Lab 39: Tom Johnson – 12-Tone Music Today

Wednesday 20 January 2021, 12-2pm [Online via Minerva]

Tom Johnson discusses his latest mathematical music, not with 12-tone rows, but with (12,4,3) block designs. The 12 notes all have equal importance, but there is no octave equivalence and the rules are quite a bit more rigorous than in the Second Viennese School.


Tom Johnson, born in Colorado in 1939, received B.A. and M.Mus. degrees from Yale University, and studied composition privately with Morton Feldman. After 15 years in New York, he moved to Paris, where he has lived since 1983. He is considered a minimalist, since he works with simple forms, limited scales, and generally reduced materials, but he proceeds in a more logical way than most minimalists, often using formulas, permutations, predictable sequences and various mathematical models.

Johnson is well known for his operas: The Four Note Opera (1972) continues to be presented in many countries. Riemannoper has been staged more than 30 times in German-speaking countries since its premier in Bremen in 1988. Often played non-operatic works include Bedtime Stories, Rational Melodies,Music and Questions, Counting Duets, Tango, Narayana’s Cows, and Failing: a very difficult piece for solo string bass. His largest composition, the Bonhoeffer Oratorium, a two-hour work in German for orchestra, chorus, and soloists, with text by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was premiered in Maastricht in 1996, and has since been presented in Berlin and New York.

21st century projects include Tilework, a series of 14 pieces for solo instruments, published by Editions 75 in 2003, SameSame or Different, a piece commissioned by the Dutch radio in 2004, and the Combinations for String Quartet, premiered in Berlin on the MärzMusik festival in 2004, and more recently, scores such as Kirkman’s Ladies, Networks, Septet, and 55 Chords for two electric keyboards, all derived from combinatorial designs. As performer he frequently plays his Galileo, a 40-minute piece written for a self-invented percussion instrument.

Recent activities for his 80th birthday include the presentation of the new anthology Finding Music (in English and German, published by MusikTexte), the sound installation with wood blocks in collaboration with Martin Riches Knock on Wood, and special concerts in Amsterdam, San Sebastian, and Paris.

Counting to Seven, a CD in about 30 different languages, interpreted by Ensemble Dedalus, will come out soon on New World Records.

A selection of his columns published in The Village Voice and a collection of radio programs, Music by my Friends, are available on the Editions 75 web site; a number of video clips of his Illustrated Music can be seen on YouTube. His other books include Self-Similar Melodies (Editions75), Looking at Numbers (with Franck Jedrzejewski, Springer Verlag), and Other Harmony (Editions 75). All his works are available at the web sites Editions75.com and 218Press.com, where one will also find his books and lectures, along with many articles and recordings.

For more information, please see Tom’s website Editions 75

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