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Interview with Evan Johnson

Tell us about your background in music.

I’m one of those people who has been composing for as long as I can remember. I don't think I still have my earliest childhood manuscripts but I kept them for a long time; I think my first piece was called "Rocky Road" and consisted of a shakily drawn series of whole notes done around the age of 4, around the time my father first sat me down at the family piano.

I'm not saying I was a prodigy or anything of the sort: I "composed" all through my childhood but mostly that meant filling music notebooks by writing "Sonata" or "Rondo" in big letters at the top of the page, followed by five or six bars of thoroughly incompetent pastiche of whatever I was learning to play on the piano at the time, and then giving up because I hadn't the faintest idea how to continue, because I was eight, or whatever.

It wasn't until my teenage years that I actually made things that could be called pieces and began to take seriously the idea that I could maybe do this for real, particularly when at age 16 I won a local young composers' competition and, as a result, had my first public performance. I studied composition at Yale—where I was, from day one, the designated weirdo, musically speaking, a position I relished and cultivated—and then got a PhD at the State University of New York at Buffalo, way up on the Canadian border, the former stomping grounds of Morton Feldman and an underappreciated mecca for experimental music.

My composition professor at Buffalo, David Felder, had the most finely honed bullshit meter of any composer I have ever met. He was and is a relatively conservative composer himself but for his students he had only one rule: you could do whatever you wanted, you could make work as crazy and impractical as you felt the need to, but you had to have the technical skill to pull it off and you had to be able to prove you had thought it through. I imagine it's thanks to him that I still place such emphasis on nuts-and-bolts contrapuntal and harmonic craft in my own work, veiled though it may be to anyone but myself much of the time.

Your scores are known for the very detailed, complex, and often very beautiful notation. When, how and why did this start?

These things are slippery targets, and they are all interrelated. It was around 2002 that I started writing much of my work by hand, just because I couldn't get—or couldn't be bothered to figure out how to get—the notation software that existed at the time to do what I wanted to do with various unconventional and detailed rhythmic structures.

For a while making scores by hand was mostly a pain, and I wasn't particularly good at it. But eventually I came to realize that this idiosyncratic way of doing things, this insistence on working manually, had certain aspects that could be taken advantage of: an ability to think of the compositional process in physical terms, in terms of really touching the material, drawing it, feeling its pacing and spacing in my body, and taking time with every individual notational element, every event, really thinking about what everything on the page was doing and whether it could be done differently, more meaningfully, more expressively, pushing the boundaries of a "standard" Western notational vocabulary. This is where a lot of the hypertrophied detail comes from: from the practice of writing by hand itself, not the other way around.

On the one hand, this is wildly inefficient. On the other hand, it has fundamentally shaped the way I think about what I'm doing, especially after decades of practice and honing of a notational style. I have come to believe more and more strongly in the importance of the score qua score, of writing qua writing, if one is going to engage in a notated musical practice. Why doesn't everyone take great pains over the way their scores look, if the score is where the center of gravity of the work is, the point at which the composer relinquishes absolute control? Why doesn't everyone realize that everything about a score speaks: the shape of the slurs, the layout of the page, the density or sparsity of the ink on the page, the different thicknesses of the various lines? It's absolutely fundamentally important to me that the scores look the way the performances sound, and I really think you can hear these things, even on record.

I sometimes think your music occupies a sort of impossible, hypothetical nexus between early music, complexity and Wandelweiser. How do you see it?

I think that is a better description than anything I could come up with!

Maybe where the chaotically disparate musical influences I feel—medieval music, the French Baroque, complexity and post-complexity, the anarchic experimentalism of Peter Ablinger, Antoine Beuger, Jo Kondo—come together is in a palpable attitude towards the compositional act: something like wonder.

It's an insistence on the sense of possibility inherent in things often taken for granted, like the fact of notation, the air and the sense of space shared in live performance, the microscopic timescale of ensemble interactions and instrumental techniques, the way instruments feel in the hand in all their concreteness, their weights and tensions; and maybe most of all on the value of things that are ambiguous, hidden, private, encoded, or otherwise not perfectly evident.

Notated composition, after all, is a bizarre and uniquely indirect art form, full of possibilities for misdirection, miscommunication, secrets, and overflow. These are traditionally papered over these days in a reflexive valorization of "clarity" and "efficiency" in composition and notation, but to me that misses the point. The music I treasure, of whatever sort (and this is as true of Mahler and Sibelius as of Ferneyhough and Louis Couperin and the ars subtilior) leaves ambiguities in its wake, and asks questions it doesn't answer. I'm not sure what the point is otherwise.

The fact is there's already way, way too much music in the world, and it is much too easily accessible. This is good for entertainment but a disaster for our sense of wonder. Nobody alive in the last couple of centuries, let alone today, will ever know the feeling of hearing, say, an Ockeghem mass in the fifteenth century, in the context of that life. It must have been something absolutely, unspeakably extraordinary, something inexpressibly transcendent. I think about this a lot. For me, at least, the only point in subjecting the world to more music now is if it can do something to recapture even a trace of what makes music special, which is precisely this shared air, these shared pressures, this concreteness, this state of exception.

Going on to the pieces on this CD, tell us about the ‘L’art de toucher’ triptych. What was the original impetus for this set of pieces, and how come ‘L’art de toucher le clavecin, 1’ was composed 12 years after ‘l’art de toucher le clavecin, 2’?   

The idea for this set of three "concentric" pieces dates back to an extended correspondence with Richard Craig in 2007-8 in which we tossed around various ideas about how the two of us could work together. Eventually we settled on an emerging project he had at the time with the marvelous Swedish violinist Karin Hellqvist and the percussionist Pontus Langendorf, who I'm sure is equally marvelous but with whom I never wound up working. Performance opportunities dictated that the duo for Richard and Karin, the "middle" piece, be written first. (They recorded the duo in 2011, in a version that feels very different to me from the one by Sarah and Susanne that is featured on the current CD)

As it happened, Pontus had to withdraw from the project; I made the trio out of the duo in 2011 for another ensemble, just to get it out into the world, but that plan fell through also. Thankfully, this orphaned piece was quickly picked up by ensemble mosaik and premiered in Cologne in 2012.

And then it was just a question of circumstance: I got busier, Richard got busier, opportunities for a small-scale piccolo solo proved as hard to come by as we probably should have expected, and so I got used to telling people who asked that yes, there was a "2" and a "3" in this series, but no "1" – until you finally provided the needed impetus, and the deadline, to get the solo written! So instead of the solo being the germ of the whole triptych, or spiral, or whatever it is, that role is taken by the duo; both the trio and the solo are versions of it.

More broadly speaking, the impetus—and the explanation for the title, taken from a treatise by François Couperin, inapplicable to these harpsichord-less pieces as it is—was the idea of music made of ornament. Each piece, and the set of three pieces taken as a whole, is made of layers of ornament upon ornament, flowering elaboration upon flowering elaboration upon flowering elaboration, of very simple, trivial musical figures, until they become something else altogether. The French Baroque harpsichord repertoire is some of my favorite music in all of history, precisely because of the way it is made out of fragile things that bloom from within cracks in edifices. That's what these pieces are about.

I've also asked that the three pieces not appear consecutively in performance—and in fact the trio is itself divided into three parts which, when it is performed without the others, are themselves to be split up among other things. One reason for this is that the three pieces are audibly based on the same basic simple figures, and I suspect that that insistence would become awfully fatiguing if the three pieces were heard in one twenty-eight-or-so-minute span. But it's a more general idea, too. I've done a similar thing with a couple of other pieces since, forming them into parts (movements? maybe.) that are to be played in order but non-consecutively. The aim is to establish a faint but palpable large-scale field of attraction, a thread that gets dropped and then gently taken back up. There is for me an air of tentative insistence, a gracious, decorous stubbornness, about these pieces, and the way they keep on coming back, the way the programme as a whole keeps circling around, amplifies and sustains that atmosphere.

Even though vocal music is often not my thing, I particularly like ‘thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg’. But what on earth does the title mean, and why?  And why did you want this piece to be mixed at a significantly lowered level than the other pieces on the disc?  

The title is tenth-century Old English. It's the recurring refrain of a poem called "Deor" that is basically an airing of professional grievances penned by a court poet who had fallen out of favour. He compares his plight to that of various historical and mythological figures, returning each time to this line, which is usually translated as something like "that [i.e. the misfortune just described] passed over, so will this." (The precise meaning and translation of this line, and of large swaths of the rest of the poem, is apparently a matter of some scholarly dispute; I guess this thousand-plus-year-old poem is very slowly fading into total obscurity.)

The soprano sings this phrase in pulverized form, again and again, eight times in total, alternating between a pair of quite similar little canonic settings (the subtitle is "eight lyrics for cello and soprano"), while the cello pursues an independent course of extremely detailed and privately demanding but even more extremely fragile canonic writing in the background, which is repetitive in its own unrelated way.

I've used early Englishes in several pieces, both "explicitly" as sung text and as a source of phonetic material for under-the-breath vocal layers in works for woodwinds. I am really attracted to the phonology and rhetoric of it—its penchant for rough and noisy consonants, its alliterative repetitiveness.

As for the question of quiet: all of my music of the past fifteen years or so is very quiet a lot of the time, and a lot of it is very quiet all of the time. But this one is one of a few pieces of mine that is meant to be, in live performance, quite exceptionally quiet even by my own standards, quite exceptionally distant: in particular, most of the cello part, when heard in a concert hall, should be almost impalpable, a sort of barely perceptible buzzing in the air, while the singer attempts (and of course fails) to match that extremity. That sort of thing naturally can't happen on record, so the combination of extreme distance and extreme intimacy had to be suggested in other ways. And even then—and not for the first time with me, far from it!—hearing the piece on CD is not like hearing it live; it is not a different piece, but it certainly presents the piece in a very different light.

And ‘Plan and section of the same reservoir’: Although the title for this one is in English, it remains something of a puzzle. Can you explain it? Have you written any other pieces involving saxophone? I somehow don’t think of it as a likely instrument for your music.

It is indeed something of a puzzle! (I like titles that are hard to explain.) It's a catalogue designation given to an architectural etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi - see image opposite - that in itself isn't particularly interesting: it is what it says it is, a vertical and horizontal cross-section of a nondescript ancient reservoir in Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.

But aside from the fact that I just liked the phrase, the rhythm and sound of it, and I like Piranesi, there is something to it that has something to do with the piece: it's something about the revisiting of a solid center from various orthogonal angles, revealing various faces, various proportions, and so forth. Insofar as there is a connection to the specific construction of the piece, it is very abstract indeed: except maybe for that word "same", the emphasis on the fact of return, of obsessive redescription, of hovering around something just beyond reach that cannot be depicted all at once.

The saxophone is actually an instrument that really appeals to me, unlikely though it may seem at first. I've written a lot of music for clarinet, and the saxophone works broadly similarly; if anything, it's capable of even more flexibility of intonation and articulation, especially at low dynamics. I wrote a prominent, almost soloistic part for baritone saxophone in an ensemble piece in 2012 and a solo for that same instrument two years later (both for the spectacularly talented American saxophonist Ryan Muncy, whose very premature death earlier this year was a profound loss for American new music). As it happens, I'm supposed to be doing another saxophone piece next year, with guitar this time. And Marcus Weiss, of Trio Accanto, is—I think it's fair to say—the best saxophonist in the world for music like this.

Frankly, it's the piano in this piece that felt more foreign. As it happens, this piece is the one where I feel like I first found my way towards a long-term way of working with the piano that felt true to what my instrumental writing is all about. My way of thinking about instruments is so strongly oriented towards the microscopic and the physical that I've never been comfortable with the piano's black-box quality, the way that once you depress a key there's not really much more to be done. I've struggled with it in various ways since I was a student. In "Plan and section", for the first time, I was really happy with this language of stuttering and stumbling phrases, of half-depressed attacks, that I've developed since into something that I'm really happy with. If you had told me a decade ago that I'd find the piano to be one of the most congenial instruments for my way of thinking, I'd have given you a very strange look. But here we are.

at199    Evan Johnson   ‘L’art de toucher’

1  ‘L’art de toucher le clavecin, 1’      4:59

Richard Craig, piccolo

2  ‘thaes oferode, thisses swa maeg’   6:58

Juliet Fraser, voice    Séverine Ballon, cello

3  ‘L’art de toucher le clavecin, 2’   9:22

Susanne Peters, piccolo    Sarah Saviet, violin

4  ‘Plan and section of the same reservoir’   18:19

Trio Accanto:  Nic Hodges, piano   Marcus Weiss, saxophone   Christian Dierstein, percussion

5  ‘L’art de toucher le clavecin, 3’    14:00     Youtube extract

Susanne Peters, piccolo    Sarah Saviet, violin   Rie Watanabe, percussion

Evan Johnson

Giovanni Battista Piranesi  - arhcitectural etching   

Score page from ‘Plan and section...’

Score page from ‘thaes ofereode...’

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