Scott Johnson’s Mind Out of Matter (Tzadik) is, among other things, an atheist oratorio. Most (but not all) of the piece trades the oratorio’s conventional choral singing for the recorded voice of philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, and we have the first-rate New York sinfonietta Alarm Will Sound instead of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, but what truly connects Mind Out of Matter to the tradition of the oratorio is fidelity to its text. Johnson’s fidelity to Dennett’s spoken text is at once the foundation of everything compelling and brilliant about Mind Out of Matter and the source of its most frustrating contradictions.
Among those other things that Mind Out of Matter is—besides an atheist oratorio—is a work of pastiche. Whiffs of Return to Forever and the Style Council, ELP and ELO, are in evidence throughout. This is Johnson’s style, although I had the feeling that the zany downtown guy might be smirking at me: however ably delivered by Alarm Will Sound, I found it difficult not to roll my eyes at the Doobie Brothers boogie of Johnson’s extended riff on the word “adaptations” in “Cow Design.” The soupçon of Supertramp in “Invisible Agents” is in equally questionable taste, to say nothing of the spilled salsa that begins “Winners” or the ribbon of ‘70s cop-show sleaze that runs through “Path Up.” (Born in 1952, Johnson Booms as blithely as any Baby in his generation of composers.)
Just as often, however, the lower tract of Johnson’s omnivorous pluralism can disgorge a quite charming bolus: delightfully, Dennett’s “did that tree just say something?” is given a fleeting but unmistakable Carl Stalling treatment that conjures a prehistoric Elmer Fudd stalking through the woods, inventing religion. What’s so lovely about this moment is that Johnson neither telegraphs it nor exhausts it: so often throughout Mind Out of Matter, one hears Dennett speak a short, innocuous phrase (often one like “copied and copied” which lends itself to an obvious musical mapping) and knows immediately that Johnson, unable to let it alone, will beat a good thirty to ninety seconds of music out of it.
Whether he parcels the philosopher’s words out sparingly or lets them run free, Dennett’s speech is Johnson’s playground in Mind Out of Matter, as is the composer’s wont: musical material slides down it, leaps around it, swings from it, and chases it. The harpsichord solo that begins “Surrender,” both baroque and Baroque, is an especially rich example. The application of a compositional technique refined over a lifetime is unmistakable in Mind Out of Matter, as is the composer’s confident formal instinct: the surprising introduction of singing in “Stewards” marks the fulcrum of the piece, its tipping into a newly grave possibility-space where we’ll soon encounter the alarming prospect of ideas hijacking our brains.
Although Mind Out of Matter is ostensibly about inquiry, it isn’t really an expression of curiosity, a question: Johnson’s music neatly signposts how one should feel about each of Dennett’s pronouncements. Rather, it might be more accurate to situate the piece in the category of edutainment. It’s certainly educational, in the sense that Dennett says interesting and thought-provoking things about evolutionary biology and cognition. And it’s certainly entertaining, in the sense that Alarm Will Sound are good musicians whom Johnson invites to Play Licks, to Groove Hard, and so on in their embroideries of Dennett’s words. But the music is not edifying, except insofar as it heightens and colorizes the spoken text. Compared to the likes of Johnson’s earlier John Somebody, in which focused, repetitive electric guitars deftly bring our attention to the musical characteristics of a very brief snippet of speech without distraction, Mind Out of Matter is long of information but short on insight.
It also has a point to make, a point that some listeners may find more than slightly controversial. In light of the musical rhetoric Johnson deploys in Mind Out of Matter, the composer and the philosopher seem to have taken more or less the same stance toward the piece’s subject matter. In general, when Dennett soberly addresses the civilizational menace of religion, the music is spiky and dissonant; when he marvels at a surprising cognitive mechanism, it’s warm and fun. That’s a hard signal to misunderstand. If Johnson’s goal is to make Dennett’s fundamentally political argument more persuasive by framing it with attractive and illustrative music, and if he has achieved that goal, and if even a listener inclined to be very hostile to that argument could be won over by Johnson’s presentation of it, then Mind Out of Matter is still a piece of propaganda.
A charitable critic might admit that there could be more to Mind Out of Matter than initially meets the ear: the presumption that Johnson considers his job to be that of Dennett’s messenger may indeed be an unfair one. A less charitable critic, meanwhile, might allege that Johnson’s contribution to Mind Out of Matter sits parasitically atop Dennett’s in the way that religion, we are told, squats above morality. To take Johnson to task for the abovementioned tackiness of his music would be to miss the point; the stakes here are higher than whether it is or isn’t transgressive to build a concert piece out of pop bric-a-brac in the twenty-first century, and what it would mean if it weren’t, and vice versa. By the end of Mind Out of Matter, I kind of liked it—but by then, I was starting to get a little uncomfortable about the permission the piece had repeatedly and floridly given me to pat myself on the back, and I could scarcely enjoy the winningly orchestrated sonorities of “Awe.” As a composer, I have to admire the sophistication of Johnson’s technique, his wit, and his small- and large-scale musical inventiveness—but as a listener and a citizen, I think Mind Out of Matter shows too little of the curiosity that it tells us we ought to cultivate.