Life Without Art – Remembering Art Jarvinen (1956-2010)

Life Without Art – Remembering Art Jarvinen (1956-2010)

Arthur Jarvinen (1956-2010) in Vermont, Summer 2010

Arthur Jarvinen is dead.

He died after a long battle with depression.

For those readers who don’t know much about him, we have lost one of the most inventive minds of our generation. He was a dynamo whose output seemed to be just a matter of course in a normal day for him, with his output switching gears seamlessly from concert pieces, to music with deeply imbedded theater, to his own self-created genre which he called physical poetry.

Yet to focus on his originality overlooks the fierce rigor that permeated his work. It definitely didn’t merely underpin his work, because he kept it right there, in the open, just as much on the surface as in the substrate.

When I arrived at CalArts in the late 1970s, I ran into a creative hotbed. At most every concert or post-concert gathering, there was a large cast of larger-than-life artistic personalities. Always near the center of this circus was this very severe looking guy. He might be spouting hilarious self-composed rewrites of lyrics in real time with whatever was playing on the turntable. Or he might be producing spot-on Stockhausen/Tuvan overtone singing, but crooning it to a Willie Dixon tune, probably while cooking something really great.

Or he might be making everyone around the pool nervous by staying underwater for a ridiculously long time, not swimming, but casually walking very, very slowly across the bottom of the pool. Come to think of it, there is something disturbing about that image now. Something about the self-imposed isolation—along with a display of not needing one of the basics (air) that everyone else did—sits just a little bit more uncomfortably now.

Get to know his music. Listen to Goldbeater’s Skin and how it reveals its structural game while at the same time drawing the listener in. If one pays attention, the piece continues to engage interest, even if the “game” of it is figured out; pretty good for a “concept” piece. The amazing thing is that with all the high-level gamesmanship going on, there is also an emotional core there that anyone can get. Art knew that there really is no such thing as a misunderstood genius, and he knew that music was not a commodity to be consumed, but a very special environment in which we reflect.

Check out the interplay in Edible Black Ink and Murphy Nights. Or follow the story line of The Invisible Guy, or just live with the beauty of 100 Cadences, or the sadness of Endless Bummer (written in memory of Randy Hostetler). This list could go on for a long while.

As a founding member of the California EAR Unit, he brought us one of the best ensembles and best programming of new music for almost twenty years. Another longstanding group, The Antennae Repairmen (a percussion trio with MB Gordy and Bob Fernandez) helped to rewrite just what a “percussion only” group might encompass. Another aspect of his entrepreneurial prowess was founding Leisure Planet Music as a mechanism, not only to publish his own music but that of several of his colleagues including David Ocker, the late Stephen “Lucky” Mosko for whose music Art remained a tireless advocate, and myself.

Jack and Art performing at CalArts

The many bands that Art either founded (The Mope, Fat Pillheads Like Elvis, Screaming Yellow Zonkers, to name just a few), or those he guested with, such as The Ugly Janitors of America, also give us some further insight into Art’s aesthetic sensibilities. As disparate as each of those projects were, they don’t muddy the view. Rather, they fill in the gaps and serve as glue, helping us see a bigger picture of what might be going on here.

We all owe his wife, Lynn Angebranndt, a huge debt of gratitude. There is no doubt we would have had him in our lives for a much shorter time had it not been for her constant and ongoing care and love.


Composer and electric bass guitarist Jack Vees is a longtime friend and co-conspirator of Art Jarvinen.

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