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?