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Tom Johnson: Combinations

Bozzini Quartet / Tom Johnson

A wonderful document, superbly played by Quatuor Bozzini, and a fine example of Johnson’s very unique approach to… list making. The Squid’s Ear, USA

Performed senza vibrato, Quatuor Bozzini renders these scores with virtuoso precision along with warmth and a subtle lyricism… The WholeNote, Canada

Tom Johnson uses numbers as base material, turning formulas, combinations and other mathematic phenomena into music. And somehow, this music becomes poetry, sometimes like a haiku, sometimes like a sonnet, sometimes descriptive and clear, often enigmatic but always beautiful.

  • SODEC

CD (CQB 2230)

  • Label: Collection QB
  • CQB 2230
  • 2022
  • UCC 771028373024
  • Total duration: 66:56
  • Sympathique case
  • 126 mm × 126 mm × 5 mm
  • 35 g

On the web

Download (CQB 2230_NUM)

  • Label: Collection QB
  • CQB 2230_NUM
  • 2022
  • UCC 771028373086
  • Total duration: 66:56
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In the press

Review

Brian Olewnick, The Squid’s Ear, July 14, 2022

Tom Johnson has referred to himself as more of a list maker than composer and any survey of his work will at least partially bear this out. He often devises patterns, sometimes relatively simple or cyclic, sometimes complex, a little like aural presentations of a diagram of a mathematical sequence, and the musicians trace the resultant patterns. As one might expect, this can lead to music that is occasionally a bit on the dry side. But often enough, as with deterministic but highly detailed math sets, the result can be wondrous, even deeply moving. Sometimes it seems that this can depend on the interpreter. For example, the original recording of Johnson’s The Chord Catalog (XI Records, 1999), accurately subtitled, “All the 8178 Chords Possible in One Octave”, played on piano by the composer, was an impenetrably dense and regular iteration of the premise, an oppressive experience. Johnson conceded that his own limited pianistic prowess was an impediment, however, and when Samuel Vriezen tackled the work (Wandelweiser, 2013), the outcome was revelatory, the composition blooming into a hitherto unheard sound world of endless fascination. As the notes on this disc state, “Tom Johnson uses numbers as base material, turning formulas, combinations and other mathematic phenomena into music. And somehow, this music becomes poetry.”

Happily, the pieces on this recording are performed by perhaps the single most exciting and innovative string quartet now extant, Quatuor Bozzini (Alissa Cheung, violin; Clemens Merkel, violin; Stéphanie Bozzini, viola; Isabelle Bozzini, cello). Four works are presented: a stand alone piece (Tilework for String Quartet (2003)) and three sets of compositions, ranging from five to fifteen elements and consisting of relatively short pieces, several below a minute in length.

Combinations for String Quartet (2003) has five sections, the first coming as close to “standard” minimalism as anything here, reminding this listener of Reich’s Violin Phase. Four sets of four repeated notes are played, initially by one member, joined gradually by the others playing slightly augmented versions of the first line. After all four members are sawing, three drop out and a single member returns with a slightly different melody and the process continues. It’s a good example of a fairly “simple” process yielding fascinating results that lie just beyond the listener’s ability to confidently predict what comes next. After a sparse, lovely second section, part three arrives with a wonderfully bewildering set of six note phases that alternate as a sort of round followed by an interlocking pattern; again, easy enough to parse apart, difficult to keep it all in your head. And quite impressive. A drier, spare section (with some, to these ears, surprising echoes of Shostakovich), leads to the final portion, a kind of elegiac music, with somewhat mournful iterations of an eight-note melody played by all members. Tilework also plays with phrases of six and twelve notes, but interspersed among other compositions; as tiles, this is a complex set of tesserae, forming patterns here, dissembling them there, re-emerging in slightly different form at still another point. The basic pattern is rather jaunty, perhaps even reflecting Baroque motifs, disassembled.

Four-Note Chords in Four Voices (2009) consists of fifteen short parts, with durations of between 0:14 and 2:18. They’re taken slowly, the harmonies once again possessing a dirge-like aspect, with a mix of hymnal sweetness and Ives-ian atonality. There’s a general downward trend in the patterns, reminding me of a series of falling leaves, very moving, including the last movement, an abrupt ending with but three notes that leaves one a bit shaken. The final work, Formulas for String Quartet contains eight brief parts. The first section is light in tone, with a seesawing three note pattern repeated over a high, rhythmic six-note phrase scurrying beneath; fairly “traditional” sounding in this context. The next two parts are softer, more melancholy, before the fourth movement stirs things up again, with active, agitative layers of rising notes that assume a struggling, even romantic character. In much of this music, any mathematical or formulaic underpinnings are well hidden; coming in blind, I’m not sure the innocent listener would suspect anything of the kind, though it’s doubtless there, working its magic. Parts V and VII again evoke older forms of minimalism, here perhaps a slice of John AdamsShaker Loops. The work, and disc, ends on a questioning note, with ascending phrases that never quite attain purchase, fittingly.

A wonderful document, superbly played by Quatuor Bozzini, and a fine example of Johnson’s very unique approach to… list making.

A wonderful document, superbly played by Quatuor Bozzini, and a fine example of Johnson’s very unique approach to… list making.

Review

Andrew Timar, The WholeNote, no. 27:7, May 20, 2022

American-born composer and longtime French resident, Tom Johnson (b.1939), served as The Village Voice’s influential music critic from 1971 to 1983 covering the era’s exciting new classical music scene. The first to apply the term “minimalist music,” Johnson’s personal compositional style leans toward minimalist formalism. Quatuor Bozzini has collected his complete works for string quartet covering four compositions from 1994 to 2009 on this album.

Dwelling on mathematic sequences and permutations of a limited core musical material, in Johnson’s hands the musical whole emerges satisfyingly greater than the sum of its lean components and intellectual procedures. Each relatively brief movement vibrates like a sonic poem. For example, the opening six-note motif of Johnson’s Tilework for String Quartet (2003) is transformed through his exploration of the myriad ways in which lines are “tiled using six-note rhythms,” relying on a computerized list of rhythmic canons. The composer helpfully adds, “Of course, composers, performers, and listeners don’t have to know all of this, just as we don’t need to master counterpoint to appreciate a Bach fugue… [because] music allows us to directly perceive things that we could never grasp intellectually.”

Performed senza vibrato, Quatuor Bozzini renders these scores with virtuoso precision along with warmth and a subtle lyricism, a winning combination I grew to appreciate after repeated listening.

Performed senza vibrato, Quatuor Bozzini renders these scores with virtuoso precision along with warmth and a subtle lyricism…

Review

Seth Colter Walls, The New York Times, March 31, 2022
… the finale manages to balance didactic clarity with transporting gracefulness.

Kritik

Frank P Eckert, Groove, March 16, 2022

Die Kompositionen des US-Amerikaners Tom Johnson haben eine ähnliche Qualität. Vom Montréaler Streichquartett Quatuor Bozzini eingespielt, haben die Tom Johnson: Combinations (Collection QB) durchaus einen modernistisch neutönenden Charakter, finden aber in aller Grenztonalität doch immer wieder zu Songs von melancholischer Schönheit zusammen.

… songs of melancholic beauty.

Review

Mark Daelmans-Sikkel, Vital, no. 1327, March 15, 2022

Tom Johnson is a new composer for me, apart from his Chord Catalogue, a work I still have to listen to. Born in 1939, he privately studied composition with Morton Feldman. As a music critic, he wrote for The Village Voice. You can find an anthology in his book The Voice of Music, published in 1989. He coined the term minimal music in 1972.

The music collected on this disc is his complete works for the string quartet. Sixty-six minutes spread over four pieces. The oldest piece is from 1994, and the youngest is composed in 2009. And what music it is. His approach to music is logical, mathematical, not whimsical or sterile. He later collaborated with mathematicians to find formulas to apply to music (or vice versa). The resulting music is lovely. The first few pieces comprising Combinations are in the vein of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Highly repetitive motives. But: the sequences are always the same, just varied on the different string instruments. This might be an oversimplification of the score. But the way Johnson organizes the material is logical, using only the notes heard in the beginning and mathematically permutating them. The overall pattern becomes apparent after a few rounds. And that is just the first piece. The next one is sparse, only using the same note in different octaves, almost sounding organ-like. Piece number 4 of combinations utilize silence in a cheeky-sneaky way. Tilework for string quartet is a version of this work for string quartet. There is also a version for solo instruments, including bassoon. I might track down the sheet music. The fifteen pieces comprising Four Note-Chords in Four Voices are just that. Voicings of four chords across the four-string instruments. The kind of voicing creates some sort of melody or monody in the different permutations of the chord. I didn’t read much about his theorization on his music to have an unbiased ear.

The different pieces have enough variation to not become a tedious listening experience. That being said: the music is wonderfully performed by the Bozzini Quartet. Recorded in a church, the music played has a vibrant quality, although the quartet doesn’t use vibrato on the strings. Also, the players’ enthusiasm for this music results in some minor speeding up in the first few pieces in some solo sections, adding to the liveliness of the music. Well done! Now, where did I put that Chord Catalogue?

… the music is wonderfully performed by the Bozzini Quartet. Recorded in a church, the music played has a vibrant quality…

The Best Contemporary Classical on Bandcamp: February 2022

Peter Margasak, Bandcamp Daily, March 8, 2022

Like Xenakis, American ex-pat composer Tom Johnson has long been enamored of mathematics, and he’s used the practice as the discipline as an integral tool in his compositional work. These string quartets — played with characteristic precision, brio, and warmth by Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini — often deploy the theory of combinations, setting out every possible permutation or sequence from a small amount of material. While that concept might sound like an excursion toward boredom, the results are thrilling. Johnson was an early advocate and pioneer of minimalism, and that interest distinguishes these four works, composed between 1994 and 2009, with a mixture of rigor and curiosity that turns to math as a way of translating the patterns and shapes of the world around us into music. Johnson achieves a particularly vivid realization on the concise Tilework for String Quartet, a 10-minute canon that explores the different ways the rhythms in a six-note line can overlap and fit together. Four-Note Chords in Four Voices is a study of the possible combinations delineated in the title, with the composer’s program note explaining that “There are 495 ways to distribute two notes in group,” but there’s nothing schematic or cold in the way Johnson traces out those possibilities anywhere on the album.

… played with characteristic precision, brio, and warmth by Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini

Review

Ben Harper, Boring Like A Drill, February 26, 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.

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.