Tom Johnson uses numbers as base material, turning formulas, combinations and other mathematic phenomena into music. And somehow, this music becomes poetry, sometimes like a haiku, sometimes like a sonnet, sometimes descriptive and clear, often enigmatic but always beautiful.
This item can be downloaded and/or listened to at actuellecd.com.
This item can be downloaded and/or listened to at actuellecd.com.
Die Kompositionen des US-Amerikaners Tom Johnson haben eine ähnliche Qualität. Vom Montréaler Streichquartett Quatuor Bozzini eingespielt, haben die Tom Johnson: Combinations (Collection QB) durchaus einen modernistisch neutönenden Charakter, finden aber in aller Grenztonalität doch immer wieder zu Songs von melancholischer Schönheit zusammen.
Tom Johnson is a new composer for me, apart from his Chord Catalogue, a work I still have to listen to. Born in 1939, he privately studied composition with Morton Feldman. As a music critic, he wrote for The Village Voice. You can find an anthology in his book The Voice of Music, published in 1989. He coined the term minimal music in 1972.
The music collected on this disc is his complete works for the string quartet. Sixty-six minutes spread over four pieces. The oldest piece is from 1994, and the youngest is composed in 2009. And what music it is. His approach to music is logical, mathematical, not whimsical or sterile. He later collaborated with mathematicians to find formulas to apply to music (or vice versa). The resulting music is lovely. The first few pieces comprising Combinations are in the vein of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Highly repetitive motives. But: the sequences are always the same, just varied on the different string instruments. This might be an oversimplification of the score. But the way Johnson organizes the material is logical, using only the notes heard in the beginning and mathematically permutating them. The overall pattern becomes apparent after a few rounds. And that is just the first piece. The next one is sparse, only using the same note in different octaves, almost sounding organ-like. Piece number 4 of combinations utilize silence in a cheeky-sneaky way. Tilework for string quartet is a version of this work for string quartet. There is also a version for solo instruments, including bassoon. I might track down the sheet music. The fifteen pieces comprising Four Note-Chords in Four Voices are just that. Voicings of four chords across the four-string instruments. The kind of voicing creates some sort of melody or monody in the different permutations of the chord. I didn’t read much about his theorization on his music to have an unbiased ear.
The different pieces have enough variation to not become a tedious listening experience. That being said: the music is wonderfully performed by the Bozzini Quartet. Recorded in a church, the music played has a vibrant quality, although the quartet doesn’t use vibrato on the strings. Also, the players’ enthusiasm for this music results in some minor speeding up in the first few pieces in some solo sections, adding to the liveliness of the music. Well done! Now, where did I put that Chord Catalogue?
Like Xenakis, American ex-pat composer Tom Johnson has long been enamored of mathematics, and he’s used the practice as the discipline as an integral tool in his compositional work. These string quartets — played with characteristic precision, brio, and warmth by Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini — often deploy the theory of combinations, setting out every possible permutation or sequence from a small amount of material. While that concept might sound like an excursion toward boredom, the results are thrilling. Johnson was an early advocate and pioneer of minimalism, and that interest distinguishes these four works, composed between 1994 and 2009, with a mixture of rigor and curiosity that turns to math as a way of translating the patterns and shapes of the world around us into music. Johnson achieves a particularly vivid realization on the concise Tilework for String Quartet, a 10-minute canon that explores the different ways the rhythms in a six-note line can overlap and fit together. Four-Note Chords in Four Voices is a study of the possible combinations delineated in the title, with the composer’s program note explaining that “There are 495 ways to distribute two notes in group,” but there’s nothing schematic or cold in the way Johnson traces out those possibilities anywhere on the album.
As Wittgenstein would often remind you, the simplest statements, when exposed to close examination, conceal a wealth of contradictions and absurdities. Several years ago I heard a chamber ensemble play Tom Johnson’s Predictables and stumble over the opening phrases as the obvious series of notes ran afoul of the conventions of performance. Johnson’s perfectly logical sequences of exahustive combinations and permutations contain profound conundrums, throwing us into the mental chasm of aesthetics where the rational becomes counter-intuitive. In making decisions that appear to defy creativity, refusal to deviate from the proposed model is a means for taking the least expected path. Even when the organising principle is clear (and it is typically reducible to a single principle), Johnson’s disciplined adherence to the rule can make the progress of his pieces appear inscrutable to the listener.
The contradictions involved in the experiences of reading, playing and listening to Johnson’s music underpin the humour that often surfaces. This is most apparent in the works for voice, where word games come to the fore, but the necessary incongruities in Johnson’s approach can’t help but become the stuff of comedy, or at least require wit to handle them effectively. The Quatuor Bozzini’s collection of Johnson’s string quartets, Combinations, exemplify this playfulness without distracting from the musical substance. The Four-Note Chords in Four Voices from 2009 are just that, collated by type to provide phrasing, homogeneous and minimal even as nothing ever repeats. There’s a tension between similarity and diversity, despite the composition’s premise that such concerns are rendered moot. Johnson has recognised that there is nothing mathematical to be learned from his work with combinations and so these pieces cannot be considered mere demonstrations, but raise new aesthetic questions from existing conditions. Much as with Alvin Lucier, Johnson displays a fertile imagination based on observation over invention.
My review copy came without sleeve notes, so it would take closer analysis to determine exactly the systematic combinations used in 2003’s Combinations for String Quartet or the mathemmatical formulas used in 1994’s Formulas for String Quartet. I’m not bothering to do so because it doesn’t matter. As Johnson himself has written elsewhere, “composers, interpreters, and listeners do not need to know all this, just as we do not need to master counterpoint in order to appreciate a Bach fugue. As always, one of the wonderful things about music is that it allows us to perceive directly things that we would never understand intellectually.” In both the above works, the most striking aspect is the diversity of modes of expression in such a presumably limited palette. Formulas opens with a lively jig-like movement, followed by sweet antiphonal counterpoint and floating harmonies. Combinations contrasts motoric passages with translucent chords and dramatic interventions. Other movements, and in Tilework for String Quartet, build mosaic-like patterns out of sinuous lines that rise and fall while slipping in and out of sequence, becoming all the more intriguing for discovering variety in a single process of juxtapositions.
The music embodies a balance between rigor and play that can also be found in a well-crafted fugue. Quatuor Bozzini play this all with the sophistication and lightness of touch that it deserves, to bring out the fullness of its self-discipline and its charm. Steadfast and non-vibrato throughout, they nonetheless keep everything sounding warm and alive. The square, even rhythms are played true, but with a suppleness that allows the Bozzinis to float for one passage before landing with a surefooted tread in the next. With careful attention to intonation and articulation, they still find expressive room in the notation bring out wider connotations of emotion. For fans of Johnson’s music, part of the fun here is how often it sounds like someone other than Tom Johnson; the deadpan drollery commonly given to his work is shaded with hints of agitation or pathos, with fleeting classical or even romantic impressions flickering by. The dual appeal to the senses and the intellect is also a hallmark of wit.