Interview with Scott Johnson (February 2010)

The first question is always the classic one: how does it start your love and interest for guitar and what instruments do you play or have you played?

My real love in music is composing, but my first flirtation was playing guitar in rock bands as a teenager. Soon I learned more about harmony from an old-style jazz teacher, and then I became interested in classical music. The only older guitar music I felt attracted to were the Bach lute suites, and I never became a skilled classical performer – the sound of electric guitar was my world. Guitar is still the only instrument I play, although I always compose at the keyboard. But keyboard is only a writing tool for me.

What was your musical training, with which teachers have you studied and what impression they left in your music?

Although I studied general music theory in the university, I am self-taught as a composer. This has advantages and disadvantages, but on the whole I’m happy with the results. Gathering information is more difficult when you do it yourself, and you must be very self-motivated. But since I felt no need to please my teacher, I was able to take my music in an unusual direction.

How did start your interest about the contemporary repertoire, and what are the stylistic currents in which you recognize yourself most?

Like many people, my exposure to modern classical music began with Stravinsky. Then I discovered Varese, the European modernist line from Webern to Stockhausen, and American avant-gardists from Cage to Riley to the jazz avant-gard. But I didn’t grow up with older classical music, so I never had to rebel against it. I have nothing against triads.
After studying both music and visual art in college, I had a musical crisis. My ears liked electric guitars and other sounds of American popular music, but my creative mind liked the skills and expressive possibilities of the classical tradition. I was afraid that my musical instincts would never be welcome in the world of composers, so I decided to quit music, and moved to New York City to be a visual artist. There I found a new musical world connected to the visual art world – the “downtown” mix of Minimalists, Cageans, improvisors, and experimental rock bands that were thriving at the time in Soho and the East Village. This encouraged me to return to music, and follow my own path, without belonging to an existing style.

Berio in his essay “A remembrance to the future,” wrote: “.. A pianist who is a specialist about classical and romantic repertoire, and plays Beethoven and Chopin without knowing the music of the twentieth century, it is also off as a pianist who is specialist about contemporary music and plays with hands and mind that have never been crossed in depth by Beethoven and Chopin. ” You play a contemporary repertoire … do you recognize yourself in these words?

Yes and no. It’s true that the modern repertoire grows from the classical/romantic past, even when it sounds very different. Even a hardcore 20th century work that strongly rejects Romantic emotionalism can’t be completely understood without understanding what it was opposed to.

But Berio’s statement is addressed to the inward-looking world of 20th century modernism, which was very concerned with the scholarly and historical side of music. There is another side of music which is missing in most contemporary modernism — but it was not missing in earlier periods. The founders of the European classical tradition borrowed freely from the living popular styles that surrounded them, transforming simple beginnings into complex results. Since the 20th century, many composers focus only on past composers for inspiration or argument, and ignore the contemporary cultural environment. I believe this is a profound mistake. The great composers of the past were always looking around them, using living vernacular styles as starting points for more complex music.

So Berio is correct as far as he goes. But he doesn’t go far enough. A pianist who understands only classical, romantic, and modernist styles still doesn’t understand our own age. This musician is ignoring the living musics which can be the basic building blocks of our own expression. Berio’s ideal pianist is speaking only Latin, not Italian or English or Chinese.

Berlioz said that composing for classical guitar it was difficult because the composer have first to be a guitarists, these words were often used as a justification for the limited repertoire of classical guitar with other instruments like piano and violin. At the same time I think that the the growing interest for the guitar (whether classical, acoustic, electric, MIDI) collected in contemporary music has changed the importance of Berlioz’s words. As a guitarist and a composer do you think that these words are even true?

Berlioz’s words are no longer true for the use of amplifed or electric guitar in ensemble situations. But they are still true for solo classical guitar with polyphonic textures, because guitar fingerings and voicings are very idiomatic and difficult. Unamplified acoustic guitars still can not be an equal player in large mixed ensembles – the guitars are just not loud enough. But with electric guitars this is not a problem – the opposite is the danger!

Like the arco and pizz of strings, electric guitar today is an instrument with two distinct sounds: using distortion, electric guitars can make a single line with long sustained notes. You can now write a satisfying guitar part with no more special knowledge than it takes to write a violin part, with occasional double stops or open strings. But for fully harmonized passages, guitar is still difficult, like one hand on a piano. So for polyphonic writing, Berlioz is still correct.

I have really enjoyed your record “John Somebody” .. I think it’s a minimalstic record that sound with the strenght of a rock music, how much were you inspired by Steve Reich’s early music?
Most people are not aware that Steve Reich and I influenced each other, first from him to me, and then back again. His early speech loop pieces were one of three influences on me when I invented the idea of transcribing the pitches and rhythms of speech into instrumental lines, which began with “John Somebody” (1979-82). My other inspirations were Messiaen’s transcription of the melodies of bird songs, and the call-and-response between singers and instrumentalists in the Chicago blues. Blues was very influential for most of my generation — I grew up in a university city north of Chicago, and played in a local bar where many of those musicians would come to perform.

So Steve’s early pieces influenced “John Somebody”, and then “John Somebody” influenced Steve to adopt my transcription idea in “Different Trains”. It’s like Manet’s relationship to the younger generation of Impressionist painters: they were influenced by Manet’s early work, and in his late work he adopted some of their techniques. This shows how influences can travel both ways. I now spend a lot of time listening to younger composers, and I hope that their influence will show up in my work. It’s a sign of life and evolution.

I spent my early years in New York City in a post-modernist music scene dominated by minimalism, and “John Somebody” was probably my most minimalist-sounding piece. Most of my recent work has a fast rate of change and contrast, with very little of the suspension of time found in early minimalism (which they imported, I think, from African and Asian sources). But minimalism was very important to me at the time, because it offered a path away from the atonal modernism that still dominated the scene in the conservatories.

Minimalism was a revolutionary moment in modern music, but it was already fairly well-established when I began writing (in the late 1970’s). It was important for me to find something more personal, and my experience with rock music provided my avenue. My idea was that earlier centuries of European classical music had always imported musical DNA from the folk musics around them, and rock was my folk music. So I used my natural cultural surroundings to make a music with a more narrative sense of time, and moved away from the stability of minimalism. If you listen to the later work of the first generation minimalists, like Philip, Steve, and Terry Riley, you can hear that they also felt the need to find a way towards a less static music.


One of your works, Americans, was played by Sentieri Selvaggi and the italian guitarrist Elena Càsoli in Milan, would you like to talk us about this experience?

I was very happy with the excellent work of Sentieri Selvaggi and their conductor Carlo Boccadoro, and I hope we will work together in the future. And I was impressed that Elena was able to give such a good performance of this piece using finger-picking technique. All of these guitar parts are very much based on rock pick technique, and I never thought of trying finger-picking. Although, among the great rock guitarists, Jeff Beck certainly gets a unique and impressive sound with his fingers.

The piece they performed, “Americans”, is one of my most rock-influenced recent scores. I’m pleased that more European ensembles are beginning to be interested in “classical” music which accepts undisguised popular influences.

Tzadik is one of my favourire music label, how did you start working with them? Will you record again with Tzadik?

Tzadik is a project of John Zorn, and we share a common background in the New York “downtown” scene I mentioned above. Our paths have been very different, but I enjoy the feeling of comradeship. I’ll be releasing a CD of recent music for electric ensembles on Tzadik this spring which will include “Americans”, in a recording by my own musicians here in New York. It’s a speech sampling piece, built around the voices of immigrants to America from China, Romania, and Afghanistan.
What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possibile to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.?
There is no improvisation in my pieces, but my esthetic draws strongly on improvising styles like rock and jazz, and I prefer players who understand both written and improvised music. In early work like “John Somebody” I play some solos which began as improvisations, which I then I edited and wrote down. I think this was not so unusual for composers before the 20th century. Many baroque, classical and romantic composers were also famous improvisors, but that has mostly been lost.

It’s certainly possible today to make mixed composed/improvised pieces. It’s rare in contemporary classical circles, but some people specialize in it – Zorn is an example. I only use improvisation as an inspiration for completely composed scores, but that’s just my personal habit, not an ideological position.
In 1968 Derek Bailey asked to Steve Lacy to define in 15 seconds the difference between improvvisation and composition, the answer was “In 15 the difference between improvvisation and composition is that in composition you have all the time to decide what you say in 15 seconds, while in improvvisation you have only 15 seconds” .. Was the Lacy’s answer a little too much ironic or is it a true one?
The answer is funny, but not quite accurate. It’s certainly true that a composer can take as long as they want to decide about 15”. But an improvisor is not really doing everything in 15” either. That 15” seconds was preceded by 15 hours or 15 weeks or 15 years of practice, and most of the hard work is finished before they go on to a stage. In the 15” of playing, the improvisor’s brain and muscles are creating a variation on existing pathways.


What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises …

For me irregularity is not incorrect – it’s my normal method of operation. I was never completely comfortable with the preference for advance planning in many 20th century styles. Serialism and Minimalism both emphasize systematic thinking, even though Minimalism began as a rebellion against Serialism.

I write in a very intuitive way, and I always look for ideas that appear while I work. I begin with general structural plans, but if I have a better idea while working, I will usually change the system and follow the new idea. To me a system is a way to achieve a certain effect, not an ideal that I try to live up to. Technique should be the lieutenant, not the general.

It seems to me that there is a small music scene about classical guitarists dedicated to an innovative and contemporary repertoire, as well as you come to my mind the names of Marco Cappelli, David Tanenbaum, David Starobin, Elena Casoli, Seth Josel, Marc Ribot who played John Zorn music … shall I speak about a music scene? Are you in contact with these musitians? Are there other guitarists you know and that you can suggest us that they move on these innovative musical routes?

I know all but one of the guitarists you mention, and I’ve worked with several of them. Yes, there is a growing scene of guitarists, and also guitarist-composers. On my new Tzadik CD, I play my electric guitar duo “Bowery Haunt” with a young American guitarist/composer named Mark Dancigers. I also played this piece in your region in 2008, with Padova guitarist Marco Pavin. Wik Hijman in Amsterdam has organized an electric guitar festival called “Output”, and here in New York there is a growing list of young classically trained guitarists who play electric, and understand the idiomatic sounds and techniques of rock. I think this will contribute to a healthy future for the classical tradition.

Talking about innovative composers, what do you think about John Zorn and the New york musical downtown scene, so ready to get and recode every musical language, improvvisation, jazz, contemporary music, cartoon music?

I’ve known John, and others who work with both improvised and composed elements, for many years. Although our music sounds very different, I think that in some ways we are working on the same underlying problem: how to make a new “art music” that accepts inspiration from anywhere, not just from academically accepted sources.

How is the situation in Usa and New York in those times? How much the crisis hit the musical scene?

A bad situation has gotten worse. Support for experimental music began a slow decline in the 1990’s, and so the financial crisis hit us at a moment of weakness. For most people the arts are a luxury — so if the Titanic goes down, we go into the water very quickly.

I have, sometimes, the feeling that in our times music’s history flows without a particular interest in its chronological course, in our discoteque before and after, past and future become interchangeable elements, shall this be a risk of a uniform vision for an interpreter and a composer? The risk of a musical “globalization”?

It’s true that today we have access to more historical detail, and also access to more cultures. And yes, this will lead both to walled-off castles like High Modernism, and to shallow borrowings like New Age. But creative people will always find a way to make something interesting with whatever materials are at hand. I am not worried.

I don’t see globalization as a risk. I see it as an opportunity for cross-fertilization, and the creation of hybrids. I don’t like purity. And of course, some cultural traditions will die. Traditions always die — and then something new grows. Can anyone speak Etruscan, or sing Etruscan songs? No, but the descendants of the Etruscans are having a perfectly nice time today in Siena.

Let’s talk about marketing. How much do you think it’s important for a modern musician? I mean: how much is crucial to be good promoters of themselves and their works in music today?

It’s important for making a living, but I don’t enjoy doing it. Sometimes I stop doing it for long periods of time, and then everyone forgets me until I start doing it again. It’s also important to brush your teeth, take out the trash, and wash the dishes. Life is not always fun.


What do you think about the discographic market crisis, with the transition to digital downloading in mp3 and all this new scenario?

It’s a paradise for the listener and a disaster for the creator. Now musicians must take time away from creating music in order to self-produce and promote recordings that will probably lose money. The situation is good for musicians who are charismatic performers, but I’m afraid that some of the best work by the quiet people will not be heard. The culture needs to solve this problem, and evolve a new system for paying musicians and protecting their rights.

Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island …

I can’t really answer this. My listening habits in new music are constantly changing, because I’m curious. My tastes in classical music are very ordinary – everybody likes Beethoven or Stravinsky. The same with popular music – most smart people like Radiohead. Wait, here’s a band you might not have heard of: Dirty Projectors (try “The Getty Address”). But there are no essential records – I can get tired of anything if I hear it enough.

What are your five favorite scores?

Same as above – the only things I can say are very obvious. Who doesn’t like “Sacre”? Oh, wait, try Michael Gordon’s “Yo Shakespeare”.

With who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?

I try not to play! I like writing. I want to sit in a chair while someone better than me plays my scores. There are different types of listening, because different styles of music have different purposes. Music gives you instructions on how it wants you to behave. Music that tells me to sit down and focus can be irritating if I’m not concentrating, and music which creates a good social atmosphere can be irritating if you listen carefully for too long. Even within the category of “serious listening”, I have very eclectic tastes. I like variation.

Your next projects? When we will see you playing in Italy?

I am beginning a major project based on the speaking voice of American philosopher Daniel Dennett. I find a great sense of wonder in the complex world that Darwinian science reveals to us, and Dennett is a strong advocate of this in the philosophical community. As for returning to Italy – send me a ticket! I worked at a writing residency in Umbria last summer, and greatly enjoyed it. I’d rather come as composer than a performer, but I’m always happy for an excuse to visit this beautiful country. I’ll sing, I’ll dance, I’ll do magic tricks.

A last question …. the Blog is read by several students .. any good advices to give them?

Get a real job! And don’t trust my advice.

This is really the last question .. which is more a reflection: Luigi Nono said “Other thoughts, other noises, other sounds, other ideas. When we listen to, we often try to find ourselves in others. To find our mechanisms, system, rationalism, in the other. And this is a quite conservative violence. “… Now .. does experimentation free ourselves from the burden of having to remember?

If I am understanding Nono correctly, I think he is saying that we often listen not to hear what the other is thinking, but only to hear our own thoughts reflected.

Yes, most people at most times are remembering themselves, and seeing only their pre-existing thoughts in someone else’s work. That’s part of what culture is: a group of social primates in a circle, telling themselves they all feel the same way. And often it’s is not a burden at all –- often it’s a comfort. Maybe a slightly lazy comfort, like most comforts. But people also have moments when they are bored by comfort, and want adventure. Some people want this feeling more often, and they are the audience for new music. Experimentation will always be a minority interest. But many people still have moments of curiosity, when they need something new, and we shouldn’t just chase them away. Providing the newness is our job in the culture. Sometimes we will be hired, sometimes not. But evolution insures that culture will always need experimentalists. We serve the same function within culture that genetic mutation serves in nature: a source of unpredictible variation. Evolution cannot occur without a pool of variations to choose from. We design the prototypes. Thank you very much!