In the world of composed music, Tom Johnson’s work verges on concept art. And within the realm of concept art, he works more or less in pure concept. His ideas are so simple and the execution so methodical that they could be seen as closer to carpentry if they weren’t so enjoyable. His Lecture on Repeating, for example, is a talk about repetition with each line to be repeated or not based on audience reaction. An Hour for Piano is a slowly progressing solo piece in strict time and without modulation meant to accompany the reading of an essay about the growing impatience experienced while listening to the music. Music for 88 explores harmonic and mathematical sequences with (on the Experimental Intermedia release) Johnson drily explaining each sequence before playing it.
The Chord Catalogue is sort of a sister to Music for 88. It is also an examination of pianistic possibilities done with a focus so tight that obscuring any intrinsic aesthetic qualities in the execution seems to be the intention. (Also like Music for 88, Johnson recorded the piece for Phill Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia imprint). Beginning with “The 78 Two-Note Chords” (the section titling further eliminates risk of artistic suggestion), the set of pieces exhausts its way through possibilities on up to the one 13-note chord in a single octave. Johnson’s recording of the book is transfixing in the same sense that Steve Reich or ritual music can work, almost subversively, on the subconscious.
The Amsterdam-based pianist Samuel Vriezen has made a radical reinterpretation of Johnson’s Catalogue and, in so doing, has found a whole lot of music and dramatic import hidden in its seams. What he did is simple in concept and staggering in execution. He sped it up. Playing it at double-speed (it clocks in at under half an hour on the Edition Wandelweiser release) means hitting about five chords per second with barely a break. But sheer athleticism isn’t what makes his recording interesting, it’s what happens to the chords. Vriezen uncovers a melody line at the upper end of the clusters reminiscent of a Roscoe Mitchell saxophone solo atop an Art Ensemble of Chicago workout. Or perhaps music for an avant garde car chase scene. In any event, it’s exciting. One could use it to argue that there’s beauty in mathematics, or that there’s beauty in everything, but either way Vriezen has found a very different beauty than what was originally implicit in Johnson’s work.
It might be worth noting that Johnson is a fan of Vriezen’s rush-hour reading of the piece and that he helped in the crowd-funding campaign to get the recording made. As befits the music, the recording is bright and present, and will keep listeners on their toes, as well they should be. Vriezen pairs the piece on the CD release with his own Within Fourths / Within Fifths, dedicated to Johnson and a very different sort of piano work. Running close to 45 minutes, it is structurally similar to the Catalogue although the playing is almost elegaic. It, too, is an examination of chord construction, and in fact was born out of a discussion with Johnson. The piece works through possible chordal structures of fourth and fifth intervals with less than six voices – not quite as tidy as Johnson’s be-all and end-all but still a rather appealing edifice. Being so similar in build and to so entirely different in attack from the Johnson piece, it is very nearly impossible (and kind of hilariously so) to listen to both pieces in a single sitting. The shorter piece may prove to be the more substantive one, but it’s best to give each its own, separate sitting.
Samuel Vriezen, The Chord Catalogue, Within Fourths/Within fifths (Tom Johnson, Samuel Vriezen, Editions Wandelweiser EWR 1304) Buy on Samuel Vriezen’s site