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Misfits and Hooligans Interview: Isaac Schankler

22 Apr

In the first in our series of interviews with artists leading up to Misfits and Hooligans concert on April 28, we talk to composer, accordionist, and Catalysis Projects Core Artist Isaac Schankler.

Isaac Schankler

Can you tell us a bit about your work that’s being presented on the concert?

Sure! Two of my compositions are being performed. Daniel Corral and I are playing Chocolate Phase for accordion duo and electronics, which is inspired by a song called “Chocolate Rain” by Tay Zonday. “Chocolate Rain” was an unexpected hit on YouTube in 2007 (I can’t believe it’s that long ago already). It’s a pretty strange song, very repetitive — the chorus and verse share the same melody — but also oddly compelling. The production of the synths and drums make it seem kind of goofy at first, but over time it begins to acquire this cumulative power of a litany or a recitation. And the words actually detail this pretty scathing picture of institutionalized racism.

Of course, the popularity of the song, or at least what people were saying about it, seemed to have little to do with any of this. It seemed to be more about the incongruity of Zonday’s deep voice and his nerdy appearance, or his odd mannerisms like moving away from the mic to breathe. I’m fascinated by this process. What does it mean when a musical artifact takes on a life of its own, and becomes appreciated for reasons completely outside the artist’s intention? Despite this disconnect, I find myself unable to let go of the idea of music as communication or expression. So I was curious to find out what might happen if I took musical material from the song and presented it in a different context.

Chocolate Phase takes the song’s main piano riff and runs it through a bunch of phase processes, where four versions of the riff gradually shift out of unison. It’s similar to what you’d find in Steve Reich’s early minimalist music (Piano Phase, Violin Phase).

It’s actually a great riff for that purpose; there’s a nice compound melody with multiple lines embedded in it, so when you phase shift it, all these things come tumbling out.

I guess in a way this was an attempt to render the musical material in a more “abstract” setting, more distanced from the specific qualities of the YouTube video. The irony is that of course it’s connected to a very specific musical tradition of late 60s minimalism. Zonday himself has a very idiosyncratic attitude toward musical traditions:

In many ways, I feel like a musical orphan. I’m not sure who my influences are. Growing up, I learned to hide the fact that I had any passion or enjoyment for music or life. Being ‘influenced’ to laugh or dance was always a sickness or pathology. It made my parents fearful that they were losing their kids. To this day, I’m not sure you could get me to admit that I was influenced by anything. It’s just beaten out of the way I think. Perhaps people call my music ‘unique’ because I don’t feel beholden to any influences.

I love Zonday’s heretical idea of a music without influences — take that, Western canon! — and the fact that he felt compelled to make music despite his restrictive upbringing. Chocolate Phase is really an homage to that attitude, and I hope it’s appreciated in that spirit.

The other piece, Mobile II (“Dear Mr. Edison”) for viola and electronics, is another kind of animal entirely. It uses two source recordings from the very early days of recording technology. The first is a speech given by composer Arthur Sullivan in October 1888, thanking Thomas Edison for his invention of the phonograph. One part of the speech stands out:

I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening’s experiment — astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.

It was only natural, then, for me to consider his speech itself as musical material. My approach here owes a debt to the music of Austrian composer Peter Ablinger (Voices and Piano).

The second recording is  an excerpt of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt performed in June 1888. Recorded from over 100 yards away and subject to over 100 years of decay, the chorus of 4000 voices is almost obscured by noise artifacts from the degradation of the wax cylinder. Often the technological medium itself seems to have its own musical agenda; the piece explores the wonder and terror conjured by that agenda. Alma Lisa Fernandez (of the Eclipse Quartet) is playing the viola part, and she’s doing some amazing things with it!

Do you consider yourself a hooligan or a misfit? Or both? Or neither?

I like the construction of the word “mis-fit” — taken literally it’s not even really an insult. It just means something that doesn’t quite gel with other things. Most of my pieces are probably misfits in some way. They don’t even fit with each other. Someone reminded me recently that “eclectic” can also be a compliment or an insult.

Tell us about the most memorable oddball instrument you’ve ever encountered.

From recent memory, I have to say I really appreciated the melodicas with foot-operated air pumps in the premiere of Oscar Bettison’s Livre de Sauvages by the LA Phil chamber players. As an accordionist I think about breath a lot, but the breathing of the accordion bellows is always kind of incorporeal — it happens outside your body. Bettison’s piece featured the most visceral aural depiction of the bellows that I can remember hearing, almost like the ragged breathing of some dying animal. In the best possible way!

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Blocking the Exits: The Slowpocalypse is Here

11 Aug

Notes from the Studio: Catalysis Project’s Resident Artist Isaac Schankler talks about his recent collaboration with video artist Christopher O’Leary, Blocking the Exits (currently on display at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions).

What is the nature of our culture’s fascination with the apocalypse? This dystopian thread connects so much of our literature, our films, our popular consciousness. There’s something riveting about the spectacle of it all, something that seems to mask a hidden desire, or at least conflicting impulses. What does it mean when you take something horrifying and render it beautiful? What are the aesthetics of the apocalypse?


These are some of the pointed questions implied by video artist Christopher O’Leary’s Blocking the Exits. In his words, the project “depicts an apocalyptic world where four characters have the final experience of crumbling pillars of civilization: water, food, energy and communication.” When Chris asked me to supply a soundtrack to this quasi-narrative video, I jumped at the chance (since I too am not immune to the fascination of the apocalyptic).

The visual aspect of Blocking the Exits consists of still photos that are then animated through morphing algorithms. Chris’s images are extremely stylized; there’s no attempt to disguise or apologize for the influence of comic book art. For a composer like me this is wonderfully inspiring; his images are so evocative that when he first showed them to me I had almost immediate sonic “images” come to mind.

There’s also a mesmerizing slowness to the morphing animations, and this led me down some musical paths that are a bit unusual for me. I composed four electronic musical vignettes, one for each “character” in Chris’s video. Each vignette follows a very simple process from one sonic place to another (e.g. low to high, sparse to dense, and so on). Each process is drawn out so that the development is almost imperceptibly slow, and the video also dynamically cuts between characters, making the processes even harder to track from beginning to end.

Usually when I’m working out a composition I feel compelled to subtly shade these processes, to round off the edges and hide the seams — or if I’m feeling more antagonistic, to disrupt and complicate these processes with even more processes! But in this case it seemed to fit the project to doggedly pursue something to its bitter end. Here the end of the world doesn’t happen with a bang but as a dull, persistent roar. It happens while we’re not looking or listening: an ongoing, inevitable, eternal moment.

Blocking the Exits is on display in the Speculative exhibit at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028) until August 28th.

Interview with Chris Kallmyer

27 Jun

INTERVIEW BY ISAAC SCHANKLER.  Back in April Chris Kallmyer invited the ensemble TempWerks (Casey Anderson, Scott Cazan, Andrew Tholl and me) to perform in FERMENT[cheese], a concert and cheese tasting event at the Berkeley Art Museum.  (You can see video of it here.)  Since then I’ve wanted to ask him a few questions about his practice, which crosses so many interdisciplinary lines — as a performer, composer and sound artist he’s just as likely to be influenced by architecture or the outdoors as something of musical origin.  Additionally, Chris is the Curator of Sound Programming for the Machine Project.  Chris, thanks for letting me interview you! -IS

 

One of the things I really enjoyed about FERMENT (and that I’ve noticed about your music in general) was the sense of place/space — both in the sense of how it really utilized the unique qualities of the space and how it evoked a really strong sense of (an altogether different kind of) place.  I wonder what role you see place/space having in your music and how it affects your creative process.

Usually, I don’t create music before I visit and try to understand the space/place.  When I spend time sitting in an architecture or environment I begin to get a sense of what sounds I’d like to hear there — or what sounds will best expose the nature of that space to a listener.  Conversely, with a project like FERMENT, I’d like to graft the sense of one place or tradition (cheese making) onto the present space (the environment at the Berkeley Art Museum).  Focusing on place, is another way for me to focus on the present moment.

More recently, you wrote a giant piece for 100+ musicians that was part of the Northern Spark Festival in Minneapolis.  Are the things you write “bound” to specific places somehow?   What happens if that piece then happens in another place?  Is the music you make in California somehow qualitatively different from the kind you make in Minnesota?

Most of the things I create are bound to a space — but can be moved and altered to better fit different environments.  For a piece like FERMENT[cheese], I had already done two versions in the past, a six-channel rendition for Machine Project, and one with three home stereos for the Little William Theater (a coatroom at the Hammer Museum). Both of these versions were too active for the resonant space in Berkeley, so the project got redesigned into a two-channel (8 speaker) installation built from Max/MSP.  Furthermore, I wanted to invite [TempWerks] to perform inside the installation, and had to create version with room for the group.

I try to create music that is specific to context.  So, if the piece is created for Minneapolis, I’d like to use local musicians, local resources (the Mississippi river), although I fully recognize that I’m also tied back to my own aesthetic — so I’m afraid that my Minneapolis music (although inspired by, and created for that place) may have aspects similar to other works I’ve done recently.

Has your experience curating for Machine Project affected your practice in any way, unanticipated or deliberate?

I think it has.  I now think more about design, and how people interact with sound or an event.  In an unanticipated way, I’ve become fairly obsessed with creating site-specific design prompts – and because of this, have had a hard time developing projects that can easily tour from one space to the next.   But then again: this is an issue with design!  To tour, I need to create a project that fits in a suitcase, and would work in the average gallery setting.

I also kinda believe that composing is curating on a micro level.

The LA Times once said of one of your compositions, “not everyone would call this music.”  Dare I ask what your reaction or response is to a statement like that?

Ha! I think it is a great quote.

I hope to bring my music closer to the sounds we experience every day . . . so I run a risk that people will see my music as abstract or mundane.  But music should be mundane — like life.  I like sounds that are earthly, rough shorn and chaotic — but also beautiful and clear at times.  When people stumble into one of my pieces they often don’t know how to engage with it, or don’t know its going on.  This discovery of sound opens them to see it in different ways, or to fully ignore the piece!   People are welcome to do either.  Both are valid.

Well, and you present music in situations where you might not expect to find it otherwise.  Is this because you’re not satisfied with the traditional concert hall ritual experience?

Despite my usual mood about traditional concert ritual, I secretly love it.  I didn’t grow up going to see classical music, so its still very exotic, exciting, and fulfilling to me.  There is something very essential about sharing a sound with another person: sitting across from a musician in a comfortable environment, giving the gift of attention, and receiving a graciously prepared performance.  This form has lasted for thousands of years from early story telling to the present time.  I just think most of our performances are equally handicapped by this ritual, or limited arena for listening.  Our experimental music is presented in a traditional context, and I think we should experiment with the ‘container’ of our performances — and let each new environment or context dictate the music we play.

It seems to me you had a pretty roundabout path to being a composer, too.

I did have a bit of a roundabout path!

I used to play in an indie rock band in Washington DC, where I grew up in the Maryland suburbs.   I then went to music school to study trumpet where I heard classical music for the first time.  This was a huge.  Mahler, Strauss, Reich, Reiley, Bach, Machaut, etc. . .  I dropped my Music Education degree to prepare myself as an orchestral trumpet player.  I spent some time in northern Italy where I studied more trumpet, prepared for auditions, and played with orchestras passing through our small town of Alba (like the Romanian Symphony and the Orchestra della Valle d’Aosta).  I had a great time (wine, coffee, food, culture), but was totally miserable playing with these groups!  There was no sense of community, or camaraderie — so i quit doing that and applied to CalArts to study new music as a performer.  While at CalArts, I stumbled upon the writings of John Cage, James Tenney, R Murray Schafer, etc. . . and consequently began to compose dispersed works for brass musicians and car horns in our parking lot. In 2008, I started working with Machine Project on site-specific works for elevators, igloos, coatrooms, and bison dinners.

I’ve become comfortable with my hybrid practice as a trumpet player, sound artist, and curator.   In Los Angeles, I can fulfill all parts of my practice, collaborating with my peers on new projects, participating in the experimental music community, and working with local collectives like Machine Project and wild Up.

OK, thanks!  One last stupid question.  What is your favorite animal?

Right now, I’m very fond of cows.  Jersey cows.

REVIEW: Microtextual at the Microfest 2011 concert series

5 Jun

MicroTextual

Catalysis Projects

April 16, 2011

MiMoDa Studio, Los Angeles

Review by CP composer Veronika Krausas

One of my favorite things is bilingual poetry books – English on the right side and the original on the left.  Sometimes it’s a foreign language I understand but often not. Still, it makes me feel a little bit like a traveler to an exotic place – comparing the alternate versions.  It feels like a magical and secret world that is private and I’m opening up a little cabinet of wonders to enjoy and watch sparkle. 

CP’s MicroTextual, curated by Aron Kallay, for me was just like that – a land of wonder, from the moment you walked into MiMoDa.  The space was transformed to an art exhibit with soft lighting and mysterious scrolls hanging from the ceiling and paper-origami-poof lamps  (my term) and a super cool vibe.  This concert featured many of the Catalysis Projects artists and what a collection of creativity and performances it was.

The reason I bring up bilingual poetry books is that the work of Quintan Wikswo is a 3-D version but so much more.   Her ‘cabinet of wonders’ included two wonderful works combining her texts with sublimely beautiful video footage.  They’re from her Floriography collection:  Floriography I (Coimbra 1541) and Floriography II (Bavaria 1543).  Her term is a “diptych of text-integrated video installation.”  

Wikswo "Floriography"

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the back wall, in amongst the mostly red images floated text, in English, while Rafael Liebich read, as an echo, the same text in Portuguese, with trombonist Matt Barbier playing a microtonal composition by David Rosenboom.  In the second work, the texts were read in Hebrew to a soundscape of flies and frogs.  These pieces were a visual realization of bilingual poetry books.

Wikswo: FLORIOGRAPHY II: COIMBRA 1453

Starting the program was the amazing Honey, Milk and Blood, a collaboration by composer Isaac Schankler and visual artist Kim Ye, inspired by the ideas of Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla.  The scrolls were explained – they were functional art!  It was the score for the dozen singers, dressed in off-white flowing clothes.  The soprano soloist Andrea Zomorodian was herself a sculpture, a kinetic sculptures by Ye, a mermaid plant with a long root carried out by her attendants.  LOVED the music, LOVED the kinetic sculptures – it was the first sparkle opening up the cabinet of wonders.

Schankler/Ye: HONEY, MILK AND BLOOD

And what microtonal concert would be complete without some quintessential Harry Partch, the grandfather of American microtonal music?  The Barstow:  Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions by Partch was brilliantly performed by baritone and guitarist John Schneider, one of the co-directors of the Microfest series this year and Aron Kallay on chromelodeon.  

The second half of the concert started with a minimal and very serene work by Cat Lamb, The Field (for Agnes)There was a world premiere by Jeffrey Holmes, Fragments for soprano and piano.  The vocal line is more of a chant or what Holmes calls “a spell” in a series of images that use text from a variety of anonymous Latin sources. It was a Teutonic saga full of rich harmonies and virtuoso piano writing.  The virtuoso piano part was expertly performed by CP member and organizer of the whole evening pianist Aron Kallay

Holmes: Fragments

The most amazing thing about this piece was visual and completely accidental. I just happened to be lucky enough to be sitting in the exact spot to notice – Katherine Giaquinto, the singer was standing in a spot that when I looked in the mirror on the opposite wall, her body was replaced by the reflection of one of those paper-origami-poof lamps.  This alternate body was like another sculpture by Kim Ye and added to the chant-like Latin text’s magical and removed quality.

The concert concluded with Luminenscence, a gorgeous work by this year’s other co-director of Microfest, Bill Alves.  In his program notes Alves writes:

… an oton [is] a ritual that is performed 210 days after the birth of a child when the baby’s feet touch the earth for the first time. Before that time she is considered still too close to the realm of the gods to be allowed to touch the ground. The only music at this ceremony came from the chanting of the officiating priest and the small bell whose sounds he wafted to the fascinated baby’s ears.  Those chants, or mantra, are … a way of tuning oneself to the vibrations of the universe. These are in a very real sense the sounds of the transition from the celestial to the terrestrial world.

The singers now changed from white to black – from light to dark – balancing the visual and aural in the concert, touching the audience’s feet to the ground.  The whole evening was a wonderfully surreal and dreamlike experience.

PS

If you, like me, love bilingual poetry books – definitely check out The Madness of Amadis by Jean Cassou, translated by Timothy Adès  (Agenda Editions).  Cassou (1897-1986), was a war-time Resistance leader, created France’s National Museum of Modern Art, and a poet!  It’s wonderful poetry and a brilliant and sensitive translation.

PS #2

The concert was part of the Microfest Concert series that started in LA in by the fabulous John Schneider in 1997.  www.microfest.org

MicroTextual Musings: Isaac Schankler Interview

11 Apr

In the last of our interviews leading up to the April 16 MicroFest event, composer/performer Isaac Schankler talks about the composer as abacus, the omnipresent 60Hz hum, and science fiction eeriness.

MicroTextual will premiere Isaac’s piece Honey, Milk and Blood, with soprano Andrea Zomorodian and conductor Troy Quinn.  Here are the particulars:

MicroTextual:  music with words | words without music
Saturday April 16 | 8:00pm
MIMODA STUDIO
5772 W. Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90019
Enter though Paper or Plastik Cafe
$15/10 online or at the door
CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE AND BUY TICKETS:
www.catalysisprojects.com/microtextual.html

CP-Text can be understood as a code – a symbolic mark-making that some others can “read,”  but yet completely unintelligible to people not fluent in that language.  How important is it to you whether your “text” conveys a comprehensible meaning or communication to your audiences?

IS-Honey, Milk and Blood incorporates a text by Jillian Burcar, a wonderful writer who I’ve collaborated with a few times now.  It’s inspired by an old interview with the inventor Nikola Tesla, who had these radical predictions for the future, including this notion that society would become matriarchal and have this hive-like collective organization.  Jillian’s text is, in a way, a depiction of this society, but what’s great about it is that it’s this very open-ended and free-flowing amalgam of scientific language, poetic symbolism and almost violent imagery, so you can focus in on different aspects of it and come away with very different impressions or conclusions.

I’m drawn to things like that, where things seem to be on the cusp of a comprehensible meaning without ever fully resolving, and it’s something I think music can do really well.  We tend to think of music as emotional or expressive medium, but these emotional associations can vary a great deal from person to person or from culture to culture.  I think in the 20th century there was a lot of skepticism of this and so you see movements to make music totally abstract, to make it some analog or elucidation of a mathematical or objective process, in everything from serialism to minimalism.  But if you rigorously adhere to that process something is lost — you’re not operating as an artist but some kind of glorified abacus.  So for me at least, the process becomes some kind of negotiation between abstraction and expression, and the inevitable imperfections that result are what gives music its beauty and meaning.

CP-Why do you choose to compose in a microtonal language?

IS-I don’t always compose in an explicitly microtonal language, but when I do I’d say it’s largely driven by my background in electronic and electroacoustic music.  When working with electronics it’s really trivial to produce any frequency you want, and if you do any kind of electronic analysis it’s impossible not to notice that all music is inherently microtonal, in a sense.  Almost every sound is made up of harmonics that don’t fit in the equal tempered scale.

The kind of microtonality explored in Honey, Milk and Blood came out of some research I was doing for Light and Power, a chamber opera about Nikola Tesla commissioned by Juventas New Music Ensemble that Jillian wrote the libretto for.  I found out that Tesla was directly responsible for making 60Hz the operating frequency of alternating current throughout North America.  So this low 60Hz hum you hear everywhere, coming off power lines, appliances, stereos, florescent lights… it’s all Tesla’s fault.  It’s normally an unwanted sound, a sound you want to try to weed out or minimize, but I thought it would be interesting to use as a foundation instead.  It’s an especially troublesome sound because it doesn’t fit in our equal tempered tuning system — it’s almost exactly halfway between a low B and B-flat.  So I built a kind of ad hoc microtonal scale based on harmonics of 60Hz and harmonics of 49Hz (basically a low G).  For me this scale became a kind of link between our world and the world of Tesla, and there are some mesmerizing sonorities that came out of that.  There’s not really any grand scheme or theory behind it, though — it arose from the needs of the piece, and the next microtonal piece I write may have a completely different approach.

CP-The term microtonality is generally applied only to music that uses a tuning system other than twelve-tone equal-temperament.  However, we believe that, because microtonality breaks down one of the fundamental building blocks of western music (the tyranny of the twelve), it is a term that can be applied to other disciplines of artmaking.  Do you see microtonality in your, or other, fields?

IS-Well, one thing that’s exciting about microtonality is how it can break down our most fundamental ideas about what music is or how it’s constructed, and how it challenges us to build something new from scratch, from the ground up.  I think one of the things that drew me to Kim Ye’s work, and made me want to collaborate with her, is that she seems to be doing something similar in the physical world, breaking down these concepts of how our bodies are constructed or what our relationship is to our bodies.  Not to mention how Jillian’s text breaks down language, how we write and speak, and how Tesla’s ideas poke at how civilization is put together.  It just all seemed like a natural fit.  Plus there is, I have to admit, a common thread of science fiction eeriness that links them.

Musical Patois: Isaac Schankler’s event preview

30 Mar

I wanted to share with you all another upcoming musico-textual event (to coin a dubious phrase) organized by Elaine Chew and Alexandre François, and sponsored by Visions and Voices, the USC Arts and Humanities Initiative.  It’s exciting to see collaborations like this happening more often!

Musical Patois is a unique collaboration among a neuroscientist, a composer, a performer/engineer and a computer scientist, this event will boldly explore and transgress the boundaries between science, music, technology and art. The event is inspired by the research of neuroscientists Aniruddh Patel and John Iversen and composer Jason Rosenberg, which demonstrated that the instrumental music of British and French composers reflects the rhythm and intonation of their native languages. Patel, along with composer Peter Child, pianist-engineer Elaine Chew and computer scientist Alexandre François, will examine the influence of language on music through an evening of scientific presentation, musical performance, interactive visualization and lively conversation.

Thursday, March 31, 2011 : 7:30pm

University Park Campus
Alfred Newman Recital Hall (AHF)

Admission is free.

More information at the Visions and Voices website.

Battering Down the Walls: Isaac Schankler’s Notes from the Studio

14 Mar

NOTES FROM THE STUDIO
This week your friends at Catalysis Projects introduce the sixth in our series of new columns – brief notes from the studios of our Core and Resident Artists. This week our Resident Artist composer Isaac Schankler posts the first in a series of entries looking at connections between speech and music.

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between speech and music, maybe partly because they employ the same medium (sound waves, with an approximate visual notation) yet carry such different kinds of information.  Speech is representational, while music is expressive — okay, but this delineation isn’t as clear-cut as it first seems.  Certainly speech is capable of being expressive in its rhythms, cadences, rhetorical flourishes.  And music can be used to represent cultural codes (e.g. what subculture(s) you belong to).

So where can the boundary be drawn?

When the two are combined, interesting things happen.  Both change shape to fit the other.  In opera, the distinction between recitative (parts where the needs of the text take precedence) and aria (parts where the needs of the music are paramount) is an old one.  Many composers seem to have been dissatisfied with this distinction and have tried and batter the walls down from one side or the other.

Leoš Janáček was a champion of “speech-song” theory, in which musical ideas were driven by the rhythms, pitch contours and inflections of normal Czech speech.  (But, a bit like Ornette Coleman’s harmelodics, it seems to be next to impossible to find out what “theory” actually was behind it, other than some vague principles.)

Janáček filled notebooks with musical transcriptions of everyday speech, and when his daughter fell ill, he even went so far as to transcribe her final, dying breaths.  This strikes me, somehow, as a uniquely composerly act: a bit obsessive, yes, clinical and detached and at the same time incredibly sentimental.

I think this gets to the core of my fascination with speech and music; when you put them together you are able to be at once abstract and personal.  They seem to be the same thing, even.  The world seems to be at peace, almost.

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.