Scott Johnson: Mind Out of Matter, Music Out of Speech

by Michael Schell

Musicians of every stripe have spent centuries exploring the range of vocal expression from straight speaking to pure singing. The development of recording technology has added a few new possibilities to the mix, and one of them, called speech melody, has become closely associated with the American composer Scott Johnson.

Born in 1952, Johnson grew up and studied in Wisconsin. Like Joni Mitchell, he played guitar, moved to New York in his 20s, and for a time fancied himself more of a visual artist than a musician. Johnson quickly integrated into the Downtown New York music scene, performing with Rhys Chatham and Laurie Anderson (before her pop star days), and exploring the regions where minimalism, jazz, rock, and electronic music all came together.

His breakthrough came in 1982 with the album John Somebody, which inaugurated his speech melody technique. Its workings can be easily discerned from the title track (above). Johnson starts with a snippet of recorded speech, then makes it into a tape loop as Steve Reich had done in his piece Come Out:

Johnson then fashions a guitar melody that aligns with the contour and rhythm of the speech, and plays this melody in sync with the loop. Accompanying chords, extra tracks of looped speech and guitar obbligatos, and an increasingly dense texture soon follow by way of musical development.

Photo by Patricia Nolan.

Johnson compares his speech transcription style to Messiaen’s practice of transcribing bird songs for use in compositions. He also cites the call-and-response patterns common in blues (as in this exchange between Bessie Smith and trombonist Charlie Smith) as an influence alongside Reich and Messiaen (“those three things kind of collided one afternoon”). Other musicians have experimented with speech melody in the years since John Somebody, including Florent Ghys in Petits Artéfacts (2015), Judith Weir in A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987) and Reich himself, borrowing back from Johnson in Different Trains (1988).

Now Johnson is out with a new piece conceived for Alarm Will Sound. In place of the humorous tape loops of John Somebody, this work features the digitally sampled and recombined musings of Daniel Dennett, one of America’s leading philosophers and cognitive scientists, and a noted freethinker whose writings and speeches about the evolution of human consciousness are aptly reflected in the work’s title: Mind Out of Matter.

A good demonstration of Johnson’s updated approach for this composition comes at the start of “Winners,” the third of its eight movements. From the following spoken phrase…

“you can’t get ‘em out of your head”

…Johnson constructs a stuttering four-bar phrase using progressively longer excerpts:

Next, drums and percussion come in to reinforce the rhythm with a hint of mambo groove. Then, four bars later, the piano starts to melodicize the sampled speech…

…whereupon chords and other instruments are added to complete the texture:

You can hear this passage starting at 2:37 of the following rehearsal video:

With a length of 74 minutes, a gestation period of six years, and a broad timbral pallet befitting the instrumentation and virtuosity of Alarm Will Sound (a 21st century chamber orchestra equipped with wind, string, percussion and electric instruments), Mind Out of Matter is Johnson’s most elaborate composition to date. It has been called an “atheist oratorio,” not altogether ironically, since like Handel’s Messiah, it’s an epic, multi-movement voice and instrumental setting of texts about religion (and there’s even a “choral” movement where several of the musicians sing). In its structure, theme, and dimensions it also strikes me as a rationalist counterpart to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Johnson says he “tried to imbue this music with the sense of awe and wonder that lie at the heart of Dennett’s scientifically informed philosophy, while still emulating his gift for crafting a disarmingly playful presentation.” Mind Out of Matter succeeds by ritualizing the rational, creating a kind of secular age surrogate for religious music that acknowledges our persistent human attraction to sacralized culture.

LIVE VIDEO STREAM: A Far Cry on Friday, May 18 at 4:30pm PT / 7:30pm ET

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Yoon S. Byun.

Next Generation is the name of tonight’s A Far Cry concert, which centers on the experiences of young musicians. Not only does the program focus on early experiences with musicwith variations of Mozart’s beloved children’s song, “Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman” and works from Benjamin Britten and Galina Ustvolskaya that allude to their music mentorsit will also feature several young musicians. 

A Far Cry welcomes the Honors Quartet from Project STEP, a program that provides comprehensive musical training to students from underrepresented communities, for a pre-concert performance at 7:30 p.m. During the concert, the ensemble will be joined by Sean Diehl (violin), Keina Satoh (cello), and Julide San (double bass), winners from A Far Cry’s New England Conservatory Prep School Competition. Click here to learn more about the student performers.

Visit this page on Friday, May 18 at 4:30pm PT / 7:30pm ET for a LIVE video of A Far Cry’s Next Generation.

Check out the program below, and click here to read the full program notes.

W.A. Mozart / Ethan Wood
Variations on “Ah! Vous dirais-je, Maman”

Galina Ustvolskaya
Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani

Benjamin Britten
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10


A Far Cry’s Next Generation performance streams live on this page on Friday, May 18 at 4:30pm PT / 7:30pm ET. For more information about the orchestra, please click here.

VIDEO PREMIERE: John Luther Adams’ “there is no one, not even the wind…”

by Maggie Molloy

John Luther Adams’ newest work whispers like the winds of the Sonoran Desert. Inspired by the stillness and light of the American Southwest, “there is no one, not even the wind…” is an immersive desert soundscape scored for two flutes, strings, piano, and percussion.

We are thrilled to premiere our video of Emerald City Music in their sold-out world premiere performance of Adams’ “there is no one, not even the wind…”

The piece takes its title from a poem by the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz titled Piedra Nativa (Native Stone). He writes, “No hay nadie ni siquiera tú mismo.” (“There is no one, not even yourself.”) Adams takes this line one step further, removing even the wind itself.

“there is no one, not even the wind…” was co-commissioned by Emerald City Music, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Camerata Pacifica, the Redlands Symphony Orchestra, and Chamber Music Northwest. Click here to learn more about Emerald City Music’s world premiere performance in our conversation with Artistic Director Kristin Lee and Executive Director Andrew Goldstein.

 

NEW VIDEO: Skyros Quartet performs Peteris Vasks

by Maggie Stapleton

If you missed our showcase at Northwest Folklife in May, or hey, even if you were there, we have a little throwback treat to one of our favorite moments, filmed a few weeks later at Resonance at SOMA Towers: Skyros Quartet‘s rendition of Peteris Vasks’ String Quartet No.3: II. Allegro energico. We love this video and hope that you do too!

Be sure to check out our other videos, shot in our studios and in fun venues around Seattle, too!

NEW VIDEOS: Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet featuring Tamara Power-Drutis

by Maggie Stapleton

It’s hard to question Seattle Rock Orchestra‘s reputation as “the coolest orchestra in town.” You may have seen their full orchestra cover sets of The Beatles, Neil Diamond, Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, Muse, Stevie Wonder, but they’re a flexible ensemble that also likes to show a more intimate side of genre pollination.

Featuring the mesmerizing Tamara Power-Drutis on vocals, here are three examples of the pop-art song fusion, filmed on April 9, 2016 at the gorgeous Resonance at SOMA Towers in Bellevue.

Jeremy Enigk (arr. Scott Teske): Ballroom 

Beck (arr. Jherek Bischoff and Scott Teske): Do We? We Do.

Radiohead (arr. Scott Teske): Nude 

These videos were filmed in conjunction with On Stage with Classical KING FM, a concert series designed to spotlight brilliant local musicians and a little something extra, whether it’s food, wine, dancing or exclusive talks. If you like those videos and want to hear more, you can stream more selections from this performance below and on our on-demand audio page!

For information about the 2016-17 On Stage with Classical KING FM season, including a reprise performance of SROQ + Tamara, click here!

2016.04.09: Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet feat. Tamara Power-Dr

Photo credit: Jason Tang