Arthur Jarvinen – In Memoriam (1956-2010)

Arthur Jarvinen, musician, composer, founder of the California E.A.R. Unit, and music copyist for the late Frank Zappa, himself passed away on October 4th, 2010.

This is relevant to Zappa fans as Jarvinen is the ‘Art’ of Zappa’s piece ‘While You Were In Art’:

John Trubee: Was ‘When You Were Art’ dedicated to you?

Art Jarvinen: I wouldn’t say “dedicated”. The title does refer to me. It’s actually “While You Were Art”. A slight change on “While You Were Out”, which is a piece on the Shut Up And Play Your Guitar set, that Frank arranged and reworked for the E.A.R. Unit at my request. No money changed hands.

Jarvinen is also known as a provider of commentary on Zappa’s classical music, and, of course, as the leader of the group with that entire ‘lip-syncing to the synclavier’ debacle Zappa so loved mentioning:

John Trubee: Please describe the fiasco surrounding the first public performance of the piece by the Ear Unit at LA’s Bing Theater.

Art Jarvinen: I am STILL getting asked about that, and it was 1984 I think. Every once in a while I sit down intending to write the definitive account as I know it, once and for all, and post it on-line so I never have to tell the story again. Basically, as far as I can tell, Frank never did intend to give us a piece we could actually play. We could have played it, and intended to eventually, but he delivered it late enough that we could not possibly have learned it well enough in the time left before the scheduled performance. So he asked us if we would be willing to “lip synch” it. And we said yes. Then several people got cold feet, but we did it anyway. It was no big deal for people who could hide behind their instrument or music stand, but I busted my ass for almost a month to learn that marimba part, and played it with foam rubber mallets. I was actually playing the part, but you couldn’t hear me. I had no choice, because if the marimba is near the edge of the stage in plain sight, you can’t pantomime playing it.

Anyway, Frank himself leaked the secret to a reporter during a flight, so I’m told, and the shit hit the fan. That would have been such a great opportunity for all kinds of critical dialogue, not to mention great publicity. We could have programmed the piece on lots of concerts so audiences could see for themselves what we had puled off. But the E.A.R. Unit has worked a lot with Morton Subotnick, and several people in the group at that time were particularly close to him. Mort was very upset by what we had done, and some people were made to feel very ashamed. So when a reporter from the L.A. Times called CalArts and wanted to talk to someone in the E.A.R. Unit about While You Were Art, they got the “wrong” person on the phone. Had they talked to me, history would have unfolded differently. Instead one or two people in the group put their tails between their legs and basically apologized for the error of our ways, on behalf of the group. That pissed me off, but Frank was livid. He called me and said we could never play his music again and made me send all the material back.

I assured him that the sentiment expressed in the newspaper article was not a group consensus, so he said I should tell that to Time Magazine, who had just interviewed him about the event. But Time never called, and I don’t think they even ran the article.

There’s more to the story, but that’s the basic plot.

For more of that Art Jarvinen interview, click here.

Further interviews, photos, and information are available from David Ocker’s blog, Mixed Meters, a KUR favorite!

And on Kyle Gann’s blog, PostClassic, Kyle creates “An Art Jarvinen Portrait” with many of Arthur Jarvinen’s compositions available for listening and download, some of them commercially unavailable, others on extremely obscure labels.

A personal favorite of mine, Endless Bummer with Miroslav Tadik: third track, titled Part 1. Click on title and give it a listen.

Then go to Arthur Jarvinen‘s website, itself.

Note: Thanks to Mark Surya for the news tip.

8 Responses to “Arthur Jarvinen – In Memoriam (1956-2010)”

  1. David Ocker says:

    Art was proud of his work for Frank but While You Were Art was certainly not the principal reason. He had carefully organized the performance from two sides – the Frank Zappa side, convincing Frank to write the piece – and from the EAR Unit side, to convince his sometimes reticent bandmates to perform it. He was not the “leader” of the group. More like an equal member.

    When WYWA became the dustup with which we’re all familiar, he lost control of the project, as is clear from his regret that he was not interviewed after the fact by the LA Times. The whole story was a source of frustration for him afterward, he often refused to discuss it with me and I don’t think he was quite able to forgive himself for the way it turned out.

    Art’s biggest project for Frank was a series of two piano arrangements of the large orchestral pieces which ended up on the LSO album. Frank was very pleased with Art’s arrangements and used them in a variety of ways. All the more amazing because Art was not a pianist at all. Art also worked on orchestra parts for those pieces and probably on other things which escape my aged memory at the moment.

    As musicians and composers, Art and Frank share some striking similarities – their entire body of creative work is so varied as to defy description, they both worked in a variety of often incompatible styles and if they had not died unnecessarily early they would both have continued for many years to amaze us with their talents for organizing vibrating air.

    Art was one of my closest friends for decades. His passing leaves a huge hole in my life.

    (P.S. If someone knows more about who the identity of the reporter referred to in the sentence “Frank himself leaked the secret to a reporter during a flight,” could you share that info with me.)

    (P.P.S – here’s another informative tribute to Art by his friend Jack Vees – http://newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=6606 )

  2. urbangraffito says:

    David, do you know exactly what took Art so prematurely? None of the sites seem to know. I do hope that Art’s collected works will see release in some format, too (perhaps CD Baby). Only recently have I had the good fortune of listening to some of his compositions and collaborations, and they’re really quite fantastic. It would be a damn shame if his works were to languish out-of-print on small obscure labels…

  3. jonnybutter says:

    I think the phrase is that he ‘succumbed to depression’. Depression is one nasty, serious thing. RIP.

  4. urbangraffito says:

    A quote from jonnybutter:

    I think the phrase is that he ‘succumbed to depression’. Depression is one nasty, serious thing. RIP.

    I’ve had many friends and colleagues who ‘succumbed to depression’ as well throughout the years. It’s an unfortunate truth that very many of our generation’s most vibrant and creative minds were also quite tormented, too (with periods of great creative hyper mania followed by incredible bitter manic depressions).

  5. Rand Steiger says:

    Thank you very much for your article about Arthur. Here is my take on this, and an answer to David Ocker’s question.

    The reporter who wrote the article for the LA Times was named Mark Shulgold. He told me that Frank sat next to a L.A. Times photographer on an airplane flight and that he told the photographer that the EAR Unit “couldn’t cut playing the piece” and he inferred that we unilaterally chose to lip synch the piece because we were unable to play it. When I was told that Frank said that I became angry. I didn’t put my tail between my legs, I said very clearly that Frank was lying, because the Ear Unit was told that Frank wanted us to lip synch the piece. The idea that we couldn’t cut it was laughable. On the same concert we did an excellent performance of Triple Duo by Eliot Carter which was a very difficult piece to play, much more difficult then WYWA.

    I agree that it was a sad thing in the end because the EAR Unit, unalike other groups at the time, had a sincere interest in Frank’s music and really wanted to play it, and play more of it. But when he said in the newspaper that “The whole purpose of this piece was to show how phony the new music scene is” that pretty much alienated some of us. Another colleague made a statement in the paper that is more of what Art was probably referring to as an apology. But I never apologized. I feel as though we did exactly what Frank asked us to do, and we did it extremely well. Not only Art, others in the group learned their parts precisely and were very convincing. And my only regret is that Frank chose to turn it into such a negative thing. Like Art said, it might have been an opportunity for so much more. But it isn’t right to blame that on people in the EAR Unit who worked on the piece sincerely and diligently.

  6. Dark Clothes says:

    Thank you for your sincere comment, Rand. Even in the early Seventies, Gail complained about Frank’s negativity, in that excellent old Dutch documentary from the Flo and Eddie period. Still, I think he was mostly friendly and curious about other people in the early period, even though he had that satirical sharp eye even then. But later, especially in the mid-Eighties, it seems to me that Zappa’s critical intelligence often turned into black, destructive negativity. His comments about LSO vol 2 is a case in point. The LSO recordings could have been portrayed as a success, but he chose to focus on the mistakes, rather than the almost superhuman achievements of those musicians under Nagan’s baton. On the other hand, he could of course still be friendly and relaxed, as in the preambles to the pieces performed by the Berkeley SO in 1984. But the negativity that you refer to was apparent even to us fans at the time. I have to admit that I often had a hard time being a Zappa follower in the Eighties. The friendly hipness seemed to be gone. Thankfully, he seemed to loosen up in the last few years. With the the Yellow Shark project and the Czech connection etc. it felt to me as if he found something again that had been lost for a period, during “the businessman years”.

  7. DC Boogie says:

    Nagano, Kent.

  8. Slap says:

    Dark, that’s an interesting point about his loosening up in the last few years. I was more than a little shocked (pleasantly, mind you) to find he had been working with the Chieftains, and seemed very moved by elements of Irish traditional music; the presence of the Tuvan folk singers at his last salon intrigued me, too. It almost seemed like his ears started connecting more ancient forms to the Big Note — whether it was the illness, or just a progression, who knows? But one of my greatest disappointments at his passing was that we’ll never get to see what might have come of such associations, how these elements could have found their way into the P/O.

    Ah, well….

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