Sounds Heard: Dennis Johnson–November

Sounds Heard: Dennis Johnson–November

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by Dennis Johnson
(Irritable Hedgehog)
R. Andrew Lee

I’ll admit it: I was doing other things while listening to November. This important work of early minimalism (from 1959!) by Dennis Johnson had until recently fallen into obscurity. While Johnson himself turned away from music not long after its composition, LaMonte Young–one of the fathers of minimalism–credits this piece as a direct inspiration for his influential The Well-Tuned Piano. But November was not performed for decades until, in 2009, Kyle Gann reconstructed the score using an old cassette recording and notes provided by Johnson for reference:

[T]he complete “score,” if that is the correct term [,] consists of “motifs” plus rules of which motifs can follow each given motif – at least that is what it should be, but I’m afraid that it isn’t made entirely clear. Items 1-15 were written around 1970-1971. Pages A + B are, I think, an attempt to make the transitions more explicit – or possibly to write down the transitions as they occur in the recording, but it was never finished, so the recording must stand as the primary definition example of the piece. The piece was not meant to be entirely fixed, but somewhat improvisatory, with the given transitions as the rules for the improvisation. No rules were implied about the times spent on any of the motifs, nor on the number of recurrences/recycles of any motif – they do recur in the tape.

Now, more than 50 years after its premiere, the composition has finally been recorded in its entirety by pianist R. Andrew Lee and released as a 4-CD set and digital download by Irritable Hedgehog.

At five hours, November is at the extreme outer limits of the average attention span, but its lengthy duration isn’t unique. Aside from The Well-Tuned Piano, Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 comes to mind, for example, or the 24-hour version of Erik Satie’s Vexations. The particular performance rituals that have sprung up around these pieces have created a certain accepted context and etiquette for extra-long compositions. Concertgoers are not necessarily expected to be there for the entire performance, and may come and go as they please.

But November doesn’t quite fit in with those pieces, despite its placid ambiance and patient unfolding. Five hours is a length of time that means you could, conceivably, listen to the whole thing in one sitting. So instead of falling into the existing context, the piece asks you to do something slightly more radical, especially in its recorded form: it asks you to invent your own context. Do you listen to the whole thing in one sitting, alone, in the dark? Do you listen to a disc or two at a time while you do the dishes or fold laundry? Or, as I did, do you listen to the entire piece on a long road trip, accompanied by the dull roar of the freeway, with occasional intermissions at rest stops and gas stations?

What is unusual, even startling, is how the piece both demands and defies attention in practically any listening environment. Mechanically, it’s nothing more than a series of piano chords (and occasional single notes), given ample time to resonate and decay. Nonetheless, there is an unmistakable sense of progression. The first couple hours of the work, based on a transcription of an incomplete recording from 1962, are quite linear and structured, even teleological, though the material moves forward at a very unhurried pace. Lee’s thoughtful, plangent chord voicings catch the ear here—kind of like Thelonious Monk, if you slowed him down about 800%.

Somewhere in the middle of the second disc, however, a change occurs. Here, the performer is asked to improvise around small cells of musical material. It’s a subtle transition, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happens, but the music does become noticeably more static. There are many ways this kind of improvisation could go astray, but Lee’s sense of pacing is impeccable. He might spend several minutes lingering on an idea, exploring its many permutations, or he might breeze through a passage in a fleeting and ephemeral way, but the way Lee manages to keep a sense of direction going throughout this material is truly impressive. The overall effect on the listener is something like exploring pools of liquid connected by tiny canals.

It was so absorbing, in fact, that I was about halfway through the Angeles National Forest when I realized I was almost out of gas and about 25 miles from the nearest town. Thankfully I did not become stranded in the San Gabriel Mountains, but if I had it would have been strangely fitting, being indefinitely suspended in a gorgeous landscape between a forgotten origin and a nebulous destination.

Verdict: November is captivating and highly recommended, but avoid operating heavy machinery while listening.

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4 thoughts on “Sounds Heard: Dennis Johnson–November

  1. david toub

    This is great. To be accurate, however, two other recordings exist since I have them both and have been enjoying them for two years now. One is by Kyle Gann, and the other is by Sarah Cahill (I think split with Kyle, but I can’t remember offhand). The piece is outstanding. I also have a few excerpts from Johnson’s original tape, which are of course not audiophile quality, but also very amazing.

    1. Isaac Schankler

      Thanks for the info! I’d heard of these recordings but didn’t realize they were publicly available. It looks like the Gann/Cahill recording, at least, is being hosted on Gann’s website. It’s a live recording from 2009 and definitely worth checking out.

      At any rate, unless I’m mistaken, it’s worth noting that the new release is the first studio recording of the piece put out by a label.

  2. Pingback: Afternoon Bites: David Lang, “Green Man” Covers, Unearthing Minimalism, Sarah Polley, and More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn

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