Scott Johnson Composer

<back to writing

Recently I came across this forgotten message in a bottle: paper-typed, Xeroxed, and living in the grey filing cabinet that predates my first computer.  I wrote it as a general statement of purpose, but in that pre-internet environment, anything like this that didn’t quickly find its way onto a concert program or into an underground publication like EAR Magazine was destined for the grey metal enclosure.  What struck me immediately was that in its basic outlook on musical style, I almost could have written it last week –- although, thankfully, the old wars between Balkanized avant-gard camps alluded to in the first paragraph have faded.  They’ve been gradually resolved, and today young composers seem to have a healthy habit of taking whatever they want from any of the available sources, without feeling the need to enlist in my generation’s “uptown vs. downtown” battles.  That’s fine with me -- they weren’t that much fun anyway.

The actual music I’ve written under the influence of these ideas has probably changed more than the ideas themselves.  That’s as it should be: any musicological outlook worth it’s weight in ink and hot air should be broad enough to allow a range of real musical expression, or it’s just another ideological straitjacket.

Statement, 1985

The development of modernist music has been pervaded by the idea of rejection; a belief in the bankruptcy of preceding or competing styles, and a conviction that there will be no “progress” without a conspicuous refusal to be influenced by most of the bewildering variety of musics easily available in this age of recording.  This is the sort of attitude that can be personally helpful to a young composer trying to find his or her voice, but translated into a social/professional prejudice, it has given rise to an exaggerated insularity and competition between musical interest groups and their respective audiences.  In this atmosphere, music becomes something to be wielded, rather than listened to.

I have tried to put into concrete musical form a fundamentally different attitude; one which diminishes the importance of style by accepting contradictory influences without hierarchical judgments.  The “bankruptcy” of a form of music is usually a matter of passing fashion; musical value is oblivious to style, and indeed to complexity, provided that simple forms continue to produce eloquent proponents, as they always have.

Rock and related forms of what is really our contemporary American folk music have provided me with the general language of sound and most of the instruments used in my work.  This sound language stands, in my mind, independent of whatever uses have been or could be made of it.  The quality of some of its uses in the popular music that developed it is not negated by the banality of others; and in approaching the question from a composer’s point of view I see only raw material and an open set of possibilities.

I embrace the idea that the composer of highly organized or “serious” music should always be something of a voyeur, dependant not only on organized music history, but also on other less self-consciously intellectual traditions to provide a more spontaneous point of inspiration for the composer’s individualistic pursuits.

Scott Johnson

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