On the Record is a weekly column meant to round up details about new and pending recordings of interest to the new-music community: contemporary classical music and jazz, electronic and electroacoustic music, and idioms for which no clever genre name has been coined, on CD, vinyl LP, cassette, digital-only formats… you name it.
This list of upcoming release dates is culled from press releases, Amazon and other online record stores, social-media posts, and similar resources. Dates cited correspond to U.S. release of physical recordings where applicable, and are subject to change. These listings are not comprehensive—nor could they be! To submit a forthcoming recording for consideration, email information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Johnson’s Evolutionary Gospel
In the beginning was the word – and then came Scott Johnson, an ingenious composer who found in the melodies and cadences of human speech the fundamental spark that gave rise to a small but distinguished and highly distinctive body of work. Along the way, he anticipated by decades some of the major trends in so-called post-classical composition, foremost in connecting the kinetic power and visceral appeal of amplified rock music to the complexity and structural elegance of classical music.
Trained in music and visual arts at the University of Wisconsin, Johnson had grown frustrated by the disconnect between what you heard in the concert hall and what you heard in the rest of the world. At 22, he came to New York City intent on pursuing a career in visual art. But after spending time in SoHo and the East Village, where all manner of aesthetic cross-pollination was underway, Johnson was emboldened to pick up his electric guitar and take another crack at composing. His breakthrough came with John Somebody (1980-82), a sizzling mix of cut-up speech patterns (“You know who’s in New York? You remember that guy? J-John somebody?”) and taut electric guitar lines that mimicked precisely the vocal cadence’s rise and fall.
Issued by Nonesuch in 1986, and reissued in 2004 on John Zorn’s label Tzadik, John Somebody remains Johnson’s most widely known work. Johnson produced an exhilarating score for Paul Schrader’s film Patty Hearst in 1988, also released by Nonesuch and reissued on Tzadik, and refined his speech-derived signature style in works like How It Happens (composed for the Kronos Quartet, with recorded portions spread across three separate CD releases); Convertible Debts (issued on Philip Glass’s Point Music label); and Americans (recorded for Tzadik in 2010).
With Mind Out of Matter – conceived in 2009, completed in 2014 and first presented by Peak Performances at Montclair State University, and reprised in 2016 at Tufts University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art – Johnson deployed his speech-derived style in evening-length proportion. The 75-minute work in eight sections was commissioned for the extravagantly versatile chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound.
Termed an “atheist oratorio” on the Alarm Will Sound website, the piece employs the recorded voice of Tufts philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, discussing ideas from his book Breaking the Spell (Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). Despite the heady topic, Dennett’s tone is always engaging and at times whimsical, and Johnson’s music followed suit. In assembling the work, Johnson consciously evoked the alternation of recitative, aria, and ensemble passages found in Baroque liturgical works.
Mind Out of Matter will be released by Tzadik on February 23. But with thanks to Scott Johnson, John Zorn, and Alarm Will Sound, National Sawdust Log is proud to bring you two exclusive streaming excerpts from the new recording – right now, right here.
In a recent telephone interview, Johnson talked to National Sawdust Log about what gave rise to Mind Out of Matter, and how the project evolved.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: How did this piece come about initially? Did it begin with Alarm Will Sound, or did it start simply with you having a bright idea one day?
SCOTT JOHNSON: It actually started when I wrote… in the 1990s I had gotten curious about Darwinism, and I read a book called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, by Dan Dennett. It’s partially in response to that, and a lot of books that followed, that I wrote an essay, a Darwinian evolutionary look at the evolution of musical styles. I ended up sending it through a mutual colleague to Dan, who said, “Send me five copies for my colleagues.” I was very pleased to find out that he thought it was of some value, because this is an extremely intelligent person.
So we began to correspond a little bit. I heard him – I’d seen him on YouTube and so forth – and at some point I realized he had this wonderful expressive voice, a really wide range, funny, and sort of dramatic. And actually, he generates some of the best melodies – actually, probably the best melodies – I have ever transcribed in 30, 40 years of transcribing speech.
I just thought this is this is the time to do this, and I actually was originally going to do it with something called the Columbia Sinfonietta. I got a grant… and they folded about a month later. Well, this was a labor of love, I did it without support, and so at that point I took it to Alarm Will Sound, who were a bunch of people I’ve known and followed for many years, and they decided to do it.
Given what you ended up doing with this piece, which requires musicians with serious chamber-music chops but also a feeling for pop and rock rhythms and expression, and players who can stand up and sing, or play instruments that are not their own… I mean, Alarm Will Sound seems like the group this piece would have been meant for.
Yeah, definitely. In a way, this was sort of a culmination of a couple of trains of thought that I actually started with. One is how to hybridize classical inheritance and the culture’s own popular music that surrounds us. These are two separate toolkits, and not everyone has both toolkits. Alarm is one of the few groups that can do it properly. More and more younger ensembles are capable of this, but Alarm Will Sound was in many ways a forerunner – something I had been waiting for for a long time.
And of course, the other big train of thought is the speech-music thing. Both of these things were present at the very beginning for me, and this is a much more complex sort of evolution out of the merging of those trains of thought.
In thinking about where this piece stands in relation to your earliest work, one simple observation is that in John Somebody you were cutting up speech to fit your piece, where here it often seems as if Dennett’s voice really is leading the music with its melodic cadence. For all his erudition, he’s a very avuncular sort of storyteller.
That’s the new element in this that isn’t really inherited from the very beginning – from John Somebody, say – and that’s the sort of dramatic or theatrical narrative intent. I tried to make this do what, if not an opera, than an oratorio or cantata might do. The image that I think of sometimes is an audible version of an illuminated medieval manuscript.
In terms of taking the lead from the voices, though, John Somebody comes exactly… the difference is that there are only four phrases. I chose the melodies that were taken from that – I’m talking only about the first section, which was the first place I ever thought of to do this – and literally it all begins with these transcriptions of that voice, and putting some chords on top, and giving them a rhythmic context.
In a way, [Mind Out of Matter] is just the same thing; it’s just that there’s very little repetition. Occasionally I’ll use phrases as a groove, but there’s much more material. Most of this is heavy passages, which are very narrative and very discursive. And the immediate predecessor for that is the piece I did for the Kronos Quartet, How It Happens, with the voice of I.F. Stone. This is in some ways the son of that.
But throughout Mind Out of Matter, I tried to make these passages where I would basically take repetitive phrases, or in one case I took six instances of the word adaptations. Another of my favorite grooves is when he’s saying “rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing”—I actually called that the Steely Dan section. Those in some ways look back past that discursive I.F. Stone thing, and look back toward where I started, basically taking chopped-up phrases as rock grooves. And they provide a little break in the narrative.
There’s a lot of variation in this – as a matter of fact, even within each movement there’s a lot of variation. They aren’t built out of single ideas; I’m forced to track the pitch content and the rhythmic content of the voice, which means I have to go in harmonic directions that I might not have, otherwise. And it’s kind of fun; in a way, I sometimes think it’s almost like the way that serial rows will push a composer around and make them go to that pitch… except in this case, it’s seemingly random. He says the word he says.
You strike a lovely balance between straightforward narrative with Dennett leading and more interventionist passages, in which you’re manipulating bits of speech to create elements of song or chorus. I won’t go so far as to suggest recitative and aria, but certainly that contrast is there.
Well, you can go that far and say that, because I thought of that. You know, in traditional forms there isn’t anything quite like this, but the closest would be a cantata or an oratorio – a sort of dramatic or theatrical spoken-word piece.
So then this is your secular godless atheist oratorio?
Well, I have said that, too, and also kind of kidding. But to some extent, when a composer decides that they want to say something that’s not just about music – and I don’t do that with every piece, but when I want to do it, I want to do it… I actually came up with this in the early aughts; probably during the George W. Bush years is when I first began to think about doing this. And there was an actual, nonmusical reason I thought about doing a piece about a scientific or philosophical look at things like, in this case, religion, but also other similar phenomena, like nationalism and certain human tendencies that I think are working against us. At that time, they were conspicuously working against us – and right now, they are really working against us.
The specific conflict to which you’re alluding right now has brought society to this super-heated point where you can start to think the divisions among us are too profound to be bridged. At a time when so many people are so sensitive and so reactionary, are you at all concerned about confronting an audience with a piece in which the way that religion infiltrates a mind and replicates itself, and then drives people sometimes in irrational ways, is likened to an invasive worm inside an ant’s brain? You know that’s going to ruffle a few choir robes.
Yeah, it’s going to ruffle a few. But among the prominent atheist thinkers, Dan is, I think, one of the most calm and reasonable, and he does not rant. He’s a philosopher – he makes arguments. The other thing is that he understands something that I’m very well aware of now. I don’t believe in any of the supernatural theories. However, it’s rather amazing that humans came up with them, and it says something really interesting about the human brain, the human species, and how we are different from other species. And it says a lot about how we grew to be different. There are many social species in the world, but they don’t talk, so they don’t make up stories about things that aren’t there. They don’t talk about what shall we do tomorrow and what happened yesterday. They may react to what happened yesterday, but they don’t theorize about it. And so to some extent, religion is a really fascinating instance of that kind of thing.
The arts, and the transcendent emotions they can induce, were often strongly associated with religion in pre-scientific cultures. And so was morality, to the point where religions generally claim to be the source of both transcendent feelings and good behavior. But both sublime emotion and moral concern for others are natural human phenomena. They are our birthright as human beings, not the gifts of an invisible supernatural parental figure. Science has again and again shown these experiences and tendencies to be rooted in the structures of our brains and societies, and emphasizing these natural inheritances was part of my intent with this piece.
The other thing, though, about putting this disagreeable thing in front of audiences: there’s been three performances of this piece, and they all had standing ovations. Now to some extent of course this is a self-selecting audience…
So, a bunch of godless heathen commies all over the place, then.
Yeah. There you go.
Mind Out of Matter is due Feb. 23, 2018, on Tzadik.
New This Week
John Luther Adams – All That Rises – JACK Quartet (Cold Blue) Michael Adkins Quartet – Flaneur (hatOLOGY)
Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet – Landfall (Nonesuch) John Beckwith – Instrumental Works, 2006-2016 – various artists (Centrediscs) Samuel Blaser with Marc Ducret & Peter Bruun – Taktlos Zürich 2017 (hatOLOGY) William Brittelle – Without Chasms (New Amsterdam; subscription-only) Sarah Buechi – Contradiction of Happiness (Intakt) Markus Eichenberger & Daniel Studer – Suspended (hatOLOGY) Christopher Fox – Headlong – Heather Roche (Metier) Shinya Fukumori Trio – For 2 Akis (ECM) Peter Garland – Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1) – William Winant (Cold Blue) Michael Hersch – Images from a Closed Ward – FLUX Quartet (New Focus) Alice Ping Yee Ho – The Mysterious Boot – Susan Hoeppner, Winona Zelenka, Lydia Wong (Centrediscs) Nicolas Masson Quartet – Travelers (ECM) Myra Melford Trio – Alive in the House of Saints, Part 2 (hatOLOGY; reissue) Evan Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton – Music for David Mossman (Live at Vortex London) (Intakt) George Perle – Orchestral Music (1965-1987) – Jay Campbell, Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot (Bridge) Poliça + s t a r g a z e – Music for the Long Emergency (Totally Gross National Product) Elena Ruehr – String Quartets Nos. 1-6 – Stephen Salters, Cypress String Quartet; Borromeo String Quartet (Avie) Andy Sheppard Quartet – Romaria (ECM) Norma Winstone – Descansado – Music for Films (ECM)
(☆ – new addition this week)
Mark Applebaum – Speed Dating – Takao Hyakytome, Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players/Eduardo Leandro, Southern Oregon University Percussion Ensemble/Terry Longshore (Innova)
The Crossing – If There Were Water (Innova) Dolce Suono Trio with Lucy Shelton – American Canvas (Innova) Duo Damiana (Molly Barth & Dieter Hennings) – castillos de viento (Innova)
Fossil Aerosol Mining Project – August 53rd (Helen Scarsdale) Scott Johnson – Mind Out of Matter – Alarm Will Sound/Alan Pierson (Tzadik) Michael Gordon – Sonatra – Vicky Chow (Cantaloupe Music) Dave Liebman/Tatsuya Nakatani/Adam Rudolph – The Unknowable (RareNoise) Adam Nussbaum – The Lead Belly Project (Sunnyside) Bobby Previte – Rhapsody (RareNoise) Subtle Degrees – A Dance That Empties (New Amsterdam/NNA Tapes) YoshimiO/Susie Ibarra/Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Flower of Sulphur (Thrill Jockey)
Michael Daugherty – Dreamachine; Trail of Tears; Reflections on the Mississippi – Evelyn Glennie, Amy Porter, Carol Jantsch, Albany Symphony Orchestra/David Allan Miller (Naxos) Olivia De Prato – Streya – works by Samson Young, Victor Lowrie, Ned Rothenberg, Taylor Brook, Reiko Fueting, and Missy Mazzoli (New Focus) Mathias Eick – Ravensberg (ECM) Sebastian Fagerlund – Stonework; Drifts; Transit – Ismo Eskelinen, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu (Bis) Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette – After the Fall (ECM) Olivier Messiaen – Catalogue d’oiseaux – Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Pentatone)
Ensemble Musikfabrik – Kreutzungen – works by Vassos Nicolaou, Johannes Schöllhorn, Gérard Grisey, Dieter Mack (Wergo)
Brian Ferneyhough – La Terre est un Homme – Olivia Robinson, Jennifer Adams-Barbaro, Cherith Millburn-Fryer, EXAUDI/James Weeks, ensemble recherche, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (NMC Recordings) Sarah Nemtsov – Amplified Imagination – Ensemble Adapter, ensemble mosaik, Sonar Quartett (Wergo)
Jordan Pal – Into the Wonder – Gryphon Trio, Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra/Arthur Post (Analekta) Wang Lu – Urban Inventory – International Contemporary Ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble Moderne (New Focus) Scott Miller – Raba – Laura Cocks, Dan Lippel, Ensemble :U (New Focus) Lucas Niggli – Alchemia Garden (Intakt) Aruán Ortiz Trio – Live in Zürich (Intakt)
Sergio Sorrentino – dream: American Music for Electric Guitar – works by John Cage, David Lang, Jack Vees, Elliott Sharp, Alvin Curran, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Larry Polansky, and Van Stiefel (Mode) Philip Venables – Below the Belt – Melinda Maxwell, Phoenix Piano Trio, Ligeti Quartet, David Hoyle, London Sinfonietta/Richard Baker (NMC Recordings)
Arild Andersen – In-House Science (ECM) Karl Berger – In a Moment – Music for Piano & Strings (Tzadik) Jakob Bro – Returnings (ECM) Caroline Davis – Heart Tonic (Sunnyside) Yuko Fujiyama – night wave (Innova) Kyle Gann – Hyperchromatica (Other Minds) Anne Guthrie – Brass Orchids (Students of Decay) Ah Young Hong – a breath upwards – vocal works by Milton Babbitt and Michael Hersch (Innova) Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton – Music and Poetry of the Kesh (Freedom to Spend)
Mary Halvorson – Code Girl (Firehouse 12) Invisible Anatomy – Dissections (New Amsterdam) Sonar with David Torn – Vortex (RareNoise) Sons of Kemet – Your Queen Is a Reptile (Impulse!)
Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg – Dirt… and More Dirt (Pi Recordings)
Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Sound Prints – Scandal (Greenleaf Music) Quince Ensemble – Motherland – vocal works by Gilda Lyons, Laura Steenberge, Cara Haxo, and Jennifer Jolley (New Focus) ☆ Dan Weiss – Starebaby (Pi Recordings) Patrick Zimmerli Quartet – Clockworks (Songlines)
Duduka Da Fonseca Trio – Plays Dom Salvador (Sunnyside)
Edward Simon – Sorrows & Triumphs (Sunnyside) Mike McGinnis with Steve Swallow & Art Lande – Singular Awakening (Sunnyside)
Nils Vigeland/Reiko Fueting/Daniel Lippel/John Popham – “…through which the past shines…” – solo and chamber works for guitar by Nils Vigeland and Reiko Fueting (New Focus)
Roman Filiú – Quarteria (Sunnyside) Dave Holland, Evan Parker, Craig Taborn & Ches Smith – Uncharted Territories (Dare2 Records)
Robert Honstein – An Economy of Means – Karl Larson, Douglas Perkins (New Focus)
Loadbang – Old Fires – works by Scott Wollschleger, Angélica Negrón, Taylor Brook, Paula Matthusen, William Lang, Jeffrey Gavett, and Reiko Fueting
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