Tom Johnson: Rational Melodies, Bedtime Stories

Roger Heaton, clarinet
Ants AG12

The title begs the question, of course. When can a melody meaningfully be described as “rational”? Are the passages of (in retrospect) textbook species counterpoint in Palestrina rational? The mad twitchings of Boulez’s Structures Ia? The self-similar patterns of John Luther Adams’ air-raid sirens? The additive processes of Glass’ Music in Fifths?

A good deal of Tom Johnson‘s compositional history has been devoted to posing that very question, and British clarinetist Roger Heaton’s performance of this selection from the ever-growing set of Rational Melodies does so in particularly beguiling form. These are pretty, songful little tunes, most under two minutes in length, generally consisting of patterns that repeat according to simple and immediately comprehensible schemes of addition, subtraction, or step-by-step transformation. Heaton, recorded in a beautifully resonant acoustic, plays these little tunes innocently, like lullabies or improvised little childrens’ tunes.

As always with Johnson, though, the overt rationality of these pieces””their transparent dependency on logical systems””is more complex than it seems. As was the case with another disc of Johnson’s music I reviewed recently, the extremely strict formal constraints still leave room for a lot of conscious, intuitive, “creative” decision-making, and here those decisions are made in a way that complicates things significantly. Almost all of these melodies are simply conjunct or triadic, and most of them have tonal implications. “Tonal implications,” of course, is shorthand for a whole universe of implications, tendencies, expectations, weightings of possibilities emanating from every pitch. Even the smallest musical event presents a welter of little arrows pointing to a universe of subsequent options, each with their own reasons and consequences, none of which have anything to do with the ostensible “rational” method of construction.

In the tenth selection here, for example (the Rational Melodies may be played as any subset of their complete number, in any order), a simple arpeggiated figure in A flat major is transformed through a simple nested pattern of downward semitonal shifts, but jostling for the listener’s attention alongside that self-similar pattern is a whole kaleidoscope of tonal relations, a complex harmonic structure rivaling anything in Wagner or Strauss, that bursts forth unbidden purely as the result of Johnson’s irrational choice of pitches.

These are unanswerable questions. They are asked here, though, with a dainty sort of gracefulness. Rarely are such profound critiques of the nature of human creativity asked in a way that is so easy on the ear.

The rest of the disc is filled by Bedtime Stories, for clarinet and a narrating clarinetist. This piece has had a colorful history on radio, including productions involving recordings of the composer snoring and a young girl counting (sheep, presumably). Here we have a set of twelve of Johnson’s absurdist narratives, the sort that occur again and again in widely varying contexts in his work, from the Four-Note Opera to Failing: a Very Difficult Piece for String Bass, with simple little clarinet figures interspersed that have a broadly abstract illustrative function. The various ways of seating guests at a dinner party, for example, are illustrated by different permutations of an eight-note whole-tone set; one story consists entirely of a man trying to put together a “Chinese puzzle”; the words “but that didn’t work, so he tried it another way” are repeated over and over, followed after each repetition by another arrangement of a small set of widely spaced pitches. It ends when “he finally gave up.”

This is wonderful stuff. Not only should Bedtime Stories be played by young clarinet students the world over””it would be an absolute smash in student recitals, and is easily playable by those with limited technical abilities; it, along with the Rational Melodies, highlight the whimsical nature of Johnson’s intentionally naí¯ve approach to music. His methods of composition are those of a wide-eyed child, innocent and delighting in every “accidental” discovery, and nowhere is that clearer than in these utterly charming pieces.

One Response to “Rational Melodies and Bedtime Stories”
  1. Sounds really lovely. I want to get a copy right away! Thanks, Tom.

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