Thursday, May 31, 2012

Tell The Truth More Easily With Fiction

Here's a short quiz to identify Mixed Meters' Three Readers:
  1.  How many times per month do I post new articles?
  2.  What is a Thirty Second Spot?
If you answered both of those correctly, congrats, you're one of the three.

For the rest of you, here are the correct answers:
  1. Four.  (Whew.  By posting this, I just barely made it again this month.)
  2. Read In Which David Explains 30 Second Spots - one of MM's earliest posts, from October 2005 - which is pretty much still accurate.
Tell The Truth More Easily With Fiction is a brand new 30 Second Spot.

Back during the Classical Period of 30 Second Spots I would compose at Starbucks and eventually pick a title from some snippet of overheard conversation.  However, this particular Spot was composed at home where there is no overheard conversation to overhear.  Instead I turned on the radio to NPR news.  "Tell The Truth More Easily With Fiction" was the first phrase I heard the announcer say.  (The story, which I didn't bother to listen to, was probably about some author somewhere overcoming repression in some country.)

Listen to Tell The Truth More Easily With Fiction
© 2012 by David Ocker 37 seconds

The sound world of Tell The Truth More Easily With Fiction is four saxophones plus temple blocks.  These sax sounds come from my music program, Sibelius 7.  I was investigating various pitch ornaments that the program provides.  The ornaments are called:
  • scoops 
  • doits 
  • falls 
  • plops
These are mostly foreign musical territory for me.  Explanations are here, courtesy of our brave fighting men and women.

All the scoops, doits, falls and plops give Tell The Truth More Easily With Fiction a kind of raucous out-of-control feel.  I played it for Leslie.  She called the piece a "jiggy apertif".  And who am I to argue a music critic who knows as much about my music as she does.  So please enjoy this jiggy apertif.

Two early Mixed Meters posts involving saxophones:

In which David reflects on saxophones, Moondog and automobile ads
In which David hears ten baritone saxophones

I posted nearly every day back at the beginning.

True Fiction Tags: . . . . . .

Monday, May 28, 2012

Conlon Nancarrow Documentary

You couldn't call my relationship to the music of Conlon Nancarrow "love/hate".  It's more "like/dislike".

On the one hand his Studies have a jazzy, powerful, propulsive energy filled with spellbinding rhythms and spectacular gestures.  That's the "like" part.  But the sound of those extra-bright player pianos wears on me.  I lose interest pretty quickly.

The importance of Nancarrow, to me at least, is that he pioneered the notion of the loner composer.  He was the first to write music for a specialized musical device which gave him complete control over all aspects of his music.  That device played the completed finished pieces.  No performers were involved.

As technology has improved over the decades, especially with digital instruments, being a loner composer has become more and more common.  These days a relatively modest investment in computers and software is all it takes to start making music far beyond the capabilities of any performer, real or imaginary.  This is the way I compose and I'm very happy doing it.

I suppose some people are still scandalized by these developments.  If you're such a person, remember that this method of composition is never going to eliminate composers who write for live performers.  It does, I think, force them to write music for the real strengths of performers.  These strengths include the abilities to interpret and improvise.

Also, this is also not going to eliminate live concerts. That's because aspects of live performance, notably something which might be called the 'spiritual' component, that ineffable communication between performer and listener, can't be approached by digitally created performances.

Conlon Nancarrow's music and methods were not precursors to the sequencers, samplers and electronica of today.  I'm not aware of anyone still writing music for player piano.  But he was the first to demonstrate that a composer can have a different relationship to listeners, not by imagining music and then giving it to instrumentalists and singers to perform, but by actually making the music directly using specialized tools in a studio,an analog of the way painters or sculptors do their work.  When finished, the results are shared immediately with an audience.

With this in mind, you can see why I might be interested in a new video documentary about the life and music of Conlon Nancarrow.  This video, which at the moment seems to be called only "Conlon Nancarrow Documentary", is available on Vimeo.  It was produced at the University of Arkansas, the state where Nancarrow grew up.  (The video is in high definition - if you, like me, have trouble getting it to stream, you can download the file in either large or small size for better playback.  I burned mine to a DVD.)

Produced by James Greeson and Dale Carpenter, this documentary starts with Nancarrows childhood years, covers his politics and involvement in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, his move to Mexico City in the 1940s and then his subsequent discovery and late-in-life fame.  There's a section about the composer Trimpin who is hailed as a kind of successor to Nancarrow.  There are talking heads aplenty and a couple performances of early piano works, ones Nancarrow intended for flesh and blood pianists.

The most interesting part, however, which inspired me to write this post, is that this video allows you to actually watch the player pianos playing Nancarrow's piano rolls.  Not just the roll rolling past the tracker, but the actual internal workings of the piano itself - levers flexing, gears turning and wheels whirling.  This is something I've never seen before and I found it particularly riveting.    

During Nancarrow's years of fame his music was performed in concert all over the world - but almost always by tape recordings, not with actual player pianos.  I saw such a concert in Los Angeles - mid-eighties, I guess.  It was at the Japan-America Theater.  The composer was present and he engaged in a question and answer session with the audience, moderated by composer William Kraft.

In this documentary, at one point, a talking head refers to Nancarrow as "shy". That's a good description of how he answered the audience's questions. He gave us virtually no information, preferring to quietly avoid questions. It became kind of funny.

Earlier in the concert there had been a presentation about his life and work. One picture showed a shelf of books about theories of time - a subject one would imagine to be of considerable interest to a composer who wrote music in multiple tempi. Nancarrow's extensive library is shown and discussed in this new documentary as well. As someone who long ago had been influenced by my own readings about time, I decided to ask him if he found any particular books on the subject influential. No, he replied quietly, he couldn't think of any.

Here's an interview with Nancarrow in which he is considerably more informative.

This documentary is, apparently, nearly finished. Here's an additional sequence of talking heads, apparently cut from the video, talking about Conlon's relationship to food: eating fried worms, drinking tequila, eating one fruit while looking at another, his kitchen where he cooked paella or ground curry powder.

Abraham Lincoln Brigade Tags: . . . . . .

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Mister and Mockingbirds

Watch and listen to The Mister and Mockingbirds by David Ocker
282 seconds - © 2012 by David Ocker

It was May 16, 2012, a Wednesday.  The sun was shining directly into our backyard.  That's unusual except at this time of year as the sun journeys north to the spot at which it celebrates the solstice.  The time was about 6:45 p.m.  The sun was low on the horizon, moving down in the west to where, each evening, it celebrates another successful day.  The sun, I guess, likes to party.  And why not?

Leslie was puttering in her "victory" garden (tomatos and strawberries are very big this year) with Chowderhead following on her heels hoping she'll throw the ball or rooting in the bushes hoping to catch a small furry creature or protecting us by barking at other dogs as they walk their owners on the other side of the fence, out on the street.

I sat quietly on the patio watching the two of them.  There was a slight breeze.  Somewhere not far off and a little farther than that and again farther yet, a sequence of mockingbirds sang.  Maybe they were trying to identify the limits of their individual tree domains.  Or maybe that's something mockingbirds just do.

At one point, because she had decided that her hanging ferns needed water, Leslie turned on the misters.

Little hoses run under the patio roof feeding water to nozzles.  These emit sprays of small droplets. More expensive misting systems produce super small droplets and might be used, say, to cool diners on fancy patios at expensive restaurants during hot weather.  You can feel those drops but they're hard to see.  Neither our patio nor our misters could be called fancy.  The misters spray larger droplets and are intended to water the plants.  Even so, if one sits the right distance from them, the spray can be very pleasant - a cooling showerette during any heatwave.

As it turned out, I was in just the right spot not only to enjoy the refreshing mist but to watch the sunlight reflect off each little drop as it fell.  And there were a lot of drops.  During their short lifespans these drops obey twin masters: gravitational attraction and wind currents.   Maybe other masters as well, but my grasp of physics is weak.  Each drop takes a slightly different course to its ultimate destination.  As they fall they swirl.  And they're very good at swirling.

Lit perfectly by the setting sun, the drops followed the wind as they fell to earth, forming sheets and clouds and clusters and more complex shapes and sometimes even shapeless amorphous indescribable masses of moving airborne bits of water, like a thousand monochromatic fireworks all going off at once creating a torrent of cool wet sparks in constant flux.  Each one sang the sun's song as it rode the wind to its own landing point. (1)

I enjoyed watching this show.  It was a near perfect moment.  Simply enjoying it wasn't enough.  I was struck with the notion to capture it on video.

So I pulled the aging point'n'shoot from my pocket and possessively made a video.  I suppose I wanted to save the experience for later.  I concentrated on the cloud of droplets.  "This," I thought, "might be a good video for music." And then I added "David, please try to hold the camera steady."

I think the music I wrote takes more inspiration from the mockingbird song than from the clouds of mist.  That's okay.  There's more than enough complexity in the moving image to keep your eye distracted while your ear listens.  I tried to leave space in the music for the birdsong to come through.  By "space" of course I mean "time".  Or maybe "silence".  I've been writing a lot of silence lately.

I've been fascinated with the musical possibilities of mockingbird song for a long time.  I remember the first time I heard a mockingbird - it must have been 1975.  I had been sent home from CalArts for something called "summer vacation".  Before my long drive back to Iowa I was staying with two of my trumpet-playing buddies who were house sitting for their trumpet instructor in Hollywood.  I was amazed by a bird which sang all night, spinning out a musically interesting continuously changing vocal solo - a John Coltrane bird.  I figured it had been tricked into singing by the bright nighttime city lights, but apparently singing at night is something mockingbirds just do.

Anyway ... I've taken this combination of mockingbird song and clouds of water mist as the basis for a piece of music.  A commemoration of a simple moment in my life, unmemorable except for the fact that I enjoyed it.  Moreover, this is a good example of my desire to make art from the small things in life - the things that otherwise go unnoticed or get forgotten.  Other composers can write music about the meaning of life or great love or destiny or fate or death or whatever eternal cosmic verity they care to choose.  This piece, The Mister and Mockingbirds, is about where I was at on Wednesday May 16, 2012 at approximate 6:45 p.m. and what I did for about 5 minutes.  And that is quite enough for one piece of music.

While we're on the subject of video...

It seems that water and birds are favorite subjects for my videos.  The combination can most obviously be found in Water With Ducks and less obviously in Flap!

The Mister and Mockingbirds video benefits greatly from higher resolution.  But even the 480p version on YouTube still suffers from blocky compression artefacts.  It looks lots better streamed from my hard drive.  Sorry about that.  My grasp of video technology is weak.

And finally an announcement ... I've created a YouTube playlist devoted to my music videos.  It's called David Ocker Music Videos.  There are 19 of them which, according to YouTube, last a total of 54'54".  Almost an hour.  I described the playlist as containing...
Only those videos for which I have composed music, sorted (more or less) beginning with the most recent and ending with the most embarrassing.  My first attempt to put music to a moving image was "Birds Who Don't Know The Words" - in 2007.

I think the species of the mockingbird under discussion here is mimus polyglottos.  A discussion of their vocal habits is here.

The title The Mister and Mockingbirds might remind you of this, but I suggest you not seek out more similarities because there aren't any.

(1) I worked hard to write this paragraph without using the phrase "danced on the wind".  You're welcome.

Mocking Mist Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Brief History of John Baldessari

John Baldessari is a famous artist.  He taught at Cal Arts while I was a student there in the seventies.  Of course I never met him.  Nor do I even remember seeing his works back then ... although I must have, of course.  He is now respected, super successful and much honored - so the works I can't remember must have been pretty damn good.

A couple days ago I encountered an LA Times webpage entitled Tom Waits talks up artist John Baldessari in six-minute video.  As I happened to have six extra minutes at that moment, I watched it.   Fun stuff. Here's the YouTube link:  A Brief History of John Baldessari .

Waits was apparently chosen because Baldessari likes his voice (and also possibly because the two came from the same hometown.)  More than the voice, it's Waits' dry, wry delivery style that contributes so much.  The video itself is a high energy assemblage: the artist as a talking head in his studio, pictures of the artist, his artworks, his stuff, places he's been and lots of moving text and graphic effects.

One quick bit of text (30 seconds in) says that Baldessari has been called "the Godfather of Conceptual Art" but with a telling, sophomoric, hysterical extra on-screen letter F which is conspicuously crossed out.  Guy humor.  Blink and you'll miss it.

(Go ahead, search Google for the phrase "Godfather of Conceptual Fart" to find out if anyone ever really said that about John Baldessari.)

The people who produced this video, no one I've heard of, are credited on the YouTube page.

directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (

edited by Max Joseph (

written by Gabriel Nussbaum (

cinematography by Magdalena Gorka ( and Henry Joost

produced by Mandy Yaeger & Erin Wright

These people are really the reason I enjoyed it so much.  The bouncy pacing, witty writing and irreverant attitude combine to be lots more interesting than John Baldessari's art or Tom Waits' voice.   Rossini and Bizet don't hurt either.  I especially like a great new cadential chord in William Tell (at 1'50").

There's also an apparent reason for the Clint Eastwood reference: this video was produced for a LACMA gala where Baldessari and Eastwood were both feted by rich and famous people, possibly ones with short attention spans.

Later in the film we learn that "John Baldessari believes that every young artist should know three things":

  1. Talent is cheap.
  2. You have to be possessed which you can't will.
  3. Being at the right place at the right time.
That sounds to me like damn good advice, although not great grammar.  All three points ring true in my ears today.  In fact, I wish I had heard that advice as a young composer, like, you know, back when I was studying at Cal Arts.

Of course, maybe I did hear it.  And I just can't remember now.

A recent MM post about another LACMA art project: Floating Rocks.

If you prefer your art in the streets rather than in the museums by artists who don't allow their picture to be taken, here are two MM posts: Street Art Now and Then and Banksy Speaks.

Conceptual Fart Tags: . . . . . . . . .