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.


One Response to “Arthur Jarvinen (1956-2010)”


  1. casey thomas anderson - less is always more - October 30, 2010

    […] has some nice writing about Art and his work here. Isaach Schankler recently wrote about Art, also, here. Categories: news Posted: October 27th, […]

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