Perfect Sound Forever


TJ in 2006

Interview by Daniel Barbiero

(August 2020)

Originally from Greeley, Colorado, composer Tom Johnson (b. 1939) studied music at Yale, earning both his bachelor's and master's degrees there before going to New York in 1967. Once in New York, he took up private studies with Morton Feldman, whom he first met during a composers' course at Bennington College in 1965.

While in New York, Johnson composed a number of significant pieces including "the Four Note Opera" of 1972; "Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass" (1975); and "An Hour for Piano" (1971). "An Hour for Piano" is notable as an early minimalist work, consisting of a limited number of repeating motifs in G and their linkages, all played at a steady tempo. "The Four Note Opera" and "Failing" show a playful side to Johnson's composing. Both pieces have a witty self-reflexivity about them in that they feature texts--by Johnson--with which the performers describe their own performances as they are being performed. Johnson's more purely conceptual side came out in 1974's Imaginary Music, a book containing deliberately unplayable works. It was also in New York during the 1970's and early 1980's that Johnson wrote about new music for the Village Voice; a collection of his articles was published as The Voice of New Music and is available as a digital edition from Editions 75. In 1983, Johnson left New York for Paris, where he continues to live and work.

Johnson composes with mathematical structures and patterns that develop in a systematic manner. His interest in developing compositional methods from mathematical techniques is long-standing; as early as 1967, he'd written a paper on processing melodies through a Markov chain. His effort to articulate the theoretical side of his composing is another long-standing interest and has found expression in statements and analyses published in various journals, as well as in longer work such as Self-Similar Melodies (1996), which explores some of the ways in which music can be generated from patterns in which the structure of the whole is present in its constituent parts. Although his music can be complex and challenging to play, Johnson considers himself a 'minimalist,' which he defines as someone "working with reduced means."

The following interview was conducted by email in May 2020.

PSF: You studied with Morton Feldman. Did that experience have any lasting effects on your own compositional concepts or processes?

TJ: When I went to Feldman, after two years of graduate studies at the Yale School of music, I thought I wanted to learn about composing by chance, the way he and Cage were doing, and something that they wouldn't even consider at Yale. Feldman said, after looking at my compositions, "Sure, we can talk about that, but first we need to talk about sound." He was right. I was just putting notes on paper without really listening much to what I was doing.

So that was the most important thing. But he was such a hard worker and so dedicated, and that was a good model for me too. Of course, he was completely against systems, despite his years of work with Stefan Wolpe, and didn't like Stockhausen's music very much, so he never pushed me in that direction. He could see though that I needed some predictability and system in what I was doing, so he could also accept that and didn't interfere much.

PSF: When I go back and dip into your book of Village Voice columns, I'm always struck by the sheer energy your pieces convey--even now, so many decades later and just on the page. The 1970's in New York seem to have been an exciting time of changes that people knew were changing. Did you find that to be so also?

TJ: Yes, it was a wonderful time. New York was really the cultural center of the world then, especially in the visual arts, with the abstract expressionists, who were often friends of Cage and Feldman, but also in modern dance and experimental theater. So we had lots of good influences around us, but also, we were all young, in our 30s, and still unknown, and we had a lot of curiosity about one another's work. Later, as some became more successful than others, the communication was more difficult, but in the '70's, I could still talk shop openly with all my colleagues. Of course, like all Village Voice writers, I was my own editor, so I didn't have to take assignments or follow house rules and made up my own. I decided that bad reviews only give publicity to pieces that don't deserve it, so every week I looked for something I could be positive about. That way I didn't make many enemies, and composers were usually open when I asked them how they were working. As a sort of "inside" critic, I had a lot of information that the objective stand-off writers at the (New York) Times didn't have.

PSF: The music you composed while you were in New York doesn't seem like any other that was being done there at the time, although I think you identified yourself as a 'minimalist'--maybe even came up with the term. Would you agree?

TJ: Yes, I always loved minimal sculpture, and wanted my music to be minimal too. I liked the word and always used it in my biographies. But it's important to remember that there are many types of minimalism. I define the categories generally as:

- Extremey reduced scales and materials.

- Repetitive music

- Drone music

- Minimal differences

I guess I've written all four kinds, but very little 'repetitive music,' which is of course the predominant category.

PSF: Was it difficult getting your work performed and heard at first?

TJ: Of course, as the critic, ensembles always wanted me to write about their concerts, and they knew that if a piece of my own music was on the program, I couldn't really write about it and probably wouldn't even attend. So I got eliminated.

I managed to get performances independently though, and my production of "The Four Note Opera" got as many rave reviews at the time as any downtown compositions of my ccolleagues, and two other pieces of that period, "Failing" and "Nine Bells," have become classics as well, so I can't complain.

PSF: In one of your columns, you described the New York music world-- two worlds, really-- as being divided between 'uptown' and 'downtown.' I would imagine the downtown scene was aware of the uptown scene, but was there much reciprocal awareness on the part of the uptown scene?

TJ: Well, there were two famous composers in New York at the time, Cage and Carter, and they sort of represented the two worlds. Cage was very interested in our generation and often showed up at our concerts. I never once saw Elliot Carter at a downtown concert. At first, the uptown people just thought we were not important, but later on, as the downtown scene began to have more subsidies and much more press, I think they were just angry.

PSF: I have to ask you about one of the pieces you wrote while in New York-- the classic "Failing" for solo double bass from 1975. The performer has to narrate what he or she is playing while trying--and eventually failing--to play it. Where did the inspiration for that come from?

TJ: Well, I think Gavin Bryars wrote a piece having to do with failing, but he did it very differently. My "Failing" is related to some other things I was trying at that period, all having to do with making something real and unpredictable happen in a performance, without just improvising. There's an unaccompanied aria in the "Four Note Opera" where the singer has to end on an A, and knows that the pianist is then going to play that note, so the audience will know if she ended in tune or not. The "Lecture with Repetition" does something similar with audience participation, and then there was a whole series of Risks for Unprepared Performers pieces that could only be done once.

TJ and his wife Esther Ferrer in their kitchen

PSF: Then you left New York and went to Paris-- a big change, I would think. How do the two experiences compare?

TJ: I think a lot of people go through midlife changes. I had never travelled, I was wanting to stop earning my living as a music critic, and a lot of possibilities were opening up for me in Europe, especially after my European tour with Nine Bells. I was working on my French and German and wanting to be more international, and there were important changes in my personal life at that time as well.

PSF: At some point, you started composing music that was based on fairly complex, underlying mathematical structures. What inspired you to take that turn--if in fact, it really was a turn?

TJ: I always loved Mozart's music, which was somehow more logical than the other classical composers, and wanted my music to make sense in specific explainable ways. Of course, it took quite a few years to learn that I just wanted to "find" the music instead of composing it, and that I needed to learn something about permutations and block designs and logical sequences in order to do this.

PSF: So then you would see your newer and older work as part of an overall continuity rather than standing on either side of a conceptual or stylistic divide?

TJ: Yes, I see a clear continuity, with an instinct for simplicity and minimal information as the overall unifying factors.

PSF: Do you think it's important--or even necessary--for listeners to be consciously aware of the organizational structures embodied in your music? Or is the pleasure of the surface--the sounds themselves--enough?

TJ: We could ask the same question about Mozart's music, or Phil Glass's music. Of course, listeners can just leave the music there in the background and let it wash over them. That generally has a tranquilizing effect in the case of Mozart's elegance, and a sort of happy energizing effect in the case of Glass's repetitions. But with those composers too, it is more rewarding if one thinks a little about what one is hearing. Didn't I already hear that motif? Isn't the instrumentation a bit different this time? Where did this melody come from? Isn't it a quotation of something I heard somewhere else? Or was it just a variation of something that already happened? Why does the music sound kind of French now? And there's that boom-boom again. Is this the third time or the fourth? Is that melody going to continue just getting longer and longer? How much longer will it get? Doesn't it sound like we're coming to the end? Why?

There are hundreds of things you can think about, wonder about, analyze, if you really want to understand a bit about what you're hearing, and that is true of any music. I think Mozart and Glass too would both appreciate listeners who think a bit about what is going on as they listen. But of course, we can't keep people from just standing aside and letting the music wash over them, and if they paid for the concert ticket or bought the CD, we must appreciate that kind of participation too.

PSF: I'm curious about the role, if any, that graphic representation of mathematical structures plays in your compositional process. For example, do you ordinarily map out the elements and relationships of a composition's organizational structure in graphic form as an initial stage in composing a piece?

TJ: The best way to answer this is to give you a couple of examples. The drawing with the eight circles came long before a piece called "Knock on Wood: Solution 571." I had a list of "homometric pairs," that is, pairs where the timing of the notes around a circle is always different but the distances between each pair of notes all add up to the same thing. One can construct homometric pairs in a circle selecting nine points out of 18 in many ways, and my mathematician friend Franck Jedrzejewski computed 572 cases. I decided to just take solution 571, which in fact has four pairs, that is, eight circles, which all produce rhythms that sound different, but which are mathematically the same. The score for wood block solo came later, after I played the circles quite a bit, decided on a sequence, and wrote some explanatory comments to be recited between rhythms.

The drawing for "Doublings V," on the other hand, is a sort of visual analysis of a piece I wrote in 1980, but which was never played well until Tom Peters did it just a year or two ago. The doublings can to on as long as you can calculate them in your head, and he managed to do this for 20 minutes and recorded the result for Microfest Records on a CD that also included "Plucking, for eight different plucked instruments." I was so pleased that somebody had finally learned this piece that I decided to celebrate the occasion with a drawing, where you can visualize how the algorithm transforms the two-note melody into 4, 8, 16 notes and so forth. This also made a nice illustration for my "Illustrated Music" on YouTube.

PSF: Is timbre or instrumental color something that figures at all in your composing a piece?

TJ: Well, there are musical notes and musical sounds, and most composers are more interested in one than the other. I talk about this often with Phill Niblock, because he has almost no interest in notes and is obsessed with timbres, beats, sound quality, loudspeaker placement and all of that. On the other hand, I have almost no interest in those things and just want the forms, the harmonies, the symmetries, the sequences of notes to sound good. Of course, I have to have some sounds in my music, and Phill has to have some notes, but only because that is necessary. Sometimes, we say we should do a collaboration, where we could have both good sounds and good notes, but we're each so busy doing our things that we never get around to this.

PSF: One of the threads I see running throughout your entire corpus is an awareness of what you're doing and why you're doing it--there's an explicit poetics articulated there. As in your book Self Similar Melodies, for example. What are your thoughts about this?

TJ: Well, if you're interested in music that makes sense, it's natural that you should think a little about the sense you're trying to make and write a bit about the theory of what you're doing. I suppose my former life as a music critic sent me in that direction, but the seminar in math and music that I went to regularly in Paris from 2000 to 2010 was important too. That's where I met (Franck) Jedrzejewski, and lots of other mathematicians and theorists who were interested in music theory and who also listened to the music that I would play and talk about in those monthly meetings. Curiously, I was the only composer who attended those meetings regularly. Of course, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Messaien, Rameau and other composers also wrote music theory books, but I wrote three of them: Self-Similar Melodies, as you mentioned, but also Other Harmony, and with Jedrzejewski, Looking at Numbers. Lots of composers say they use the Fibonacci sequence or some kind of math in their compositions, but they never seem to have time to actually learn from a mathematician and try to go further in that direction, or to write theory books. That's fine, of course. Frederic Rzewski, for example, says there's nothing new under the sun and that he can't learn anything from music theory. I often try to show him that he's wrong, but he doesn't listen to me. He does fine without theorizing anything, and I love him and his music, as with the case of Niblock, another close friend.

"a concert for my 80th birthday with amis/colleagues: Marta Grabocz, Franck Jedrzejewski, Didier Aschour and Moreno Andreatta"


"Now that I'm 80, I'm doing more archiving than composing these days. I'm giving all my papers to the French National Library after I die, and am trying to organise that. I recently proposed a CD to be called From the Archives, described below, which could become liner notes."

In 2016, at the age of 76, I realized that most of my compositions have already been written, and that maybe I should think about taking better care of what I have already composed and not worry so much about the few new compositions that I may still have time to write. So I started going through piles of sketches and programs and memorabilia, throwing out several kilos of useless paper, and trying to put some order in the things that seemed worth keeping. As a result I now have things in cartons and folders that should make some sense when they will go to the French national library after my death.

But only in 2018 did I realize that I should also go through a box of old cassette recordings. I hadn't even owned a cassette player for 10 or 15 years and had no idea of what was there, but I could remember some of them well enough to know that they might be of some interest, and found a place that could convert them to modern digital format. I'm glad I did, because in general the sound quality was still good, and there were some recordings that I value very much, three of which we present here.

"The River," written when I was still a graduate student at the Yale School of Music, was premiered on May 4, 1967 by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra under Howard Hanson. It is called The River, because I had just read Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, a fragment of which I quote in the score:

I learned the secret of the river, that the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere.

I didn't know much about Buddhism and meditation and timelessness back then, but I was fascinated by such things and wanted to try to express them in music. To make sure that nothing really moved or changed, I just wrote separate static elements that kept coming back in irregular sequences, always about the same: the five-note chord in bassoons and trombones, the two short notes for flute and piccolo, the snare drum solo, the four horns, the two sustained notes for two oboes, and the string chord. After composing each element separately, I knitted everything together, with just enough happening all the time. It is clear, already as a 27-year old student, that I loved minimal activity, something developed further in later pieces like "The Four Note Opera" and the "Chord Catalogue," which are not too far away from the repetitive music and drone music by my composer colleagues as we evolved American minimal music in New York in the 1970s.

"Drawers (Die Schubladen)" was one of the Shaggy Dog operas premiered in 1978 in New York, but this performance was in Berlin in 1986 with the soprano Christine Schafer. I think this is the only time my music was ever sung by a famous opera singer, but she wasn't famous at the time. In fact, she was still a student, but what a student! In "Drawers," the singer is looking for her thimble, and I remember Schafer's performance that night particularly well. The drawers were big boxes, stacked up to about three meters high, and she needed a ladder to look into the top drawer. There was nothing there, of course, but then she noticed that the thimble had been on her finger the whole time. Standing dangerously at the top of the ladder on one foot, she proudly stretched out one hand to show you the found thimble as she sang with extraordinary joy "Now I do not have to look anymore." You can imagine the triumphant glee on her face just by listening to the way she sang this phrase that night. It was clear to everyone that this courageous student, maybe 21 years old, had immense confidence, was ready to sacrifice anything in order to sing as well as possible, and was destined to have a pretty big career, as she did, of course.

Risk 17 was premiered in 1978, and it reflects the "Lecture with Repetition," "Failing, a very difficult piece for string bass," and the unaccompanied aria from The Four Note Opera, which all led in this direction just a few years before. These pieces all had to do with making music as real life, music that was really happened and wasn't just composed. I didn't want improvisation in a voluntary sort of way, but rather just to solve problems of some sort. I wanted the performer to confront an unknown situation and deal with it as well as possible in a one-time-only context. The project of "Risks for Unerehearsed Performers" really began on in 1977 at the Kitchen, when Emily Derr (soprano), Lukas Foss (piano) David Reck (veen) and Richard Stoltzman (clarinet) took four different "Risks." Two of the performers solved their problems with great confidence, made wonderful unpredictable music, seduced the public completely, and received much applause. Two of the performers couldn't really do what they were asked to do, or didn't like the idea and refused to do it, didn't manage to play satisfying music, and made everyone unhappy. The series continued in a way that was very risky for me, as well as for the performers in question.

Altogether there were 15 or 20 "Risks," but since they could never be done again, the instructions/scores were not kept, and most of the events were not recorded, so little trace remains of these events. Risk 17, however, was wonderfully performed and well recorded at the Sonora Festival in California in 1978, and preserves the idea very well. I wasn't there, but just prepared the instructions in a sealed enveloped marked "Risk 17 for Julius Eastman, Baritone and Conductor, and Orchestra," and sent the envelope to the concert organizer, who gave it to Julius to begin the performance.

"Einstimmiger Polyrhythmus (Unison Polyrhythms)" was written in 1992 for Ugly Culture, a trio in Cologne, who played the music very often and very well, but never issued it as a record, and when I ran across the long ignored private recording they had sent me, I could hardly believe that I had written something so intricate, with contrasting tempos and phrase lengths all contradicting one another and yet somehow all going together. The piece has been performed a few times by other ensembles, but I don't think anyone ever really got it together as tightly as Ugly Culture, which disbanded around 1996 after several changes in personnel and quite a few years exhaustively touring the alternative new music spaces all over Europe.

"Formula One" is one of my few pieces of electronic music. I read Chaos and Fractals by Heinz-Otto Peitgen et al (Springer Verlag, 1992) rather carefully, and I suppose it influenced my own Self-Similar Melodies (Editions 75, 1996) in many ways. One thing that particularly interested me in this book was the discussion of the Verhulst formula, where x is transformed into ax (1-x), x varying between 0 and 1, a being anything between 1 and 4. Depending on the value of a, the result churns out an infinite series of values between 0 and 1, sometimes quite stable and sometimes jumping up and down in completely chaotic ways. One particular value of a produces what the authors call the "period five window", which means that x generally falls almost exactly on one of five values, and I wanted to hear this, so I programmed it in BASIC and sent the results as MIDI values into my Atari square wave synthesizer to produce this music. I called the results "Formula One," since this was the first time I had made music with a formula of this sort.


As if that wasn't enough, Johnson was also kind enough to share several diagrams/schematics of his works below of what he calls 'illustrated music.'

dessin 8 formations

Doublings V drawing

Music for 88 Euler's harmonies

Also see Tom Johnson's website at
Also see our article on Tom Johnson's "Failing"

And see Daniel Barbiero's music on Bandcamp

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER