November Steps

Dennis Lee Johnson was an American composer and mathematician, who composed a piece of music called November in 1959. The work was an influence on and inspiration for La Monte Young, and it led to the realisation of his grand work, The Well-Tuned Piano. November is generally cited as one of the first, if not the first, piece of music to earn the “minimalism” tag, itself a somewhat contentious term, but it does bring home the importance of this slightly obscure figure who has been in danger of being overlooked by musical history.

Kyle Gann was one of the first to attempt the rehabilitation of Dennis Johnson, and in 2009 he performed a version of November with the help of Sarah Cahill; from what I can gather, this was no easy task, and he had to pretty much rebuild the thing based on a single 1962 tape recording, and six pages of the original score. Gann’s score was used for a later 2013 recording by R. Andrew Lee, and Dutch pianist Jeroen van Veen also realised a version as part of a much larger minimalism project. More aspects to this fascinating tale are recounted by UK musician and musicologist Clive Bell in his liner notes to today’s record The Fall (SUB ROSA SR502), credited to Lustmord and Nicolas Horvath. Bell interviewed Dennis Johnson in 2013 and learned about how he had bonded with La Monte Young and Terry Jennings (another important person in the minimalism jigsaw) over the music of Anton Webern. We also learn that Johnson gave up music around 1962, and instead found more beauty and poetry in algebra and geometry; lest we think he was merely an aesthete or part-timer, in fact he ended up working for Caltech, and helped with research for NASA; Dennis Johnson helped to put robots on a space probe to Planet Mars.

Bell knows about the Gann reconstruction too, and applauds the careful transcription work, but he points out that it might only be a partial realisation since November could last for anything up to six hours – there are cues for improvisation built into the score, which might allow the performer to digress. Bell also indicates the use of “diatonic harmony” in the piece, and reminds us that in 1959 and the context of modernism, this was a pretty bold move, bucking the trend of the big guys Cage and Stockhausen, who were advocating atonality. There’s also an “additive” process, which allows for the addition of notes to a phrase every time it’s repeated, a method soon to be adopted by Philip Glass. Today’s record is not the original 1962 tape, but a newish 2019 performance, and I’ve got no clue as to its lineage in relation to the Kyle Gann transcription, but it is billed as “November Deconstructed”, which might clue us in to the aims and intentions of the two musicians here. The piano is played by Nicolas Horvath, who’s been a champion of contemporary classical and modernism for some time, performing pieces by big names such as Glass, Lucier, and Curran, but he also promotes the music of overlooked composers – there’s a long list of intriguing names here on the press release, including Uematcu, Tailleferre, and Boiedieu. Good credentials for this young French genius…

Lustmord comes to us from a totally different milieu, that of industrial music. Brian Williams used to perform with John Murphy, and there seems to be a connection with SPK (that most horrifying of industrial noisesters) in the early 1980s, but he’s since gone pretty much solo and even prefers to be credited as B. Lustmord. Like Graeme Revell of SPK, Lustmord has grown into a successful movie soundtrack composer (besides doing music for computer games and TV also). He’s credited here with “sound design”, and his task I suppose has been to place the piano music in a suitably chilly and wintry arena of processed effects, which he does with considerable grace and delicacy (not the kind of words we would associate with the “industrial” genre in 1980). It’s possible that we’re now departing slightly from the musicological and historical achievement of November which Clive Bell would prefer to promote, but after all this is a “deconstruction”, and it does result in a very effective piece of music and a compelling listen. Few purist classical pianists, I’d imagine, would be prepared to engage with a project like this, but quite clearly Horvath is open-minded and willing to experiment. Excellent. From 21 February 2022.