SA9: The Monophony issue
Play one note.
Play another note.
Play another note.
This is an exercise I did for years, building melodies one note at a time with or without regard to harmony or rhythm; letting the shape and flow of the melody define itself based only on the consideration of this question: "Does it work?"
It's an exercise that still causes a certain amount of existential angst. "Does it work?" turns into "what does work mean to me?" turns into "how do our definitions of success compare and contrast?" Each new question becomes the analog to a note in the exercise. I follow the spiral until I find myself curled up in front of the television in need of a nap.
Play a note.
I've found myself using monophonic work as a possible entry level into studying new composers. The desire to tackle the one-note-then-another paradigm has become an automatic point of interest for me as I peruse the record store/library/internet aisles. It has become my roast chicken, well-tied bow tie, or perfectly located fastball. It is my musical equivalent of watching a great artist do something simple in a transcendent way.
So, when I decided it was time to do a Sound American issue that would feature a number of writers, beside myself, talking about the music they know and love in terms wholly their own, I naturally gravitated toward what I thought was a musical staple capable of great elegance: monophony. This issue started that simply; what monophonic pieces encapsulate an artist's aesthetic and skill. And, who can speak most eloquently about them?
What lies within is an attempt to answer that question with features by great musicians and writers about great composers and performers: Mark Menzies on Gérard Grisey, Mary Jane Leach on Julius Eastman, Josh Sinton on Steve Lacy, Richard Pinnell on Antoine Beuger, and an interview between Carol Robinson and Tom Johnson.
Play another note.
Regardless of the skill and insight these writers brought to their subject matter, these essays felt like the beginning for this issue of Sound American. There is a specific kind of joy that comes from discovering music. It's a quality that I've tried to portray in every issue of Sound American in one way or another. In these pages, it had been replaced by the joy of understanding music; something that's deep and meaningful in its own right, but needs that spark of spontaneity and unknowing to set it in relief and make it that much stronger. To that end, each essay is paired with the thoughts of a separate musician or artist on hearing the monophonic piece for the first time. It became an interesting exercise to read the interview after the essay; parsing out what is important to different ears and what qualities come to the fore immediately or need immersion to become evident.
And, this line of thought opens up other, broader, ideas about what we need or what we think we need in music. Is harmony necessary? What creates motion to our ears? Do we need motion? Is a single voice more powerful than a choir? Obviously, this line of questioning becomes subjective at best, but as I followed one thread after another, one question kept coming back to me: "How do we use limitation?"
Ultimately, the exercise of one-note-then-another is meant to be about limiting yourself to a rational succession of pitches. The endgame of the exercise is a sense of control when given the freedom to do what you want while improvising. But, doesn't the freedom we're striving for in performance have a need for some sort of limitation to ground or define it? As I listened to the pieces for this issue, I found that sense of limitation or ground in different places: obviously in Tom Johnson's Rational Melodies, but also in the cellular structure of Grisey's Prologue and the maniacal sound shaping of Steve Lacy's New Duck. It reminded me of a passage in a Slavoj Žižek essay on F.W.J. Schelling's work on the beginning of temporal thinking;
...our intellectual creativity can be 'set free' only within the confines of some imposed notional framework in which, precisely, we are able to 'move freely' - the lack of this imposed framework is necessarily experienced as an unbearable burden, since it compels us to focus constantly on how to respond to every particular empirical situation in which we find ourselves.1
Play another note.
So, what does that mean for the monophonic composer? Does the lack of harmonic framework present the possibility of moving "freely" for the composer or does it created an "unbearable burden" to be overcome. If the latter, how does the composer climb that particular mountain successfully?
And so, to address that question, Sound American includes an exercise in limitation; in this case, historical context. Issue 9 features four great tenor players of the moment working through the harmonic, rhythmic and historic limitations of Body and Soul, a song heavily defined by Coleman Hawkins's seminal 1939 recording. These saxophonists each dealt with the limitations of a very well known harmony and melody, as well as Hawkins's towering presence in very different and, ultimately, very musically satisfying ways.
So, in the end (and after including our return of 5 Questions, this time with Kurt Gottschalk), the issue came about like the one note exercise. It started with monophony, which opened the mind to certain composers and their monophonic works, which further opened into the broader ideas of experience and limitation.
And, this leaves us here. Perhaps in an existential crisis. The narrative string of one note after another has been convoluted by choice as you click from page to page. The availability of information can be paralyzing, ending with you in front of the TV, but I admonish you to stay strong! Start where you want, think of that as your first note, then follow it to what makes sense next, even if it's not on this site, then wait, then move, then wait. When you're done, come back and pick another note.
 Žižek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso, 1996
listen to tom johnson
Tom johnson: rational melody 1
Tom johnson: rational melody 2
Tom johnson: rational melody 3
carol robinson talks with tom johnson
Carol Robinson: If we are talking about monophonic composition, it seems like Rational Melodies would be a good place to start. Was it one of the first pieces you wrote for a single melodic line?
Tom Johnson: I’d like to start by saying that in the 1960s I remember going to concerts of post-Webern music, and the general public was always saying “but there’s no melody”. Composers, my teachers and everybody else said that Schoenberg’s melodies are really melodies, but later I began to think that all of those people, those naïve people, were right. The problem with most atonal post-Webern music is that there is no melody. So that’s why I write melodies. I think that a lot of my friends at the time wanted to simplify music, to give the public something it could understand, and that made us ready to write melodies.
I got interested in writing Rational Melodies because I liked music that made sense; music that I could explain. I had an instinct for symmetry and clarity and I wanted to write music that people could understand, music that at least I could understand. So I could say, "this has to be F# because if it were F natural it wouldn’t be logical with what happened just before and it must always be a major second", or whatever the logic was. So I started, around 1979-80, to write these particular Rational Melodies. To make sure that I understood what I was doing, and that other people could also understand what I was doing, I wrote explanatory notes for each melody. I ended up with 21, and they are all different. Some of them came from counting sequences, or isorhythmic sequences, or sometimes you can take two notes and transform that into a four-note melody, and then transform that into an eight-note melody and a sixteen-note melody, according to strict rules, and that’s another one way of proceeding. There was another case where I took three notes and transformed it into nine notes and then twenty-seven notes and so forth. Those were some of the techniques I was using.
CR: Once you got to the Rational Melodies, was your technique already rather refined? Did you have a good idea of what you were doing, or was it just further research?
TJ: In comparison with today, it wasn’t very refined. I’m not a mathematician and I’d never really thought about logical sequences from a sophisticated point of view. Even today I don’t know a whole lot about it, but then, I didn’t know anything about it.
I just started with:
1 2 3 4 5
That I could understand: counting and simple sequences. Or you could count:
2 4 6 8 10
That I could also understand. And:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 3 2 4 3 5 4 6 5 7
I was ready for that kind of logic. In 1996, I wrote a book about all of that called Self-Similar Melodies. By that time I really knew what I was doing because I had been doing more kinds of logical melodies and logical sequences, so I wrote a book that went to a higher level. It still isn’t really mathematics, just pretty common sense stuff that any high school student can understand.
CR: Is common sense deductive logic rather than intuitive logic?
TJ: Deductive is a good way to say it, but all of mathematics is deduction. You can’t just make things up. You have to follow the theorem and continue according to the rules. That’s what deduction is and that’s what my music was.
TJ: Well we were talking about those older pieces. It still is.
CR: Can Rational Melodies be played on any instrument?
TJ: Yes, I thought of it as a solo piece. In fact the first performance of the complete Rational Melodies, at least the first recording, was by Eberhard Blum, a flutist.
He did different melodies with different flutes, and in different registers, but he played everything exactly as written and it was absolutely monophonic.
The second recording was by Roger Heaton, an English clarinet soloist. It’s beautiful. Whereas Eberhard Blum played the music rather mathematically and coldly, Roger Heaton played Rational Melodies as if it were Mozart. He’s a beautiful classical player and he wasn’t afraid to put a little nuance here and there, and even to have slight changes in tempo. It’s a very beautiful interpretation.
CR: Some of those melodies are very intimidating for a wind player. For instance, in Rational Melody No. 13, there is nowhere to breathe. Later you wrote pieces for specific instruments, like the Tilework for Clarinet, which is quite playable, whereas some of the Rational Melodies seem like they might be better on a violin.
TJ: The problem with some of those melodies is that a wind player can do the phrase of 5 seconds and the phrase of 10 seconds but the phrase of 20 seconds is already pushing the lungs, and for the next phrase of 40 seconds you have to cheat in order to get through, to circular breathe, or something. So some of the melodies are not really designed for wind instruments. But, some of them are not really for stringed instruments either. The music is designed for any instrument. I like that you play it however you can on whatever instrument you can. If somebody wants to do it on a Jew’s harp, more power to them, it could be very beautiful.
CR: I’m curious how you arrive at the various formulas. For instance, in the notes for Rational Melody No. 2 you state, ““the ‘“dragon’” pattern, as explained in visual terms in several of Martin Gardner’s Scientific American columns in 1967, provides the basic sequence.” You took a mathematical exposé and turned it into that melody?
TJ: Right. It’s known as the paper folding formula.
CR: “The new folds are always a simple alternation of right and left.” You simply transferred that into music?
CR: For number 3, you talk about how “Many minimalist composers have developed their music by adding or subtracting notes, one at a time, though I have been especially interested in some of the scores of Frederic Rzewski, which sometimes do this both rigorously and cleverly.” Would cleverly mean not following the formula?
TJ: It just means being smart.
CR: To what extent do you like the explanations to be available for the audience?
TJ: I’m always complaining at concerts when my colleagues don’t explain their music to people, because I appreciate the music much more when I know what’s happening., and I think that everybody does. I think that composers are sometimes a little paranoid and they think “Another composer is going to steal my idea if I explain how I did it.” That’s silly. Ideas are free, and you have to give them away anyway. If somebody is a good enough musician to make a better piece out of your idea, well more power to him. I don’t think that you gain anything by withholding the idea and the technique. As far as my own music is concerned, I like the audience to know basically, without getting technical, what is happening. So I try to explain it in program notes.
One of the reasons that I publish my own music under the name Editions 75 is because I want musicians to have complete scores. So many composers now find it cheaper and easier just to send out pdf files. People print out one-sided pages of any piece they want, and they never get the cover, and they never get the instructions. Covers are important too, because sometimes I have drawings on the cover, which give important information for understanding the piece, or at least they add something. And it’s nice when performers quote some of the explanations in their program notes.
CR: Then there is the case of Eggs and Baskets, or Bedtime Stories, though where you are transposing the explanatory notes into a little narrative.
TJ: I’m glad you mentioned those pieces, because we’ve been friends for over 20 years now, and you’ve played a lot of my music, so it’s natural that we talk particularly about the pieces where we’ve worked together. Yes, I like didactic music in general. The piece explains itself, and that can be very nice. The audience is obliged to understand what is going on. Narayana’s Cows is like that too. You have the narration that goes with it, and whether you like it or not, you learn how the piece was constructed.
CR: And your ears identify what you are hearing too?
CR: Going back to Rational Melody No. 3, the process can be described in digits as:
1 12 123 1234 etc.
...and then you go backwards. You like to go forwards and backwards?
TJ: Yes sure, turn around and go back.
CR: The transpositions are part of the sequence, and as well as retrograde?
TJ: One thing would be:
123 234 345 456 567
CR: Do you also use inversions a lot?
TJ: Oh yes, I could do:
123 321 234 432 345 543
That’s very obvious too.
CR: In some of your pieces, the sequences are longer. As I remember in Infinite Melodies.
TJ: In Infinite Melodies, they go on into infinity.
CR: It’s easy to manipulate 12345 and up to 10, but what gave you the idea of continuing on forever?
TJ: Well, I guess that everyone thinks about infinity. I had heard about people who claimed to have written the longest melody in the world, but I thought, “You can do better than that, you can go on into infinity”, and so I wanted to try that.
CR: When you were trying to find solutions to these questions for yourself, were you aware of other people around you doing the same?
TJ: I’ve always been kind of a loner, and I’ve never worked with other musicians. Later though, I started working in New York and meeting people like Phil Glass, Charlie Morrow and Bob Ashley. I found that I had an affinity with these people, but I don’t think I was really influenced by them. They weren’t exactly writing melodies, but they were similar in other ways. There was a lot of minimalism going on in any case, that’s for sure.
CR: When was the first time you used the term minimalist, and when was the first time you heard it? Do you remember?
TJ: The first time was when I talked about the “slow motion minimal effect” in The Village Voice. This was not an article about repetitive music; it was an article about Alvin Lucier’s music, which was really drone music, and the slow motion minimal effect, where nothing changed for a long time. Later, I started to talk more often about things that were minimal.
Incidentally, this was already a valid artistic term because of minimal sculpture. Already in the fifties Carl Andre and Sol Lewitt were known as minimalist sculptors. So it was an easy extension to have minimal music, and then it became minimalist. People like Steve Reich refused to be considered minimalist. They thought it was derogatory, but I loved the word. Already in my biography in the seventies, I said that Tom Johnson is a minimalist composer. I have always been very proud of it, because that’s the only word that really describes what I’m doing. I always worked with reduced materials and tried to do simple music.
Recently, the term seems to have become respectable and now a lot of the composers who refused to be considered minimalist are now content with the term Alvin Lucier, for instance, used to think that minimalism meant repetitive music, but now he realizes that the term includes him as well.
Did I ever tell you about the five categories of minimalism?
CR: No, I’d like to know more.
TJ: In recent years, when I’ve had to do lectures, I decided that there were five categories of minimalism.
One is repetitive music, another is drone music, which we’ve already talked about. Also important is music with minimal means, really reduced means; for instance with pieces of wood. Steve Reich has to admit that Music for Pieces of Wood is a pretty minimal idea; an instrument with a pretty limited range. If somebody made a piece trying to do everything possible with a rubber band, it would still be minimal because the instrument is so limited. That’s the third kind. The fourth kind is silent music. I’m not just talking about 4’33 and pieces that were silent in that sense., I’m also talking about the furniture music of Eric Satie. A lot of people have recently been working with ambience: ambient music. That’s another term. Didn’t Brian Eno write ambient music for airports? So if it’s just furniture, if it’s just in the background, it’s basically the silence. This could be the silence of a restaurant, or the silence of the park. There may be sound going on, but it is perceived as silence. This is a very large category of music now. A lot of people are playing with ambience and silent in one way or another. Finally, the last and least used category, and for me the most interesting today, is music with minimal differences. I’m writing a whole piece about that right now.
CR: Which category are you?
TJ: I’ve done all the categories except for drone music. I don’t think that I’ve ever written drone music. But wait. I did that too when I wrote the Orgelpark Color Chart. That was just a sustained C in all the colors and octaves possible with four pipe organs.
CR: Are the monophonic pieces in the minimal means category?
TJ: Well, mine are, but they are also mathematical. There are many degrees of minimalism. Some of the Rational Melodies that just go around on three or four notes are more minimal than the Infinite Melodies, which go on to more and more notes each time. Each piece is another problem, and I don’t know how to measure minimalism. I haven’t really thought much about that.
CR: Do you have any other favorite melodic composers?
TJ: Well, I like Gregorian chant. There are so many more melodies than harmonies in the history of music, folklore…beautiful. [Giacinto] Scelsi wrote a series of melodies. What are they called? Do you remember? I think that there are three melodies.
CR: They’re called Three Latin Prayers.
TJ: That’s what I’m thinking of. The Three Latin Prayers by Scelsi are a beautiful example of contemporary monophony.
CR: And deceptive, because they seem old but they aren’t. They follow certain rules and actually there is an inversion between the first and the third movement.
CR: Yes. And Bach?
TJ: You could call the cello suites unaccompanied melodies, but there are usually double-stops.
CR: So the presence of double stops means non monophonic? In general, when you think of music for solo instruments, it doesn’t necessarily imply monophonic melodies?
TJ: A lot of times it is really virtuosic. I’ve never been so interested in virtuosity. I never wrote etudes or cadenzas. That always seemed kind of vulgar to me.
CR: You just wrote difficult music.
TJ: Let’s say that sometimes it’s difficult, but at least it’s not just trying to make a star out of the performer. It’s very demanding for the concentration of the performers. That’s often the case with my music. It looks easy, the notes on the page are easy, but the problem is that you can’t make any mistakes, and 100% correct is difficult in any music.
CR: 100% correct in terms of not only the notes and rhythms, but there is that extra bit of interpretation that I know I add, without overdoing it. I don’t know if it is classical…
Since you spoke about the difficulty of not playing mistakes in your music, there is a piece of yours that I had the pleasure of recording called Music with Mistakes. It was actually quite difficult to play the music with the mistakes. You explain it in the introduction. “Music with Mistakes consists of ten short pieces. In each piece the same phrase is repeated seven times, but six times there is a wrong note, a rhythmic error, some kind of mistake, and only once is everything is correct. Can you hear the mistakes?” As a performer, I see where the mistakes are, and I remember you saying that they have to sound like mistakes because if you play them too well, they don’t sound like mistakes even if they are.
That brings up an interesting question. How did you decide to break down your formula? Since you are going through logical sequences in all of the other pieces, how did you determine the mistake?
TJ: Well, you just break the logic in one way or another. For me, in my logical little mind, every time there is one note out of line, it sounds really stupid, ridiculous. But I find that the average listener sometimes can’t hear the mistakes, and thinks that it sounds just fine.
CR: Here I see the dates of different pieces. Infinite Melodies ’86, Rational Melodies ’82, Bedtime Stories ’85. Other things were going on. You were writing a piece for woodwind quintet in 1980 and an orchestra piece as well, yet through all of that you continued writing monophonic music. Does it sort of center you? Is it your base?
TJ: I started writing more chords though, too. The Chord Catalogue is also from the ‘80s. So it changes from piece to piece.
CR: So you weren’t frustrated with the melodies, you just wanted to explore other areas?
CR: As far as I know, you haven’t exhausted monophonic music. Another piece will be popping out at some point.
TJ: I bet, yeah. It’s hard to predict, but there will be something.
CR: Something… Excellent.
Clinton krute listens to tom johnson
Clinton Krute is the Daily Editor of BOMB Magazine, a publication that has been presenting interviews of artists by artists since 1981, and one that I've been a fan of for years. We started corresponding while I was working on an interview with Anthony Braxton for BOMB earlier this year. For the "first listening" portion of this issue, I wanted to talk to subjects that had never been associated with Sound American before, even reaching beyond those directly related to music making or music writing. Clinton seemed like an obvious choice: open-minded, inquisitive, thoughtful and articulate.
I chose Tom Johnson's Rational Melodies for Clinton because I felt that the elegantly concise forms of these pieces would be easiest to parse out and appreciate for someone with ties to literature and visual. At his request, I sent Clint a recording of the pieces a few days early....
Nate Wooley: I was afraid, when you asked for the music a week in advance, that you’d be over prepared. I’ve been counting on the crazy schedules or laziness of musicians to insure they wouldn’t have heard the music before we talked!
Clint Krute: You’re lucky. I barely had any time to listen this week!
NW: Well, I appreciate it.
CK: No problem. I think it’s a cool idea…kind of like [The Wire magazine feature] Invisible Jukebox
NW: Right, but not “man on the street” without knowledge of this music. Tom’s work isn’t something that lends itself to an immediate understanding unless you’ve listened to similar kinds of music.
CK: I’m by no means an expert, but maybe that’s the idea.
NW: It is…
CK: How the relative layman would come to this.
NW: Exactly, and making it okay for the relative layman to come to this music and appreciate it by breaking down that feeling of difficulty that might keep them away.
So, with that in mind, what were your impressions based on your first listening to Rational Melodies?
CK: They seem to be studies, which is something I like a lot. I like small and simple. I listened to it once through, and my attention was diffuse. But, that being said, from that one listening I understood it to be a progression of simple musical ideas. There were repeated ideas or themes, but in very … they were very small; repeated once or twice. Cellular is something that occurred to me. But it was also very, very melodic and approachable in a way that a lot of minimalist music is not... or I would just say melodic.
NW: I think one word that you were starting to say, but didn’t, is restricted. Tom's pieces, specifically the Rational Melodies, have this real feeling of setting parameters and not exploding their limits.
CK: And based on the title too I assumed there were some strict set of rules within which he was working and allowing processed to play out, which is something you find in a lot of Modernist art.
NW: Did you feel any need to try and figure out what the rules were just by listening? I ask because I kind of put you at a disadvantage with regards to his music by giving you no information about how the pieces were put together.
CK: Like I said, my attention was not that strict, but I didn’t [feel that need]. It did sound kind of traditional, melodically, in a way that made me wonder if he was taking other pieces of music and repurposing them; taking a couple of bars from something in the Western canon and then throwing it into some system that he’s constructed. But, beyond that, I just enjoy repetition a lot in art and music, and I enjoy variation through repeated listenings to things.
NW: That's one of the things about Tom's music that I find fascinating. It is repetitious, but not maddeningly repetitious. It doesn’t have that kind of tension that you find in things that repeat forever and ever. It also isn’t meditative. Those qualities that I tend to think of as being hallmarks of music and art that is repetitious don’t exist in Tom’s work.
CK: What occurred to me from my own knowledge of this sort of thing, it just reminded me of the Bartok Mikrokosmos; just small ideas…one idea and then the next idea but they’re all sort of developing off of each other. Like etudes; brief pieces. That was appealing to me, as well as the fact that there isn’t a drone element…
NW: That is unusual in minimalist music these days.
NW: Did you feel any loss by the fact that it didn’t have any harmony?
CK: No, but that did occur to me early on. And, I think it occurred to me because you described it to me as monophonic. I had a little trouble grasping what you meant by that. I thought I was going to be listening to was something with one sound source like a solo saxophone or a solo piano [not an ensemble]. But, while I was listening to this I realized that there was no harmony. All the instruments were doing the same thing.
NW: This recording is a little bit special, too, because this was an ensemble that arranged these pieces for themselves. So, there are different colors and different sound sources. The piece, in its original form, is one voice. I have a recording of Eberhard Blum playing the melodies on flute, and that is more monochromatic. He also has pieces for other solo instruments that are similar. Not all of his pieces are monophonic either. He has one called chord catalogue that’s pretty phenomenal.
CK: Was this a recent recording?
NW: Maybe from the past three or four years. It was done by a French ensemble [Ensemble Dedalus] who worked with, or at least got the blessing of, Tom for the arrangements. If you don’t know about him, he was a writer for the Village Voice in the late 70s early 80s as well as being a composer. I think he was also involved in the minimalist movement of that time: Phill Niblock, Philip Glass, etc.
CK: Yeah, I sort of placed the music as a late 70s aesthetic. I had a period of being into John Adams…I’m still into John Adams, but it reminded me of some of his stuff.
NW: It’s somehow more rigorous than some of that music, but it has much of the same…
CK: definitely…more restricted
NW: It has some similarities, though, just in listening.