Tom Johnson

Rational Melodies

New World CD 80705-2

When he was a critic at the Village Voice in the 1970s, Tom Johnson (b. 1939) was one of the first writers to apply the term ‘minimalism’ to music. As time has moved on, many composers originally associated with minimalism have branched out stylistically; while certain gestural signatures may remain, the processes by which they created their earliest works seem to have loosened up considerably.

Johnson has moved on too. After leaving the Voice, he relocated to Paris. While active as a composer throughout his tenure as a journalist, since the 1980s he’s focused on music instead of words as his primary means of expression. Johnson has continued to write pieces in the minimalist tradition, retaining the genre’s early reliance on generative processes. One of his best known works, Rational Melodies, is a case in point. Composed in 1982, the melodies are single line compositions that have been constructed with painstaking care using various patterning models. Contour, rhythmic shape, meter, proportion, intervallic profile, and tessitura are all parameters variously mapped in these 21 pieces — hence the ‘rational’ portion of their title.

There have been two previous recordings of Rational Melodies, both for solo instruments. But the French Ensemble Dedalus has rehearsed them as ensemble pieces for an extended period of time. It’s interesting that, despite the attention paid to details of compositional design, Johnson has been willing to allow Dedalus to revise these works extensively. Some involve matters of a heterophonic sort of orchestration — deciding which instruments will play each given note was apparently an intrinsic part of the rehearsal process — while others actually create significant changes of register. There are even instances when an organum-like planing is added to the proceedings, creating momentary ‘music in fifths.’

Dedalus seems to know this music backwards and forwards. One can well understand why they’ve chosen to make Rational Melodies their debut recording. That said, it still seems a courageous decision on Johnson’s part to abnegate enough control to allow his music to change, grow, and in this case, prosper.

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