Tuesday, January 31, 2012

David's Divot - long or short

A divot is a piece of sod, a combo of dirt and grass, thrown into the air usually by a horse's hoof or a duffer's club.

David's Divot is a chunk of motivic dirt and grass, two short fragments of melody played somewhat contrapuntally with artificial saxophone sounds. It just refused to fit into the longer piece on which I'm working.  It called too much attention to itself.  So I resolved to excise it.  I would perform a motifectomy.

Feeling guilty, lest I be accused of motificide, I decided to use the divot as the beginning of a separate thirty-second spot. In the final version the divot got bumped to the second phrase.  The spot lasts 51 seconds.

Click here to hear David's Divot (short version) © 2012 David Ocker, 51 seconds

But I wasn't satisfied.  I decided to expand this disjointed music into a longer piece. The expansion method was simple - I added a bunch of silence.  I did change some small details and separated some overlapping ideas.  Even so, the music of the two versions is essentially the same.  The short piece became nearly 8 times longer.

Click here to hear David's Divot (long version) © 2012 David Ocker, 398 seconds

This process is similar to what I did to Jingle Bells last December.   Actually it's backward because that time I made the long version first and distilled it into a shorter one.

I've been interested in pieces which are mostly silence with occasional musical eructations.  I enjoy listening to them simultaneously with more conventional music - like from a radio station - and listening for unpredictable combinations of sound.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Beyond Baroque, Art Jarvinen and Me

This Friday the series Beyond Music will present a concert of the music of Arthur Jarvinen at Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center in Venice California.  I've already written about the music on that concert in this post.

Beyond Baroque has a long history of presenting music concerts.  I performed there several times, including at least two solo clarinet recitals.  On one of those I performed Art's piece Goldbeater's Skin, in the arrangement for clarinet and ratchet.

On another concert at Beyond Baroque, the percussion trio The Antenna Repairmen (Arthur Jarvinen, Robert Fernandez and M.B. Gordy) premiered my piece Bombed! which they had asked me to compose for them. More on that below.

My solo concert was given June 11, 1988.  It was reviewed in the L.A. Times a few days later.  I got a pretty good notice, although Terry McQuilken, the critic, liked Art's piece least of all.  He still referred to its "droll humor."  The ratchet, played by my friend David Johnson, elicited laughter from the audience.  You can hear the laughter on the recording.  Apparently I played the piece a month earlier on the Bang on a Can Festival marathon in New York.

Art's catalog lists the date of Goldbeater's Skin as 1987.  It started as an ensemble piece for XTET.  He had received some prestigious grant which allowed him to compose it.  I was a member of XTET then and we played Goldbeater's Skin a lot.   There's a commercial recording of a version for wind quintet.  I do not remember how or why the solo clarinet version came to be.  In fact, until I was looking through my trove of cassettes last year, I had completely forgotten that this version ever existed.  Or that I had performed it.

Goldbeater's Skin consists of many repetitions of the same melody.  The melody gradually changes with one selected pitched transposed down each time, until the melody reappears at the end in identical form, only lower.  The appearance of each changed pitch is highlighted by the ratchet - a surprising sound in this context.  The ratchet makes a raspy, grinding sound.  Harsh.  Ugly.

Like many of Art's serious chamber works, this one requires concentration from the listener.  He used a certain process in the composition of Goldbeater's Skin.  This process is remarkably easy to hear.

Listen to Goldbeater's Skin by Arthur Jarvinen.

version for solo clarinet with ratchet - © 1988 Leisure Planet Music - 535 seconds
David Ocker, clarinet
David Johnson, ratchet
performed June 11, 1988 at Beyond Baroque, Venice CA

If you want, you can listen to Carbon, Art's solo bass clarinet piece which I performed often and which he dedicated to me.  I briefly used the melody of Goldbeater's Skin in my memorial tribute to Art, Solstice Lights.  Art named this piece after goldbeater's skin.  Here's a picture of some goldbeater's skin.  (It came from here.)

My piece Bombed! was written in 1991 for the Antenna Repairmen.  They premiered it at Beyond Baroque - although I don't remember the date.  Or much else, for that matter.  I do remember that at one point in the concert Bob, Art and M.B. sang Papa Oom Mow Mow.

Art played electric bass, M.B. played drum set and Bob played vibraphone.  I dedicated Bombed! to Frank Zappa - this was years after I had ceased working for Frank.  Bombed! contains a lot of Zappa-esque musical devices - metric modulations, mixed meters and the like.  I played it for Frank once.  He was underwhelmed.  He tactfully reminded me that my future was not in rock and roll.  In most instances Frank had always been very supportive of my activities as a composer.

Bombed! is in three movements which explore the idea of bombed-ness from different angles.  The titles are "Into the Stone Age", "Pan Am 103" and "Out of Your Mind".  Here are the program notes for each movement which I worked into a kind of a sort of a plot:
  1. Into the Stone Age – Three young Americans, believing the sound-bites of their leaders, participate in the destruction of a less significant culture.
  2. Pan Am 103 – Wrapped up in their own problems and fears, they have no conception of what is happening around them.
  3. Out of Your Mind – Our heroes, trying to walk home after the bars close, cannot remember the music they heard that day.
This is not a delicate piece.  Not even the very quiet middle movement - which is about bodies falling out of the sky.

I don't have a recording of the live performance.  This particular recording was made in a studio after the concert.  In the manner typical of my career as a composer the recording has gathered dust on a shelf for over twenty years.  This is the first chance anyone other than myself has had to hear it.

Listen to Bombed! by David Ocker

© 1991, 2012 David Ocker - 515 seconds
Performed by The Antenna Repairmen
Robert Fernandez, vibraphone
M.B. Gordy, drums
Arthur Jarvinen, bass

Movement I: Into the Stone Age
Movement II: Pan-Am 103
Movement III: Out of Your Mind

On the playback page you can find a link to download pdfs of the score and parts to Bombed!  A bit of the third movement "Out of Your Mind" is quoted in my own piece This Is Not The Title.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Star Wars Uncut

Not a Star Wars fan? I suggest that you skip this post.

This is about Star Wars Uncut, Director's Cut.  It's a remake of Star Wars, A New Hope, which (chronologically, at least) was the first Star Wars movie.  Star Wars, of course, is the saga that made George Lucas into a billionaire, made Harrison Ford into such a big star he never had to learn another part, and ended the career of Mark Hamill.

This version was produced by crowdsourcing.  Someone split the original movie into 15-second long segments. Then they let just anyone pick a segment and film it again, using any style, any technique, any actors, any props, any reference, anything they could think of.  All the segments were then reassembled into the full movie.  And you can watch it on the web. 

The final result probably won't make a lick of sense if you aren't familiar with the original.  But if you are a fan and you enjoy pop culture mashups which are so intensely mashed that they border on chaos, then you will love watching this.  I did.  I even burned it onto a DVD and inflicted it on Leslie. (Sadly, she was not impressed.)

In this era of SOPA and PIPA (along with other past and future attempts by a few big corporations to own all of popular culture for the purpose of maximizing their own profits), this movie is an object lesson of how the widely available inexpensive technologies (like video and Internet which have transformed our lives since Star Wars appeared in 1977) let people take their favorite stories and make them grow.  Okay, maybe "grow" is not the right word.  "Mutate" would a better description.

Lots of people spent a lot of time doing this because they love this story.  Star Wars owes a large part of its popularity to the fact that it deals human-scale themes like adventure, honor, religion and love.  It paints these onto a vast galaxy-sized canvas of space travel, alien cultures and high technology.  Throw in revolution and politics, pitting a few good people against evil corporate governments.  Like Lord of the Rings, it is a Ring Cycle of our times, one with actual inspiration for living humans. 

John William's music is in evidence throughout this movie.  In fact, it forms a familiar touchpoint that glues this mess together.  Only few sections parody the music one way or another.

To give you a flavor of just how diverse the art direction of this movie is, I've assembled a few random screen grabs of the two droids - R2D2 and C3PO - into this photomontage.  It's a small sampling of the vast visual variation to which every character is subjected.

(click the picture for an enlargement)

To reference another science fiction classic (that would be The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy) when watching this you should Expect the Unexpected.  Check out variety of methods used to recreate Princess Leia's hair buns.  Or Obiwon's beard.

Here's a picture of the initial entrance of Darth Vader with her four sexy storm troopers as they strut and pose high fashion style onto the captured rebel vessel.  (Notice that their blasters are really hair dryers.)

(don't waste your time clicking this one)

That's enough movie review for now.  Go ahead - watch it!

Or go to Vimeo or YouTube to watch.

If you have ever considered recreating the Star Wars movie using animated ASCII characters ... Sorry, someone has beaten you to it. Visit ASCIIMATION. (Only half the movie, but still an impressive waste of time.)

A previous MM article about Space Opera.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Preparing to hear a concert of Art Jarvinen's music

January 27 of this year would have been composer Arthur Jarvinen's 56th birthday.  On that date there will be a concert celebrating his life and music: 9:00 P.M. at Beyond Baroque in Venice California. (You can find temporal, geographical and economic details for the event here.

The concert is part of a critically acclaimed series entitled Beyond Music.  It is programmed by composer Daniel Rothman, a close friend of Art's.   Daniel has made performances from past concerts available on video at the Beyond Baroque Music YouTube Channel.

There will be two works on this concert.  They are excellent examples of Art's chamber music and will serve as a fine introduction to his more serious endeavors.  Of course Art wrote in many other styles and genres.  No one should imagine that this concert, or any two pieces, could provide an overview of his complete body of music.

The two works are A Conspiracy of Crows for three oboes, which will be performed by Kathy Pisaro - two of the parts will be on tape - and 100 CADENCES with four melodies, a chorale, and a coda ("with bells on!")  for string quartet, performed by the Formalist Quartet.

I have found two interviews in which Art discusses A Conspiracy of Crows.  The first can be found in this fascinating 2007 online interview with musician John Trubee.
Then there's A Conspiracy Of Crows. It's a piece for three oboes in which I didn't consciously choose or compose any of the notes. I just used a series of numbers based on the years of the 20th Century - 1900 1901 1902...1999 - translated into fingering diagrams. I had no way of knowing what would come out, but I had a very good idea of what I thought the piece would "probably" sound like. I never heard a note of it until it was recorded here at my house last summer. It's one of the most beautiful things I've produced, and it fully matched my expectations. My wife is almost frightened by things like that, that I can intuit or anticipate these things. That's why I'm a composer, and some people aren't. 
The second, longer, less edited quote comes from a radio interview with the duo Kalvos and Damien.  Look for show #539 - it's a wide-ranging discussion with Art highlighting a variety of his music. There are plenty of recordings including a segment of A Conspiracy of Crows.  (It's the last piece in the two-hour show.)
The piece is called A Conspiracy of Crows.  To me, one of the intriguing things about this piece, is that, over the course of its twenty minutes, the three oboes are playing such a fascinating range of odd timbres, weird things that sound almost like they were meticulously composed, beautiful random textures, microtones, multiphonics.  The complexity of the sound of the piece, and the kind of richness of texture and timbre and so forth -- I could never have composed.  And literally, there is not one single sonority in the piece that was deliberately selected or chosen by me for any musical or compositional reasons.

All I did was come up with a mindlessly simple progression of numbers which is just the Twentieth Century - 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903 all the way up to 1999.  And assigned each digit from zero through nine to one of the fingers that an oboe player uses to play the oboe.  And it was a short step from there to just produce 400 fingering diagrams with absolutely no thought whatsoever to what comes out of the oboe when you blow into it with your fingers in that position.

It's my most Cagean piece in that it's using a kind of completely unpredictable, well organized - there is this progression of numbers so there are recurring motifs.  Zero is always a reset, so as you go through 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903 there is a logic to the way the fingers are moving and the kinds of fingering diagrams that are being produced.  But no intention or even no concern on my part as to what comes out of the oboe as a result.  So it's very Cagean in that I couldn't predict the results.

I just think its one of my most successful pieces and kind of unique in that it does rely so heavily on non-intention on my part.

The second piece on the program is Art's string quartet entitled 100 CADENCES with four melodies, a chorale, and a coda ("with bells on!")   The recording of this piece by the Formalist Quartet, who will also perform it on January 27, takes nearly 50 minutes.  They recorded it in composer Lou Harrison's hay bale house near Joshua Tree, a place with which Art felt a strong spiritual connection.

Art dedicated 100 Cadences to Stephen "Lucky" Mosko, in memoriam.  Lucky Mosko (1947-2005) was Art's composition teacher at CalArts and someone Art respected highly.  Art felt a great loss at Lucky's death and I know that he felt great responsibility in the writing of a piece to honor and remember Lucky.

It seems quite reasonable to look for clues to 100 Cadences in Art's comments about Lucky's music.  In 1995 Art wrote this biographical sketch of Lucky.  Here's a quote:
When speaking about his own music and methods Mosko often refers to "games". Not the usual games we all know, but self-devised rules of procedure and methods of personal amusement.
Art's own description above about about his method in A Conspiracy of Crows seems like a similar "game" method.  Presumbably such compositional activities went into 100 Cadences as well - although I have no clue what they are.  (I find it interesting that both pieces on this concert involve the number 100 in their structure.)

Art also wrote about the perception of time in Lucky's music:
This moment-form is an outgrowth of Mosko's enduring fascination with music's ability to alter conciousness, especially our temporal perceptions. Ideally, for him, the listener will not be able to say with certainty whether a piece just heard was five minutes or five hours long.
Art must have approached a piece of such length with careful thought.  Choosing to divide the work into 100 sections and to make each one a "cadence", a fundamental element of music theory which appears at the end of a musical phrase, reveals a good deal about how Art wanted a listener to experience musical time.

Wikipedia defines cadence as: "a melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of repose or resolution [finality or pause]." A cadence has the essential quality of conclusion.  Art made this idea the central focus of his piece.

Of course, Jarvinen's cadences are a far cry from the schoolbook dominant/tonic jobs you might have studied.  They move slowly, avoid simple harmonies and mostly keep all the voices in restricted ranges.  The slow progress of the cadences is broken by solo cadenzas for each player.  These are the Four Melodies.

Midway through 100 Cadences is the Chorale, which Art subtitled "The Hymn of All Life Changing".  The Formalist Quartet has shared their recording of the Chorale on their Bandcamp page.  Here it is:

You can find several definitions of the idiom "with bells on!".   Art appended this phrase to the title of his piece in both parentheses and quotation marks, sometimes even adding the exclamation point.  All meanings of "with bells on!" point to excess enthusiasm or intensity of experience.  While the coda to 100 Cadences does end with the players ringing small bells, it is not an ending of energy.  Rather, it is a conclusion of sober reflection and great loss. 

100 Cadences is discussed in this paper entitled Listening to Nothing in Particular: Boredom and Contemporary Experimental Music by Eldritch Priest.  As you might guess from the title, the notion of time passing and how it is perceived comes up.   Priest writes:
I heard a string quartet a while ago by Los Angeles composer Art Jarvinen titled 100 cadences with four melodies, a chorale, and coda ("with bells on!"). As the title suggests, the piece keeps ending, over and over again, each time promising to conclude a musical adventure that never was. Over forty-eight minutes, the consecution of endings, punctuated by solos and glimmering silences, draw out an irritatingly radiant array of mock-perorations. And I am always more or less aware of this: More aware when the sheer materiality of these several endings intrudes upon my sense of contemplation, and less aware when, like Swann listening to Vinteuil's sonata, I am taken away by time passed. I am alternately with the music, my attention buoyed by a procession of simulated extinctions and untimely non-events, and beside the music, dreaming counterfactuals, shifting backward, forward, side to side in fantasies of otherwise. Buoyed in the messy imminence of a perpetual conclusion, my attention floats on nothing in particular, nothing but a series of loose intensities that are now and again interesting, or boring, or both.
Priest provides a pdf score of the first dozen cadences of this piece together with an mp3 of the same.  Here's the first system of the score (click to enlarge):

Priest's telling notion that "I am alternately with the music, ... and beside the music" speaks volumes about how to listen to and, ultimately, understand 100 Cadences.

Articles about Arthur Jarvinen have appeared often on Mixed Meters since the beginning.  Click here to see all Art Articles on Mixed Meters.

Art briefly wrote articles for Mixed Meters under the pseudonym Mister ComposerHead. These, equally briefly, became the Mister ComposerHead blog

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