Music review: ‘Art Jarvinen Birthday Concert’ at Beyond Baroque


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Getting a neat and tidy fix on the complex musical persona that was Art Jarvinen (1956-2010) is no easy feat, which speaks to his special place in the lineage of contemporary music, in Los Angeles and beyond. He was a percussionist who played with the California EAR Unit for many years, a composer with a distinctive perspective, an avant-rocker and absurdist who looked great in a fez. He was also, to quote new music concert series director Daniel Rothman’s introduction at a special concert at Venice’s Beyond Baroque on Friday, “an excellent cook and a real surrealist.”

Further complications and attributes, including Rothman’s assessment of Jarvinen’s “incredible sense of humor,” which never compromised “the depth of his seriousness,” became evident to listeners over the course of Friday’s event, “Art Jarvinen Birthday Concert.” Friday would have been Jarvinen’s 56th birthday, but, as they say, his music does live on, at least in the domain of new and experimental music.


Though neither a long nor varied concert, with only two chamber works on a program clocking in at 90 minutes, Jarvinen’s birthday show nonetheless conveyed something larger than the sum of its component parts about his special voice and vision as a composer. Along the way, we encountered humor and seriousness, minimalism and irreverence, and new ideas about sound and structure.

Jarvinen’s gonzo multi-dimensionality began with his spare and beguiling “Conspiracy of Crows for three oboes,” in which oboist Kathy Pisaro played the deceptively lean landscape of instrumental tones, in virtual interaction with a conspiratorial mix of prerecorded oboe parts. With slightly wavering definitions of intonation and arrhythmic articulations percolating in the air, the piece is reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s music, but with a darkish wit attached. For the main event, the Formalist Quartet beautifully laid out the hypnotic spread of “100 Cadences With Four Melodies, a chorale, and a coda (with bells on!),” a title blessed with truth-in-advertising, but with an elegiac elegance not indicated by the wry, Satie-esque spin of the title. A slow, rich yet dry procession of chords, with a jazz and/or post-impressionistic patina, are interspersed with short solos by each player, in this unconventional string quartet work deserving greater recognition, and stage time.

Finally, the nearly hour-long piece eases into descending three-note phrases, with a denouement of gentle bells –- including a couple of planted performers in the house. One couldn’t escape the feeling that this meditative lament of a work was looping back to reflect on its very creator, except that his inventive spirit was alive and well in this intimate room. As if to accentuate that notion, after the applause, someone in the back bellowed out “Happy birthday, Art.”

-- Josef Woodard