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Tom Johnson: VI3

From the album Rational Melodies (1982)

Using a variety of compositional techniques based on mathematical and algorithmic manipulations, the American composer Tom Johnson has devoted his career to exploring musical analogs to fractal self-similarity, first described in the mid-1970s in the groundbreaking work of Benoit Mandelbrot. One simple example of this kind of technique is to define a set of rules for replacing individual elements with sets of other elements, and then applying these rules repeatedly to create nested self-similar structures. An excellent overview of Johnson’s compositional techniques can be found in his paper "Self-Similar Structures in My Music: An Inventory," presented at IRCAM in 2006. Johnson has also described his methods in greater depth in a nearly 300-page tome entitled Self-Similar Melodies.

Johnson was a student of Morton Feldman, whose own highly idiosyncratic form of minimalism I have described elsewhere. You might not guess the master’s influence: while Feldman’s music is typically spare and laconic, Johnson’s is often playful and garrulous. Moreover, Feldman was famously dismissive of formalist and mathematical techniques of composition, advocating intuition above all.  But both composers shared the desire to create music free from the dominant Romantic/expressionist paradigm— to create, in Johnson’s words, “something more objective, something that doesn’t express my emotions, something that doesn’t try to manipulate the emotions of the listener either, something outside myself.” 

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Excerpts from Symmetries, a series of graphic scores begun in 1979 and created with a musical typewriter

The pieces comprising the collection Rational Melodies are fascinating miniatures of algorithmic composition. Johnson’s music as a whole, while characterized by a systematic and rationalist approach, is aesthetically quite diverse. Nine Bells (1979) is based on the ritualized movement of the performer in a 3 by 3 matrix of hanging bells. The maniacally systematic Chord Catalog (1986) presents “all 8178 chords possible in one octave.” In Music for 88, which features pieces such as “Pascal’s Triangle” and “Euler’s Harmonies,” various numerical phenomena are demonstrated at the piano, with the idea being that one can “hear” the otherwise abstract principal at work. Here the didactic slant of the music gets a bit heavy-handed for my taste. Still, Johnson’s work contains some of the most fascinating investigations of algorithmic and formulaic compositional strategies of the last 30 years.

Rationality, or more precisely, deductive logic, has seldom been the controlling factor in musical composition. Composers are usually more interested in inspiration, intuition, feelings, self-expression. Lately, however, there has been a tendency for composers to give up individual control over every note, and rely on factors outside themselves. Pieces have been controlled by the wind, by chance, by the idiosyncrasies of tape recorders, or by unpredictable variations in electronic circuity, for example, and it seems to me that composing by rigorous adherence to logical premises involves a similar way of thinking.

Alongside his work as a composer, from 1972 to 1982 Johnson was also an influential music critic for the New York paper The Village Voice. His collected writings were published in 1989 as The Voice of the New Music, now available as a free download.


Played 234 time(s).

April 17, 2012, 2:29pm

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