Scott Johnson Composer

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Americans (2003) 20.30

  Universal Phenomenon
  Your Host
  Continental Divide

clar/b.clar, sop/tenor sax, viola, e. guitar, e. bass, piano, drumset, sampled speech

Performances require stereo audio tracks plus a headphone click track
Performing with a conductor is advised

available on CD: “Americans” - Scott Johnson – Tzadik Records

Commissioned by Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan, for their book (W.W. Norton) and multi-media project, “Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America”.  Voice source recordings by Sloan/Lehrer.
Concert premiere by Sentieri Selvaggi May 7/07, Milano

Notes on the Music

“Americans” represents a cyclical change from the work I’d been doing for the preceding several years. I’ve come to expect periodic pendulum swings between pieces grounded in the vernacular, and more abstract work; oscillations that I find refreshing at both ends.  After completing “Convertible Debts”, much of which is unambiguously rooted in popular music, I wrote a series of increasingly complex pieces.  But by 2002 I was ready for another trip to the watering hole, and when a project came up that was specifically about the collision of America and the rest of the world, I began to think in terms of an orchestration that combined the rhythm section of an American bar band with an eclectic group of melodic instruments.

The three movements of “Americans” were written to serve a dual purpose: as the concert work that you hear here, and as musical interludes in a multi-media and book project by Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan, “Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America.”  They had recorded hours of interviews with immigrants from around the world who had settled in the borough of Queens in New York City, and wanted to develop the material for a CD to be included in their book.  Familiar with my earlier work in orchestrating recorded speech, they commissioned this music as part of the audio end of their project.

“Universal Phenomenon” reflects a very real effect, verified in cross-cultural scientific studies: people tend to more reliably recognize and remember faces from their own racial group.  This is not optional, accidental, or culturally invented: humans evolved in situations where there was an immediate survival value in knowing who’s in your tribe.  Enlightened civilization is drawing us gradually together, but pending changes in the genome (which, over time, are not impossible in a world of cities and easy transportation), it seems that we’ll have to remain on guard against the socially centrifugal forces that lie unconscious in our nature, urging us to withdraw from civil relationships, clan up, and circle the wagons when we feel threatened.

“Your Host” is built around a former radio DJ’s recitation of his introduction to the “oldies” pop show that he once hosted in Romania.  At the point where he offers “old music from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s”, I removed the decades, and substituted the names of 30 places around the world, in many voices.  Now he becomes a sort of surreal Voice of America, speaking in a language that few listeners will understand, welcoming us to a show filled with multi-lingual murmurs.

“Continental Divide” recounts the painfully conflicted feelings of an Afghani immigrant who has long resided in the U.S.  After the 9/11 attacks, she was torn between the impulse to avenge the death of innocents, and an invasion that would bring the inevitable death of more innocents.  Here is a case where I’m not sure whether my policy leanings are identical to those that generated this text, but it really doesn’t matter.  My job in "Continental Divide" was not to promote the nuances of my opinion.  It was to bear witness to another person’s experience, and present it in such a light that even those who disagree can walk away with a greater empathy for something that they have not gone through themselves.

  ©2008 Scott Johnson. All rights reserved.
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