Tom Johnson: Rational Melodies

Dedalus / Didier Aschour

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Tom Johnson: Rational Melodies Review

by Stephen Eddins

Composer Tom Johnson, based first in New York and then in Paris, is a practitioner of one of the purest styles of musical minimalism. Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass have broadened their musical languages to the point that referring to their mature styles as minimal betrays a basic lack of understanding of the term or of their work, but Tom Johnson can, without any doubt, be described as a minimalist. Rational Melodies, from 1982, was a seminal work for Johnson, a pure example of what Reich described as "music as a gradual process," in which the principle of organization behind the piece was audibly evident in the music. These are tonal (or modal) melodies, with a regular pulse, made up of repetitive structures. Johnson begins with a series of pitches (usually of equal duration) and applies a mathematical formula to divide the series into smaller units that are transformed over the course of the melody. The principle is not new; it is similar the medieval isorhythms also used extensively by Messiaen, in which a phrase is repeated, but the number of notes in the rhythm is not the same as the number of notes in the melody. The effect is that in each repetition, different notes are highlighted, giving each iteration of the melody a distinctive contour and character. Johnson's melodies are simpler than those of Messiaen or the writers of medieval isometric motets, and the danger is that the music could sound too simple, too transparently repetitive. In the French ensemble Dedalus, led by Didier Aschour, Johnson has a strong and musically sophisticated advocate; the group has played this work many times in a variety of instrumental configurations and is intimately familiar with its subtleties, so in their performance, the melodies are richly varied in instrumental colors and textures tailored to the character of each melody. While this is not an album likely to appeal to audiences whose main interest is the standard classical music repertoire, the graceful and lovingly articulated performances should delight fans of minimalism.

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