Tom Johnson’s Other Harmony
In spite of my continuing series of “Thumbnail Reviews,” this is not a review. First because I haven’t finished Tom’s book yet, and second because I don’t do reviews in the journalistic meaning of the word. More like: reflections.
I’ve known Tom since he appeared in the downtown scene of new music in the ‘70s around when I did, and admired his music, his theoretical approach, and his important role as a music critic for the Village Voice; his “beat” being the very downtown scene we were part of. I’ve performed some of his music with my DownTown Ensemble, and Flexible Orchestra. And I visited him after he had become an ex-pat in Paris in 2005, and where he has lived since leaving New York in the ‘80s. His habit for visitors was to offer to play you some of his “deductive music” and when he thought you had heard enough he would say something like: that’s enough deductive music for today—and stop.
So this important, and I hope, controversial (and index-less book), which goes “beyond tonal and atonal” music (that’s his subtitle) pits once more the music as a listened-to phenomenon against the theory of music: a tradition of quasi opposition that goes back to Greek and Roman times. The most interesting of these writers are the ones who are also important composers, like Olivier Messiaen, about whose theory Tom has much—very positive—to say.
I’ve been ambivalent about this opposition. Partly because on one side, I contributed to a “structuralist” approach through my minimalist pieces, and through the “systems group” which we briefly had in the late ‘70s in New York with artists from several media, including composer, Philip Corner. Tom doesn’t remember this group when I recently brought it up to him. But it was a fun and wonderful thing to have for its short life. The other side of the ambivalence comes out below.
My biggest question about the kind of structuralist approach that equates notes with numbers, is: Would any of this have happened if we didn’t have discrete entities like twelve pitches to our “Western” scale? And my answer to my self is: maybe we have to have discrete numbered entities because of who (or what) we are. We are counters, enumerators, makers of discrete intellectual things, alphabetizers, and so on. But is that what music should be doing? All counting, I thought, was in the service of music, not music in the service of counting. But then Tom and Charlie Morrow did counting pieces. And they were interesting, even fascinating. Whether or not they were “music” seemed beside the point. Even when “boring.”
“Equal and Complete” is one of the chapters of the book. In it he means that the system behind the notes should have equality and completeness. An example of equality might be the interval between notes of a chord, like a major 7th. Or, simply, our system of “equal temperament” whereby the distance between each note of the 12 in the octave is the same. Completeness is something like: what are all the four note chords made up of such-and-such group of notes in a scale.
So then the eternal question is: What is the purpose (and use) of music? Is it to exhibit or manifest a system or process or structure, OR to move, invite, satisfy, transport, or amuse the listener? Can it be both? Difficult, but yes, it can be. I count my self in both camps, at least for several of my pieces. Though Tom is firmly in the former, some of his earlier compositions like the Shaggy Dog Operas are in both camps. In those, the system or process was kept discretely (other meaning of that word!) behind the surface sound. And they were comedic, theatrical.
What is true of this book is that Tom Johnson has thoroughly brought the discussion up to date. Will he compose captivating music now, from the “other harmony” he’s written about? Does it have to be captivating? I would hope yes. But that’s because I like as much to be happening as possible.
Thumbnail Review No. 45