Evan Johnson: lists, little stars

Sunday 28 November 2021

Evan Johnson’s music is hard to hear. Does everyone say that about him? While other composers may reward your closer attention, Johnson just seems to compound your uncertainty. Are you sure of what you’ve heard? When it’s over, you remember the experience of listening, but the image created in your mind is defined by its obscurity. The music’s reticence is compounded when the medium is an instrument identified with the personal and intimate forms of expression, as in Ben Smith’s collection of Johnson’s piano pieces lists, little stars issued by All That Dust.

The prevailing mood across these pieces is one of extreme introversion, where even the titles seem to be deployed to deter further inquiry (the brief mon petit pleurant is succeeded by the cycle mes pleurants, two works use ‘dehiscences’ in their titles). The 2010 piece hwil is about thirty seconds of almost inaudible deliberation at, if not on, the keyboard. There is a proliferation of precise actions in each score, somewhat in the manner of Kurtág, but the aim is not on clarity of intricate details. Johnson’s music may be faint but it is not frail; at times it is almost crude in protesting its reticence. The greater part of the two pieces in Dehiscences, Lullay (“Thou nost whider it whil turne”) is smothered in a blanket of white noise, cutting out suddenly as though to catch the listener in the act of eavesdropping. The rare loud notes at the start of mes pleurants‘ “Se Zephirus” have a similar effect.

When the piano is heard, its statements are deliberately half-formed, unresolved, with even the more expressive flourishes smudged by claustrophobic pitch spaces. You hear the thought process itself, in all its agonising uncertainty, without the cleaned-up end product. The two earlier works heard here attempt to make their sonic content inconsequential, while the later pieces make strategic use of the relative presence or absence of musical substance. The largest work here, 2013’s “atendant [sic], souffrir”, lists, little stars, is a duet in which the fuller sound is balanced by more delicate playing, more a displacement than a dialogue. Despite, or perhaps because of its greater length, it’s an easier piece to follow; but this may also be due to acclimatisation through the opening tracks on the album.

The sound quality is particularly good, given the extreme dynamic range needed to catch a reasonable impression of the piano in performance. Ben Smith would appear to play with all the exactness and greater musical consideration needed to bring these pieces into tentative life, with a talent for letting each sound fade and die in their own way. As a further vote of confidence, he is joined by Ian Pace for the title duet.