The Great Art Jarvinen, 1956-2010

[TWO UPDATES BELOW] I begin the morning blindsided by the terrible news that one of the wildest and most imaginative composers of my generation, Art Jarvinen, has passed away at age 54. He was a bassist, percussionist, and co-founder of the California E.A.R. Unit, and one of the most thoroughly integrated rock-classical musicians around. His pieces Murphy Nights and The Paces of Yu were staples of my totalist lectures. He put out a scabrously funny Beatles satire CD called Sgt. Pecker. He sent me transcriptions of music he’d played with Captain Beefheart. I know no details about his demise. Ironically, Art and I had only met in person for one lovely evening together at his home in LA, though for years we corresponded weekly and he used to comment on this blog. He had bought property in Vermont, was supposed to stop by and see me on his way there but we failed to communicate somehow, and I heard a rumor only a few days ago that he had precipitously moved back to California. David Ocker at the blog Mixed Meters has a little more information. Art’s web site is here. I’m just stunned.

UPDATE: The only thing I can think of to pay homage to Art is to reprint here the American Composer column I wrote about him in Chamber Music magazine ten years ago:

In Arthur Jarvinen’s music, spray cans hiss, mousetraps snap, window shutters flicker, pencil sharpeners grind away, and harpsichords cavort among drums with elephantine grace. You may conclude that I am describing gimmicky or at least humorous music, but you would be wrong: this music is contrapuntal, thoughtful, purposeful, and rhythmically intricate. It’s just that Jarvinen works with musical ideas so essentially rhythmic that spray cans and window shutters are sufficient to bring their essence across. I’ve always had this idea that a really great musician, stranded on a desert island, could make a good piece just hitting two sticks together, and Jarvinen lends credence to the idea. The more humble media you can communicate with, the closer you are to the bone marrow of music.

Again, though, put aside any notion of an American primitif. Jarvinen’s The Queen of Spain – source of the harpsichords and drums mentioned above – is an almost satirical transformation of three keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, scored for harpsichords (or electric keyboards) and percussion. He diffracted Scarlatti’s transparent harmonies by adding mathematically-derived extra tones, keeping the rhythmic character of the original but blurring the lines into massively bouncing sonorities. And in Murphy-Nights, the electric keyboard and bass provide a groundwork for four wind players by playing two ostinatos over and over, one in 33/16 meter and the other in 8/4, so that with each repetition one gets a 16th-note ahead of the other. 

I have no idea how this latter feat is accomplished in performance, by the way. No common bar lines connect the two parts: they just have to start with the same 16th-note pulse and keep precisely in tempo, sans conductor. Somehow on the California Ear Unit’s recording (O.O. Discs 28) they get it perfect and secure.

This latter trick, abstruse as it may sound, actually points to what connects Jarvinen to his generation. If you’re minimalism-conversant, it may have already occurred to you that that 33-against-32 cycling is a direct descendent of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase and Come Out, which introduced different-lengthed rhythms going out of phase as a peculiarly American structural device. Like many American composers born in the 1950s, Jarvinen absorbed Reich’s lessons well. Also like many of those composers, he sees no reason to limit his music to the simple contexts and pretty tonalities that formed the basic features of minimalist style.

The body of music by younger composers that evolved from minimalism to a complex rhythmic style heavily influenced by world musics has come to be called Totalism. It is primarily a New York City phenomenon, but Jarvinen, rooted in Los Angeles, is the most visible West-Coast example so far. The word totalism (far from universally accepted yet) has implications of having your cake and eating it too, being accessible and clear on one hand, yet also intricate and complexly structured enough to sustain the interest of cognoscenti. As Mozart wrote to his father about the quartets he was writing in 1782, the totalists can say of their music, “There are many passages here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satsifaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.” 

Without courting collage, totalists pack a lot of disparate streams into their music, especially jazz and world musics: listen to the jazz trombone solo that opens Jarvinen’s Erase the Fake; the improvised violin solo in the middle of Murphy-Nights; the charmingly authentic, Piazzola-esque melody of his Cheap Suit Tango. Some features, however, are quintessentially totalist. I direct your attention to the wild unison line played by sextet at the beginning of The Vulture’s Garden. or the jazzy unison melody played by quartet in Murphy-Nights. This kind of ensemble doubling evolved out of the Philip Glass-Steve Reich ensemble concept (though Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a first cousin), and is turned here toward athletically non-minimalist ends.

This is difficult music to play, even though clear-lined, melodic, and devoid of the 11-against-9 grupetti and rhythmic fragmentation of an Elliott Carter or a Pierre Boulez. And why, since it scorns such complexities, is it so difficult? Because, like every new style, it demands of performers a certain sensibility that must be internalized. The unison lines and rhythms of totalist chamber music entail an ensemble unity of gesture quite different from the heavily-counted Babbitt serialist work or the flexible, diversely-functioned give-and-take of a Schumann piano quintet. The smooth uniformity of line, casual yet without swell or nuance, demands ears nurtured on the minimalism of Terry Riley and Phillip Glass, and hands and lips that can swing like John Coltrane. 

If I may ascend my soap box and preach just the briefest sermon, very few chamber ensembles have learned to negotiate music derived from minimalist influences because they don’t perceive the difficulties involved. They glance at the score, see a line of unison 8th-notes, say to themselves, “Oh, this is nothing, I played the Carter Fourth String Quartet,” and then they proceed to underrehearse and perform miserably. I’ve heard it all too often. I’ve heard members of the New York Philharmonic do a laughable job on a piece as simple as Terry Riley’s In C. A handful of groups, like the California EAR Unit, Relache, Kronos Quartet, and Essential Music have superbly cultivated the technique needed for post-minimalist music. What are the rest waiting for, a message from God? As Schoenberg said – and it applies again in each new generation – “My music isn’t modern, it’s only badly played.”

You won’t find any such problems, however, on Jarvinen’s CDs, mostly performed by the California EAR Unit, of which Jarvinen is a percussion-hitting and guitar-wielding member. For the most extreme instance of his bizarre timbral imagination, listen to The Paces of Yu, scored for mousetraps, window shutters, fishing reel, and – the one pitched instrument – Brazilian berimbau, a kind of one-stringed violin. Such music has the awkwardness of sincerity. It is meditative, not in the hypnotic sense, but in the thoughtful, slowly-turning, Emersonian sense of examining a musical idea from every angle. Jarvinen is sufficiently immersed in history to be a true representative of his generation – and honest and original enough to set himself apart from it as well.

UPDATE 2: This country gives its composers much to complain about, and we all have a couple dozen complaints about our lives that we could arrange in increasing order of legitimacy. But of all my complaints, the most legitimate and depressing is that so many of my dearest friends are so spread out from Belgrade to Amsterdam to Paris to London to North Carolina to Toronto to Chicago to Santa Fe to San Francisco to Seattle to Fairbanks that I don’t get to see most of them once in two years. Art and I had so much to talk about that I should be able to recount to you a hundred outdoor dinners we shared, not just that one evening. It’s the price many of us pay for picking our friends from among those we have most in common with professionally, rather than those who happen to live in the neighborhood – exacerbated in my case by having a job in a distant rural area and being a curmudgeonly hermit to boot.


  1. chelsea says

    you and everyone else kyle. Art was a great mentor to me and many other folks at calarts. i saw him wearing so an amazing number of musical and crative hats, and it just astounded me. he was also one of the sweetest, most generous folks around.

  2. John K. says

    Oh dear, this hurts. As a composer and performer Art was almost the embodiment of what the experimental tradition could be, in full flower. So sorry to hear this.
    Time for “Serious Immobilities”. Thank you, Art.

  3. Tim Bonenfant says

    I remember Art as a man who had an opinion on seemingly everything, always well thought out, often controversial, but always always always committed to being the most dedicated performer of whatever music he was involved with. If he couldn’t involve himself at his best, he wouldn’t do the music.
    And his hand (copyist-speak for his hand-copied scores) was gorgeous. Whether his music or someone else’s, the way he could make a piece of music look, damn that was wonderful. And his approach to copying was just like his approach to music; no compromise, no settling, just the way it needed to be.
    I can him performing Cage’s “Child of Tree” now, performing as if the plant material was his primary instrument.

  4. says

    Wow. What a shock and what a loss for the avant-garde. I never got to meet Art personally, but really enjoyed performing his pieces. Was looking forward to more collaborations with him. Condolences to his family, friends and students. He’ll be missed.

  5. says

    A terrible shock. Gosh. I am so sorry to learn about this. I knew Art a bit from my days at The American Music Center and thought he was a terrific guy, terrific composer and performer, and a generous member of the new music community.
    I first came to know Art from a little education guide he put together on how to use found objects to compose and perform. It was one of the first I had ever seen and was something I referred to often in my work as an educator.
    A terrible loss for this field.

  6. Michael Jarvinen says

    Art was my cousin. I hadn’t seen him for over 35 years, but always remember the times we spent together as kids as the best times of my childhood. I wish I had the opportunity to know him as an adult.

  7. Roy Estrada says

    I can’t believe this is true. I met Art several years ago. He had done some work with Frank Zappa before, but I just met him through Chris Garcia. Art had suggested to Miro Tadic, to perform with us, “The Grande Mothers”. He was a great human being. He will truely be missed.
    My Respect Goes Out To His Family And Long Time Friends,
    Roy Estrada
    KG replies: I half expect an e-mail from Art explaining his alleged death as a performance art stunt.

  8. says

    Art is my uncle, my Dad’s brother. When I founded my music company, VerveLife (, back in 2003, I called Art immediately for his feedback, input, and frankly, his blessing. He offered it up and, in typical Art fashion, had an opinion. But we’ve helped each other out in innumerable ways over the years; I received more from him than he did from me. We always mixed a little business with other more interesting topics like religion, cooking, or toy trains. Art was an unbelievable cook by the way.
    Art was and will always be the most knowledgable person I know about music. But whereas my approach to the business was more from the business end, Art understood the MUSIC. He knew how it was structured and what to do with it. He made beautiful music out of things that can’t make music. He was a visionary. Sometimes I felt like Art purposely composed music that the rest of us wouldn’t understand. And how can we? We aren’t smart enough. That’s his humor. There was humor in everything he did. Have you read his wordworks? Grab a glass of wine and prepare to laugh (!
    I’ve been fortunate to have met and worked with hundreds of world class artists in my relatively short career, and not many of them will have lived and breathed music (and the Arts, for that matter) the way Art did.
    I don’t have many heroes and Art is genuinely one of them. RIP uncle Art.
    KG replies: My condolences for your loss. I can’t believe he’s gone.

  9. Robert Raines says

    Art was my close friend in high school. He leaves an indelible mark within those with whom he interacted with. I will hold the numerous great memories of those times (and times since) dear in my heart.

  10. says

    I can not believe this. I will miss Art’s to-the-point conversations, amazing musicianship, his Vietnamese cooking, his support of my music (including playing electric bass and low-tech electronics on a piece of mine, no one else could fit that bill), late nights around his kitchen table…last month he was excited about a new live electronic group he had organized, and the keynote address he was to give at the Festival for New American Music next month. What a huge loss. I will miss him terribly.

  11. says

    I remember one night soon after For Philip Guston was released sitting in my apartment above Lake Merritt at sunset listening to the entire piece. It was sublime. At one point a train went through Jack London Station in the distance and it fit so perfectly with the music I gasped. I rushed to email Art and told him how incredible it sounded, as if it belonged there, part of the piece. He wrote back, “it was part of the piece.”

  12. MB Gordy says

    I am still reeling from the shock of Driving to las Vegas on Sunday morning and finding out by accident and coincindence that my friend and fellow Antenae Repariman had passed away. Needless to say, the rest of that was like being in a Fellini movie. I am remembering all the music, food, hangs and years of knowing one of the most incredible musicians and composers I have ever known. It is an honor to call Art my friend. The main thing now that I can not stop thinking about is the incredible web that we all weave throughout our lives. Just look at all of the people that Art has touched thru his music and friendship. My Heavy Heart goes out to Lynn who has now to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy.

  13. says

    Back in 1981 when I first arrived as a tightly wound graduate student in composition at CalArts, Art Jarvinen was one of the first composers there who boldly stepped forward to support me, even though my first piece performed there, a two-piano work based on Zarathustrianism, had not found every ear in the hall a welcoming ear. In this way, he was brave, but even more, sincerely honest about the music he found interesting, as well as the music he wrote. Unfortunately, I had far too few substantial conversations with Art, but when we did talk, we shared interests in so much, from Stockhausen to Guinness Stout. I remember even seeing him wearing a Butthole Surfers (a rather extreme Texas punk band I had seen in concert a few times–now legendary) t-shirt at one of his otherwise formal California E.A.R. Unit concerts. He was quiet and shy at times, but had a way of asserting himself when it came to what interested him. He was a few years older than me and sometimes mentioned the negative effects of growing up in Ohio in the public school system, but was somehow easy to recognize for someone from my generation as a rebel out of the American suburbs. I remember in one CalArts class, about 30 composers performed a 10-minute work for household objects, and Art stole the show with a single quick gesture of extending a yard or so of masking tape from a thick roll (it made an imposing fortissimo ripping sound that made everyone in the room chuckle). Art was a superb composer, imaginative poet, and highly skilled pen-and-ink music copyist. It will be difficult to imagine the better side of Los Angeles without him.

  14. Christopher Garcia says

    Arthur was, is and will always be a friend
    Vaya con Dios hermano
    que le vaya bien

  15. Deborah Campana says

    I just learned the incredibly sad news about Art’s passing. During our overlapping years at Ohio University we were very close especially because we loved new music and the work of John Cage. He was also effusive about the work of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart sometimes breaking into a little goofy dance just thinking of one of their tunes. As a percussionist even then he was amazingly disciplined: I remember w/awe watching his 5-minute warm up w/sticks on a practice pad in the practice room. One of my fondest memories relates to his first multi-media, staged Cagean-circus involving chamber musicians, lots of percussion and a castenet choir. He coined the work’s title while we waited in a cafeteria line; focused on the hot food offerings, he turned to me and said, “I will call this piece, ‘YAM’.” At one point on cue during the performance of YAM, the culminating work on a given evening’s performance, all 50 or so of us performers stopped our cacophony, stared straight ahead at the audience and laughed, deadpan, for about 2 minutes. It was an incredibly chilling experience for us onstage to see the faces in the audience. Afterwards one of the meekest of professors told me it was all he could do to stop from running up onto the stage and screaming at us. In the last email I received from Art he was apparently trying to sell a set of Source magazines, claiming that I had talked him into buying them way back when. What huge gaping hole his passing makes in the creative fabric.
    KG replies: Hi Debbie. Didn’t realize you knew Art too.

  16. Adam Stern says

    I remember Art from my student days at CalArts (1971-77). Even then, he was a kind, thoughtful gentleman with a quiet but potent sense of humor. A long time since he and I were in touch, but nothing but good (and now cherished) memories.

  17. says

    For those of you following this thread, here is some preliminary information about the memorial service for Arthur Jarvinen:
    “The service will be at noon on October 30th. It will be at the Universalist Unitarian Community Church in Santa Monica. It is at 1260 18th Street. There is parking within walking distance, but I don’t have that address yet.”
    This came to me from Dee McMillan, a close friend of both Art and his wife Lynn who is helping to plan the event. When the final details are available I will make an announcement in a special post on Mixed Meters.
    KG replies: Thanks, David.

  18. Aaron Butler says

    After doing a little digging in the OU archives I’ve found a couple of Art’s students pieces including “Yams” (mentioned above) and a piece for clarinet and piano.
    I also found a recording of the Art Jarvinen Quartet and a concert for rock band and orchestra on which Art plays bass guitar. (I haven’t had a chance to listen to either of these pieces yet).
    I can share if people are interested in what this great composer was doing in his undergrad years.

  19. says

    This deeply saddens me. (I just found out about this today. So upset to hear this.) I had the pleasure of knowing Art pretty well. Not as well as some, but pretty well and somewhat candidly. I took his ‘Introduction to Composition’ course at CalArts and must say, it was a great way to be ‘introduced’. Although I never took a one-on-one composition hour like the school offered, if I so elected, I always admired his outlook and approach to composition. He was a no bullshit kind of guy and always pushed to push the envelope. He also offered a zany rant and super-edgy hell of a class called ‘From Whole Notes to Bank Notes’, in which I and 25 or so others got to hear his take on the craft of life-immersion of as a working, breathing musician, not to mention get a crash-course in the lost art of calligraphy and music copy writing. I will miss him dearly and send my deepest love and regards to his family. RIP.

  20. Rick C says

    This is truly a shock to hear of Art’s all-too-early passing. What a huge talent and a first-rate human being. I met Art along with MB Gordy and Bob Fernandez at CalArts in 1979 as a new grad student. I was immediately drawn to this remarkable trio of musicians, who would often perform for a small group of students on various informal evenings. Art was gracious enough to invite me to have dinner at his house, where he prepared a stir fry with enough jalapenos to keep me slugging down cold beer throughout the meal. So much fun!

    My sincere and heartfelt condolences to Art’s family, fellow musicians and his numerous fans around the planet. Thank you Art, for making our lives a bit richer and warmer. You will be missed.

  21. says

    Thank you very much for this post. Art was a warm thoughtful, hospitable friend, a generous supporter of others and a super talent! We worked together in the EarUnit, he was my first publisher, an editor, a friend and shared many mind-opening ideas! I will miss him and send my belated condolences to his friends and family here.

    Yours sincerely,
    Leon Milo ( In Paris)

  22. Richard Ash says

    I always enjoyed seeing what Art would do in the performances of the E.A.R. Unit. I loved his skill and his sense of adventure. I only recently learned of his passing via another Cal. Arts grad. and feel like I need to express my condolences albeit a year later. RIP Art – You were my hero

  23. Chip Thayer says

    Sad to hear about Art. After I retired in 2000, Art and I reconnected since our days at Ohio University. I got to know Art very well as a fellow percussion student. we discussed music composition and performance although our tastes differed, he never had any predetermined ideas. However, he was honest.

    One of his sayings I can still hear him say, “that’s bitching”.

    RIP Art.

  24. Grace Neuberger (sister of Art) says

    It’s been a year now since my brother committed suicide. I say suicide with no shame, only sadness, that his pain was too great to bear. I am the youngest of six children, and closest to Art in age, but oh so different. Sometimes I didn’t know where he had come from…he seemed angry all the time…he was intimidating to me…we didn’t talk much…I was still in Ohio…but I loved him from afar. Two conversations do stand out, though. Once on the phone he asked me how I was. I said, “Fine.” He said, “Are you really fine or just saying that?” I cried myself to sleep. And then the summer before he died he actually called me from Vermont to tell me how depressed he was. He said all he wanted to do was sleep. I told him to sleep as much as he needed to and talking to a therapist really does help. I told him if he really was a genius like Mozart, he shouldn’t be surprised that his life was so hard. I asked him if he thought he was part Chinese, and he said of course. He was one of those people that was so different you really did wonder what ancestry and genes he inherited. And geniuses really do have hard lives. I am glad that Lynn gave him the best twenty years of his life, and I hope she’s been able to go on without him. He needed to go, at least that’s what he thought. My thoughts are always best on paper..”My brother’s dead, he shot himself, his hope and love are gone. His eyes are shut, his pen is closed, to no more write his songs. The world he knew, was not like ours, with bright and sunny days. He hurt inside, his days were dark, the peace always at bay. So great a curse, to live like this, with struggles every day. Despair lives on, the darkness comes, and never goes away.” Good bye, Art.