10 for ’10: Evan Johnson

I’m more and more of the opinion that even most of those who claim to write about contemporary music aren’t actually interested in doing so: when people say ‘contemporary music’, even when they’re talking about composed/art/concert music, they mean music written 40, 50 or 60 years ago by composers who are almost all dead.

There’s plenty of room left for people to write about the major senior figures of today but really, when the world has only just caught up with Lachenmann in his 70s and while Saariaho is considered the bleeding edge of the avant garde in some quarters, it could be a while before you’re reading much about those composers currently in the vigorous maturity of their 40s or 50s.

There’s a blind spot about what ‘contemporary’ really means in classical music. This annoys me. It’s time to talk about about the real avant of the avant garde: emerging composers with massive talents who aren’t ‘bright prospects for the future’ but who are in fact contributing in original, imaginative and expressive ways to the reality of modern composition now. Those composers who are truly contemporary.

So welcome to a feature I’ve been meaning to introduce for some time. This year, 2010, I’ll be presenting 10 profiles of emerging composers who really excite me. The profiles will appear roughly one a month, and each will be connected as far as possible to a UK performance of that composer’s music. Each profile will include some downloadable goodies – score and sound – and a short interview with the composer. To keep things both interesting and consistent, I’ll be asking each composer the same set of questions (although, depending on responses I may not post all the replies here):

  • Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?
  • How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?
  • How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?
  • What is musical material for you?
  • A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?
  • What projects are on your desk at the moment?
  • Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

I’m delighted to begin with a profile of the American composer Evan Johnson (b. 1980; no relative). I first encountered Evan’s music in a performance by EXAUDI of his Colophons (“That other that ich not whenne”) reflecting pool/monument. I think even then I knew that I’d not heard a surer bet than Evan’s music. It takes fearsome intelligence and a worldview that recalls the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities and combines them with a deep sensitivity to musical traditions, techniques and philosophies that are often seen as opposite, even aggressively antagonistic to one another.

Extract from Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum), 2009

At first glance, the music appears irrevocably tied to a heavy, European tradition of rich notational determination, formal complexity and hierarchy. But experience of the music in performance immediately reveals something else, something lighter, more intangible, more unpredictable, a willingness to push boundaries beyond the rational, and to do so for the sake of not knowing and of being simply interested in finding out. In the middle of Colophons the dense cobwebs of vocal writing stop, suddenly, leaving only a single, scratching tone on the violin in the air. It hangs there, precariously, for 10, 20, 30 seconds. Too long. And then the voices start again, as though nothing had happened. It’s an extraordinary moment that makes no sense at all in traditional discursive terms, yet it absolutely nails that piece for me.

Evan’s music is something like that: it carries with it an aura of irrationality and impossibility, a fantasy that almost (but, crucially, not completely) evaporates with its own expressive coming-into-being.

Londoners are in for a treat in February, then, with two concerts including pieces by Evan. The second, by pianist Mark Knoop, features Dehiscences, Lullay (‘Thou nost whider it whil turne’), 2005. The first, at King’s Place on 8th February, will see Benjamin Marks and Tristram Williams of ELISION give the first UK performance of Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum). A score extract of this piece is reproduced above; with the composer’s permission here is a short extract from the first section of the work:

Apostrophe 2, excerpt | score (pdf)

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Evan Johnson: Well, it can’t be too anachronistic if there are even a few people out there who want to present and listen to the things I produce. Anachronism then becomes their problem, not mine! But – if by ‘composing’ you mean the act of writing down notated material for performance by others – yes, the whole notion may be in the process of becoming obsolete, especially now that the writing, publishing and promulgation of notated music has been thoroughly left in the dust by new technologies.

This question is particularly apt for me because I consider the writing down of music and the insistence upon its live performance as a polemical act. I believe passionately in the importance of music, and art more generally, as a framed experience removed from daily life, and in opposition to it – an opportunity to undergo a sort of perceptual and intellectual stimulation that infiltrates one’s life as an alternate narrative that promotes the possibility of the unexpected. In this sense, my work as a composer is that of a perpetual sceptic of the constant availability of music for consumption, and of the encroaching valorization of the infinitely customizable (and therefore predictable) more generally. I find that, without even intending it, I am calibrating my work more and more for live performance – through extremes of dynamics, slightly modified stagings for instrumentalists, an emphasis on musculature and breath, and other sites for musical content that don’t lend themselves particularly well to reproduction. The end result is a work that demands the sort of attention and framing that excerpts it from the rest of the audience’s experience. That, for me, is what the whole thing is about, anachronistic though I fear it may be.

 

TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

EJ: I haven’t had as much experience as I would like working intensively in the precompositional stage with performers, but I have been extraordinarily lucky in the past several years with the interest my work has received from performers who are both capable and enthusiastic about tackling whatever I throw at them. My music tends to exist at boundaries of difficulty, endurance and notational complexity (which not infrequently falls over into purposeful impossibility), and its appeal among performers, even new-music specialists, is understandably limited as a result. I don’t begrudge anyone that; it’s a natural consequence of the things that interest me compositionally.

TR-J: What is musical material for you?

EJ: I don’t know. Everything. Or, more specifically, its definition changes several times over the course of a particular project. I tend to start by thinking about duration, and more specifically about relations between durational ‘containers’; in other words, about proportional time structures. I have developed over recent years a strong sense of how specific proportional sets work in their particularity, and they have over time acquired for me a definite personality, the way instrumental timbres or harmonic vocabularies do. I’ve also developed a small array of transformational procedures that enable me to generate durational material on all timescales out of a limited set of basic proportional ‘ingredients’, while still preserving something of that initial personality. It’s only at that point that I will think about inserting pitches, gestures, and so forth, sometimes with the idea of emphasizing the various machinations of these proportional structures and sometimes with the aim of struggling against them.

I should add that duration for me is not at all a purely arithmetical construct; it is intimately tied to the experience of the performer and their lungs, muscles, and mental endurance. What the direct play with duration allows me to do is give certain material a sense of being ‘too long’ or ‘too brief’ not only for itself or for the listening audience, but also for the performers. Playing my recent music is always an athletic feat, which for me is absolutely fundamental to the meaning of the whole enterprise of music as a multivalent interpersonal communication. So, in a sense, ‘musical material’ for me is primarily duration and the relationship between a frame and its contents, or a figure and its ground; but at the same time it is also the sinews and lungs of the bodies on stage who are viscerally inhabiting those frames.

Finally, I insist on broadening the definition of ‘musical material’ beyond that which is heard by an audience. The end product of my work as a composer is not what is heard by the listening audience; it is the score, and the score I produce is more than merely a set of instructions for producing sound. The ideal notation, for me, is not the most ‘transparent’, the most recuperable by an ideally perceptive audience. I am much more interested in situations where there is an insuperable gap between what the performer sees, experiences, and projects and what the audience receives, because that gap is where the unexpected and spontaneous can occur. My job as a composer is not to narrow that gap as much as I can, let alone to eliminate it, but to shape it in productive and (for the performer) thought-provoking ways.

For this reason, I have an abiding interest in alternative approaches to notation, from the Cage/Feldman/Brown tradition in the US – which I consider my particular artistic ‘inheritance’ as an American composer – to Europeans like Kagel, late Nono, and (particularly) Sylvano Bussotti, and stretching back to Satie and the incomprehensible and incommunicable performance indications in his piano music.

TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

 

EJ: There are always too many decisions; much of the time, I find the process of composition incredibly difficult, almost painful, for that reason. I don’t enjoy making up my mind!

I will say, though, that I regard the entire compositional process as a gradual accumulation of restrictions on myself, of various sorts. The initial compositional idea is a restriction in that it defines the field of inquiry, the parameters of the project I’m setting out upon in a general sense; in fact, that initial idea often comes in the explicit form of a restriction (What if this piece was limited to ____, or only did ____?). Then the imposition of restriction takes more specific form, in that a process of winnowing begins in which decisions have more and more local effects on a gradually ossifying structure. At some point – and my decision as to when this point has been reached often has a lot to do with my own perception of the success or failure of the result – I have accumulated enough materials, and the containers for those materials are small and circumscribed enough in their possibilities, that I can fill them, link them, and mould them at will into a finished result with the overall effect that I intend. At least, that’s the theory.

 

TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

 

EJ: I have no idea how to answer this question! As I mentioned before, I’ve become thoroughly accustomed to thinking about duration, proportion, and the properties of diachronic relationships before I have any particularly concrete ideas about pitch. That isn’t to say I don’t have instinctual feelings about certain pitches and intervals; D flat and the perfect eleventh are particular favorites, which is why both are apotheosized throughout Apostrophe 1 (All communication is a form of complaint). I also have an instinctive tendency towards ‘open’, quasi-diatonic harmonies on the local scale. If I had to choose a pitch to follow that middle C, then, it would certainly have to be the F an eleventh above, probably significantly softer than the C, and perhaps with a low D flat to ground that F and give it a certain diatonic resonance and potentiality.

To give a more complete answer, though, I’d have to know (a) how long the C is held for, or at least how far away the next attack is, and (b) what relationship that duration enacts with the governing structural window …

6 thoughts on “10 for ’10: Evan Johnson

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