Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Solstice Lights

Today, precisely at 5:16 P.M., is the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.  Summer solstices are the kind with a long day and a short night.  Elsewhere, somewhere far away to the south, today is the winter solstice: short day / long night.

In general, I like summer solstices better than winter.   That's because I'm the kind of guy who works at night and sleeps during the day but still wants to be awake for at least a few daylight hours.  During the depths of a Los Angeles winter the sun stays up just long enough for me to keep my nocturnal schedule but squeeze out an hour or two of waking daylight.  That way I avoid SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder.

There is one thing I don't like about the Summer Solstice: I know it means that the days will start getting shorter again bit by bit.  I believe the familiar yearly cycle will repeat yet again because it has done that so many times before.  I assume that eventually I will confront winter darkness one more time.  Then, at the Winter Solstice, I will take heart in the notion that days will begin to lengthen bit by bit.

"So what else is new?" I hear you ask - because this is not a particularly new idea.  Solstices and equinoxes were clearly known thousands of years ago to observant people who dragged huge stones forming massive structures so precisely positioned according to astronomical events that not even modern egos can deny that they must have known exactly what they were doing.

I wonder how many millennia before Stonehenge or Chichen Itza some human genius first consciously noticed the yearly cycle.  That must have happened an unimaginably long time ago.  That genius, whoever he or she was, probably also thought that lighting bonfires on the Winter Solstice was a good way to convince our friend the sun to return.  Whatever rituals were performed, they always worked.  The days always started getting longer.  And religions were formed.  Winter Solstice is a time of holidays in many different cultures.

Lights (like those bonfires) are an important aspect of the Winter Solstice celebrations and have gradually morphed in meaning through the ages.   In our electrified times strings of colored bulbs (or LEDs recently) are displayed on many houses.  These lights served as the first inspiration for my video piece, Solstice Lights.

The inspiration came indirectly from the Point'n'Shoot In My Pocket.  While on my daily walk I tried to take video of my neighbors' blinking Christmas lights.   Alas, Mister Point'n'shoot could not focus properly in the dark.  When I saw the results on my computer screen I knew instantly that I would use these glowing abstract circles of color in a piece of some sort.

I first assumed that would be a Jingle Bells piece - my yearly compositional effort to claim some personal control over the seasonal onslaught of Christmas music.   (Previous Jingle pieces are still available for listening.  You can find all the links at the beginning of last years Jingle post A Combination of Jingle Bells and the Internationale.  Lots of fun pictures of Che Guevara as well.)

Indeed, Solstice Lights does have one brief moment of Jingle Bells.   But the work took on a different cast after the death of my friend Arthur Jarvinen in October 2010.  Upon hearing the news I knew immediately that I would need to write a memorial piece for Art.

Arthur himself wrote several memorial pieces.  His very affecting gong solo Out of the Blue, one of the pieces performed as his own memorial service, was a tribute to composer Randy Hostetler who died at a young age.  Art wrote 100 Cadences, a  string quartet, in memory of his teacher Stephen "Lucky" Mosko.  That piece is very Feldman-esque in feel if not in length. 

The most amazing example of Jarvinen memorial work is a beautiful set of pieces called Three Gymnopédies (which will be performed next month by the Pittsburg New Music Ensemble - along with another of Art's works Little Deaths.)  Each of the Three Gymnopédies is dedicated to the memory of a person who died by gun violence.

While I didn't feel capable of writing a fourth Gymnopédie, I did want to create a piece with the feel of timelessness within some sort of cyclic structure.  After a period of collecting musical ideas, mostly in my head, I began work by assembling the video.  Then I composed the music.  The cycles within Solstice Lights are marked by harmonic overtone arpeggios.

Eventually I realized that a fragment from Arthur's piece Goldbeater's Skin, one I performed many times in the past, would fit perfectly into what I was writing.  The opening of the Goldbeater's Skin melody occurs twice, at 7'15" (simultaneous with Jingle Bells) and also at 8'16".   Solstice Lights was finished almost three months ago.  It was not until yesterday that I had the notion of posting it here to coincide with an actual solstice.

Solstices are about long cycles of time.  They are markers of the behavior of natural phenomena like the spinning rock on which we live and the moving bright light in the heavens.  Together these define the thing we call a "year".  Years are real things, not an artificial division of time into segments.  We humans use years to measure our lifetimes.  We often celebrate these yearly cycles with lights of some sort.

Arthur Jarvinen was someone keenly aware of the limits of the human lifespan, not just his own.  You can find references to death throughout his writing and his music.  Some are obvious, come covert.  He may not have known exactly how or when he would die, but I believe he knew all along, somehow, that he would not live into old age.  These are the things I thought about while writing Solstice Lights.  I hope my music communicates those ideas.

If I had to guess at his reaction, I would say that Art would not particularly have liked Solstice Lights, had he been able to hear it.  Like me, he was someone with strong personal independent opinions about music.  In writing it, however, I tried to remember something I heard him say several times, "You have to do your best work."  That's what I tried to do.  I'm certain Art would have understood that part.

Solstice Lights - music and video © 2011 David Ocker 640 seconds
I suggest playing this in high definition (480p) and full screen if possible.

A previous MM article about solstices.
Previous MM posts about Arthur Jarvinen. 

Last fall Carson Cooman composed a piece entitled  Journeybook: in memoriam Arthur Jarvinen for mixed sextet (bass clarinet, soprano sax, soprano voice (or trumpet), drums, violin and cello).  It was performed by the ensemble thingNY

Solstice Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Monday, June 13, 2011

Designer Drug Jewelry by Susan Braig

Saturday afternoon Leslie and I headed north from Pasadena to an event called Art on Millionaire's Row - an arts and crafts show at the Altadena Library. At one time Altadena, nestled into the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, was a gathering place for the wealthy, back when a million was real money.

We knew about the show because our friend Susan Braig, decked out in a white lab coat, was showing her jewelry designs. Susan makes decorative jewelry using discarded drugs. Here's her own description:
My jewelry was inspired after paying nearly $500 for my first chemo-therapy anti-nausea pills, which seemed more like precious gems!

My breast cancer is in remission (5 years), but my debts metastasized because my insurance policy did not cover many of my treatments. Now I have to peddle drugs to pay my medical bills.

The metaphor, "Health care in this country has become a luxury item" evolved into this collection of conceptual jewelry.

The picture is of Leslie and Susan.  The small print on the sign reads:
I have to sell drugs to pay my medical bills!  Health Care should not be a luxury item!
In fact, as Leslie was paying, Susan said "Now I can pay for my last office visit with my Internist."

Last March the L.A. Times ran an article about Susan.  Better yet, they made a video about her.  I recommend watching - you can see Susan at work while she tells her story and get a real sense of the joy she takes from this work.

Here are pictures of Susan's designs which Leslie purchased. The first earrings are Ducolax stool softener, the second are 10 mg. diazapam and the little green pill in the pendant is 2.5 mg. Coumadin.  (Click on pictures for enlargements.)

More from Susan's brochure:
Patient Information

Warnings: Keep out of reach of children!

Directions: All items are wearable and denatured (sealed, glued and no longer usable as drugs or medical supplies)

FRAGILE: Treat with care. Store in a dark cool place, preferably in pill bottle. Avoid prolong sun, heat and moisture.

Dosage: Do not ingest orally, only aesthetically and conceptually.

Side Effects
: May induce irony.
Susan may be reached at ssbraig "at" earthlink.net

Another Mixed Meters post about a creative friend's brush with cancer: Skying with Tom Broadhead

Drug Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Lifespan of Classical Music

Back when I had enough free time to take an active part in other peoples' blogs, I posted occasionally on Daniel Wolf's Renewable Music, a fine example of a composer's blog.  Recently I rediscovered his  Thanatophiles which he originally posted over four years ago.   I responded to it at length but I never cross-posted my essay here.  Now's as good a time as any.  I added a bit of highlighting if you prefer to skim.

First, read Daniel's concluding two paragraphs (although I urge you to read his whole piece - considerably shorter than my response - here):
While it's clear that much of 20th century classical musical life can be characterized by the active rejection of new composition in favor of the interpretation of older work, we desperately need some smarter ideas about the ways in which repertoires integrate or reject innovation, and perhaps we can get some ideas from religious and literary scholarship about the ways in which communities for whom the canon has been closed still maintain a creative life.

We still understand very little about the impact of the various technologies for "fixing" a music -- from oral transmission, to notation, and onto sound recording in its changing modes of exchange. A bit of music may or may not have some platonic ideal behind it which these various technologies reproduce to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy, but these technologies raise all sorts of questions about both liveliness and morbidity and further questions about how to distinguish between these two states in an environment in which a parasitic attachment to past liveliness is -- for better or worse -- a substitute for getting on with real change.
Although I agree with some of your observations, I cannot agree with your conclusion. I think classical music is quite dead. It's easy to overlook this fact because many people still enjoy listening to it and there are many healthy organizations providing performances and recordings. I would argue that's not enough for the music itself to be "living".

Classical music has had defined, unchanging, largely immovable boundaries for many decades. Allowable performance practices have a small acceptable range. When you talk about "classical music" I, and everyone, know exactly what you are referring to. Since the advent of authentic baroque and renaissance performance decades ago not much has changed. Oh, there's more flash and more marketing these days. "Classical" music isn't changing. There's a lot of "new" music asking to be let in. The audiences are not terribly thrilled by it. Chilled would be a better description. Exceptions are so rare you cannot claim they are a revitalizing influence.

You point out that an active academia codifies the practice. Absolutely. Music schools are filled with people who have devoted their lives to finding newer and newer things about a fixed body of knowledge. They teach the "proper" way of playing. Teachers and students may know history but they are still being forced to repeat it.

You point out that other parts of the world have growing classical music "scenes". Doesn't this mean that people are still finding the meaning and elegance which the classics has always provided to anyone who cares to partake? More cynically, it also might mean that other societies are attempting to find some equality with the European musical homeland. There is still class distinction in classical music.

Of course composers continue to suggest paths for a possible future of classical music. They (we) attempt mostly to evolve from what was there before. The performing and recording companies promote a painfully small subsection of these possibilities, based, in my opinion, more on importance than on talent. But few pieces have been accepted by the general audience. Most of the audience prefer to pay to hear their old friends Beethoven or Schumann or Wagner or Brahms again and again. And it's not clear if any of the new "pledges" to the composer pantheon will be allowed to really join the "fraternity". Who since Bartok has really been awarded decades of repeated performances?

I suggest that we would be better off to accept that musics have lifespans - they come and go, they are born, they flower and then they die. We can still enjoy the dead ones, preserved for us in elegant museum-like concert halls. But the formative, creative, socially relevant periods of dead musics have passed. We can honor the fact that they've had a huge influence on our culture and provided great beauty and meaning and challenges to anyone who cares to take advantage of them. As a culture we have concluded that these musics should be preserved and that knowing them is an essential experience of our time. So is experiencing Shakespeare, but I hope no one would suggest Elizabethan theater is not dead.

We should all look to the future with the realization that something new is coming, something that will reflect our present without a restrictive obeisance to the past, something that will mirror the hopes and dreams and fears of a whole lot of living people, who will anxiously wait to find out if their most wonderful dreams or most horrible fears come to pass, who don't have much time to think about music but will know absolutely which organized sounds resonate with their thoughts and hopes and feelings. And which don't.

Those of us who appreciate and revere what came before may not like the new stuff. That's too bad, but there's nothing forcing us to listen to anything in particular. Everyone seems to listen to something. And everyone seems to know what they like.

Finally, the search for new metaphors to describe the death or life of this or that music is itself a living art. Newer and stranger comparisons and analogies are regularly found to prove the same points over and over. The problem is that any music - whether classical, jazz, rock, hip-hop, take your pick - encompasses a vast sweep of society, a long history and varied aspects of culture as to be indescribable as a whole in any simple manner. You could say classical music is an elephant beset by countless blind men and women, each trying to describe their small corner of the beast and each finding a unique descriptor. Yes, that's another metaphor. Oops, I did it again.

Other Mixed Meters attacks on Classical Music's mortality (plus teaser quotes):

If Music Be The Food of Love "Hip Hop, as the magazine cover says, is not dead. However Hip Hop has recently discovered its own mortality."

A New Rhapsody in Blue  "It occurred to me that if many (or even a few) performances of classical music had this level of creativity in them - of even a small fraction of the creativity in this performance - I would not think of it as such a dead art form."

Everybody Loves Beethoven (Probably)  "it is probable that 98% of all Americans these days don't know any contemporary composers at all, and if they did - unlike in Mencken's hypothesis - their reaction to finding out about them would be the shrugging of shoulders and the changing of channels."

Classical Music Isn't Dead, It Just Needs a Rest  "I conclude that in such situations the music is not meant to offer a contemporary perspective. They have other forms of art for that. I fear this music is more like a spa treatment for ones ears."

Could Terry Riley's In C be Accepted As Classical Music?  "Yes, getting this piece into the standard repertory is a long ways off. If it happened, In C would change from a "minimalist classic" into an actual piece of classical music. That would provide strong evidence that classical music has some life left in it."

Lifespan Tags: . . . . . .

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ilf and Petrov

Can you name any Soviet humorists?  I didn't think so.  (Sorry, Yakov Smirnoff doesn't count.)

In Dmitri Shostakovich's memoir Testimony he repeatedly mentions a pair of authors, Ilf and Petrov. Here's a quote from page 142:
The dissatisfied group showered Stalin with declarations, signed personally and collectively. As Ilf and Petrov noted once, "Composers denounce each other on music paper." They overrated composers, they wrote denunciations on plain paper.
and one from page 202:
Of course, I know that an entire brigade of respected Russian dullards wrote a collective book praising that White Sea canal. If they have an excuse at all, it's that they were taken to the canal as tourists one day and the next day any one of them could have been shoveling dirt there. Then again, Ilf and Petrov got out of participating in that shameful "literary camp" anthology by saying that they "knew little" about the life of inmates. Ilf and Petrov were lucky, and they never did find out about that life, the way hundreds of other writers and poets did.

Shostakovich gives the impression that everyone will recognize the names Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, but of course I had no idea who they were.  These two men co-wrote several comic novels in Soviet Russia during the 1920s and 1930s and are also known for an account of their 1935 auto trip across the United States.  Their works have been made into movies several dozen times including once by Mel Brooks.

I was curious, so I ordered a DVD of Brooks' The Twelve Chairs and a new translation of Ilf and Petrov's other novel The Golden Calf.

Mel Brooks made The Twelve Chairs after The Producers but before Blazing Saddles.  Since those are two of the funniest movies I've ever seen, I expected a lot from The Twelve Chairs.  Yes, it's funny but not THAT funny.  The leads are played by Ron Moody, Dom DeLuise and a very skinny Frank Langella as the petty criminal Ostap Bender.  These characters compete to find a fortune hidden in one of twelve identical dining room chairs which had been taken from a nobleman's family by the Communists after the Revolution.  The plot and the film itself remind me of a low-budget It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, if you can imagine that classic happening in 1920's Russia rather than 1960s California.

At the end of the novel version of The Twelve Chairs, Ostap Bender dies.  In spite of that, Ilf and Petrov brought him back as the lead character in The Golden Calf.  Bender, with a small group of friends of ill-repute, are out to con a lot of money from another Russian who has amassed a large illegal fortune.  Although this may have been a tremendously popular and influential book in Russia (where there is even a statue of the lead characters and their junker automobile, a Lorraine Dietrich), I found it only mildly amusing.  However, as a window into a time and place far away where there was a very different society, it's quite fascinating.

I think America could benefit from a wider familiarity with The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf.  In a time when greed is still good and we make heroes of rich people, even those who have twisted the law to get ahead,  and when 40% of Americans expect to be part of the wealthiest 10% someday, it couldn't hurt us to hear a few counter opinions about the meaning of money and the folly of getting rich quick.  Someone needs to ask whether our incessant chase after the almighty dollar is really worth it.

And if that question happened to be couched in comedy and comes to the people of the United States via a pair of long dead Soviet journalists who have earned a permanent place in the collective memory of their own collectivist nation, one reviled here for its anti-Capitalist dogmas, so much the better.

A quote from Ilf and Petrov which I found here:
"The time, that we have, is the money, that we don’t have."

One final note: I've mentioned several times how hard I am on the books I read because I carry them back and forth on my daily walks to coffee shops.  They are exposed to various elements, the foremost being sweat and coffee.  After I have finished a book it definitely looks used.  But my copy of The Golden Calf is a curious exception - it still looks great.  It's a trade paperback and seems to have been printed on particularly high quality paper with a very resistant cover. The publisher, Open Letter at the University of Rochester, is to be commended for a quality product even in this era of e-readers.

The picture of the Golden Calf statue came from here. Both statues are located in Odessa which is now part of the Ukraine.

Ilf and Petrov Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .