Scott Johnson Composer

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How It Happens (the voice of I.F. Stone) (1991-3) 67.0

  The Clouds 4.00  
  It Raged 8.00
  Signals 10.00  
  Soliloquy 13.10  
  Cold War Suite    
  Lawless Things    
  Perfect Weapon  
  What Would Have Happened    
  Rainfall 20.00  

string quartet, sampled speech, with MIDI-controlled percussion and synthesizers on some sections

Performances require stereo audio tracks plus a headphone click track

Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, with support from the National Endowment For The Arts, Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa, the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Premiered by the Kronos Quartet (in separate premieres of individual movements) at Alice Tully Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, and Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa.

Individual movements available on CD:
Soliloquy on “Short Stories” – the Kronos Quartet – Nonesuch Records
It Raged on “Released/Unreleased” – the Kronos Quartet – Nonesuch Records
Cold War Suite on “Howl USA” – the Kronos Quartet – Nonesuch Records

Notes on the Music

“How It Happens” is based on the sampled voice of maverick American journalist I. F. Stone, whose idealistic and democratic vision of advancement for the human race was kept sharp by a no-nonsense reporter's eye, an intellectual's sense of history, and a delight in subversive humor.  To me, Stone seems to have been cut from the same cloth as that strain of independent American composers who view their parent culture with both love and disappointment, turning these conflicting feelings into an engine driving their efforts.

In Stone’s own words (taken from 1980’s NPR radio broadcasts), “How It Happens”chronicles the collision between humanity's new-found technological power and an ancient inheritance: our tribal impulse to band together and do violence against strangers, who are themselves following identical urges.  Written in 1991-94, while the resurgence of religious and ethnic conflicts eroded the optimism that accompanied the end of the Cold War, this piece often seems to prefigure today's headlines.  As globalization insures the collision of previously isolated cultures and religions, Stone’s meditations on the mixed legacy of our species grow ever more incisive, and his call to replace superstition and blood ties with reason and humanism grow ever more urgent.

“How It Happens” is the most ambitious piece to date in a series of works growing from my experiments in the late 1970's, when I began transcribing the pitches and rhythms of speech for use as source material in instrumental scores.  This technique of linking instruments to prerecorded tape culminated in “John Somebody” (1980-82), and as digital sampling spread in the following decade, speech transcription became a viable option for composers wishing to incorporate found sound into instrumental ensembles. 

About half of the movements are scored for quartet and speech alone, and half for a densely scored texture incorporating MIDI percussion and electronic instruments.  The character of these movements ranges from portrait to landscape: intimate sections like “The Clouds” or “Soliloquy” present Stone’s musings with clear narrative and emotional intent, while more abstract sections pull back to survey the cultural territory that surrounded him.  Half of the concluding 19-minute movement “Rainfall” is taken up with the driving dance rhythms of a purely instrumental interlude; a landscape view from such a distance that no individual can be heard amidst the planetary noise.  Finally Stone’s voice returns with one person's contemplation of the future of his species, but it is densely and rhythmically layered upon itself, just as a single idea will replicate itself in many minds as it begins to take hold in the world.

Stone's expressive and animated voice reinforced the first observations I made when I began to work with recorded speech: the desire to convince someone of something seems to accentuate the musicality of human speech.  People engaged in personal persuasion or public rhetoric speak with a wider pitch and dynamic range, exaggerating nuances like the consistently pitched low pedal points that project certainty and authority, or the rising contours of uncertainty or questioning: listen to a newscaster, a salesperson, a member of the clergy, a child.  I suspect that a formalized exaggeration of speech patterns had a large part to play in the origins of melody among early humans; but unfortunately sounds leave no fossils.

I organized the text of “How It Happens” around a core idea that was at the heart of Stone’s humanistic attitudes; an insight which is increasingly receiving serious scientific attention.  He saw how easily our capacity for altruism and mutual interest among the members of social and political groups can tip over into xenophobic violence against outsiders, and modern evolutionary psychology shows that community solidarity and group enmity are two sides of the same coin: outgrowths of the “reciprocal altruism” common among all big-brained social species.  The excesses of humanity's ancient, self-protective legacy of tribal, religious, and nationalistic loyalties are an unfortunate side effect of the adaptive, inward-turning trust within a group.  Stone understood that the rule of law can gradually extend this circle of trust to the entire species, fulfilling the promise of our ongoing evolution into a wiser creature of language and history, capable of avoiding the most lethal side effects of our inherited instincts.  In the voice of secular democracy, I. F. Stone articulated a modern version of one of humanity’s grand moral themes.



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