Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson: Rational Melodies

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Of all the post-Cageian composers -- with the possible exception of John Zorn -- Tom Johnson has always had the healthiest sense of humor and seems to love weaving it into his work. He is also a composer whose works ran quality-wise with Morton Feldman, John Cage, Mick Brown, Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Muhal Richard Abrams, and Anthony Davis. This set of 21 pieces, or "melodies," and they are melodies, are written for any transposition, any instrument, in any octave. It is not necessary to play all 21 of them. It can be played by soloists but is usually performed by groups. In this case, they are played solo by flutist Eberhard Blum, whose outstanding performances of modern composers' work are second to none, and he creates no exception here. Each of the 21 melodies has a different concern, a different set of patterns for being realized. In the case of the first it is a 37-note rhythm (seven bar pattern) played around a six-note melody. Since there is one remaindered when dividing six into 37, that one note becomes the root of the next melody. The second one is based on writer Martin Gardner's columns in Scientific American whereupon notes are folded into each other in order to create enough folds so that an entirely new "whole" results. The thirds one is a piss-take on minimalism that both adds and subtracts notes around the five pitches in rotation and reverse rotation until they are all realized. Perhaps the counting patters are the most fascinating which are mostly in the middle of the program. Here, Johnson creates what seems to be purely academic exercises in counting notes in patterns, and manages to come up with startlingly beautiful melodies, some haunting, some melancholy, some sprightly, and some humorous. All of them, however, are engaging without any knowledge of his process of composition. And that's what counts (and what makes Johnson such a worthy composer): Is it listenable? Is it possible to find oneself in this music and encounter something within it? The answer of the Rational Melodies to all three of these questions is, undeniably, yes.

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