Musical ‘Map’ Explores Byways, Underbrush Of Self-Styled Artist’s Life

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A young Scott Johnson amid recording equipment (Photo by Patricia Nolan)

NEW YORK — “I don’t want to be part of any movement I didn’t start!”

So said composer Scott Johnson in his post-adolescent years when asked why he wasn’t joining a 1970s protest demonstration. What a statement of future purpose! This and much else was documented in “After Scott Johnson,” a Feb. 4 event at Brooklyn’s Roulette Intermedium to perpetuate the legacy of this electric guitar-based individualistic composer, who died in 2023 at age 70 from lung cancer. (The event can be streamed on demand.)

Tall, lean, and with the highest forehead in Manhattan, Johnson looked like a close relative of the guitars he didn’t just play but used as the basis of large symphonic works with layer upon layer of electrified textures. His early use of tape loops put him close to but not quite in the minimalist camp. He was too singular to start a movement but was part of a larger artistic groundswell to erase musical categories and boundaries. He had no system or method, just “What does Scott want to hear next,” as articulated in a video interview conducted by Frank Oteri and Molly Sheridan and seen at Roulette. For all of the burgeoning sense of invention, his pieces have an engaging, somewhat traditional contour — a sense of beginning, middle, and end — that’s clearly audible from the 1982 electric-guitar symphony John Somebody to his final work Map for soprano and string quartet, premiered at the Roulette event. The evening no doubt had significant surprises for those who thought they knew him well.

Childhood pictures of Johnson were projected onto the rear wall of the stage. (Photo by David Patrick Stearns)

Childhood pictures were projected onto the rear wall of the stage from his upbringing in Madison, Wis., where he had such an early sense of artistic purpose that he drove a cab for a year to save up money to move to New York. Once there, he played at the cutting-edge music crucible The Kitchen and made ends meet working as a handyman. The Roulette program included a black-and-white film of Johnson playing John Somebody, video tributes by Laurie Anderson and David Harrington, a live appearance by his insightful sister Susan Johnson, and performances including the 1986 rarely heard “Khaibit” from Bird in the Domes — all coordinated by longtime friend Ed Harsh.

What emerged was a portrait of a composer as meticulous as Debussy, laboring over works for so many years at a time that his recorded output now fills only four CDs or so. Every piece is one of a kind — and representing a considerable leap over the last. In fact, no Johnson work that I’ve heard prepared me for the Map premiere, and not because the piece is radical. Whoever thought that the author of the imposing power chords that begin John Somebody would write this new voice-and-string quartet piece somewhat resembling Barber’s Dover Beach?

In the well-studied performance by Daisy Press and the Terra String Quartet, Map was 20 unbroken, ostensibly through-composed minutes of music. Yet there were three distinct sections dictated by Johnson’s own prose-poem text that maps out the routes, forces, and fates that bind together society — an attempted bird’s-eye view of the world’s workings. Even with briefly ecstatic moments, Johnson’s objectivity is far less romantic than in Barber’s treatment of the Matthew Arnold text in Dover Beach. Johnson’s adept string quartet writing knows no differences between tonality and not. Instrumental voices worked together without relinquishing their sense of independence, as in a road map.

And the vocal writing? Johnson’s artistic progression is most easily charted by his use of words. In early works like John Somebody, the pre-recorded voice on which the music is built feels like found sound, a random bit of stammering conversation by someone trying to remember…somebody. Upon endless repetition, the words become pregnant with meaning, then utterly vacant and eventually just another sound, whose inflections dictate the contour of the instrumental writing around it — yes, like Steve Reich’s Different Trains, though Johnson did it first and with more invention. Later Johnson works used pre-recorded voices with greater meaning, even telling a story of sorts, the 1977 Time to Go (an Anderson collaboration performed at the event) quoting an art-museum employee clearing the room at closing time. Or documenting an in-depth philosophy such as that of Daniel C. Dennett in the 74-minute 2018 Mind Out of Matter.

‘Tall, lean, and with the highest forehead in Manhattan, Johnson looked like a close relative of the guitars he didn’t just play but used as the basis of large symphonic works with layer upon layer of electrified textures.’

The fact that words are sung in Map is counter-revolutionary. But what are the words actually doing there? They seem better read than sung, though Press made a great case for the meaning being enhanced by her voice. Is a more neutral interpretation in order? Or something more blatantly expressive? That aspect is a work in progress.

Another key to Map came, perhaps inadvertently, from Bill Ruyle, one of the speakers at the event who knew Johnson during his intensive work scoring Paul Schrader’s 1988 Patty Hearst film. Then, Johnson rarely saw the light of day, seemingly subsisting on cigarettes, coffee, and beer. In contrast, Johnson later became an avid hiker at New York State’s Harriman State Park, saying that he needed two or three days out there to experience the planet anew. Cello writing in the first of Map‘s three sections is full of emphatic rhythmic regularity. Purposeful trudging, in other words. The softer harmonic saturation of the second section suggested a summit achieved. Is the third section the exhalation and release of the descent through underbrush? Well, maps were crucial in Johnson’s hiking life. Thus, the piece?

Another idea worth pondering is Johnson’s final embrace of a more overtly classical form in Map. One saw something similar in the late-in-life outputs of vernacular-influence composers such as George Enescu (his Chamber Symphony) and André Previn (his chamber opera Penelope). Were Johnson with us more than just in spirit (the overhead lights at Roulette flickered insistently at times), the discussion would most certainly be lively.