CD Review: Tom Johnson: correct music

Tom Johnson: correct music | Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, Douglas Wadle, Brian Walsh | populist records PR002

How on earth do you review Tom Johnson’s music? It is so purely procedural, so pre-compositionally precise it surely evades criticism altogether. You see it, or you don’t, and that’s it.

Except nothing created is really pure, an observation that enlivens all Johnson’s music just enough beyond the pedantic. His ironic, amused experimentalism is encapsulated in the narrator’s final words in Eggs and Baskets, an apparently straightforward exposition of a simple mathematical phenomenon: “And with six eggs? Well, let’s just let the musicians play  … so that we can review all of this, and hopefully clarify everything.”

As well as Eggs and Baskets (1987), this disc contains another didactic piece – Squares (2008) for viola and narrator – as well as Tilework pieces for viola and violin (both 2003), and the 21 Rational Melodies of 1982. All are examples of what Samuel Vriezen in his sleevenote describes as Johnson’s ‘complete constructivism’, although the Rational Melodies are perhaps the most thorough melodic exploration of this method. Each follows a rigid logic. Sometimes this is easy to follow, sometimes not. Listening to the set as a whole one is aware of the constant rigidity of process, but at the same time its variable transparency. That flicker between the mundane and the mysterious lies, I think, at the heart of Johnson’s music.

I have another recording of the Rational Melodies, played on different flutes by Eberhard Blum. Perhaps because of the relatively heaviness of his instrument, and the need in this music above most others to get every note to sound cleanly and of itself, Blum takes almost all of the melodies slower than McIntosh. In some cases at half or even a third of the speed. Blum uses different sized flutes for each melody, and those played on alto and bass flute are slower than those played on piccolo. His set has a wider sonic and expressive range, but on balance I just prefer McIntosh’s version, if only because I’m a sucker for that hoe-down-y fiddle sound, which tethers Johnson’s mathematical abstractions, if only loosely, to a recognisable tradition.

Naming both Tom Johnson and Samuel Vriezen in this review makes it opportune to mention Vriezen’s project to record Tom Johnson’s Chord Catalogue for piano. A recording already exists (played by Johnson himself), but Vriezen has taught himself to play these pieces at something like double Johnson’s speed – in the process revealing all sorts of hidden melodies and rhythms. He is currently crowd-sourcing the project through indiegogo, and with just over 5 weeks left until his funding deadline, why not consider a small donation?


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