A lot of good things came together on the night of 9 March. A bit over five years ago I first heard of Dennis Johnson and his piece November, when Kyle Gann described it in some length on his blog: a minimalist piano piece written in 1959, which La Monte Young remembers being about six hours long but survived only as a wonky 2-hour tape from the early Sixties. Gann’s blog post gives a good rundown on what makes this forgotten piece of music so fascinating, particularly in the way it embraced so many neglected musical ideas that soon came to dominate new music over the next fifty years. Ever since first hearing about ‘the minimalists’ I’d been intrigued about other, lesser-known composers outside the three or four Big Names*, and Dennis Johnson’s mammoth piano piece sounded almost too good to be true.
Nearly two years later I heard a recording from a piano recital by R. Andrew Lee, which he’d uploaded, with a superb performance of Tom Johnson’s minimalist puzzlebox An Hour For Piano. I immediately became a fan and soon after started following his Twitter feed, largely in the hope of glomming onto some more mp3s.
Meanwhile, Gann announced that he had almost finished analysing and transcribing November. In 2007 he was trying out various, ultimately unsatisfactory methods of notation, lamenting that “we can’t ask Dennis Johnson about it: he’s disappeared.” By 2009 he’d discovered that November was more than “a kind of crazy, off-beat experiment… instead I’m thinking we’ll be unveiling a whole new formal paradigm that deserved to have more of an after-history than it’s had.” In the meantime, Daniel Wolf had provided a contact for Dennis Johnson, who in turn had sent the score.
Another two years later, I read some exciting news. Andy Lee has a copy of the score to November. I immediately forwarded it to a friend of mine, Mark Harwood at Penultimate Press, knowing that he gets excited about obscure and rediscovered artists, and wonky old piano recordings. We’d both heard and loved the recordings of November made by Kyle Gann and Sarah Cahill when the finished transcription was presented at a conference in 2009, as well as a rip of that old 1961 tape. The prospect of Lee recording November seemed unlikely, but tantalising.
On 9 March this year I finally got myself somewhere regular to live (still without regular internet) but I was more interested in being at Cafe Oto to hear and watch Lee play November in its entirety, as part of its joint release on CD by Penultimate Press and Irritable Hedgehog.
Over five hours, the music works a strange effect on the listener. The intervening decades of minimalist and ambient music have made us familiar with the concepts of long durations, tonal stasis, consistent dynamics, repetitions, but November uses these techniques in an unusual way. The sense of continuity is very strong, but there is no fixed pulse and few strict repetitions. The slowness, spareness and use of silence, with an organic sense of rhythm, make it seem very similar in many respects to Morton Feldman’s late music. The harmonic language, however, is very different. Johnson’s piece uses clear, familiar tonality to play with our expectations of the music’s ultimate direction, whereas Feldman’s chromatic ambiguity seeks to negate any feeling of movement in harmony or time.
The semi-improvised nature of November adds another element to a performance. It was interesting to watch Lee relax as he moved from the fully-notated transcription of the piece’s first 100 minutes, into the more open notation that made up the next three hours of playing. He seemed to go into a serene state of focused timelessness, perfectly matching the music he was playing. The music itself takes on the aspect of a musician feeling their way through the material, venturing into new areas then circling back onto familiar ground, adding new parts along the way to reveal older material in a different light. Lee’s interpretation of the open notation took on a similar character, meditative at times, almost casual at others, building up the strong impression of of a unified whole, gradually revealed. In effect, the music sounded like a inspired burst of improvisation, a fleeting run of chord changes and leading tones, slowed down 100 times to linger over every sensuous detail.
As I said before, it sounds almost too good to be true: a forgotten composer with a very short career (if it could even be called that), who disappears after writing a work of vast scale and great precedence, with said work languishing unknown for fifty years before it is rescued from obscurity, reconstructed and performed to great acclaim. The thing is that November is a truly great work, beautiful and captivating, which holds the listener’s interest more than could be hoped from a novel gimmick stumbled upon by a dilletante, and with far more substance and longevity than a piece of purely historical or musicological interest.
About twenty minutes into the performance Harwood held his phone out towards the piano for a while. He’d dialled Dennis Johnson’s number in California. Earlier that evening he’d told me a bit more he’d learned of Johnson’s career in mathematics: some of his work had gone into the Mars Curiosity rover programme.