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Tom Johnson: Rational Melodies / Dedalus

Release Date: 01/12/2010 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80705  
Composer:  Tom Johnson
Conductor:  Didier Aschour
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dedalus
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

JOHNSON Rational Melodies Daedalus NEW WORLD 80705-2 (47: 14)

While I have known of his work for decades (a copy of Music for 88 rests semi-permanently on my keyboard), I only came to know Tom Johnson the man in September 2009, when we shared the podium at a conference in the Midwest. Johnson (b. 1939) is known to many as the critic for the Village Voice in the heady days of the early 1970s, and he was Read more in fact the first person to apply in print the term “minimalism” to music. But despite his critical acumen, I am confident that above all his work as a composer will be what will be remembered in future eras.

Johnson is a truly original synthesis of seeming opposites. On the one hand his music is “minimalist” in that is uses economical materials. Its lines are modal; its textures often bare, even monophonic; its development process-driven. But it is also highly mathematical. And by this I mean it is driven by and illustrates various properties of numerical theorems. It is often “automatic” in that the whole point is to follow a line of logic wherever it must go; the listener has to accept s/he’s along for the ride.

Johnson’s music isn’t anything like composers such as Milton Babbitt, who tend to take the mathematical stance as a point of departure to create ever-greater complexity. Nor is it like Xenakis’s naturalistic controlled chaos. Instead, his ideal is clarity, and in fact anyone with ears and a mind can start to appreciate what he’s up to almost immediately (in some cases the pieces even include a simultaneous narration that describes exactly what’s transpiring). Even without coaching, the transparency and intense logic of the works is really heard , both in the sense that one knows the composer has perfected his conception on every level in his own mind and ear, and in that the listener can actually discern the point intended.

After his time in New York, Johnson moved to Paris, where he’s remained. This seems appropriate, as the Gallic combination of rigor and poetry is very similar in spirit to his art. Johnson is an “enlightenment composer” if there ever was one. His music is a play of wit, intelligence, and sonorous pleasure.

Rational Melodies dates from 1982, and is composed of 21 pieces, each a single line. It’s usually done by a soloist (Eberhard Blum and Roger Heaton have recorded it earlier on flute and clarinet, respectively), but here it is orchestrated by the Paris-based Daedulus Ensemble (more on the approach in a moment). Each piece sets up a premise and follows it to its logical conclusion. Some are more evident to the ear than others (for example, No. 11 takes a line of quarter notes and progressively adds smaller and smaller subdivisions to each until the whole thing is racing all in 32nd notes). But all of them, whether one can guess the mechanism at work or not, sound as though they are fulfilling their mandate. Indeed, one great thing about Johnson’s work is that when a piece is over it really feels as though it’s reached its end. Though there’s nothing of traditional common-practice tonality in this music, it can cadence, and with a vengeance.

Daedalus has been performing these pieces for years, and over time its members have made a series of choices in instrumentation that heighten the effect of the pieces’ concepts, and which also add timbral variety and pleasure to the proceedings. Johnson writes that he offered minimal input in the process, as he was pleased to see such a creative response to his work from performers. The result is truly—and the word, though abused and overused, is appropriate here—delightful.

Despite there being other recordings of these pieces already in the discography, this one does not supplant them; rather, it complements them as being a new vision of the piece. A definite Want List candidate.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Rational Melodies by Tom Johnson
Conductor:  Didier Aschour
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dedalus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1982 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 The Extraordinary Rule-Generated Music of Tom Joh June 16, 2012 By Adrian Quan (London, United Kingdom) See All My Reviews "Tom Johnson is sometimes thought of as a Minimalist composer. Even though he shares the conceptual and perceptual lucidity of the Minimalists, repetition is just Not what Johnson's music does. On the contrary his music is continuously evolving, one event follows another in a predetermined chain as in mathematics. Tom Johnson's music is rule-generated like the Oulipo group in literature and Sol LeWitt in art. All deserves to be much better known and appreciated. The extra colour the ensemble brings to the single-line "Rational Melodies" is very enjoyable." Report Abuse
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