I discovered Tom Johnson’s music through one of Band On a Can’s live albums. The concert opens with Robert Black playing Failing: A Very Difficult Piece For String Bass. I thought the piece was hilarious and clever. I’ve heard a lot of pieces that require the performer to recite a text (specifically the works of Rzewski and Stuart Saunders Smith come to mind) however, it’s rare to hear such a truly funny text being spoken. The piece is an incredibly difficult exercise in coordination. The performer has to play a challenging bass part throughout while reciting a specified text that describes the difficulty of the piece they are playing. The text becomes even sillier and begins to contemplate the very meaning of success and failure. The performer must then seamlessly begin to improvise the final section of text, adding a new and difficult task to the already haphazard adventure.
I didn’t really explore Tom Johnson’s music after that. I don’t recall why but, more than likely it just slipped under my radar. A few years later I discovered a CD of his piece Rational Melodies after hearing that piece I knew I wouldn’t allow his music to go unnoticed again.
Tom Johnson utilizes math in his music in an incredibly unique way. While most composers use math as a tool for composition ad attempt to disguise it in someway, Tom Johnson embarks the use of math and even makes it the focal point of his compositions. In many ways this approach reminds me of Steve Riech’s essay Music as a Gradual Process. In the same way Reich describes having music in which the point is hearing the process (rather than just using one) Tom Johnson creates music in which the math is the what the listener is intended to listen to.
Failing: A Very Difficult Piece For String Bass