Scott Johnson Composer

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John Somebody (1980-82) 28.00

  Part I
  Part II  
  But, uh  
  Involuntary Songs I-IV

solo electric guitar, tape (taped speech, electronics, e. guitars, winds, percussion)

Performances require stereo audio tracks (no click track necessary)
Premiered by Scott Johnson, Mar 23/82, Dance Theater Workshop (first complete performance).  An early version of the first section was performed at the Mudd Club in 1979. This piece requires a fairly elaborate technical setup for the guitarist.

available on CD: “John Somebody” - Scott Johnson – Tzadik Records (original 1986 release: Nonesuch/Icon Records)

(Below are comprehensive notes on this important early work; shorter notes for concert programs are available)

Notes on the Music

John Somebody had its beginning in tape loops of speech, laughter, and crying that I made in the late 1970’s.  From my source tapes, some made by simply recording one side of a telephone conversation, I chose short fragments that evoked the rhythms of dance music and rock songs, and wrote down the approximate pitches of the words.  Longer melodic lines were created by editing phrases and even individual notes together: the twelve bar melody of Involuntary Song 3 required a 25 foot tape loop (quarter note = 2 5/8 inches).  The instrumental score is based on the pitches and rhythms of the recorded voices, and the initial connection to popular music is seconded by the orchestration: opening with all electric guitars, and later adding percussion and winds.

To my knowledge, John Somebody was the first piece to use the transcribed pitches and rhythms of a recorded speaking voice as the basis for an instrumental score.  The technique is based on a simple observation: although the pitches of speech are rarely stable or exact, when they are placed against a tonal center, the ear will tend to interpret a phrase as being in a mode or key.  Similarly, repeated syllables resolve into a rhythm more regular than reality.  Instrumental doubling and support creates a strong sense that the speech is in time and in tune. But when surrounded by instrumental doubling and support, the power of suggestion will create a strong sense that the approximate rhythms and pitches of the speech are in time and in tune.

Precedents abound: call and response is nearly universal in musical traditions worldwide: I was particularly aware of blues, and Messiaen’s transcribed bird songs as well.  And as affordable tape recorders became common in the second half of the 20th century, speech joined myriad bangs, scrapes, and whooshes as a favorite subject for tape pieces.  But with John Somebody, recorded speech became both source material and accompaniment for instrumental writing, a technique that spread as digital sampling became common in the mid-1980's. 

The first four phrases heard at the beginning of Part I, which soon sprout rock power chords and guitar lines, are the very phrases that gave me this idea, and the first that I sketched out musically in 1977, before putting them aside for other projects.  Two years later I picked up these sketches and began edit, mix, and write.  Soon I performed an early version of Part I in a 1979 concert at post-punk palace The Mudd Club, organized by the experimental arts center The Kitchen.  Although about half of the core materials for John Somebody came in to being between 1977-79, I date this piece 1980-82, when the partially developed elements laid out on my table met the animating idea of the Baroque dance suite.  This became a model for me: music that is episodic but unified.

The original phrases were looped and layered in synchronization on a multi-track tape machine.  Then that polyphonic tape was itself looped, and the results carved into with a mixing board, which allowed me highlight any segment of any phrase, or combine it with others, all in pre-arranged rhythmic synchronization.  I had recently invented this technique with four-channel loops of my own laughing, crying, and coughing, in a never-quite-satisfactory project called Involuntary Songs -- its best section became the underpinnings for John Somebody’s Involuntary Song #4.  Part I of John Somebody grew from my original four phrases; I began Part II by editing out every use of the word “think” on a recording of my own phone conversation, and Involuntary Songs 1-3 came from a tape of a girlfriend laughing.

The performance concept was to make a solo electric guitar piece with a taped “ensemble” of voices and instruments -- an electronic concerto for rock’s premiere instrument.  Digital samplers were not yet widely available, and the process of first creating the layered tape materiel, and then orchestrating it instrumentally, was very labor intensive.  I recorded the underlying instrumental parts of the first two sections myself on an 8-channel machine, treating them to the same layering, editing, and mixing as the voices, and keeping everything but the solo part nearly as simple as the voices themselves.  Individual channels were often combined into stereo submixes, freeing up more channels for further layering.   In the first two sections, my structural decisions were represented in graphic mixing scores that I followed as I manually moved volume faders and channel on/off buttons.  Only in the Involuntary Songs, where wind instruments and classical guitar techniques enter, did I begin to make traditional scores.

In a larger sense, I think that what I had in mind would have seemed very familiar to composers from the Renaissance to Stravinsky: a reawakening of serious music to the influences of the living vernacular.  Rock was the real folk music of my generation, and I saw no reason not to take these unique sounds out of their usual context, and use them in an extended composition.  Instruments sound like themselves, and often like a particular time and place, and however “timeless” or “universal” composers’ goals may be, their modes of expression are structured by their surroundings (including rebellions against those surroundings).  I don’t think I can say it more accurately now than I did in the notes for the original 1986 Nonesuch/Icon release of this music:

“The works on this record represent my first resolution of what seemed at the time to be personal conflicts between European classical and American popular musical forms and habits.  In fact, I no longer see this as either personal or a conflict.  Not personal, because the reconciliation of opposing cultural forces is ultimately the business of many people.  And not a conflict, because it is clear that much of the greatness of the European tradition rested in the composers’ practice of drawing upon the simpler folk musics of their own time and place, while continuing to hone their own sense of technique and structure.  If there is a compelling reason why this marriage of emotion and intellect can’t work, then someone forgot to mention it to about 20 generations of composers.”

  ©2008 Scott Johnson. All rights reserved.
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