Interview with Tom Johnson

This short interview was conducted via email from May-July 1999.

Most of your recent music has its starting point in mathematical phenomena. Is this now your main musical concern?

Yes, I consider this my main emphasis particularly since around 1979-80. The logical one-act operas, Nine Bells, Movements for Wind Quintet, Dragons for Orchestra, Counting Music, and the Rational Melodies all come from around that time, and all are clear perceiptible logical sequences. Since then things have gotten more complicated and the logic is sometimes less perceptible, but I’ve maintained a basic commitment to rationalism, to objectivity, to music that knows what it is doing. The only real exception is the Bonhoeffer Oratorium, and the only way I can explain this exception is by pointing out that there were strong religious and political messages I wanted to deal with here. Sometimes it’s hard to follow what you think is your style when you are dealing with messages. And perhaps that’s always true when you collaborate, and setting somebody else’s text is always a collaboration.

In the last 20 years, your music has become more and more orderly. How do you feel about the more disorderly work that you did at the beginning of your career?

The thing that really unifies my work (and this is true of the Bonhoeffer Oratorium as well) is the minimal materials. The Four Note Opera wasn’t very logical most of the time, but it sure was minimal, and that can be said of Spaces and the 60-note Fanfares and almost everything in that period. Things like Lecture with Repetition and Failing and the Monologue for Tuba are not working with highly reduced scales or highly limited materials, but they seem like one-idea pieces. Do you know what I mean? Pieces that just turn around one simple basic perception. To really answer the question, though, I should go back to Morton Feldman, with whom I studied in 1967 – 69, and who influenced me a lot. He really helped me to find my sounds, my harmonies, my music, and of course, he was a strong model, with so much courage. He wasn’t afraid of anybody, and I started to understand that I could be free that way too, and just write what I needed to write, no matter what anybody thought. Of course, what Morton Feldman thought about still mattered, and sometimes he thought that my music was too rigid, following its rules too strictly, and sometimes he convinced me. He hated systems, (that was his biggest argument with Cage, I think), and for a while there I agreed with him. But eventually I started systematizing things more and more all the same. One day, perhaps around 1976, I remember meeting Feldman in a concert hall and saying that he probably wouldn’t like what I was writing, because I was going back to systems. He just smiled and said “I knew you were going to do that eventually. You just needed to get through a lot of other stuff first.” He was a very wise man.

How important to you is it that the logic in your music is communicated objectively to an audience? Do you feel it is necessary for a system to be immediately understandable, or can it be buried to some extent in a piece?

It is amazing how little some people are able to hear sometimes, and composers can not even make a major scale so clear that everyone will say “I recognise that, it’s a major scale.” A lot of the Rational Melodies seem almost as clear as that, when the notes are just going around a cycle, or when a phrase adds one new note at a time, and things like that, but sometimes the reactions are amazing. “Is this improvised or written?” for example. And of course, many people don’t ever really listen to music. They just turn it on to help them think about something else.

What I’m saying, of course, is that you just can’t worry about trying to be completely clear, because it’s just not possible to write music on such a low and obvious level as to do that. On the other hand, I find that most composers exaggerate in the other direction. They think that if musical structure is clear the music will somehow lose its mystery, or people will think the composer is stupid. I find, though, that the more you understand music the more mysterious it becomes, and this is even true of pieces that have been analysed to death, like the Fifth Symphony. I also find that intelligent people always respect the intelligence needed to construct a simple structure in a clear way that really works.

But let’s forget the audience and the perception problems for a minute. The real point is that if you want music to be logical, to know what it is doing, to follow a clear route with a minimum of arbitrary variations, the way I do, then the logic you put into the music will usually come out in a performance. If I can’t hear the logic at all in something I’m working on, it’s usually because there is a contradiction in my system, or a mistake, or one level too many, or something is wrong somewhere, and I try to get things working in a smoother way. Of course, there can be a lot of difference between the simplicity of one piece and the complexity of another, and you wouldn’t want everything to end up within a confined set of rules anyway.

With that in mind, how do you decide on the mappings you use to move from a mathematical or logical process to music?

This is the big problem, of course, and this is the area where I am constantly thankful for the years I worked with Morton Feldman. Of course, there are no rules, nothing is sure, but there are ways of looking at the problem, ways of trying to find solutions, and I think I learned a lot just by see how Feldman’s mind worked. Let’s say for example that I want to do 1 22 333 22 1. OK, it has a nice logic, it could be interesting, but what’s the scale? Is the 3 high and 1 low or the other way around? What’s the register? What’s the instrument? What’s the tempo? Are we talking about a simple melody, or is it some kind of counterpoint, or a series of chords maybe?

Of course, Feldman had no rules either, and he couldn’t be any more sure than anybody else. But he knew he wasn’t sure. Maybe that’s the secret partly. You think you are working with something that’s all in quarter notes, but if you know that you can’t be sure, maybe you will at least be open to the possibility that there needs to be a half note in there at some point. Anyway, Feldman had a way of being very open and taking musical problems very seriously, right to the end, and the patience to listen to all the possibilities, and then a keen sense of identifying when he had stumbled onto the right possibility. It was great training for me to watch how he thought and listened, and I often remember how he used the word “elegant” for something he found very good. He didn’t really mean elegant in the normal sense of the word, either in English or in French, but anyone who knows Feldman’s music can sense what he did mean. I like to try to find elegant solutions too, though mine never sound like Feldman’s.