The artist was born in the woods To get scared by an owl. — Harry Partch
My friend of many years, Mr. Patrick Lindley, classical harpsichordist, composer, deposed royal, and musical know-it-all, said to me one day not long ago, “Have you ever met Ivor Darreg, the San Diego musical futurist, musical iconoclast, king of the xenoharmonic alliance, and inventor of totally unknown instruments, plus he is a mad scientist?
“No,” I responded, “got his phone number?”
I called Mr. Darreg immediately, only to be told by Vern Luna, who answered the phone, “I’m sorry, but Mr. Darreg passed away about eight months ago.
“He died? Oh, God, I’m so sorry.”
“Yes, he died,” Vern said, “but he didn’t exactly pass away.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some people have seen his ghost here in the house,” Vern said. “People saw his ghost a couple of times, in the back yard and in the living room.”
“What’s the address there?” I asked.“I’ll be right over.”You don’t get a chance like this every day. (But first, talk a colleague into going with you; then, in case a ghost does appear, there will be two of you screaming and knocking over the furniture as you bolt for the door.)
Going to visit with Vern Luna at the former Ivor Darreg bungalow in North Park is like walking into a Native American religious service. The air is blue with the smoke of burning sage and sweetgrass, and a flute plays softly in the background. There is a low couch along one wall, where a woman sits making sage bundles and putting them in a basket. She is introduced to us. Her name is Argena. Vern Luna, a disabled half-Maya Native American, with long, wavy black hair that falls forward over his face as he swings along on his crutches, says, “Wait, let me get this hair out of the way.”
After tying it back, he leans his crutches against his special chair at the end of the room and seats himself. When he is seated, he assumes an attitude of easy majesty and a most peculiar alertness. You get the unnerving feeling that he’s listening to something inside your conversation that only he can hear. During the time my colleague and I visit with him, three people come to the door and he has four or five phone calls.
“This is like being at the pope’s,” I say.
Vern laughs and says, “All this activity is because of the gathering of native elders in Hillcrest,” he says. “I’m one of the coordinators.”
We settle down and I ask him about the former tenant, Ivor Darreg. How well had he known Mr. Darreg?
“I met Ivor Darreg one time,”Vern says.“He was a beautiful soul, very soft, very intelligent. He left a lot of unfinished projects.”
I ask him how he happened to move into the house.
“Well, first I met Jonathan Glasier, who owns this house. Jonathan is a music guy too. He knew Harry Partch. Jonathan was playing some interesting instruments over at the Center of the Sixth Sun on Monroe in North Park. He brought some of Ivor’s instruments in, but he mostly played a kind of Mexican harp on Monday night, when Mother Seritas was there for psychic healing.”
“So, what about Ivor Darreg’s ghost?” I ask.
“From the first,”Vern says,“when I moved in here, I could feel Ivor’s presence. He walked with beauty. His music came from his heart and his mind, so it was a positive presence that I felt. I had a friend who was staying here. I was gone for a few hours, and I came back, and he said that he saw a spirit while I was gone. First it was in the living room, and then it was back by the garage. It was tall and thin.”
I say, “That sounds like Ivor!” “He saw it twice. I never saw it while I was awake, but I saw it one night while I was sleeping. Ivor was going back and forth, very fast. He was looking down at me. He was trying to get at his papers. He was worried about his papers. That was the message. People at the center who are psychic said that Ivor was happy to have me here, because I was into music and electronics. To me it’s a blessing.”
Then he asks us to go into the bedroom and look behind the door. “There’s something very interesting hanging up there. It’s Ivor Darreg’s Life Plan.”
So we go into the bed- room, which has four big fil- ing cabinets against the wall, and there on the back of the door is THE LIFE PLAN. It has an odd, almost magical quality. As if he thought it would happen exactly as he wrote it down.
“He was very innocent,” Vern says.
Before we leave, I ask Vern what he thinks of Ivor Darreg’s music. He says, “I think Ivor was attempting to find the missing pieces that are in our lives here. He was dividing the notes into all these parts; then he kept hitting these notes. They were so strange. It was like he was channeling these things from another sphere. Intellectually, he understood the surface of what he was doing, but the profundity was lost. He was continually seeking different tonal values and opening up different parts of the brain. When I listen to his CD, I hear the planets, each singing its individual song, and I hear the whales singing too. They all are singing these songs to connect human consciousness.”
Next, I invite Jonathan Glasier and his wife Elizabeth to come to my tiny hotel room. I will interview them there. When they arrive, I realize to my consternation that there is only one chair. I instruct them to make themselves comfortable on the bed. They immediately do. Being married for more than 20 years, they’re used to being in bed together. I turn on the TV to a baseball game. It drones softly during the interview like a stupid person in the room who nobody is paying any attention to.
Jonathan Glasier has a grizzled “beach boy” aspect. He is around 50 but has the enthusiasm of a 14-year-old. He is very obviously a California guy, with a deep, unshakable cheerfulness. His wife Elizabeth is a pretty brunette of about the same age. She is arty and chic.
I ask them to tell me the story of Ivor Darreg’s life. Jonathan begins,“Ivor Darreg came from a very Catholic family. His uncle was a bishop. Ivor was very precocious. By the time he was 12 or 13, he knew five languages, including Russian.
“His father was the editor of a weekly Catholic newspaper in Portland, Oregon. The father decided that Ivor should become a monk.” Then Jonathan adds,“Oddly enough, Ivor ended up becoming a musical monk!”
“Do you mean sequestered and celibate?” “Yes,” Jonathan says. “His father said then,‘If you dare to go into music, I’ll disown you.’ So when his father disowned him, he changed his name.”
“You mean Ivor Darreg wasn’t his real name?”
“Oh, no,” Jonathan says. “His real name was Kenneth Gerard O’Hare. You see, Darreg is kind of a play on the name Gerard, backwards, and then he took the name Ivor because it means ‘man with a bow.’ He was a cello player.”
“So after his father disowned him, he left home, right?” I ask. Then, ever the hostess ne plus ultra, or whatever that French expression is, I walk slowly around to both sides of the bed with a box of white cheddar Cheez-Its and a glass of water.
Refreshed, Jonathan picks it up where he left off. “Yes, at 16, Ivor said, ‘I’m leaving. Mom, are you coming?’”
“Oh, no,” I say. “Wife stealing.” Jonathan says, “It was an amazing thing. After they left Oregon, his mother changed her name to Darreg. What does it usually mean when a woman changes her name to the man’s and then moves in with him? He stayed with her until she died, when he was 56. It put tremendous pressure on him!”
“I heard him speak on one of his tapes,” I say. “He sounded exactly like that Johnny Carson character, Aunt Blabby.” “Yes. He had that high, funny voice, and when he died he had been celibate all his life,” Jonathan says.
“So how did you hook up with Ivor Darreg and this whole involved San Diego microtonal demimonde?”
“Well,” he says, “Harry Partch lived with our family in El Centro when I was three years old. He lived in the garage. He and my father were good friends.”
(Harry Partch was the most famous pioneer of microtonal music. He believed there was a lot more in the 12-tone scale than people were using. He used a 43- tone scale.)
Jonathan continues, “I grew up around this. Harry Partch was a wild man; then, when he came to live in San Diego in the ’60s, I decided to apprentice with him. I was living with him and helping him to maintain his instruments. Then I performed with him at Royce Hall in L.A.”
“Did you meet Ivor Darreg through Harry Partch?”
“Yes, indirectly,” he replies.“I knew a guy who had gone to Partch’s classes at UCSD. His name was John Chalmers. It was John who introduced me to Ivor Darreg. At this time Ivor was living in this miserable, cockroach-infested house in Glendale.”
Elizabeth says, “Yes! He was always just terrified while he was living there. They were building condominiums across the street, and Ivor would say,‘The condomaniacs are coming! The condomaniacs are coming!’ Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but he was somewhat of a paranoid personality.”
“Well, they say in Hollywood that there’s no such thing as paranoia and there’s no such thing as a rumor. Maybe the same is true in Glendale.”
I say,“Then he came to San Diego?”
“Yes,” Jonathan says, “and after a year we bought the house on Polk Street in North Park. That was 1985. He paid what he could for rent, and his niece contributed every month too.”
“I heard from a man in L.A. who had a great inter- est in Mr. Darreg that he was something of a pack rat.” (I had spoken a week before to Mr. David Hughes, who had at one time an idea to organize Mr. Darreg’s papers and instruments. He had left Ivor’s house in a state of shock, thinking the disorder was too overwhelming for anyone to effect even the smallest speck of organization.)
Jonathan answers, “Everything Ivor did he did on a broken shoestring. People were always giving him stuff, and he never threw anything away. He’d go out for a walk and bring old junk home that he found on the street. Then he’d put valuable stuff in the same box with the worthless stuff, and everything was all mixed up together. It was a complete mess.”
“I hear it was very odd,” I say. “Mr. Hughes said that the house was completely filled with wire. He said you’d look down at your feet and you couldn’t see the floor at all. You were standing on about ten layers of wire. He said there was wire coiled everywhere. There was no room to stand or to sit down. It was just wire, wire, wire. I really can’t imagine a house filled with wire. It’s a very strange idea.”
Jonathan says, “I took ten truckloads of junk to the dump, and I saved three more truckloads.”
“Wow! How come he let you take his stuff away?” I ask.
“But what about his instruments? All those instruments he made?” (Ivor Darreg was the inventor of many instruments: the first drum synth, the amplified cello, keyboard oboe, megalyra, tubulongs kosmolyra, amplified clavichord and refretted guitars, and a contraption called the hob-nailed newel post.
Jonathan says, “Some of the stuff is over at the Sonic Arts Gallery on Golden Hill, and some of it I have, and some of it was just started and never finished.”
“Can I hear these instruments?”
Jonathan gives me the Ivor Darreg CD, Detwelulate! and invites me to a Friday night concert at the gallery.
We are on our way to the Friday night concert of This Way Out, Jonathan Glasier’s experimental music group. We are traveling in the worn little Japanese car and reliquary of my colleague. She has a back seat and trunk full of thousands of yellowed and disintegrating newspapers. As I push the window “down” button, she screams, “No! Don’t!”
Too late. The window is now wedged all the way down in an askew, semidiagonal position, its black rubber bed hanging out on the ledge. We are driving 85 miles an hour on some copless, godforsaken stretch of freeway into the unrelenting mystery of San Diego at night. The wind whips in the wide-open car window. “We’re almost there!” my colleague yells over the road of the wind.“I’ll fix it when we get there!”
When she jams on the brakes, we’re arrived. The little car comes to a complete stop in a corona of burning rubber and leaking brake fluid.
The Sonic Arts Gallery is a very interesting place, stuffed to the rafters with absolutely amazing and little-known instruments. We are invited to inspect the 19- tone guitars, the Godzilla (which is an oil drum, with welding rods attached, that you play by rubbing the surface with a mallet made out of a Super Ball skewered on a stick. It sounds exactly like Godzilla destroying hapless Japanese persons). Then there are two instruments that look like those old bug-spray things that you pump with a plunger. I ask Hirsch, the inventor, what the name of this instrument is. He says, “Oh, just call it an old bug- spray thing.” Then he adds brokenly, “I’m giving up on that instrument. I’ve never gotten what I wanted out of it.”
There is Bill Wesley’s gigantic thumb piano with a resonator as big as a cock- tail table and 180 boingable prongs. There are the elegant water-phones of Richard Waters, looking vaguely like the instruments of some obscure medieval torture, played with a bow and mallet. They can sound like whale calls or violins from Saturn.
There is the beautiful moonscape, a white disc on a dark blue background with bent welding rods; the hum-tube, another Hirsch invention; and there are various odd synthesizers. Then there is the wing. It is a delta-shaped, four-foot piece of thin and bendable stainless steel with welded rods on top, meant to be played with a bow while it rests on an inflated balloon floating in a bucket of water. You could serenade your señor or señorita with it, but it would probably be better if you didn’t. My colleague, however, picks it up and puts it on her head.
“Is this anything?” she asks.
They turn the lights off. We, the audience, settle our- selves in the gloom, and the show begins.
I see in my program notes the pieces performed tonight are “Oklahoma” selections, “Integrity of the Note,” “Something Else,” and “Oh You Distant Universe.” As we listen to these selections, I take notes. But since it is dark as the inside of a cow in there, the notes are hard to decipher. Here, to the best of my ability of decipherment, is a description of the music: “J. Glasier whistles ‘Oklahoma.’ At end makes explosion sound with mouth. Soft mooing. Soft pooing. Hirsch on hum-tube. Then some wobbling sound, like wheel coming off wagon. Guitar strummed in background. Style of ‘I Lead an Old Paint.’ Weird chords. More weird chords. Cowboy escaping from cowboy asylum. Sound of expiring goat. More bleating. Two expiring goats. Cattle being herded by someone making Eddie Arnold sounds. Sound of cat begging.
“Then, cat dancing. Gobbling, gobbling. Flying saucer landing in turkey farm next to a schoolhouse. In the middle of ‘Oh You Distant Universe,’ which starts to turn into a really cool and swinging outer-space thing, this guy, Hirsch, who’s playing the hum-tube, gets up and starts walking desperately around in front of the other two guys (Jonathan and a guy named Brian). Then in a stage whisper he says, ‘Hold it!’”
I wonder, is this part of the show? Will it disintegrate like that Aerosmith concert where Joe Perry and Steven Tyler beat each other up onstage and fell into the orchestra pit in a flurry of costume jewelry, hair extensions, and spandex? When I ask Jonathan about it later, he says, “Hirsch is always trying to pull things apart, and I’m always trying to hold things together.”
Sounds like the chemistry of a Hit Rock Band.
This experimental music may not be everybody’s cup- of-tea-with-ball-bearings-in-it, but it is interesting and you
do think about it the next day.
However, I would have enjoyed it more if it had been lit. I don’t like sitting around in the dark watching a dark stage. It’s too much like Stunt Night at Camp Manitou. Claustrophobia and that old primal fear come creeping back. The old primal fear that you left your curling iron plugged in and set on high back at the pensione. Then you remember exactly where it is. It’s resting on an open box of white cheddar CHEEZ-ITS.
DETWELULATE! National Society for the Decriminalization of Microtones
Ivor Darreg’s CD is odd, to be sure; Rudolf Friml he’s not. It’s a collection of short microtonal sketches. One or two are surprisingly sweetly melodic, and Prelude #2 for 19-tone guitar is just plain gorgeous. This piece, coming in at 57 seconds, is a little brief for radio play but stands up very well indeed as Ivor Darreg’s “minute waltz.” Other selections are moody, the lush synthesized strings evoking flashes of Samuel Barber and Gustav Mahler. Still others are murky, some are misbegotten, and some have so many tones per octave that only fans of those alter- native music groups that only guys can understand, can understand. There’s some really surprising stuff on this CD...the 17-Tone Improvisation #2 is like a glass of ice-cold ginger ale in which a microchip of Spike Jones has been dissolved.
So, if you’re drifting around in the outer ethers someday, with 71 minutes and 45 seconds on your hands, you could do worse than to check this out.