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Thoughts on the Music of Tom Johnson

By David Hughes

Patterns and permutations have a certain kind of appeal, whether they reflect vast, profound qualities
of nature (think fractals) or are relatively mundane (think sitting on your bed and saying “donut, tdonu,
utdon..” until you’ve completed the cycle and then wonder why you’ve amused yourself so much doing
this). Tom Johnson seems to be interested in the whole spectrum of pattern-making and treats this as an
end in itself, with the actual musical material frequently relegated to the role of pattern handmaid. As
I’ve worked on these two piano pieces I’ve wondered, then, what exactly this music is trying to
communicate. Some ideas came to me when I was playing piece no. 4 of Counting Keys. This piece starts
with one B-flat followed by one G. Then, two D’s alternate with the B-flat, and again the G. For the third
iteration of the pattern you get two F’s for each D (four total), plus the other notes that came before.
Thus the pattern always contains twice as many notes as it did before, growing exponentially and
Johnson caps it at the iteration which contains 512 notes. One thought I had was that this mirrors
natural processes in piano technique: the fingers move constantly to take care of details while the larger
parts of the body slowly undulate to create shapes and phrases, all worked out in a complex and
hierarchical (if not mathematical) manner. I am not saying that I have made an attempt to create a one-
to-one relationship between meta-movements of my body and the iterations of the pattern of this
piece, but thinking along these lines has convinced me that I should feel this pattern in myself somehow,
and that it provides a window into infinity. Thus I decided that I must memorize the pieces of Counting
Keys in order to play them properly. And by properly I don’t mean more accurately or even “better,”—I
mean truly internalizing and understanding the pattern, or to become the pattern in a certain way. And
this is what I believe is the most important quality of all of Johnson’s music, at least as far as I can tell
from the fairly small portion of his oeuvre I’ve examined: whatever the mathematics behind it, it all gets
at a that essential, primal quality that numbers have. Whether it’s the entire universe or rearranging the
letters of “donut,” all is equally simple and complex at the same time. It’s a kind of Zen truth for music
geeks. At first I was quite skeptical of it but after some thought have begun to find it more appealing.
There is no storytelling here, no rhetoric. And you get plenty of that with other “minimalist” composers.
Johnson seems to be only interested in expressing this one quality in as many different ways as possible,
and it’s the act of expressing it which is sufficient, regardless of what it may sound like. It does seems as
if Johnson attempts to create an aurally pleasing result most of the time, although there are a number of
examples of his work which really do come across as having all the interest of someone rattling off the
numbers in the decimal places of pi in a robot voice. But if we keep an open mind perhaps we will come
to the conclusion that even this is beautiful in its own way.

Piece no. 4 of Counting Keys is perhaps the most “infinite” of the set. The others are generally simple,
self-contained and are decidedly more on the “donut” side of things. The first piece, for example, is
based on the extremely simple pattern: 1, 122, 122333, etc. One of the editions of the piece contains
numbered lists prefacing the notation, which Johnson suggests can be read as introductions (a
suggestion which I have chosen to implement). Pieces 1 and 5 are generally more energetic and
“crunchier” than the middle three, bookending the set and perhaps giving the piece some kind of
dramatic arc, if the work is to have one at all.
Block Design is based on far more complicated mathematics involving set theory and Johnson spares the
layman the gritty details in his notes to the piece, though he does tell us that he was guided by the
correspondence of French mathematician Patrick Solé in “serious study” is required to understand it.
What he does tell us quite proudly is that there are 12 notes, distributed into 6-note arpeggios, in such a
way that every combination of four particular notes comes together exactly 10 times in 10 different
arpeggios, every combination of 3 notes comes together 30 times in 30 arpeggios, every pair of notes
occurs 75 times in 75 arpeggios and each of the 12 notes occurs 165 times, in exactly half of the 330
arpeggios. Thus the work is, as Johnson writes, “…a realization of Schoenberg’s ideal, with exactly equal
emphasis of each of the 12 notes.” However the music sounds nothing like Schoenberg. The
preponderance of the note A in the bass gives a feeling of grounded tonality. Frequently C-sharp and F
make appearances as bass notes as well, hinting at the self-similarity of the augmented triad and equal
division of the octave. Certain notes are frequently repeated as final treble notes as well (each measure
consists of one arpeggio, which always moves from the lowest note to the highest). Thus the music
sounds static and oddly dreamy with its prescribed slow tempo, generally quiet dynamics and
unchanging gestures which come to a reflective pause once every 11 measures. Every arpeggio is
different but yet they are all “basically the same.” It is like watching the snow fall, or the waves lap up
against the shore.

A fairly peculiar person recently asked me what the “purpose of music” is. I hate to admit I was annoyed
by the question, though perhaps only because I was preparing for a recital in a few hours and didn’t
want to get my brain all worked up by going down a rabbit hole of a discussion involving lofty
speculation and philosophizing. The usual answer to that question people give is that it communicates
some emotion that can’t be put into words, tells a story or some such thing. Her speculation was that
the purpose had more to do with perfecting the inner processes of the executant, such as those
processes of the nervous system. Thinking about it a little further I suppose that the “purpose” of music
depends on context. You may as well ask what the purpose of life is. Johnson shows us that any process
or pattern can be music, just as music can be any process or pattern. Perhaps if we can simply and
serenely commune with the processes of nature that are eternally in motion, that is enough.