Tom Johnson: Combinations

Saturday 26 February 2022

As Wittgenstein would often remind you, the simplest statements, when exposed to close examination, conceal a wealth of contradictions and absurdities. Several years ago I heard a chamber ensemble play Tom Johnson’s Predictables and stumble over the opening phrases as the obvious series of notes ran afoul of the conventions of performance. Johnson’s perfectly logical sequences of exahustive combinations and permutations contain profound conundrums, throwing us into the mental chasm of aesthetics where the rational becomes counter-intuitive. In making decisions that appear to defy creativity, refusal to deviate from the proposed model is a means for taking the least expected path. Even when the organising principle is clear (and it is typically reducible to a single principle), Johnson’s disciplined adherence to the rule can make the progress of his pieces appear inscrutable to the listener.

The contradictions involved in the experiences of reading, playing and listening to Johnson’s music underpin the humour that often surfaces. This is most apparent in the works for voice, where word games come to the fore, but the necessary incongruities in Johnson’s approach can’t help but become the stuff of comedy, or at least require wit to handle them effectively. The Quatuor Bozzini’s collection of Johnson’s string quartets, Combinations, exemplify this playfulness without distracting from the musical substance. The Four-Note Chords in Four Voices from 2009 are just that, collated by type to provide phrasing, homogeneous and minimal even as nothing ever repeats. There’s a tension between similarity and diversity, despite the composition’s premise that such concerns are rendered moot. Johnson has recognised that there is nothing mathematical to be learned from his work with combinations and so these pieces cannot be considered mere demonstrations, but raise new aesthetic questions from existing conditions. Much as with Alvin Lucier, Johnson displays a fertile imagination based on observation over invention.

My review copy came without sleeve notes, so it would take closer analysis to determine exactly the systematic combinations used in 2003’s Combinations for String Quartet or the mathemmatical formulas used in 1994’s Formulas for String Quartet. I’m not bothering to do so because it doesn’t matter. As Johnson himself has written elsewhere, “composers, interpreters, and listeners do not need to know all this, just as we do not need to master counterpoint in order to appreciate a Bach fugue. As always, one of the wonderful things about music is that it allows us to perceive directly things that we would never understand intellectually.” In both the above works, the most striking aspect is the diversity of modes of expression in such a presumably limited palette. Formulas opens with a lively jig-like movement, followed by sweet antiphonal counterpoint and floating harmonies. Combinations contrasts motoric passages with translucent chords and dramatic interventions. Other movements, and in Tilework for String Quartet, build mosaic-like patterns out of sinuous lines that rise and fall while slipping in and out of sequence, becoming all the more intriguing for discovering variety in a single process of juxtapositions.

The music embodies a balance between rigor and play that can also be found in a well-crafted fugue. Quatuor Bozzini play this all with the sophistication and lightness of touch that it deserves, to bring out the fullness of its self-discipline and its charm. Steadfast and non-vibrato throughout, they nonetheless keep everything sounding warm and alive. The square, even rhythms are played true, but with a suppleness that allows the Bozzinis to float for one passage before landing with a surefooted tread in the next. With careful attention to intonation and articulation, they still find expressive room in the notation bring out wider connotations of emotion. For fans of Johnson’s music, part of the fun here is how often it sounds like someone other than Tom Johnson; the deadpan drollery commonly given to his work is shaded with hints of agitation or pathos, with fleeting classical or even romantic impressions flickering by. The dual appeal to the senses and the intellect is also a hallmark of wit.