Wednesday, September 06, 2023

William Kraft Centenary

Today is a big day for my friend composer William Kraft, who passed away in 2022.  It's his centenary.  Better known to his friends and colleagues as Bill, he was born in Chicago on September 6, 1923, exactly 100 years ago today.  

Young William Kraft (colorized by

Last year I wrote two Mixed Meters articles in his memory, one about his music and the other about my personal memories.  I've written about someone's first 100 years only once before.  That was Bill's very good friend David Raksin, whose second century began in 2012.

Here are four videos about Bill.  

The first is a PBS documentary A Concerto for Mona made to accompany the premiere of his piano concerto.  In it he speaks, quite eloquently, about his music and about being a composer.  There are scenes of Bill hunting for good sounding instruments in a junk yard.  There are shots of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  The sound and video are maddeningly independent.  And this 14-minute video ends with over four minutes of credits.  Are you ready for some seventies television?

Here's another television clip, somewhat later, which shows Bill playing timpani with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Someone edited the tape to show only the moments featuring Bill's timpani playing.  Also, it's a very cool Dvorak mash-up.

After Bill passed away, I made two short memorial videos.  These use pictures of him that I had taken through his office window.   The first is a collage of still shots:

The second shows Bill actually composing.  I believe it's his piece Songs of Flowers, Bells & Death.  You can faintly hear him through the glass checking harmonies.  Eventually he notices me and reacts in a very  Kraftian fashion.

Fun but irrelevant fact: did you know that the word scofflaw was invented in 1923, the same year Bill was born?

Saturday, September 02, 2023

Wesley "Scoop" Nisker

Can you remember anything you did on June 13, 1964?  I can remember getting a lesson about life on that date - with an assist from my first cousin Wesley Nisker.  Wes passed away recently at age 80. 

Wesley "Scoop" Nisker (1942-2023)
Wesley "Scoop" Nisker (1942-2023)

Along with my parents and other family members, I was attending Wes's college graduation at the University of Minnesota Memorial Coliseum (seating 56,000).   We had driven nearly 300 miles to attend.  It was a big event in my young life.  I was 12 years old, Wes was 21.

Anyway, a group of family members were walking to the ceremony through a parking lot with the huge stadium looming above us.  I piped up enthusiastically, saying how excited I was that Wes was "finally completely finished."  

"No, David," someone explained, "Wes has just reached the beginning."  Then a pause before the punchline  "Why else would they call it a Commencement?"  

excerpt from University of Minnesota 1964 Graduation program highlighting the name Wesley Nisker

I was dumbstruck.  I had no answer to this.  The huge importance of a college degree had already been heavily impressed upon me of course.  Until that moment, I had never ever considered that I might have a life of some sort beyond the seemingly endless years of school which completely consumed my own future.  This new notion seemed both obvious and bizarre.  My mind was blown.  I've never forgotten that moment.  

Wesley and our Grandmother

Imagine, hypothetically, just then, back in 1964, that the sky had opened and a mysterious voice had revealed the future and told us all about Wes's life for his next 60 years after commencement.  We would have been confused.  Probably we would have understood phrases like "he'll move to San Francisco and get a job at a radio station".  On the other hand "he'll become a teacher of Buddhist meditation" wouldn't have meant anything to a group of Midwestern Jews during the mid-Sixties.  

"A what, now?" we'd ask.  
"A spiritual leader," the voice might explain.  
"You mean, like a Rabbi?"  

very young Wesley "Scoop" Nisker at the window

Years later, when adult Wes told his actual life history on stage or in books he would mention starting out as the only Jewish boy in a small otherwise all-Christian Nebraska city.  Despite the isolation, his parents (my Aunt and Uncle) still wanted him to be bar mitzvah (call it Jewish "commencement").  He would talk about how his parents hired a "circuit rabbi" who arrived by Greyhound each week to teach him the rituals.   This unique, solitary religious upbringing helped to spark his life-long search for spiritual meaning and identity.  It was the beginning of his origin story.  Here's how he wrote about it in his book "If You Don't Like the News, Go Out And Make Some of Your Own":
"My bar mitzvah lessons involved memorizing long passages of Hebraic script that made no sense to me, in preparation to join a Jewish community that, in my home town at least, did not exist. My entire rite of passage and spiritual initiation were thus almost completely devoid of meaning." (on page 3)
young Wesley Nisker with his father Jack
Wes Nisker and his father Jack

I grew up in a different midwestern town, a slightly bigger one with more Jews, one state over, only 75 miles from where Wes spent his childhood.  After high school I also escaped to higher education in Minnesota and eventually lost my use for Jewish faith.  Then, after college, we both left the Midwest  and happened to catch similar trade winds, washing ashore in California.   And that's where we both stayed.

l to r: Jack, Esther & Wesley Nisker, Edythe and David Ocker - Thanksgiving 1953
Wesley offers a toast - Thanksgiving 1953
(that's me on the right)

When Wes and I lived in the Midwest, our mothers - who were sisters - kept their families in close touch.  They managed to get us together for holidays and birthdays multiple times per year.  If Wes and I had remained Midwesterners we might have stayed much closer.  I'm pretty sure that neither us would have been the slightest bit happy about living out our lives in the land of cows, corn and conformity to which our Grandparents had emigrated from the other side of the globe.  

Wes Nisker as a baby with his sister Jan
Baby Wesley with his sister Jan

Other than the incredibly general similarities which brought us from the Midwest to the Left Coast, our lives were extremely different.  Wes landed in the Bay Area during the late 60s in time to become a hippie; I arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-70s to attend an institution founded by Walt Disney.  Wes got a job doing irreverent anti-establishment news broadcasts on an alternative rock station (which is where he earned his nickname "Scoop").  I got a job working for Frank Zappa.   Wes traveled to India and eventually became what I dubbed a "traveling rebbe", on the road teaching meditation seminars, although I doubt he traveled on buses.  I did different stuff.  

Wesley Nisker has a drink before being married - August 1966
Wesley steadies his nerves
before getting married in 1966.

Wesley and I ended up with very different lives.  We were separated by nine years, although the difference in age seemed less important as we got older.  The Bay Area and L.A. are only about 500 miles apart, but Wes and I followed our life paths as part of very different social groups.  One might sometimes think that we lived on different planets.   

Even so, our early family ties kept us in contact, more or less.  This was a lot harder once our parents passed on.  We met up infrequently, mostly to remember the old days and share quick generalized catch-ups on the lives we had chosen.  He never stopped being my very hip older cousin.  There's a small part of me that never stopped wanting to be like him somehow or other.

Jack, Esther, Rose and Wesley Nisker
Jack, Esther, Rose and Wesley Nisker

As the only child of Wes’s doting Aunt Edythe, I inherited a trove of family pictures.  The trove includes many photos of Wesley during his Nebraska and Minnesota periods.  The pictures run from Wes's early childhood into middle age when he had started his own family.  

Mudita Nisker, Edythe Ocker, Wesley Nisker - Sioux City Iowa
Mudita Nisker, Edythe Ocker, Wesley Nisker
in Sioux City Iowa

If you know and love his commentaries about political life and about spiritual life and about just plain life, you might enjoy seeing these snaps of Wes.  But let's face it, I'm really writing about him for my own personal reasons.  He was someone who knew me for my entire life.  He seemed to be someone trying to come to terms with time and change and self-acceptance.  His death makes me think about my own eventual death and leaves me with an unresolved regret that we weren't closer.  I would have loved to have known him better.

David Ocker, Leslie Harris, Wesley Nisker - Santa Monica, 1992
David, Leslie and Wesley in 1992

I don't remember ever telling him my Commencement Revelation story in which he played the lead role.   Had I done that, I can easily imagine him responding with a story - or a joke -  possibly about how death was also commencement.   Here's a quote from his book Crazy Wisdom:

"If life is a joke, death is the punch line. If life is a tragedy, death means the show is over and we can leave for home. If we have many lives, as believed in the East, then we must also have many deaths, so we might as well get good at dying." (page 203)
Four early headshots of Wesley Nisker (1942-2023)

Wes was extremely good at finding correlations between science and spirituality and then finding thought-provoking ways to share what he had found.  While the notion of rebirth never became part of my own beliefs, I figure it's important to try to keep an open mind about such matters - even though, to me, it's a notion from a whole different universe.  

Wesley Nisker - plays guitar, leaves for Europe
Wesley Nisker - plays guitar, leaves for Europe

So, Wesley, if you're out there - and by some chance you're reading this post - why not get in touch.  Let us know how you’re getting along in the great beyond.  You could blow my mind again by sending a sign from whichever afterlife you've landed in - like a new book or a commentary or maybe a new radio show.  Possibly you'll call it “If you don’t like this heaven, go out and make one of your own.

Young Wesley on his tricycle

Wesley Links:
Wes's Website (with lots of video, audio and writings)
Wes's articles for Inquiring Mind (a journal he co-founded)
John Cage and the Music of Sound (one of those articles)
A Liberal Scoop of Wit and Sanity (an article about Wes which begins with the line "SCOOP NISKER once shot William F. Buckley with a water pistol.")

Terrence McKenna interviews Wes in a park:

Posts about Wes's and my mutual family on Mixed Meters:

What Is It Like To Be Dead? (far and away the most read Mixed Meters post ever)

Young Wesley Nisker - high school musician (with his sister Jan)
Young Wesley Nisker - high school musician (with his sister Jan)

Many of these pictures were colorized using the artificial intelligence at