Scott Johnson in front of his work station with various electronic keyboards.
Scott Johnson—The Cultural Version of DNA Mixing

Scott Johnson—The Cultural Version of DNA Mixing

In his landmark scientific comparison of music and language Music, Language, and the Brain (Oxford, 2008), cognitive neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel states that “[s]peech and music involve the systematic temporal, accentual, and phrasal patterning of sound” and that “there are numerous points of contact between musical and linguistic melody in terms of structure and processing. For example, the statistics of pitch patterning in a composer’s native language can be reflected in his or her instrumental music. Furthermore … melodic contours in speech and music may be processed in an overlapping way in the brain” (from pp. 177 and 238).

All of this seems like it should be incredible fodder for composers, as well as anyone concerned about the relevance of music. And indeed, the histories of music and language have been very deeply intertwined throughout history in cultures throughout the world. In fact, Steven Mithen, in his provocative 2006 book The Singing Neanderthals, went as far as to posit that music and language share a common root in a pre-historic proto-communication he named “Hmmmmm” (“Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic”), diverging into separate realms only much later in our evolutionary process.

So perhaps it was inevitable that in the late 1970s a then 20-something named Scott Johnson transcribed four phrases from one side of a telephone conversation he had recorded, and then played those phrases on an electric guitar—an experiment which several years later became his breakthrough musical composition John Somebody. After all, for centuries drummers throughout West Africa have performed on instruments called “talking drums” which so effectively mimic the meter and intonation of spoken language that they were traditionally used to convey complex linguistic messages across great distances. In the earliest book-length study of Chinese music in English (Foundations of Chinese Musical Art, written in Shanghai in 1936), John Hazedel Levis demonstrated the clear relationship between the pentatonic melodies of traditional Chinese instrumental music and the pitched inflections of the Chinese language.

Admittedly the relationship between music and language in Western music has been somewhat more oblique, as anyone who has listened to an incongruous musical setting of a text can clearly attest. Yet, similarly, part of our perception of a text and melody working really well together is the result of a perceptible relationship between the two. Apart from putting music to words, taking actual speech and transmogrifying it into music—Johnson’s initial electric guitar experiment—was not something completely without precedent in this part of the world either. Snippets of speech make cameo appearances in several of the classics of 1950s musique concrete, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s Symphonie pour un homme seul (1949-50) and Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique (1958) being among the most memorable. And in Steve Reich’s earliest phase compositions—It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966)—tape loops of recorded speech fragments are transformed into elaborate musical counterpoint. All of which Scott Johnson acknowledged, along with several other influences, when we visited him in his media-saturated apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“There was plenty of voice use,” remarked Johnson. “But I don’t think it was rhythmic in this particular way. That’s one thing Steve brought to it. And, although in some of those early concrète things the voices appeared within a pitched context, they didn’t do the transcription thing, which is pretty much what I brought to it. … People talk a lot about Steve Reich’s Different Trains, which happened after he’d heard John Somebody, but as a teenager I’d heard his loop pieces. He did not go to the idea of transcribing the pitches and turning it into instrumental music, but there was that kind of sonic quality of layers, so that was an influence. Then there’s the call and response idea from the blues. And then there was Messiaen, which was a really direct and obvious thing: write down the bird songs. I’ll write down the human songs. So I would say that those three things kind of collided one afternoon.”

But it turned out to be several years before Johnson’s playing of those four speech-derived melodies became John Somebody, a rare occurrence of a piece of so-called “serious music” that has an unmistakable sense of humor.

“It’s about this guy who’s a forgettable person,” Johnson explained. “In the second movement, he’s stumbling. That’s actually me going, ‘I just thought of something; what did I think of?’ In the next movement, women are laughing at him. Then in the final movement recap, it’s sort of a joke about male insecurity to a great degree. That’s partly why the use of the big, macho, power chords to me was always funny. It’s metaphorical, whether or not you get the metaphor.”

It was also a lot more than just an attempt to turn spoken language into music, as Johnson described it.

“I was working very hard to get synchronization, which was the opposite of what Steve did. There’s a 25-foot loop on John Somebody in ‘Involuntary Song 3.’ It’s the one with the fake operatic voice. Underneath that, there are five pitches of ‘hahs’ [laughing sounds]. I made the chord structure by turning them on and off as the chords went by. Any two ‘hahs’ would create the implication of a major chord or a minor chord, so I had to synchronize those multiple loops with this 25-foot tape loop. I still remember it was two and a quarter inches for a whole note. And I was putting sixteenth inch pieces of leader in there, so that I could the run the whole thing in sync with other tracks. It was absolutely insane. This is the kind of thing you could do in two days with Pro Tools. But that was the technology at the time, and it was brand new—multi-track tapes at home.”

Taking recordings of fragments of speech, transcribing them into instrumental melodies, and then harmonizing them provided Johnson with rigorous compositional techniques. But it still allowed him to reference popular culture, as well as the sonorities of contemporaneous popular music (e.g. the electric guitar), which was something he felt he would have been prevented from doing had he written high modernist music according to the compositional training he eschewed. Yet, ironically, he soon realized his methods shared a surprising kinship with serial music.

“You have those notes and you’ve got to deal with them,” he acknowledged. “If you’re a serialist composer, here comes that A-flat. You have to use it. You cannot leave this room until you have said A-flat. I found that what the speech transcription thing did for me is a similar kind of thing. It makes you jump through hoops. … In the late ‘80s, I had a couple of pieces where, after realizing this similarity with being tied to these voices, I literally made a 12-tone row and did the retrograde, retrograde inversion, the whole thing. I made strict melodies and then harmonized them tonally, and ended up with a harmonic language that is not that dissimilar from where I am now. I did it to prod myself, but I was not really interested in this totally constructed, totally logical, totally interrelated artwork that I think the serialists were interested in. In some ways, I’m more of a collagist or a hybridist, the surrealist idea of dissimilar objects jamming up against each other and something happens.”

Johnson also continued to explore the correlation of speech and music in a variety of compositions, but in the last 25 years several of these pieces have taken on much larger narrative arcs, often with social and political implications. How It Happens, a massive work for string quartet and the pre-recorded voice of American journalist I. F. Stone completed in 1994, is a seething commentary on globalization and xenophobia since the Cold War era. The (once-again extremely timely) Americans, from 2003, uses the voices of three recent immigrants to address the complexities of national identity in a multicultural society. Mind Out of Matter (2009-2015), Johnson’s most ambitious composition to date which has recently been commercially released on CD by Tzadik, uses samples of speech by Tufts University-based philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel C. Dennett to craft a sprawling instrumental oratorio for chamber orchestra about human consciousness and the evolution of religious beliefs. It’s super heady stuff, but it’s also extremely satisfying as a musical experience.

“I read a book by Dan Dennett called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and I was very much blown away by it,” said Johnson. “It actually answered a lot of questions about the evolution of music. … It shed a lot of light on things that I had been trying to say about why people join the groups they do and why certain ideas survive, like high modernism. … Then I heard his YouTube videos and realized that he had this fabulous melody-generator of a voice … probably the best sampled-speech source that I’ve bumped into.”


March 1, 2018 at 2:00 p.m.
Scott Johnson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Johnson’s home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu


launch gallery

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve talked with each other many times over the years, but here we are having a conversation that’s being recording and will be transcribed, edited, and published for people to read—which I’m calling attention to since it’s somewhat analogous to the way that you’ve created many of your musical compositions. You’ll record or obtain conversations or speeches of some sort, transcribe them into musical notation, then mold it into music.

Scott Johnson: Well, these begin from two very different positions. Some of the pieces, especially this most recent one with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, initially starts with a lecture from a book of his called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He’s explaining how supernatural ideas are a natural outgrowth of the way our brain works, and then they become an outgrowth of the way societies work. In that case, I was starting with words that were already prepared. I edited and pieced things together, moved things around. But this was to some extent a pre-cooked meal. Then I went up to Boston [to record him] and got a few things that I wanted to complete the piece. On the other hand, there are other pieces—like, for starters, John Somebody—where I essentially went over to a friend’s house and had her call someone up on the phone, and I recorded her side of the conversation. I did that again for a piece called Convertible Debts. I went to a number of friends and I asked them to call someone up and ask for a favor. When people ask for a favor, they get a little squirmy; they get self-conscious and their voices kind of go up. So I got better melodies due to people’s nervousness.

So, yes, you’re right. The speech-sampling pieces, which are at least maybe half of the music I write, always begin with some pre-existing something. But I may or may not know what that pre-existing something is going to be when I have somebody just talk on the phone. I don’t know what they’re going to say. Although, afterwards, I of course know what they said. So I can pick and choose.

FJO: Over the last decade, there’s been a great deal of published research, as well as hypotheses, about the differences between music and language as sociological phenomena and their origins. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Steven Mithen’s book, Singing Neanderthals.

“Music and language have certainly diverged, but they still find each other.”

SJ: Yes, but it’s been years since I read it. He has an interesting theory about these being outgrowths out of the same root, that they were related in the same way that chimps and gorillas grew into different things. Language and music grew into different things. I think that in listening to people speak, I can still hear things. One of the early things that I noticed is that when people want to convey certainty, they settle on a low pitch. That’s the newscaster’s way of letting you know that it is an authoritative statement. And everybody’s familiar with question-speak. Then when people are trying to convince you of something, they can get very animated. Of course, there are all the facial gestures that go with that, but these have musical corollaries. There are things that are in between. A preacher is a perfect example. In some religions, some of them actually do start singing. I actually had a grandfather who was a Lutheran minister in Wisconsin, and when he would get to banging the pulpit, there was a sense of repetition in his phrasing and pitch choices. Actually, that’s another thing that people often do when they’re trying to convince you of something. They will repeat a point, then they’ll vary it, and then they’ll give you another example, and they’ll hit that same note. So yes, music and language have certainly diverged, but they still find each other.

FJO: So far, we’ve only been talking about English and the acculturated habits that English language speakers have, like raising the voice at the end of a question. But that’s not a universal phenomenon. All languages do similar things, but not the same thing.

SJ: There are slight variations, but it’s really basically all off the same root. Different cultures have different habits, but they’re all operating on the same hardware. Actually, Dan Dennett has an interesting thing in his new book where he refers to people’s minds; he talks about installing things in your necktop—like a desktop. Everybody in different cultures gets different versions of this installed. But some things are universal. A mother always uses that soft voice to sing to their infants. Guys looking for a fight kind of sound the same. You don’t have to be from that culture to know when somebody’s coming at you. Or when somebody’s smiling at you. There are a set of human behaviors, and they get channeled by culture.

FJO: Of course, one way they get channeled—and a way that makes it even closer to what we think of as music—is that some cultures developed so-called tonal languages, like Chinese or various West African languages such as Yoruba. Among certain peoples in West Africa, there is a clear relationship between the tonal language they speak and the music they create—they’ve even developed a performance practice on talking drums that directly mimics speech. I think it’s the ancestor of your music, because it’s turning words directly into music in a similar way.

SJ: Yeah, it’s a parallel. Like I said, everybody’s got the same hardware here. There are a number of things you can do with it. Tonal languages are apparently very difficult to learn. Some cultures don’t do anything with tone. But there are still variations on the uses that people can make of pitch. In English, we make uses of pitch in question-speak. Going up at the end of a sentence is a cultural habit that developed. Why did it happen? I actually have my own theories, but it doesn’t matter. Once a thing happens, it becomes imitated, and it gets passed on. That’s how human culture works. Basically in one sense it’s Darwinian; certain practices survive because they are copied more often. Although the difference between the regular Darwinian kind of unconscious evolution and the kind of evolution that humans do is that humans are conscious and they have more ability to choose than a dog. But I don’t think we have as much ability to choose as we think we do. Many years ago, to point out the fact that we are to some extent programmed by our culture, I would say, “We invent the sentences, but we didn’t invent any of the words.” I must have said this to Laurie Anderson, and she said, “We didn’t invent a lot of the sentences, either.” Think of all the political arguments you’ve had. So much of it consists of us repeating back what we heard yesterday—maybe in slightly different words, a mutation, but it’s not as if we thought that up. Sometimes we like to present it as if we thought that up, and that is also human nature: people putting their imprint on the viruses that are passing between us and other human beings.

FJO: So to take it directly to music: obviously, if you’re composing music based on the 12-tone equal-tempered scale that the West largely agrees on, all those notes have already been heard. All the possible chords you could make with those notes have also been heard. Maybe these notes and chords can be put together in new ways similarly to how we use pre-existing words to form new sentences, but only somewhat. And if you’re using musical instruments that someone else built and that other people have used, all those timbres have already been heard, too.

SJ: Right. There is possibility for novelty and, in our kind of new music world, it’s almost a fetish and a point of pride to say that you’re the first person to do this thing or that thing. And indeed, inventions occur, or else we’d still be trying to light that fire in the rain and having a hard time with it. But inventions are usually informed by an inheritance. I think there are mainly two kinds. There are variations on pre-existing structures and habits. All the chords and the notes that you’re talking about. Then there are inventions that are hybrids where you get inspiration from outside your field. When I started doing John Somebody, I studied visual art. I remember feeling at that time—this was in the conceptual art era in the late ’70s—that there was more inventiveness and more surprise in the visual arts than in the music world. One of the things I wanted to do when I settled on being a composer was to have some of what I used to call the gee-whiz factor, this sort of delight in something new which is naturally an interesting thing. Not only in music, but in most cultural products or habits, there’s always an interplay between comfort zone and familiarity—which is to say your inheritance from the culture—and surprise and invention. Both of those things can come up with very pleasing results: the piece of music that makes you cry because it pulls all the familiar strings; then the piece of music where you go, “What is that? I have never heard that before.” Of course, both familiarity and surprise can also go very wrong, which accounts for all of the boredom that we have felt and “If I had a gun, I would shoot myself right now in the middle of the concert.”

“There’s always this interplay between inheritance and invention.”

So there’s always this interplay between inheritance and invention, but different subcultures have really different attitudes about what constitutes a nice mix. I was about to say popular music is more inheritance and familiarity, but that’s actually not true. Think of classical music lovers, the kind of people who get mad if you’re not doing Schubert. One thing that’s always bothered me about the classical music world and the new music world is that we have a tendency to consider ourselves to be superior beings who are more aware and more conscious of what we’re doing, more inventive and less structured by what we think we’re supposed to do. Then there’s that old tendency to sneer at popular music. Popular music in general is structurally simpler, but it’s not more imitative or less inventive. There are people like Jimi Hendrix who come along and Radiohead. Again, it’s back to the idea that humans are always using the same hardware. I think the mix of inventiveness to inheritance is probably going to play out to some kind of a bell curve medium, pretty much among any group of people in any culture. Some cultures are very rigid and you don’t have as much inventiveness. Our culture prizes inventiveness and I think it’s a good thing. But then again, I’m a product of our culture.

FJO: The gee-whiz moment in your output is certainly John Somebody, but that didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. So how did you get to the point of thinking of speech as a possible source for melody?

Scott Johnson Explains the Genesis of John Somebody


launch gallery

SJ: Well, I came to New York to be a visual artist. I was going to give up music. I’d studied both. I had also played electric guitar in bar bands in Madison, Wisconsin; I played with different groups and I loved those sounds. But at that moment, I thought there was no chance to put that into serious music, classical music. I couldn’t figure out how to do it, so I decided to quit music, which I then later on failed at quitting. One influence from popular music is call and response—the singer sings something and the guitar would imitate it. I would imitate what just happened. That kind of call and response is common throughout all kinds of musical cultures.

When I became a visual artist, I started doing installation pieces and performance pieces, and I used tape. I would chop and edit together, in real time, from a reel-to-reel to a cassette. I’d stop and start the reel-to-reel and came up with this very choppy stuff. I read William Burroughs, and John Giorno was around at this time, too. This was the late ’70s, and there was an awful lot of this in the visual art world and related worlds in downtown New York. There was a lot of work with video tape and audio tape, and it all seemed like a new playground. And it was a playground I was kind of familiar with from doing music. But I found I was unable to ignore the pitches. I would make these tapes and eventually I just started paying a great deal of attention to the structure. I would have drone sounds. I have one thing where I would pitch-shift ringing telephones and create these kind of swooping sounds underneath these shattering, chopped up voices. At that point, it was almost like rhythm and melody. I was halfway to music. Then I was just collecting some source material. I went home [with a recording I made of a] painter named Judy Rifka, who was a friend of mine. There were these four phrases that sounded very melodic. And I realized, wait a minute, these sound really good on a guitar. So I wrote them down. By the way, I found the piece of paper with the first writing down of those four phrases [that wound up in John Somebody]. I have to show it to you.

The original sheet of music notation paper containing Scott Johnson's musical transcriptions of four phrases of spoken conversation that eventually became the basis for his composition John Somebody.

The original sheet of music notation paper containing Scott Johnson’s musical transcriptions of four phrases of spoken conversation that eventually became the basis for his composition John Somebody.

FJO: Wow.

SJ: But I ignored it for two years, because I was busy doing other things. Then finally I said, “Okay, I’ll do that transcription thing.” I actually performed a sort of drone-y version of it at the Mudd Club once before I started really structuring it; that would have probably been in 1979. Probably 1976 or ‘77 is when I first got the idea of writing it down. I know that because I remember the loft that I was living in on the Bowery, and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is a fun idea. I’ll get around to it someday.” Eventually I did get around to it. And that’s that. In terms of sources, I’d say there were really three things. People talk a lot about Steve Reich’s Different Trains, which happened after he’d heard John Somebody, but as a teenager I’d heard his loop pieces. He did not go to the idea of transcribing the pitches and turning it into instrumental music, but there was that kind of sonic quality of layers, so that was an influence. Then there’s the call and response idea from the blues. And then there was Messiaen, which was a really direct and obvious thing: write down the bird songs. I’ll write down the human songs. So I would say that those three things kind of collided one afternoon.

FJO: So here’s something that I find so interesting. You said you were in Madison, Wisconsin, playing in bar bands, but since you couldn’t integrate what you were doing in those bands into composition, you were going to give up music. Why didn’t you pursue playing in bands and try to become a rock star?

SJ: Oh, it was really clear that that was not of interest to me. I mean, it was fun. And it still would be fun to get up and play a tune once in a while. Actually that’s how I started picking up guitar again. Laurie Anderson is someone I knew through the art world, and I was in her first band. She had a jukebox in a gallery show at the Holly Solomon Gallery, and we made a bunch of tunes for Laurie’s art show to put on her jukebox. And I used to play with Rhys Chatham, Peter Gordon, people like that.

I knew how to play guitar, and I was pretty good at it. As far as rock and roll, I could have been a contender. But it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. It just wasn’t intellectually demanding enough. But I love the sounds. This was the problem that I had with music in general. The stuff that I was interested in intellectually—the classical world—was not of my time and place, or else it was of my time and place and it was high modernism, which I tried and tried but I did not fall in love with. As opposed to the music that I had a more emotional relationship to, which I played playing electric guitar. But I got bored.

FJO: But we’re talking about the mid-‘70s. This is the era of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, whose music is pretty intellectual.

SJ: Oh, I know. And I like that stuff fine, but one thing I used to notice is it almost never breaks the five-minute limit successfully. That’s about how long those structures will work. But I also didn’t like 19th-century music particularly. I liked it better as I grew older and I began to understand how innovative and brilliant these people were. When I first heard it, I had no music background, by the way. I came to classical music and this stuff as a teenager under my own steam. That music was of another era, and it didn’t really speak to me. It gradually began to as I began to understand what went into it and the structures behind it, but it didn’t sound right to my Midwestern, American, rock and roll, guitar-playing ears. On the other hand, I actually remember the first time that I got really excited about classical music. My teenage hippy friends and I were getting stoned and we listened to The Rite of Spring. You’ve probably talked to a dozen composers who said, “That was my first piece.” It was mine, too, just like everybody else.

FJO: That’s interesting, because people talk about this divide. This is something David Lang has talked about. For composers over a certain age that piece is The Rite of Spring, but for composers who are younger, and I would lump you in the younger category, it would be In C.

SJ: Oh yeah, but I didn’t hear In C until shortly thereafter. I was a teenage Frank Zappa fan and his records had a quote, “The modern composer refuses to die.” The Edgard Varèse quote. Who’s Edgard Varèse? So I went and I got that gray record that everybody had. That was also early on.

FJO: And it’s also another precedent. Varèse used speech as music in Poème électronique.

SJ: Oh, yes. Exactly. That wonderful moment. But the use of speech in concrète music was nothing new at all.

FJO: But it certainly predates the Steve Reich tape-looped voice pieces [It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out].

“Steve [Reich] … was an influence on me, and I was proud to have re-influenced him.”

SJ: Well yeah, Steve got something from that. But then what Steve got out of his voice pieces was not the train of thought that led to Different Trains. It was the train of thought that led to the phase pieces and 18 Musicians. That was his immediate thing, and for more than ten years that’s what he did. He didn’t do the transcription thing until after he heard John Somebody. When that first happened, I felt great. He was an influence on me, and I was proud to have re-influenced him. Think of Manet. He was not embarrassed about being influenced by Monet. He was an older painter who was paying attention. He didn’t make up those late paintings of his. He borrowed a lot of it, and they’re good. So there. That’s the way I try to look at it. Anyhow, yes, there was plenty of voice use before that, but I don’t think it was rhythmic in this particular way. That’s one thing Steve brought to it. And, although in some of those early concrète things, the voices appeared within a pitched context, they didn’t do the transcription thing, which is pretty much what I brought to it. So, back to where I started, these genres are social constructions to some extent. Nobody invented them. You might invent this variation, or that variation, but you probably would not have invented that had there not been a precedent that got you halfway there.

FJO: So you were recording these snippets for an installation, and suddenly you realized these recordings of speech were tunes.

SJ: They sort of became that. The very first ones were more textural. My first attempts were sort of chattering and textural.

FJO: There’s a piece you include in the works list on your website called Home and Variations. It’s from 1979 and it’s the earliest piece you list, but you didn’t include a sound snippet of it.

SJ: I forgot about that. I did it with these French dancers in a dance company at L’Espace Pierre Cardin, this big performance space right off the Champs Elysées. That was my first trip to Europe. It was sort of amazing, because here was this experiment I had done being done in this prestigious space. It’s been all downhill since then, by the way.

FJO: Okay, so you came to New York and decided you weren’t going to do music, and in a few years you get invited to do this thing for Pierre Cardin.

SJ: I didn’t know where it was going to be performed. I got it through a choreographer friend of mine named Charlie Moulton, who was in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. We used to actually go to Chinatown, play pool, get really sharp on our pool, practice some dance steps on the way over to a bar called Barnabus Rex—which was a fabulous artist bar in the ‘70s—and then we would walk in and we’d be the sharpest dancers and pretty good pool players. It was a very fun thing for a 23-year old to be doing. So Charlie knew this choreographer, Susan Buirge, and sent her to me.

Anyway, it was completely vital to coming up with John Somebody. It did not have transcription, but that’s where I did the other innovative technique of John Somebody. I’d take a mono-loop and run it onto a multi-track recording. Then I would run other mono-loops onto other channels of that multi-track recording using a variable speed control to hand-synch the tracks. I would run it for a while, and then I would pick the spot on the multi-track tape where it was most in synch and make a multi-track loop out of that. I would end up with a multi-track loop with these synchronized tracks that I had laboriously laid together. Then I would mix them out, turning different channels on and off. I had a little hand mixer made with on and off buttons and faders. Before I would mix these things out, I would do little exercises: buttons with my fingers, faders with my thumbs, moving them up and down, and I would make a plan. I could actually show you. I have graphic scores for John Somebody for how to mix out the voice tracks. Then I would do takes until I got it just so. But basically I invented this for this lost piece called Home and Variations. I think I have a reel-to-reel tape, but it’s from the ‘70s. It probably would turn to dust if you tried to play it, which is an unfortunate side effect of the environmental movement. They used to make audio tape with oil from whales. They stopped and started using synthetics, then ten years later discovered that all the tapes were falling apart, which is why you’ve heard of people baking tape. So those tapes are probably lost. I don’t know. It hardly matters to me.

Some of the Scott Johnson's archival tapes of his compositions.

Some of the Scott Johnson’s archival tapes of his compositions.

FJO: It mattered enough to you to include it in the works list on your website.

SJ: Sure, because having it listed on my website is what caused you to ask this question.

FJO: Exactly.

SJ: And actually I’m glad you brought that up. I’d totally forgotten. That was a vital link in making John Somebody. I was working very hard to get synchronization, which was the opposite of what Steve did. There’s a 25-foot loop on John Somebody in “Involuntary Song 3.” It’s the one with the fake operatic voice. Underneath that, there are five pitches of “hahs” [laughing sounds]. I made the chord structure by turning them on and off as the chords went by. Any two “hahs” would create the implication of a major chord or a minor chord, so I had to synchronize those multiple loops with this 25-foot tape loop. I still remember it was two and a quarter inches for a whole note. And I was putting sixteenth-inch pieces of leader in there, so that I could run the whole thing in sync with other tracks. It was absolutely insane. This is the kind of thing you could do in two days with Pro Tools. But that was the technology and at the time, and it was brand new—multi-track tapes at home. You know, The Beatles only had four channels.

FJO: So if someone wanted to reconstruct that, now that we have samplers, does it live on a digital file that somebody could get from you?

SJ: No, but the complete mix exists. I’ve considered at times rebuilding it. I actually have all the original loops. They’re sitting in a cardboard tube in the other room, and I’m sure they’re not okay. But I do have the eight-channel home master tape, and then I have the 24-track tape where we ran my eight-channel tape on to it. The 24-track tape is probably still functional and could be fixed. But it’s really fun writing new music. I spent months and months doing the Pro Tools editing on this new piece, Mind Out of Matter, and there is not a note out of place. I’m really happy with the recording. But if you ever hear me talking about doing that again, please tie me to a chair until I get over it, because it is really not fun. Writing music is fun and that’s what I want to do when I get up in the morning. So maybe I’ll never rebuild John Somebody.

Johnson's graphic score for operating the mixing board for

Johnson’s graphic score for operating the mixing board for “Involuntary Song 3” in John Somebody.

FJO: Have there been people who want to perform it?

SJ: Oh, people have performed it. The end result of all of this was initially a stereo tape, and now I have a stereo track. People can buy the solo part and the track from me and give it a performance. In the ‘90s, Lincoln Center sent John Somebody around to public schools in the region. I was busy and I didn’t want to pull my chops back up for this. So I found this wonderful guitarist named John Herington who’s now the lead guitarist for Steely Dan. He’s a fabulous guitarist, better than me. I found him through some musicians I’d known who do a lot of session work.

Those musicians were the Borneo Horns—Steve Elson, Stan Harrison, and Lenny Pickett who plays in the Saturday Night Live Band—which were David Bowie’s horn section from the Let’s Dance tour. They had played in a rock big band I had in the early ‘80s. It was like a guitar band with three saxophones. That music never was released. This is an interesting thing about our world and its pretensions for being not like the popular music world. After John Somebody, I did this rock big band, and no one was interested. The popular music world is not the only place where it’s dangerous to shift your focus, to change what you’re thinking about, and to try something new. So that’s a period of my music that was lost. There’s also some work from the late ‘90s that’s mostly disappeared. One of those pieces, The Illusion of Guidance, is still around, because I recorded it myself. It was written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

“I’ve complained about modernism a lot, but it informs my musical world.”

I wrote a number of pieces in that period that were kind of thornier, a little more dissonant and complex. It really paid off because I’ve complained about modernism a lot, but it informs my musical world. It’s actually better than tonal music at doing certain things. It’s better at conveying anxiety. As a matter of fact, the only inroads that high modernist atonal music made into popular culture are in scary movies, which is an interesting commentary on human nature and how we react to musical materials. How much of it is innate? How much of it is learned? Interestingly enough, when I was at Bellagio, there was a psychologist who showed me this study of weeks-old infants. They’d play them a melody, harmonized in parallel thirds, on a synthesizer. Then they would play them the same melody harmonized in clusters on the same synthesizer. About two-thirds of the time, when they did the clusters, the infants would start crying. They had not been taught not to like atonal music, so there’s something else going on in the nervous system. Anyhow, the interesting thing about that thornier music I did is that I felt like it broadened my harmonic palette. Then I put it to work in pieces like Americans. Mind Out of Matter is where it really came into focus. I feel like it gives me a broader palette of expression. It allows access to certain moods and associations. One example I often give is any good modernist composer can do a better storm than Beethoven, because they’ve got materials that work better for creating that sense of ominous disorder.

FJO: Since you brought up coming to terms with high modernist music, there’s a very important concept behind a lot of that music—certainly serial music—that isn’t very different from minimalism. In both cases, composers are generating larger temporal structures from a very small kernel, whether it’s the small rhythmic or usually tonal melodic cell in a minimalist piece or a combinatorial hexachord or a time-point set derived from that.

SJ: Well yeah, it’s the Beethoven Five mythology.

FJO: It’s also the function of those little snippets of speech in John Somebody.

SJ: I always have thought of the speech transcription thing as some sort of odd corollary to 12-tone music, which I don’t like to do, but it is an interesting problem. You have those notes, and you’ve got to deal with them. If you’re a serialist composer, here comes that A-flat. You have to use it. You cannot leave this room until you have said A-flat. I found that what the speech transcription thing did for me is a similar kind of thing. It makes you jump through hoops. The interesting thing about Mind Out of Matter is I never cheated. These words drip around and there’s a lot of glissing, but I always made a reference in the harmonic accompaniment to whatever pitches were going on, which caused me to modulate constantly, sometimes at a really rapid pace. It led to harmonic events that I might not have otherwise come up with. And I was very happy with it.

“I always have thought of the speech transcription thing as some sort of odd corollary to 12-tone music.”

In the late ‘80s, this is again some music that was never recorded, I had a couple of pieces where, after realizing this similarity with being tied to these voices, I literally made a 12-tone row and did the retrograde, retrograde inversion, the whole thing. I made strict melodies and then harmonized them tonally, and ended up with a harmonic language that is not that dissimilar from where I am now. I did it to prod myself, but I was not really interested in this totally constructed, totally logical, totally interrelated artwork that I think the serialists were interested in. In some ways, I’m more of a collagist or a hybridist, the surrealist idea of dissimilar objects jamming up against each other and something happens. This relates to my idea of getting inspiration from outside of music. A lot of my reading of evolutionary psychology, which I got really involved in in the ‘90s, eventually led me to this Dan Dennett piece. I would just go looking for ideas that weren’t about music. It didn’t matter if there was an absolute connection. I certainly was in no way doing scientific research, but I was being inspired by scientific research.

One of Scott Johnson's bookcases which also contains a hat and various knick-knacks.

FJO: So for pieces like The Illusion of Guidance or Rock, Paper, Scissors, which as far as I can hear don’t have any extra-musical, linguistic associations, how were the pitches determined? How was the material constructed? Was it intuitive? Was there a system?

“It’s the system of what Scott likes.”

SJ: When we were working on Mind Out of Matter, the Alarm Will Sound pianist John Orfe—who’s also a composer and is very good at both of those things—asked me about some of the harmonies. “They’re fairly interesting. What’s the system? How do you come by these harmonies?” My answer is that there is no system. It’s what Scott likes and wants to hear next. That’s that. I have the input that I’ve had from the world. I have the habits that I’ve developed on my own. I have my preferences. Occasionally I will set up structures to push me around—like in Rock, Paper, Scissors, there’s one movement in the center where I had a nine-note row. And the opening of it is some fairly strict three-voice counterpoint, if I remember. I haven’t heard it for a long time. It’s plain old-fashioned counterpoint, using these nine notes with retrograde inversions and the whole nine yards, because it was kind of fun. It is not more admirable than anything else I’ve done. The fact that it was strict is not anything that I find to be particularly inspiring beyond the boundaries of that piece. So I guess the answer is it’s the system of what Scott likes.

FJO: Earlier in this conversation you were talking about how you were attracted to the sound world of rock and playing the electric guitar, but high modernism ignored this music and so you felt that there was no way to make a connection. But in your own work you are using tropes from both rock and high modernism.

SJ: I found the connection. Exactly. The point is that I solved my college problem. I think oftentimes composers—and artists in general to some extent—spend their lives solving something that really bothered them early on. The problem we were talking about of how to fuse popular music and various classical inheritances, this drove me away from music. Solving it pulled me back in. Part of what allowed me to was, within a year of when I got there, I had met Philip Glass. He was playing keyboard and I was playing guitar in a piece of Peter Gordon’s at The Kitchen. Suddenly I ran into these people who had found ways around this high modernist conundrum of making a music that’s not the only thing that’s currently respectable. None of them were engaged in popular music to the extent that I was, although now there are a lot of people who are, but I felt like I’d been given permission. I saw Philip just last month, and we were talking about how John Cage loomed so large when he was a young composer. He still loomed fairly large when I arrived here, too. But I remembered a quote from Philip, that John Cage gave him permission. Philip and these guys gave me permission, even if they weren’t doing popular music. There was tonality again. There was rhythm again. And although I’m not a minimalist, some of my best friends are. It’s gone through a lot of mutations, but minimalism has certainly been the dominant outcome of the old Downtown.

“The high modernist problem is a case of sexual selection.”

Even though I was here to be a visual artist, I had been beginning to play guitar again just because I knew how. And it exposed me to people who, even if they weren’t solving my particular problem, were avoiding the thing that was stopping me from solving my problem. In other words, they were finding a way around the road block of high modernism—which, by the way, I really began to understand in the ‘90s when I began reading about evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology and Darwinism. There’s a thing that happens in the biological world called sexual selection. The high modernist problem is a case of sexual selection. Sexual selection is what gives the peacock its gigantic tail. This tail is not a benefit for the exterior environment. This tail actually endangers that peacock. But the peahens like it. It’s a way of showing off, like the exaggerated antlers of an Irish elk. They’re now extinct because they couldn’t run away from people in the forest. They kept running into trees. But these were things that helped them mate. These things that hurt you in the larger environment, helped you produce offspring, because they were attractive to the little circle of female Irish elks. Well, what is reproduction for a cultural item? Schools. Students. Admirers. What gets you the admirers in music? Musicians are like jocks. I can run faster than you. I can play those notes. I am more complex than thou. So how do you reproduce? You become exaggeratedly complex. We have contempt for dumb stuff. You know, dumb rock and roll, dumb popular music. So how do you reproduce as an intellectual composer? You get rid of every hint of popular music. You get rid of everything that Brahms or Beethoven or Bach would have done at the drop of a hat, which is to quote folk tunes, to quote popular dances. What is a Baroque suite? It’s what drunk people do on Saturday nights. Sarabandes and gigues and so forth. So that’s what happened with high modernism. I compare it to the koala. The koalas’ ancestors were generalists. They could eat all kinds of plants. Koalas can only eat eucalyptus, and they can only live in the eucalyptus forest. High modernists can only live in the academy or scary movies. This is a species—there again, the biological metaphor. You think of a train of thought or a genre as a species. It lives in an environment. If it specializes, and that specialized environment becomes threatened, it will go extinct. So in a way, this returning of the influences of popular music is not a transgression against the Western art tradition. It’s actually a reinstitution of something that was always present as Western art music evolved. And it’s also always present in the art musics of every other culture at well. Ragas referred to musics that might be made by less skilled people. There is my rant.

Scott Johnson explains how the high modernist problem is a case of sexual selection.


launch gallery

FJO: So John Somebody was a watershed moment. But I think you’ve had a second one.

SJ: What’s that?

FJO: How it Happens—and the reason why is that up to that point, you were exploring the musical implications of speech, but the specific words themselves were not necessarily important in terms of their specific meaning as words. You may disagree with me on that.

SJ: The words of John Somebody were not serious, nor were the words of Convertible Debts, which actually happened about the same time as How it Happens, now that I think of it. I was going back and forth between those two pieces. Convertible Debts was the funny piece. But, you’re right. How it Happens is really a narrative.

FJO: John Somebody and Convertible Debts are funny because you’re only getting one side of a conversation. It’s enjoyable, but in a way, it’s frustrating because we don’t completely know what it’s about and it doesn’t matter.

SJ: No it doesn’t. It’s sort of metaphorical. The one thing that I’ve never heard anybody notice is that John Somebody has this humorous arc. It’s about this guy who’s a forgettable person, and in the second movement he’s stumbling. That’s actually me going, “I just thought of something; what did I think of?” In the next movement, women are laughing at him. Then in the final movement recap, it’s sort of a joke about male insecurity to a great degree. That’s partly why the use of the big, macho, power chords to me was always funny. It’s metaphorical whether or not you get the metaphor, but it’s not really a narrative.

FJO: It was primarily about you finding the music in the language. Then when you reached this other point, you chose language and made music happen from it so we’d pay more attention to that language as language. Not just as the tunes that come out of it, but what I.F. Stone is actually saying.

SJ: Yes exactly, as content. It was about something. Again, Convertible Debts is sort of a halfway step because it’s about people’s interactions. By the way, the name is a kind of financial transaction, or financial vehicle. I had people ask a favor. It was about obligation between people. But again, it was not explicit. That was never said; whereas, in How it Happens, I.F. Stone is saying this about that. That was new.

FJO: It’s a tragedy that there’s no integral recording of it; only parts of it are scattered on three different Kronos recordings.

SJ: All three of those pieces together are half of the piece. There’s about another half hour. They didn’t record the very opening of the piece. There’s a very short little movement before “It Raged” and then there’s a big long movement, like 20 minutes, that’s mostly instrumental. There’s only a little bit of voice at the front and the back. I thought of it as the opposite of a choral movement in a symphony: suddenly the voice leads. Here the voice suddenly leaves. Then there was yet another movement that they didn’t do. Well, that’s what happened. I had no control over it. When they put the pieces on separate CDs, the idea was that was going to be a way of defraying the expense of a complete recording, which never happened. These things happened away from discussions with me. This is what happened between them and the record company. It’s too bad. No other quartet has stepped forward. The big movement has a lot of complex MIDI percussion and some synthesizer and sampler, and all of that could be done live with three keyboards and a percussion quartet, if I adapted and wrote the MIDI percussion out for live players. I’ve even thought about recording that version separately. But, again, there’s always new music to write and that’s always more fun. I hope maybe someday I can hear that piece, but somebody’s got to pay for that. With my own resources, I’d rather write something new. I don’t know if that’s me turning my back on myself or the right or the wrong thing to do. I have actually proposed this to quartets a couple times, but nobody’s taken me up on it. It needs a quartet.

Scott Johnson outside on his roofdeck.

FJO: There’s another piece from almost a decade later that almost feels like a synthesis of Convertible Debts and How it Happens, since it has elements of humor but also has a very clear political narrative: Americans. And wow is that piece timely to the current moment.

SJ: Oh, it kills me. This piece has only been performed once in Europe, in Milan, and there was one complete performance in America at a college. Two movements got done at Miller by Juilliard students with me playing guitar, because Juilliard didn’t have any guitarists. The thing about that piece is it’s the voices of immigrants from China, Afghanistan, and Romania. This was right smack in the middle of George Bush invading Afghanistan, and there’s a person talking about her conflicting feelings as an American and an Afghani. Now with the whole Syria business in Europe and the sort of crypto-Fascist uprisings here and in Europe, the whole issue of immigration is even more pertinent than when I wrote the piece.

At this moment, I’m writing a companion piece for the same instrumental ensemble with no samples. Part of the reason it hasn’t gotten played is because the sampling pieces require a click track, but also because it’s one of my weird ensembles. I write these pieces that have instruments that I like in combinations that don’t exist in standard ensembles. This is for sort of a rock rhythm section—guitar, bass, drums, piano—plus viola, clarinet, and saxophone. When I was writing it, I thought you could probably go to any small city anywhere in the Western world and find these instruments; it just seemed resonant to me. But in a way I’ve immunized myself against performances. But now I’ll have this new piece, that’ll be 20-minutes plus. Americans is 20-minutes plus. Now there’s almost a concert you can flesh out with some smaller pieces. That’s what I’m going to do next year. I just want to hear the damn thing again.

FJO: So there are times when you care about an older piece.

SJ: I care about all of them. I recognize that everything I’ve done is part of everything that I’ve done after it—whether I liked it or even if I didn’t like something, I like it because it taught me a lesson. You learn from your successes and your mistakes. It’s not that I don’t care about these older pieces. It’s that there are only so many hours in a day. That’s why I stopped performing basically. I like guitar, but I love writing. So who wins?

FJO: So since you mention mistakes, are there any pieces of yours that you would consider mistakes that are out there in the world?

“There’s no such thing as something that’s all good or all bad.”

SJ: The problem with that question is it’s an on and off switch. There’s no such thing as something that’s all good or all bad. There are pieces that have mistakes in them. There are pieces that I’ve revised. If something really bothers me, I fix it.

FJO: So what’s a mistake?

SJ: A mistake is a thing that doesn’t please me.

FJO: But you’re going to change over time.

SJ: Well, you’d be surprised at how consistent my likes and dislikes often are. There are pieces that I would never write today, but that I still like for what they are. I finally made a proper score of an old guitar piece that was everybody’s favorite. It’s called Juggernaut. I think I should play it again if I do this concert. It was very minimalist and it’s got a sort of a whacky, semi-improvised guitar hero thing in the middle, all this stuff that was really great for my 29-year-old self or 26-year-old self, whatever. I wrote this about the time I was starting John Somebody. Probably 1979. I wouldn’t do anything like that now, but it’s a great piece. It’s nice. I like it. But there are other things that could use a fix. Occasionally, I’ll go back and I’ll fix things. In Mind Out of Matter, there’s one movement where I shuffled things around after the premier at Montclair because I didn’t feel it was working well enough. Indeed, it’s better. And there’s a gigantic movement in Mind Out of Matter, 26 minutes or something. I called it my Mahlerian sprawl. It is the direct descendent of this mysterious, lost, 20-minute, mostly instrumental piece from How it Happens which I did go back and revise ten years after I wrote it because there was this thing that just always bugged me, this area that didn’t work. It needed to get from there to there a little bit better. I hadn’t heard it for ten years and when I listened to it, I had the same reaction. The same criticism I had early on.

“The point of music is to be enjoyed, not to be held up as an opportunity for people to assess you.”

Scholars like to see this, that, and the other thing; you’re not supposed to fix old things, because it’s somehow more honest. I don’t give a damn. The point of music is to be enjoyed, not to be held up as an opportunity for people to assess you. That gets back to what I was saying about the sexual selection thing, composers doing things simply because it will help their reputations or make them appear to be whatever it is they wish to appear to be. If I make mistakes and if I catch them in time, I’ll fix them.

FJO: Well, you spent a lot of time working on Mind Out of Matter.

SJ: Not consistently. It happened over the course of six years. From like ’09 to ’15. I think I finished it in December, but that last year I spent only two months writing. I spent a couple of months in ’15 adding a movement. Earlier that year I’d done some cues for a documentary film about Daniel Dennett by a Polish filmmaker. I realized two of them had speech stuff in them, and they were absolutely perfect. I started out this piece not thinking it was going to be all about religion; it was going to be more generally about Darwinism. So here I had some stuff that not only mentioned Darwin, it actually said the title of the big piece. It had Dan Dennett saying, “Mind arising out of matter,” words which had not actually appeared in the piece called Mind Out of Matter. So adding the new movement added a year to the inclusive dates of the piece, but it was only about two or three months of work. Also in the course of that six years, I had a year off when I recorded and I made the Americans CD. I recorded that and did all the editing myself. I did a concert in New York. I also wrote another piece based on a Beckett play for the Cygnus Ensemble.

In other words, this was not non-stop. There were also several family members lost during those years. This is a thing that will take you away from your desk for a little while. It happened over a long period of time, and actually coming and going is something that I think helped the piece, because it’s a very big piece. That’s my longest ever and length creates different problems than shortness. Remember we were talking about Brian Eno and all these other really creative people in the popular music field that, as I said, rarely break the five-minute barrier because those structures have a hard time getting longer. The same thing happens when you go from your typical 15-minute new music piece to an hour and a quarter. I had a lot of time off to think about it and come back to things. And what you’ll notice about this piece is there are some movements that have a general character throughout, but most of them have a whole lot of variation. They’re more like a landscape. There’s the foothills. There’s the flat parts. There’s the mountains. I think of music very often in terms of topography, especially since I started backpacking and hiking and going in the mountains, which actually gave me one of my favorite metaphors for why I gradually came to like older, European composition. It’s like being in the mountains. You turn a corner and you see something you hadn’t expected. You never know quite what’s coming. They’re changing the channels, usually within every minute, sometimes several times a minute. Whereas minimalism I think of as the seashore, the beach, or the Great Plains, or a vast vista. That’s the experience you have with repetitive music. But I find I often like the sort of “Aha” experience of hiking in the mountains. That’s what I like about Beethoven.

FJO: Before we started recording this conversation, you claimed that you’re the slowest composer and you were showing me these charts where you worked out every single pitch for every syllable you used in Mind Out of Matter.

SJ: I did it for each movement. These are 11 by 17 pieces of paper, totally black with words and the notes attached to each syllable, and there are a dozen sheets. But before I even made those, I had to make an idea of what each movement was going to be about. Before making a movement, I had my source files in Pro Tools. I would go through and pick out the samples onto a different track. Then there would be another track where I would actually sculpt the particular samples and download them into a file. Then I would go through and I would write the pitches of absolutely every word, every syllable in that entire 75-minute piece. So what you’re seeing there is not actually the beginning. That’s the second stage of the preparatory work. Then it goes to Finale where I write into a computer file instead of writing on paper; since the late ‘80s, I’ve written directly into a score program.

Several of the 11 by 17 pieces of music manuscript paper containing Scott Johnson's transcriptions of Dan Dennett's speech.

Several of the 11 by 17 pieces of music manuscript paper containing Scott Johnson’s transcriptions of Dan Dennett’s speech.

FJO: But since you start by using Pro Tools and ultimately write the music directly into Finale, why do you work out all the pitches by hand? Why didn’t you do that in Finale, too?

SJ: Because it’s too much of a pain in the neck. First off, in Finale, you have to have rhythm. Look at those pieces of paper. Almost never is there a stem or a beam.

FJO: Maybe you should try using Dorico.

SJ: I should not use Dorico. I should not use anything that’s going to force me to invest time in learning a new program. I’ve gotten so good at Pro Tools I hate myself for it. It’s not as much fun as writing music. That’s that. But, in any case, this way [notating by hand] I can erase things, and the other thing is the pitches aren’t always exact, so I can make little gliss lines, or I can make stems that indicate the syllables, and then a line that indicates that it’s moving up like this. I can write little parenthetic things up top. Little arrows up and down for when it’s a quarter tone. Mostly I don’t fix pitches. But if it’s a quarter tone, then I will maybe resolve it if it’s a held pitch. If he’s moving through it, maybe I won’t. In Pro Tools you can adjust pitch.

FJO: So you’ve never tried leaving the microtones in there?

“I try to restrict myself to that which I can do a good job of.”

SJ: Sometimes I do, but the point is that I’m writing for tempered instruments. There’s really no advantage in having them be out of tune, unless it’s a gliss or a blue note. Singers and instrumentalists do this all the time. And voices do it. But when he’s speaking, I don’t want it to be out of tune because the instruments are right with him and I don’t really want that quarter tone to happen between the bass clarinet and the voice. I just don’t, sorry. I know you write microtonal music, and this is not a personal insult. It’s just I don’t know anything about it. I’m not competent. I prize competence, and so I try to restrict myself to that which I can do a good job of. I don’t take on a giant field like microtonal music without homework. And I’m not willing to do the homework. I use microtones with the knowledge of someone who played blues guitar.

FJO: Of course with Mind Out of Matter, as well as with How it Happens, you were dealing with recorded speech that had already existed before you had the idea of creating a piece of music out of it. This is a bit different from John Somebody or Convertible Debts, where you actually initiated the recordings of the spoken language you eventually turned into music. What about Americans?

SJ: Those were recorded for a book about Queens. They approached me to make a CD to be inserted in with this book. It was called Crossing the Boulevard. So these were existing recordings that had been transcribed. Basically they were made for printed matter. I was an after-thought. I agreed to do it with the agreement that I could use this material for a concert piece.

FJO: So the people who were recorded didn’t know you were doing this?

SJ: Oh no, I actually did interact with them after. One of the pieces is in Romanian. It’s a guy who’s a Romanian DJ, giving his spiel about oldies. So I had to call him up and ask him about some Romanian words. I actually spoke with all three of them.

FJO: And they were all fine about what you were doing with their words?

SJ: Sure. They had already signed up for the book, and this was in the same spirit. This is an attempt to tell the story, to tell their story. I was simply telling their story in yet another medium.

FJO: So how involved was Dan Dennett in the process of creating Mind Out of Matter?

SJ: I [first] got in touch with Dan in 2002, before this piece started. We had corresponded because I wrote a rather extensive, 15,000-word, essay called The Counterpoint of Species. I read a book by Dan Dennett called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and I was very much blown away by it. It actually answered a lot of questions about the evolution of music. He speaks not only about Darwinian evolution, but also the evolution that happened on a cultural level, which is partly Darwinian and partly, as he now says, intelligently designed by the only intelligent designer in the universe that we know of, which is humans. It shed a lot of light on things that I had been trying to say about why people join the groups they do and why certain ideas survive, like, as we said, high modernism. Why does this very isolated thing evolve out of a thing that once upon a time was very broad-based? There are reasons why these things happen. At the center of everything I’ve always done is: why can’t we get our vernacular music world back in the serious music? My point has always been that the source of the thing does not matter; it’s what use it’s put to that matters. This is a really basic Darwinian principle. The birds’ feathers began the same way that we get our head of hair. They were for heat. Gradually they evolved into these things that control flight. In other words, evolution uses whatever is available for purposes that were not dreamt of wherever it started. This is a thing that answers a whole lot of questions about music. And I ran into it when I read Dan.

“Dan Dennett is … probably the best sampled speech source that I’ve bumped into.”

So I wrote that essay and Nick Brooke, a fellow composer who had met Dan at Bellagio, said, “You should send this to Dan Dennett.” So I sent it to him, and he wrote back and said, “Could you send me five copies to give to my colleagues?” I was very happy this intelligent person that I admired found some value in this, and we corresponded on and off for a while. Then I heard his YouTube videos and realized that he had this fabulous melody-generator of a voice. He spends his life in front of people and he knows now how to not put them to sleep. He’s not only very organized in his presentations, which certainly helped me structurally in constructing the piece, but he’s also funny and lively, and probably the best sampled speech source that I’ve bumped into.

So we’d known each other, but we’d never met. Then, because he happened to be in town, we met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is where that piece got performed many years later. But, in any case, at some point, since I liked the ideas so much and he was such a good source, I just proposed to him, “May I make this piece?” And he said yes and sent me his lecture for Breaking the Spell, his book about religion. I was initially going to have that be one of a couple of different sections in this piece. But at some point, I realized there’s so much more material than I’m going to cover; I need to focus. The Darwinian ideas come out in the course of this. He has a very clear view of the world, and it comes out regardless of what he’s talking about.

When I was a couple years into it, I went up to Boston because I had certain things I wanted to get. The last movement, Awe, is basically the stuff that I went to Boston to get out of him. It’s about the sense of wonder and the value of a scientific, empirical outlook, an atheistic outlook that appreciates the world without any gilding of the lily. So Dan has been in on this all along. I’d sent him stuff and he never made any suggestions about structure or about how to go about anything. We had corresponded for a while, and he knew he could entrust it to me.

FJO: One final observation—you’ve talked about serious music now existing over here and vernacular music now existing over there, and that serious music should embrace the vernacular again. A lot of younger composers, people younger than both of us, don’t think of themselves either as serious composers incorporating vernacular music or vernacular composers incorporating elements of serious music. They don’t see a distinction between them.

SJ: They do see a distinction; they say that they don’t. I see an external distinction: genres are real things in the world, fuzzy boundaries and all. My desire to put these two things together comes from my desire to use what I like about music. What I like about music comes from these different places. I’ve been doing this endeavor going on 40 years now. When I started doing this, there was such opposition to it that I had to constantly talk about this. By the way, I met the New Amsterdam people when I gave a talk about this stuff at Yale, while they were still grad students. This was one of the places where I realized that I could stop talking about this so much because everybody in the room already agreed with me. Ten years before, that was not the case. What they’re doing is blending the music that they like, regardless of its source, and I’m totally on board with that. I don’t really see an ideological distinction between us. The nice thing is they don’t have to talk about it. Essentially I helped to create an ecosystem where that is not a pair of horns you have to wear or claws you have to have out. The musical ecosystem now, thanks to a number of Boomers who rebelled against what we were faced with when we were growing up, has created a situation where these guys didn’t have to fight that fight. That fight is kind of over. Well, it’s not over, these battles still trickle on, but it’s not crucial. You don’t have to talk about it. You can avoid it. I don’t think there’s a difference of perception between myself and this younger generation of people of how one goes about writing music and where one gets it from. If you look at younger composers, there are many who sound like rockers. Some of these people sound more minimalist, some have much more high modernist or a more dissonant quality in their music. These things are all mixed up. Some of them lean more towards this source or more towards that source.

“One of my hopes is that everybody starts mating with everybody else to the point where it’s not so easy to figure out who to hate.”

What’s interesting is that socially they don’t really have to talk about it, because the person who got more of this in their genome is okay with the person who has more of the other thing in their genome, because they’ve all got a little bit of each thing in their genome. It’s the cultural version of the DNA mixing that happens in modern cosmopolitan cities. One of my hopes for mankind is that everybody starts mating with everybody else to the point where it’s not so easy to figure out who to hate. The musical DNA has happened that way. It’s not so easy for them to figure out who to hate, so hopefully they’re not bothering with it so much. One of the things I’m proud of is to have helped, among a number of other people, to gradually push the goalposts a little bit in that direction such that it’s possible to have that attitude. I’m happy that the fight I always had to fight is an artifact at this point.

A couple of plastic dinosaurs and old photos surrounding some of Scott Johnson's electric keyboards.

Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “Scott Johnson—The Cultural Version of DNA Mixing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.