Interview with Scott Johnson
Art Music Happens
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #450, 17 January 2004. Kalvos & Damian on the road in New York City at the American Music Center. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:25:39–1:46:11].
Composer Scott Johnson has been a pioneering voice in the new relationship being forged between the classical tradition and the popular culture that surrounds it. Since the early 1980s, he has played an influential role in the trend towards incorporating rock-derived instrumentation and electronic elements into instrumental ensembles and traditionally scored compositions. His music has been presented worldwide, by performers ranging from the Kronos Quartet and the Bang On A Can All-Stars to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; in dance works performed by the Boston Ballet, the London Contemporary Dance Theater, and the Ballets de Monte Carlo, and in recordings on the Nonesuch, CRI, Point, and Tzadik labels. Recent awards include a Koussevitsky Foundation commission and a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship.
[Scott Johnson] Okay, are we on? Okay, I mean, there’s no biological change that’s happened in the human species. We aren’t getting better or worse in any way that’s going to be immediately apparent. Therefore, the fact that no one in this culture who hasn’t been to music school, or very few people, who don’t care about composers, has to do with some kind of cultural structure that’s channeling the attentions and the energies of these composers into a sort of holding pond. Into an area, or an arena, which is not accessible to everyone else. This kind of talk immediately provokes many people into saying, “Oh, you want to sell out, you want to be accessible.” Well, no, actually I simply want the right to express the terms of my own life in the way that I experienced it, and reflect that in my music, without being told what constitutes a high and low art, because if I take mundane, vernacular references, or memories that I have of playing in a bar when I’m 19, and put it into a serious piece, it’s still a serious piece, and I don’t care wh-…
[Kalvos] But do you actually encounter this, I mean, face to face, encounter people who dismiss you because of that?
[SJ] Well, people tend not to dismiss one to one’s face. [Laughter] I mean, I’ve done it, I’ve gotten in a few fights where I’ve done it and been done to, but I think that like in any human tradition, we don’t all invent the ideas we believe. We share them, we pass them around, we are taught them, we inherit them, we mutate them a little, we change them, and then we pass them along. In this sense, the gradual drift of ideas is kind of like genetic drift. It behaves in much the same way. And you know, we certainly inherit a situation in which… you know when I started out doing this stuff, playing a major chord on an electric guitar with the distortion turned up was simply not supposed to be in the same room as a piece of academic serialism. It just didn’t make sense together.
[K] Well, it’s true, in a lot of ways, it doesn’t make sense together.
[SJ] You can make it make sense if you have both of them in your background.
[K] Yes, if they are part of who you are, your whole point of being a creative artist is to…
[SJ] Yeah! That’s what we are, we’re sense-making machines. We take input and we make something out of it, and when it’s not an honest expression we can smell it. I mean, we’ve all heard these Frankensteinian, crossover projects where some kind of classical music star gets together with some pop star, and they do something reprehensible. This is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about making things from the inside out, not from the outside in. So that’s about it, actually it’s probably about all you need of my philosophy.
[Damian] What about a rock band such as Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, who covered The Rite of Spring?
[SJ] I think I have a vague memory of this. I think that cultural traditions are living processes, and if you look at jazz and rock, in both instances you have art music offshoots growing out of what started out as essentially popular music, which simply reiterates what happened in Europe when the whole tradition started in the first place. People took the voice-leading and harmonic ideas came alternately from religious music, from church music, and they put it together with forms and rhythms from secular music, and they wound up with what we call classical music, after generation and generation of evolution. And evolution has not stopped. Periodically rock, now, has popped up with kind of art music offshoots and maybe started with The Beatles in the late ‘60s, and now there’s Radiohead, who are very aware of what The Beatles in the late 60s do, if you listen to some of their earlier records. So there’s this sort of art-rock tradition… [pause] genres have a tenacity. They have boundaries. They’re like species, you know?
[K] Which is another part of your philosophy, this whole “species-ilization” of musical genres.
[SJ] Last time I wrote an essay it was called Against Purity. What I was suggesting, is that what has kept the Western tradition lively, was that it was constantly appropriating and subsuming stuff from the outside, local folk musics. If the Viennese hadn’t had a fad for Turkish military music around Mozart’s time, we wouldn’t have ended up with any pieces by Edgar Varèse using orchestral percussion. There’s a direct line of descent from this enveloping quality that that tradition had; it was constantly hybridizing. The academic wing of things in the second half of the 20th century took a more insular view. Not that people were less creative, they simply stuck to materials that had a pedigree. They didn’t want to get caught making a ruckus in the roadhouse bar.
[K] Was there an incompatibility, not between the people and their academicism, but [between]…
[SJ] Materials. Yeah, you’re absolutely right, and that’s what’s happened. That’s what you would call in biology a speciation event, where you start with something with a common stock, and you separate it. In nature, it could happen by a river or a mountain range, or anything. And they gradually begin to grow apart, and they can’t interbreed anymore, and that’s what happened in Western music. If you look at all the pop genres, they all use a lot of the same harmonies, the same level of complexity, and they can interbreed like crazy. You get hybrids all the time. Well, the Western tradition of composer music is a lot more complicated, and it can’t shift gears as easily. It can’t interbreed. It’s more difficult to make a mix between, say, a developed form like North-Indian ragas and Western tonality. That’s hard to figure out exactly how you would make that work, because they’re both so highly-developed forms. So, that’s how genre-bounding comes into existence, when it gets self-referential, and big enough to be self-sustaining. Unfortunately, we’ve actually shrunk the Western tradition by making it too small, I think, and too resistant to outside input. That’s what I can see my job as, to some extent: making “sit down and shut up” music that uses the materials of “get up and dance” music.
[K] Let’s hear that breakthrough piece, at least it’s a breakthrough for those of us who heard it. It might not have been one for you, but it certainly was for the rest of us out there listening.
We listen to an excerpt of John Somebody, Part 1 by Scott Johnson [0:35:34–0:40:56].
[K] We go around just quoting that all the time. [Laughter] It is infectious, and I think pop music is driven often by its ability to infect the listener with memorable content.
[SJ] Well, as was all opera before Wagner, and most of it after.
[K] You were telling me something that I didn’t know, that Verdi used to tighten the screws down on his whole set, so that people wouldn’t hear the arias ahead of time, and start singing it?
[SJ] That’s how it worked, because if people caught a whiff of the melody, there would be guys out, and by the next day, the guys out on the street would be doing these tunes on their accordions, or whatever they used. Those operas were sort of the big-budget blockbuster movies of their time. Talking about speciation, one of the things that’s happened is that the high art and low art, or popular and fine art — or whatever prejudicial title you prefer —, have become really separate genres that don’t mix very much. And I’m not saying that they’re not different, they are different. If you’re not doing something else, like dancing or talking, or walking around, it’s difficult to listen to a lot of pop music without distraction. It’s like film music that works when you’ve got something to look at, and that you really don’t want to hear on its own. I mean, there’s just more information in composer music, as a rule. John Somebody is the most pop-y thing I’ve ever done, also the most popular, and there’s a definite correlation between those two. But that’s how I started, and since then, there are some pieces that even some old friends of mine say, “Oh, you’ve gotten sort of forbidding here.” I accept that in attempting to make connections between arenas of human endeavor that don’t necessarily come with their connections pre-soldered, that there’s not going to the kind of clear career path that someone right in the middle of any genre, be it popular or esoteric, anyone in something that has a clear boundary, is going to have. Actually here’s a way of looking at it: a genre automates some of your choices. The benefit of that is that it allows you to focus less on reinventing the wheel, and less on things that you have in common with everybody else, and more on things that are sort of specific to you. Think of tonal music in its heyday, think of the volumes and volumes of work these guys could churn out, starting at age 14. It’s because they had rules, they learned them, and they automated a lot of their choices. You lead your voices this way, you don’t lead them that way. Most of the time, you just let that algorithm run. Then, when you want to make a statement, and put the wrong harmony in, everybody notices, because everybody’s got the same program running.
[K] Right, or if you’re a Mozart and you have a little background rhythm and chordal structure going, and suddenly you run a high oboe over top of it, that’s not what you would have expected at the time, you’d have expected maybe a melody line, but not a sustained note over top, and suddenly your attention is drawn to that while this automated, as you’d say, process of harmony and rhythm continues underneath.
[SJ] Sure, think of it as a sort of variations, of running a thing, and just highlighting your decisions, your personal decisions, as opposed to the genre’s decisions. Most composers don’t even come up with their mature style until they’re 30 these days, if that. We don’t have systems like that, that will run us in quite the same way, or rather, we have multiplicity of them and we have to choose between them. Those who make the choices early get to get started with their life’s work a little earlier. On the other hand, there’s a downside to that: you can get started too early with choices that you don’t question, and then you end up not really inventing something.
[K] Can you give an example of what you mean by that? Stylistically, what do you mean there? Maybe somebody who is trained in atonal serialism early on, and adopts it so vehemently into their way of writing, that 20 years later when the style has been exhausted in many ways, they’re still working it, what do you mean?
[SJ] Well, I don’t know. I rebelled against that style very early, and so I don’t really know. And it’s already been 20 years since a lot of people began to say goodbye to it, guys like [David] Del Tredici, who then decide to adopt a more romantic approach. Actually a lot of people who ran away from that went in that direction. They kind of went back to big, romantic gestures, and in some ways you can even look at John Adams as being an example of the hybridism between a minimalist style and the kind of big, orchestral, kind of transcendental American style. And he even talks about Bruckner sometimes, he likes the way that it takes 20 minutes for the plane to get off the runway. And there’s a sort of solemnity that he achieves by doing this.
I enjoy other people’s stuff, but for me personally, it’s been about going outside of the current boundaries of art music. We’re out there all the time that I feel as if I’m in some ways reinstating the practices that were used before modernism, which is to pull stuff in, but I’m just not using those. In other words, what’s missing from the bygone cultural equation of, like, 19th-century music and the popular forms that fed it. Now those popular forms are pretty much dead, you know, they exist in a couple pockets in Appalachia, they’ve got some Scottish remnants here and there, but we don’t know what most of that stuff sounded like. So you can’t reinstate this healthy ecosystem by imitating the products of an ecosystem, half of which is now gone. The only way you can reinstate a healthy ecosystem whereby a percentage larger than 3% of the population is interested in serious music is by using the equation, but not the forms from the old days. And by “the equation,” I mean the cultural equation of simpler musics being used as raw material, essentially. And by people, not out of some mis-use or appropriation, but rather as a natural way of a human being expressing the circumstances of their life.
[K] And which simpler musics would you be talking about, the ones in which the composer grew up?
[SJ] Whatever they want.
[K] I mean, since we’re almost immersed in a world of culture now, where you can hear African music and Javanese music, and Japanese electronic pop, and you name it.
[SJ] I spent most of the 80s living in a couple places in the lower east side, and in every other piece I have all this stuff that’s ultimately from Puerto Rican, Afro-Cuban — I lived in a Dominican neighbourhood — sometimes there’s a little bit of that popping up all over the place, in percussion writing, but also in the rhythmic structures made by the pitched instruments. Sometimes it’s recognizable, sometimes not, but this stuff runs in my head all the time, and I am not from that culture. I just happened to live in the neighbourhood, and got it in my ears. The furthest thing from my mind here is that there’s some sort of cultural determinism and that one should be “true to one’s roots.” I’m a Scandinavian from Wisconsin, and I don’t even know what my roots are as far as music goes. What does Danish music sound like? I don’t know. There’s nothing nationalistic in what I’m saying, there’s nothing simplistic like that. It’s not like Dvořák saying American music must be made out of, you know…
[K] We’d better listen to something else.
[SJ] You know, I like Rock, it’s a particular favourite of mine, but it’s long, it’s like 11 minutes.
[K] Fine. That’s good, let’s hear it.
[SJ] The sampling pieces are maybe what most people have heard. This is strictly an instrumental piece, and I really, explicitly tried with this piece to make my version of a big, fat, romantic opening movement. Not structurally, it’s not Sonata-Allegro, it’s not structured like that. But I went for this sort of big tonal, mostly-optimistic, slightly/occasionally-pompous, humourously so I hope at times, there’s this big heavy-metal guitar solo in there early on. The idea being, this is violoncello, electric guitar, and synthesizer. And the synthesizer is kind of like 80s-sounding patches, you know, big fat things… not pads, but kind of those fake horn patches, and big bass sounds, and… I was thinking, “Well, what is an orchestra?” An orchestra is 19th-century technology’s way of making a really big noise. What is a rock band? It’s a way of making a different kind of big noise with fewer people, and a lot more crackling cables and annoying things that can go wrong. But I guess I was thinking, you can now make chamber music that can have a sort of a big fat fill-a-room presence. It’s not a terribly profound thought, but it’s a thought about materials, and I think there is a profundity that can be attached to the use of materials, to the idea that we can make stuff out of the materials at hand in the same way that did 150 years ago.
We listen to Rock (first section of the CD Rock/Paper/Scissors, on Point Music) by Scott Johnson [0:54:41–1:06:06].
[K] Is this any kind of crusade? Do you, like, hit people up among your musician friends and say, “Let’s work on this kinda stuff?”
[SJ] Well, let’s say I’ve probably been known to be engaged in barroom pontificating from time-to-time. I do have opinions, and I’m not shy about sharing them. [Laughter] Just try to shut me up.
[K] If there’s any place you can offend somebody, this is it, Kalvos & Damian is the heartland of offense.
[SJ] It’s not so much offending people as it is talking their ear off. I mean, I’ve thought a lot about this stuff, and [it’s] not a crusade. I think I have a point here about what we’ve inherited and what we can do with what we’ve inherited, a point about questioning some of the assumptions we’ve been given, about the impermeability of the various levels of culture, which we tend to describe with words that connote aristocracy and plebeianism. I think there’s something wrong with the way that we look at the world, and I’m not shy about saying it. And I do encourage people to not be shy about putting in the things that they’ve run into outside of their conservatory life and their music-school life, their life among their peers. But I’m not in a “gang” of art-rockers or anything. There’s people that I have things in common with, and I mean, I have very dear friends who I have nothing in common with musically. Maybe that’s why we get along, because we’re not on each other’s turf.
[K] So you don’t, like, put the hit out on Columbia professors of new music?
[SJ] I love getting in talks about this stuff with people like that. As a matter of fact, I sometimes give lectures, and I just the other night ran into someone who was a grad student at Ann Arbor, where Michael Doherty had had me over to talk, to expound upon my crackpot theories. This young composer got into a huge debate with me, and we ran into each other after a concert last week. And we were both laughing, it was so much fun to have this little Donny Brook in the seminar room. I don’t say these kinds of things with any sense of denigration of the opponents. In other words, I think that we are all creatures of culture; we are social primates, we don’t invent most of the things we say. Actually I remember I said this once talking to a couple people, one of them was Laurie Anderson [see interview in this issue of eContact!]. I said we don’t invent any of the words that we use, and we were talking with each other, and Laurie said, “We don’t invent most of the sentences, either.” And she’s sort of right. We’re actually taking great chunks of received knowledge, and we do with them the best we can.
Most of us in this field are in it for idealistic reasons. You know, we all got here honestly, and I do think, by the way, that there’s a great number of people who really are excited by extremely structured music that can’t be understood by listening to it. A pianist friend of mine named Stephen Gosling, who some years ago did some concerts, got me started on Radiohead, which is kind of the baby-boomer’s favourite pop or rock band, because they have all the references and they know all that stuff. Well, Stephen plays Brian Ferneyhough and stuff like that. He’s a real expert at the thorniest. You should hear him do the Ligeti Études, he’s killer. He’s just got ears in both directions, and why does he like this stuff? Because he’s really good at it.
There’s a certain jock quality to us, as composers and musicians and that’s actually why I think art musics grow out of pop musics, and yes, they are these two separate categories to some extent, but if you look at it historically, art music is what happens when people in more culturally widespread music start showing off to each other. Charlie Parker and company would write these tunes on top of the changes they played in the dance band earlier, except that they do the new melody, and they do the whole thing at four times the speed. And there’s a certain kind of athletic quality, and you see the same thing among composers. And I do it myself, I have pieces where I can really listen to them and say, “Ah,” where it’s really clear to me that I’m trying to address some issue of complexity, or something that I don’t think I’m good enough at, and want to get better at.
We listen to Listen by Scott Johnson [1:19:25–1:17:24] and Tickets [1:17:24–1:19:16]. The interview resumes at 1:23:24.
[D] That was fast.
[SJ] Many notes in a short space. Well, the first one is really directly addressing popular music and source. The second one, not so much, it is essentially a piano trio plus electric guitar, plus sample stuff. I pulled the electric guitar out on that one so that it would have that classical, piano-oriented sound. In some recent pieces, a piano piece called Jetlag Lounge for instance, there’s a lot more polyrhythmic complexity. There’s stuff that I may not have even come up with if it wasn’t for the fact that I write on a computer these days. I can play around with things that I can’t, physically, with my piano skills, play around with. Or it leads me in directions that I might not have been led in had I been there with a pencil and a piece of paper. Unfortunately of course, I don’t have any recordings here of some of these more complex pieces, because they begin to fall into the category of “no record company wants to release them.” Because that’s part of the bed that contemporary music has made for itself, and I do sleep on the bed occasionally, even if occasionally I jump on it and want to play trampoline. Later on, we can play a piece called Continental Divide, where there’s some more astringent harmonies and so forth that you won’t hear in a piece like Listen.
[K] We’ll wrap up with that today, but I want to take you in another direction. You have the long view on this, I think a big part of it wrapped in the fact that you are great sci-fi fan.
[SJ] Not unlikely. I grew up on it and read it as a kid, and I’ll have periods of time where I don’t read it all, but I think it’s still…
[K] You’ve done the Foundation trilogy, read this and all these great ones, and did you do the pulp stuff too?
[SJ] When I was a kid. That’s what I did up until, probably all the way through high school. Constantly, though tapering off towards the end there. But, when I was a kid I read all the time, and that’s a lot of what I read. It actually sparked my interest in science. I have a huge interest now in evolutionary biology, and as you’ve heard it’s taught me a lot about how culture works, in accords with Richard Dawkins idea of memes.
[K] Tell us about memes. This is such a marvelous concept, but I don’t think it’s, uh, oh… memetically made its way to some of our listeners.
[SJ] Well, meme is a word that was invented by Richard Dawkins, and it asks us to look at ideas in the same way we look at genes, or the way that he looked at genes. The Selfish Gene is a book where this really started, which, by the way, doesn’t mean that everything biological is selfish. People often hear that title and they go, “Oooh, that sounds scary.” It’s not, but I won’t go into it, it takes a little too much bio-talk for a music show. Anyhow, the idea is that the level of selection, of natural selection… we always think of evolution as “this caveman fighting that caveman,” or “this lion gets the deer,” and so-forth, and that’s where the level of selection is between individual organisms or species. The idea is that the real level of selection is between the genes. They just build the bodies, and then the bodies go out and do what the genes told them to do, including have independent, unconscious, unprogrammed minds like we do. I have to always put these caveats in, because people hear this stuff and they think it means some kind of awful mechanistic encroachment on your human dignity. On the contrary, this expands your dignity by showing you how really deep it reaches back into nature, and how complex it is.
The idea is that the genes help, or hurt, the bodies that they make, and that’s how natural selection happens. Not by having Og The Caveman get nailed, by having Og The Caveman’s children come into being or not, depending on whether Og The Caveman got nailed. Similarly, ideas help or hurt the brains that they take up residence in, and we pass them among us like viruses. The idea of, oh name anything… a meme means a memorable idea, the idea of writing, the idea of planting a field, the idea of making an arrowhead, the idea of an insurance company, the idea of recording something for playback later on. These are all ideas that we learn about and pass between us, and they either help us or harm us, and culture/society gets built up when we share these ideas, wherein the best idea “wins out” in the arena of our group minds. Well, music is just an example of a shared idea, just like the idea of how to make a hammer. Now, without getting into why we do music, that’s a whole other conversation, and a fascinating one to which there’s no simple answer, if there’s any answer at all.
The fact is that we transfer our ideas about this in the same way that we transfer political ideas and technological ideas. What kind of musical idea we subscribe to affects our future. In the 19th-century, the idea of music included the idea of transforming commonplace, vernacular, everyday things into fine art. As a result, that music which was created in this intellectual ecosystem, musical ecosystem, continues to dominate our concert halls. And it’s not from us, it’s not from our culture, doesn’t sound like us. The only place you ever hear that sound anymore are in film scores, that are not nearly as good as the old symphonies that they imitate, for the most part. But, this idea created a really healthy niche in the culture, and it was so healthy that it continues to survive.
Now, if you look at the idea of musical composition only as a specialist, interior conversation between specialists, which can be fascinating and can be enlightening, if you’re in the conversation. Well, the outcome of this group of ideas, this group of memes, this paradigm of what the artist’s role is, is that most people haven’t the vaguest idea about what we’re up to. And then, we get resentful, and we call them philistines and worse, and then they call us snobs and worse, and back and forth, and so you have this unfortunate outcome of some ideas that, early in the century, were really kind of idealistically well-intended, which were to expand the imagination.
To get — as you say about non-pop music — people’s minds away from just going back again in the same rock ruts and the same imitation of the same “whatever worked last year,” our attempt to fix the banality of a lot of what goes in the music world has had some negative offshoots. Has had some positive offshoots too… but I think I’ve strayed actually pretty far away from explaining memes, because I tried to use that to explain the philosophical point of view that I’ve been taking earlier.
[K] I think it’ll be time in just a second to listen to this last piece. Before that, our question du jour for all our composers on this tour, and you might have something interesting to say about this, that’s for sure. We have a veritable sea of music now, is there any reason to write more of it?
[D] That is contemporary music, not necessarily the music of the past. If you want to rewrite that too…
[SJ] There’s as much reason as there ever was. [Pause] As much or as little. Why did anybody ever write music? That’s why we write music. Because we’re these beasties that write music. Music is something that every culture makes up, and they come up with different versions of it, and we’re just being the critters that we are when we do it. I would say that given that everybody always does this, the burden of proof is on that question. What would be a reason to stop writing music? Because there’s too much of it around? Because it’s bad? Well, what else is new? [Laughter] I mean, the difference between the bad music now and the bad music of 1750 is that don’t have to listen to most of the bad music from 1750 because it’s turned into dust, as will ours. All you can do is simply try to make your record of who you were and when you were and where you were, and what you liked. And that’s all any artist can do. If there’s too much art, well, tough nuggies.
[K] Introduce us to Continental Divide.
[SJ] Okay, this is part of a series of pieces I did this year. It was the world’s strangest commission. There’s a book called Crossing the Boulevard, which is being done by Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan, and it’ll be out this year. It’s gonna be out on Norton. They did interviews with, oh, I don’t know, 50–60 immigrants from all over the world who’ve landed in Queens, New York. From all sorts of backgrounds, everything from, you know, professors to cabdrivers, from countries all over the world. They knew of my voice-sampling work, John Somebody, pieces like that. And they decided they wanted to put a CD in their book with audio-art pieces and commissioned me to write a few more musically-oriented pieces, using this technique I’ve been using since the late-70s — when I made the first John Somebody loop, even though I didn’t start working on it until I think 1980, in earnest.
So, I made a set of pieces here: there are three movements, in concert I would call it Americans as the name of the piece. Continental Divide is a woman from Afghanistan who’s been living the States for 20-some years. She was a refugee from when the Russians went in there, I believe. And she simply was talking, in her interview, about her mixed feelings a couple years ago, after 9/11 when the US went into Afghanistan. Because on the one hand, she’s an American and has been so for a long time. On the other hand, she knew what was going to happen. So I took that as source material, and the ensemble is kind of an altered rock band. A rhythm section of piano, bass, drums and guitar, and then the so-called “horns” section consisted of viola and soprano sax and bass clarinet. But, you know, it’s single-lined instruments, and if it’s a rock band, you have to have a horn section. So, after the last few pieces I did before this were a little more complex harmonically, a little more complex rhythmically, and I’ve been wanting for a couple years to do something that more directly addressed the rock aspects of my history and my interests. Actually, to tell you the truth, you won’t hear that very much in the beginning of this piece. Towards the end, you will. The other pieces in this series are a little more rhythm-section oriented. In any case, yeah, it’s called Continental Divide, the “divide” being I guess the divide that happens between the ears of a person who has experiences on two continents.
[K] Talking to you about the abysmal state in production in non-pop, which needs a little infusion from the pop world as far as professionals and that, so we’ll save all that for another interview. Thanks so much for joining us on Kalvos & Damian.
[SJ] Thank you, thanks for having me.
We listen to Continental Divide by Scott Johnson [1:38:33–1:46:11].