Archive | October, 2010

Arthur Jarvinen (1956-2010)

29 Oct

by Isaac Schankler

Arthur Jarvinen, a brilliant composer and percussionist, passed away earlier this month.  I did not know Art well — I wish I had known him better.  I met Art for the first time a few months ago, and around that time he asked me to be part of a new group he was putting together to perform some of his new electroacoustic music.  The compositions he showed us were incredibly engaging, undeniably innovative and extremely clever, making inspired use of field recordings, amplified strobe lights, Geiger counters, electric bug zappers and shortwave radios.  This is one of the things that makes Art’s death especially distressing to me — that he was clearly in the middle of his creative output, with no signs of slowing down.

Composer Art Jarvinen

One of the many things that inspired and excited me about Art’s music was his unflinching willingness to take risks, sometimes absurd ones, to resist getting too comfortable, to explore new territory.  His music was truly experimental, in the noblest sense of that word.  Too often today, I think, composers are encouraged to find one thing they do well, a certain style or a “voice,” and stick to that, and Art seemed to be rightly suspicious of this impulse.  He expressed this better than I can, in this interview with John Trubee:

I had been working with a particular technique I developed that turned out a number of really cool pieces. But I saw that it could become a habit or a style, something I could do too easily or default to, so I wanted to push the idea to the breaking point such that I could never go back to it and would have to find something new. So I wrote a piece called The Modulus Of Elasticity, which is a materials enginering formula for determining things like how tall you can make a steel pole before it collapses under its own weight. I pushed those ideas to their breaking point. It’s the weirdest piece I’ve ever written, and not one of my best. But I’m proud of it because it did what I needed it to do, which was make me move on instead of kicking back in a creative comfort zone.

This restlessness made Art’s music hard to pin down, hard to classify.  Words like “mercurial” and “unpredictable” are often applied to describe the diversity of his output, and while those are apt descriptors I think they are somewhat incomplete.  There was also an obvious inner logic and rigor to his choices, and often he seemed guided by a mysterious, powerful intuition:

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 – 190019011902…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.

My wish for the future of new music is more composers like Art Jarvinen, who have the bravery to listen closely to their musical instincts and follow them to whatever preposterous and extraordinary places they might lead.  I hope the world has room for them.

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Not Just Garbage: What do I know about art and service?

5 Oct

Musings by Kim Ye

As some of you may know, I’ve recently started the MFA program at UCLA. The following short article is basically me public processing issues touched on in my discussion group last night…

In 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote the Manifesto for Maintenance Art in which she framed everyday chores as performance art pieces. This document drew attention to the fact that certain actions are given cultural and economic value, while others are not. Artists Richard Serra (steel worker) and Donald Judd (carpenter) represent the laborer removed from his cultural context. Their actions recontextualized in the art world appreciated in value in comparison to their blue-collared counterparts who actually refined the processes the artists employed.

What this implies is that those involved/invested in this sector of high culture find value in the development and progress of work that falls under their umbrella. Changing what art means, what art does, what art looks like is valuable. However, the impact of these changes on the culture at large—how it affects the layman—remains largely unexamined or unaddressed. Perhaps lacking is an appreciation for the basic structures that support and make possible the existence of art institutions. Garbage collectors, construction workers, road workers, postmasters, and security guards all play a role in facilitating the day-to-day functioning of museums, galleries, and other art spaces.

So, if the non-traditional actions that artists are employing to create their work—doing chores, providing shelter, giving away food—already exist in contexts that are outside of art, what is the value in bringing these activities into an art context?

Some possible answers:

1.     Artists are attempting to widen the role and responsibility of art so that they can leverage the (often substantial) money and resources within the art world in order to bring tangible benefits to society at large.

2.     In changing the definition of art, artists are hoping to create a trickle-down effect.  Art becomes experience, the dynamics of relationships (relational aesthetics) instead of an item to be purchased or owned. If art is perceived as an experience, then perhaps it is implied that each person is the architect of the experiences of those around her. This may lead people to act in ways that are more conscientious, creative, or progressive.

3.     Art is able to bypass the bureaucratic and legal limitations put on social service groups.  In this way, the artist can have an immediate effect on her environment and create a testing ground for possible solutions to social problems. If the role of the artist is to show what is possible, then this model for art-making fills the gap between theory and programming.

Finally, one last series of questions:

How do we evaluate the success of these service/art pieces? Do we evaluate them by their social effectiveness, or in an art context? Should both be considered, or should some new measure of success be created?

REVIEW: Alt + Piano Literature

2 Oct

Review by Veronika Krausas

On Thursday night September 29th our new Catalysis Projects member ARON KALLAY had his Alternative Piano Literature Recital at USC’s Newman Concert Hall.  It was of my favorite concerts of the year!

Aron with his teapot and pianos at Newman Concert Hall

The concert started with Tom Flaherty’s Shepherd’s Pi for toy piano and electronics.  And what a toy piano!  It was the Ferrari of toy pianos – bright red and Kallay wailed on this red zoomer!

Then Kallay moved over to a retuned piano for Bill Alves’ Paths of the Wind followed by a classical, The Perilous Night for prepared piano by John Cage.  And the culinary highlight of the concert was Alvin Lucier’s Nothing if Real (Strawberry Fields) for piano, amplified teapot, tape recorder, and miniature sound system.  Lucier wrote an arrangement of the Beatle’s Strawberry Fields.  First the pianist plays a fragmented version on the piano and it is recorded and played back through a small loudspeaker hidden inside a teapot.  During the playback, the lid of  the pot is raised and lowered, changing the audibility and resonance.  It was wonderful to have a lovely ceramic teapot (whose lid you could sometimes hear as it was replaced on top of the pot.)  Kallay also positioned the pot on the lovely red sports car … I mean toy piano!


The second half included Annie Gosfield’s Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers – a monster of a work that grooves and at the same time challenges the listener with a complex and compelling aural tapestry.

The concert had a grand finale by the other new Catalysis Project’s artists in residence Isaac Schankler.  The piece was Man on Wiire, an acrobatic work that demands tremendous agility and precision from the pianist.  I forgot to mention that Aron (aka the pianist) has a Nintendo Wii controller strapped to his right forearm.  This fancy schmancy device monitors the performer’s movements and electronically modulates the piano’s sound.  When the performer is most at rest, it’s more of a basic piano sound. When there’s greater movement by the pianist, there are greater disturbances.  Schankler writes “much like the disturbances of a taut wire as the tightrope walker makes his way from end to end.”

It was a superb concert – welcome to Catalysis Projects boys!

He used to raise a storm in a teapot.                                                                                                                               – Marcus Tullius Cicero