Scott Johnson Composer

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Practical Music (1988, revised 2001) 11.45
Original version: clar/synthesizer wind controller, piano
Revised version: clar/bass clar, violin, cello, piano

Original duet version commissioned by Jean Kopperud, with support from the Mary Flagler Cary Trust/Concert Artists Guild.  Premiered by Jean Kopperud, Jan 30/89, Dance Theater Workshop.  Withdrawn, pending a synthesizer sound retrofit and incorporation of minor 2001 structural revisions.

Revised quartet version commissioned by the Eberli Ensemble, with support from Art In The Parks, St. Paul. Premiered by the Eberli Ensemble, 2001, St. Paul, Minn.

Notes on the Music

Among composers, “practical music” is a faintly derogatory term.  It means music written to fulfill an obligation, to make money, or to serve a social function, as opposed to music closer to the composer’s own heart or head.  When I first heard the term, it struck me as funny; perhaps Useful Music could have its own absurd regulatory agency, like Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.  But there’s nothing particularly humorous about the dead-serious attitudes that underlie the term.  It implies a natural conflict between impulses from the outside world and the contemporary composer’s real task: a music of the self, whether modernist experimentation or romantic self-expression.

But in its normal use, “practical” simply means something that works.  The 19th century music that constitutes most of the classical repertoire actually “worked” in its own bygone culture, in ways that its contemporary inheritors do not.  But few would say that those past composers failed to create new forms or express themselves.  The vague disdain embodied in the phrase “practical music” might provide a hint as to why contemporary art music hasn’t worked in America.  The insular classical music culture often assumes that to reflect popular culture is to slavishly follow it.  But that assumption ignores the fact that most composers grow up in the same world as everyone else, and a true expression of their self will also contain a reflection of the surroundings that helped make them who they are.

These are big issues, and this little piece makes no attempt to come to a conclusion or offer a solution.  But the questions were in my mind while writing, and the result is a free-associative musing that evokes 19th century chamber music, the Puerto Rican and Dominican rhythms of my old Lower East Side neighborhoods in New York, and the bright primary colors of the simple harmonies I blasted out in my Midwestern high school rock bands; hybridizing them all with that most adaptable and useful of American musics, the blues.  All of these musics served emotional and social functions in their cultural ecosystems, and perhaps there is something to be learned by travel through the territories of the ordinary.
  ©2008 Scott Johnson. All rights reserved.
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