Evan Johnson consistently characterises his music as ‘absolutely private’; secretive, even. As a result, the listening experience can feel almost voyeuristic, as if looking over the pianist’s shoulder, catching the piano in an otherwise imperceptible whisper.
While other composers may reward your closer attention, Johnson just seems to compound your uncertainty. Are you sure of what you’ve heard? When it’s over, you remember the experience of listening, but the image created in your mind is defined by its obscurity… The sound quality is particularly good, given the extreme dynamic range needed to catch a reasonable impression of the piano in performance. Ben Smith would appear to play with all the exactness and greater musical consideration needed to bring these pieces into tentative life, with a talent for letting each sound fade and die in their own way.
The overall impression left by this collection, this documentation of determined innovation over the span of Johnson’s career so far via and with ruins from Europe’s musical past, is of a profound and enchanting aesthetic experience. It is an expression of the sublimity of rupture and decay, and of making something contemporary out of the ruins of the past.
|A. intimissimo e luttuoso
|three reversed movements, to bring destroyed objects back to life
|I. Bianco quasi amoroso
|II. Privato quasi eziolato — con massima intensità come doloroso
|III. Bianco quasi amoroso
|IV. Privato quasi più eziolato — con massima intensità
|ii. “Se Zephirus”
|Dehiscences, Lullay (“Thou nost whider it whil turne”)
|“atendant, souffrir”, lists, little stars
|mon petit pleurant
|B. intimissimo e luttuoso
|qu’en joye on vous demaine
I sit at my desk, hunched over notes, retracing my steps, picking up fragments of well-worn material, writing over and through failed lines … and I can’t help but think that writing liner notes is a bit like performing an Evan Johnson score. Contortion, fragmentation and failure are all watchwords of Johnson’s musical aesthetic, but he eschews a purely pessimistic kind of modernism for something more humanist: notions of fragility, contingency and vulnerability also adorn Johnson’s poetic programme notes. This points to the central paradox in Johnson’s music, in which extremely complex (he might prefer the word ‘precise’) systems of rhythmic grids, gestural detail and subterranean logic can coexist with his conceptual obsessions of ambiguity and instability.
In fact, many of the above ideas can be found influencing the specified — and mostly very subtle — physical actions required to play these works. In the programme notes for “atendant, souffrir”, Johnson draws attention to ‘the interior intricacies of the key mechanism, its internal stops and half-arrested motions that yield the most intensely impalpable pianissimos if they succeed in sounding at all’. In other works, a concern for the isolated sounds of the keyboard itself, and even the pianist’s breath, push the composer’s exploration of liminality to a zero point.
Johnson hand-draws all his scores, and this represents not just an orthographic concern, but also a philosophical one, in which everything in the score has an expressive potential. Stems, beams, the wire-thin concentric slurs which loop around tangled clusters of notes nested in beautifully inked brackets, all possess an expressivity that is inseparable from the motion of the pen and the musculature of the performer. This poses a problem for recorded media. How to approach purely sonic inscriptions of works which, by the composer’s own admission, have notation and physical gesture at their conceptual heart? The loss of the visual presents an opportunity to engage with this music on different terms. The recording brings with it a change of perspective, zooming into even the most parenthetical indications.
Johnson consistently characterises his music as ‘absolutely private’; secretive, even. As a result, the listening experience can feel almost voyeuristic, as if looking over the pianist’s shoulder, catching the piano in an otherwise imperceptible whisper. Paradoxically, now the score begins to sound more like it looks: the gain of the microphone reveals the grain of the piano and the page. However, even with the most exposing sound image, there is an intentional loss in this music. Despite Johnson’s maximalist notational approach, marks that signify clearly audible gestures can be strikingly sparse in his scores. Although ‘hyper detailed’ in themselves, individual figures often find themselves between fissures of blank space. Indeed, when not exploring the liminal, Johnson’s use of silence is extensive. These silences are always meaningful: tense, resigned, ‘doloroso’. They can rupture the form, or stretch across empty staves, as if the music is there, but rendered inaudible. Elsewhere, obscuring layers can take form as violently interruptive gestures and even, in Dehiscences, Lullay, as a dense haze of white noise, through which the ear is forced to strain, only to grasp glimpses of the undersurface. All this might best be encapsulated in one of the composer’s performance notes: ‘What the audience hears — indeed, what the pianist hears — is a residue; it is a trace’.
These residual traces often begin life as transcriptions from medieval vocal scores, even if they rarely betray their origins to the listener. Although there are exceptions (the two ‘satellite’ movements of mes pleurants set lines from Se Zephirus by Grimace with unusual transparency), the source material almost invariably falls apart as it is integrated into Johnson’s personal language. In this way, strangely familiar gestures and ‘little stars’ of diatonic harmony can occasionally pierce the surface, but they are faded, etiolated; alienated from their usual musical constellations and, always, surrounded by silence. Like translations of Sappho from fragments of torn papyrus, this silence-between-things is full of lost possibilities, full of what was, ‘disintegrated into dust’. Perhaps more than anything, then, this is a music of deterioration. And Johnson makes an intricate, intimate art of it.