Scott Johnson Composer

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This 2003 essay was part of a series of contributions from composers on the question of creating music with political overtones, published online at the American Music Center’s New Music Box.


What inspires music that intentionally evokes the sea, or falling in love, or a busy city street?  An artistic and emotional reaction to the topic.  All that’s required beyond that is that the reaction occur in the brain of a composer who’s willing to be guided by an extra-musical image.  Still, politics seems to be a different kind of topic: we wouldn’t bother to ask people why they write about the sea, nor would we assume that a composer was "advocating" an interest in love or traffic jams.  We expect political art to involve advocacy, and generate disagreement.  Nevertheless, politics doesn’t have to lead to sophomoric agitprop: Guernica and the Emperor Concerto testify otherwise, even if you decide Napoleon doesn’t deserve a concerto after all.  For me, reflecting on our group behavior is a subset of reflecting on the world, and so I haven’t tried to pry my political outlook apart from my broader philosophical outlook, or cordon either off from my esthetic feelings. 

At this point I’ve written two pieces with political content, both with "texts" built from speech samples, and each takes a different approach to the idea of advocacy.  One work, "How It Happens", is based on the words of an outspoken political commentator, and is full of strong opinions.  The other, "Americans", is a very different animal.  Based on the voices of immigrants, its three movements first joke about being surrounded by indistinguishable strangers, then construct an image of an alien but welcoming America, and only at the end touch on a specific political issue.  In "Americans", advocacy becomes an attempt to imagine another existence.  In both pieces, working with other people’s words and attitudes added flavors that to me seem vaguely biographical, anthropological, or theatrical.

"How It Happens" is based on the sampled voice of liberal journalist I. F. Stone, and I find common ground with him in the vision of a worldwide civil society, grown beyond armed conflict over tribal, religious, and nationalistic rivalries.  I have to admit that it’s unlikely that I would ever commit myself to a piece based on a comparable right wing intellectual, so there is advocacy built in to this work, despite my initial skepticism when Kronos violinist David Harrington first suggested Stone as a subject.  I was won over by an impulse that was as much philosophical as political: it came as I read Stone’s "The Trial of Socrates", which addresses Athens vs. Socrates as a civil liberties issue, illuminating how democracies deal with the opponents of democracy.  As my title “How It Happens” suggests, I was most interested in Stone because I saw him as someone committed to peering into the workings of things, more interested in discerning truth about the world than in the career consequences of his pursuit.

Although "Americans" concentrates on the personal experience of being a stranger in a strange land, it has a political resonance; not least because immigration is an emotional policy issue.  But the only explicit reference to political affairs appears in the last movement, "Continental Divide", which presents the painfully conflicted feelings of an Afghani immigrant who has long resided in the U.S.  Even after the 9/11 attacks, she didn’t want an American invasion, for fear of the death of more innocents.  My own opinions are somewhat different: I think that the Iraqi invasion was a sad travesty, while the Afghani invasion was a sad necessity, a morally unavoidable response to the calculated extermination of civilians by religious murderers.  But my self-assigned 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.  So in this case my function was empathy first, advocacy second.  But I don’t feel compelled to completely tease these strands apart; every day we are impelled or inspired to do things for complex reasons, without stopping for intellectual analysis.

Finally, there is one purely musical way in which my work might be seen as having background cultural/political implications: its use of rock and the American vernacular, something that’s been at the heart of things for me since I started out in the late 1970’s.  Serious music is now among the most elitist of art forms, and I want to counter that by calling attention to the constant upwelling of unofficial or untutored creativity in popular musics, and by acknowledging my debt to my surroundings, as most pre-20th century composers did.  But it would be an oversimplification to collapse this into a simple gesture of class or generational warfare, wrestling for control of high culture with some blue-chip, blue-haired elite.  That would ignore two facts: 1) plenty of rich people listen to the same popular music as poor people, and 2) it has been quite a few years since simply wielding an electric guitar constituted a blow against the empire.  Many of my teenage favorites of hard rock and soul have shown up in car commercials, and I have few illusions left regarding any surplus of moral purity to found in popular music, which is indeed the current folk music of our culture.  Even the folkies and blues players of old were still working in clubs, and getting asked back only if they pleased their patrons.  Morality does not reside in genre.

Nevertheless, it does mean something that I choose to put as many drum sets as double reeds in my scores, and it does indeed reflect a desire for democratization in music.  It’s not that I don’t think that some music or musicians aren’t better than others; they are.  It’s that true quality is an ever-shifting meritocracy, not a genealogically bestowed title.  Anyone who thinks that a middling high modernist possesses an inherently higher stature than a jazz innovator is indeed asleep at the wheel of their Lexus. 

Ultimately, my 25-year advocacy of a new hybrid of populism and the avant-gard could probably be characterized as either radical or conservative, depending on your direction of spin, and whether or where you studied composition.  My own view comes down to this: arguing for the validity of unpedigreed influences is a fairly modest social statement, and it’s certainly not a revolution in the history of Western serious music.  It is, in fact, a revival of a central source of that tradition’s strength.  The fact that it appears radical in traditional circles is a measure of how far we have drifted.

Regardless of any advocacy intended or empathy evoked by a piece of music with words, and regardless of the background social implications of wearing non-elite cultural markers on one’s sleeve, there is one consideration that must dominate the mix in the final product.  It has to work as a piece of music, or the energy expended on other goals, poetic or political, explicit or implied, will have been wasted.  Whether people agree with me or not, I hope that they temporarily accept my artistic and even emotional guidance, as we all do when we agree to sit still and listen.

Scott Johnson

Endnote:  Many people will have the impression that I’ve done more work with overt political content than the two pieces above because of “Patty Hearst” (1989), my only film soundtrack, based on the famous 1974 political kidnapping that marked a surreal disintegration of radical 60’s politics.  That film, however, was typical of director Paul Schrader’s dark portraits of people caught in extreme situations: a comment more on human behavior than on the politics of this famous and rather bizarre event.  In writing the music I just considered each scene, and followed what I called my Prime Directive: what does it feel like to be Patty?

SJ, 2008

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