He really was like an uncle.

Harp of Life has six tracks - all for various combinations of tenor and soprano saxophones.  The tracks are entitled:
  1. Harp of Life (circa 2167 AD)
  2. The Folly of Primes (Libyan Fox Trot)
  3. Repose
  4. Simantronica
  5. 49 Halves of 14 (circa 2167 AD)
  6. Sabotage (via ledgerdemain)
I sensed allusions to Jarvinen in these titles.

For example Simantronica is clearly a reference to the East European musical instrument (similar to a piece of lumber) called the Simantron.  Art was expert on all things simantronic.  He wrote this article about it.   Here's a short lo-res video of Art using a simantron to call his dinner guests to begin consuming a whole roast pig.  There are no simantrons in Eric Barber's Simantronica; it is for 3 soprano and 3 tenor saxophones.

I asked Eric what the other Jarvinen references in his titles might be.  He wrote:
Yes the titles do [refer to Art] but are not based on his music necessarily. Folly of Primes (Libyan Fox Trot) is a nod to Art's Egyptian Two Step.  49 Halves of 14 is a nod to A Conspiracy of Crows.  Harp of Life is inspired by the Hymn string quartet he wrote that was performed at his memorial.  Sabotage has a relationship to Breaking the Chink, which I got to play at CalArts as a student and was my entree to Art.
Eric added that Harp of Life is a reference to composer Henry Cowell who also wrote a piece of that title.  (Here it is on YouTube.)   While you're at it you can hear Egyptian Two Step (listen carefully for the bursts of air at the beginning) and Conspiracy of Crows.

More to the point, you can hear Eric Barber's Harp of Life on Bandcamp.   Better yet, you can purchase the whole album for the outrageously reasonable price of $7.  Talk about the utter lack of financial return.

The opening cut, Harp of Life, begins with several minutes of mournful solo tenor.  You might mistake this for the beginning of a jazz tune and expect a piano, bass and drums to enter.  Nope.  After this invocation Barber introduces a simple ostinato pattern taken up by more saxes.  The music with rich harmonies evokes a church hymn.  The relationship to Jarvinen's music is much more than in name only. Solos over the pattern search higher and higher for meaning.  

Barber's music on this album comes from the world of minimalism - often with multiple contrapuntal lines fusing into textures.  Much of the music is rhythmic but without an overall sense of meter.  As a composer Barber has an excellent feel for just the right moment to add bits of new material.

The piece Repose uses a muliple sopranos glissandoing in a narrow range.  You can hear difference tones being produced.  It would probably be devastating done live.

My favorite piece is 49 Halves of 14 (circa 2167 AD). This consists only of a series of complex chords, almost clusters, held for various lengths of time, separated by silences.  There is a great sense of anticipation.  You're forced to listen, to wait, because you never know when that next chord will explode, interrupt.

I agree wholeheartedly with Eric's statement "I think Art would appreciate the music."  And I commend Eric Barber for producing a well-crafted artistically challenging album.  He called it a "labor of love".

One way of honoring Art Jarvinen's memory is to play his music.  Another is to let Art's memory inspire us to make new music.  That's a very good thing and something Art would certainly have understood and approved.

There are many Mixed Meters articles about Art Jarvinen and his music.

1 comment :

Tim Wolf said...

Thanks for this post and Happy Birthday Art! I am looking forward to listening to Eric's recording. So many common threads to those of us who spun for a time in Art's orbit. My relationship was more "eating, discussing, drinking coffee, playing, eating." How many "bands" was Art in? With me, there was a trio, The Caucasians, and then we had a duo, The Folk Hunters. I too have been inspired to make music inspired by the memory of Art, one of these days perhaps I too will share it.