Scott Johnson & how he gives us a feeling for where we are in his structure

Scott Johnson & how he gives us a feeling for where we are in his structure

24 September 2023 / William Anderson / Compositions, How to Talk about Music

Taking up Bowery Haunt again with Oren Fader has led to a continual stream of quiddities emerging from the experience of the music. Talking about them makes them seem abstract, but these are visceral. I am only interested in the visceral – what gets under the skin.

My previous obsrvations here are leading to something that relates to a conversation with Joel Suben (RIP) in the 80s. Joel was very likely carrying forward a feeling that Jacques Monod had about Carter’s music –

“Carter hangs out his pitches on a clothesline.”

I can speak for his solo guitar piece, Changes – the all-trichord hexachord appears horizontally. Suben’s clothesline metaphor was a criticism, although he, like the rest of us, adore Carter’s work. I reserve judgement with regard to Carter until I’ve studied more thoroughly, but the criticism is valid and it might occur to someone at any moment when those structural pitches do not feel structural, but proforma. We can get that impression if we’re in a sour mood, but sometimes that sour mood is the composer’s fault. We sometimes get the feeling that we are experiencing empty gestures, and sometimes, with all goodwill and second chances, the emptiness remains; let’s not pretend otherwise.

The reason I welcome minimalisms of all stripes is that in practice, too many modernists think it’s their job to vibe modernist gestures without having any idea about how to motivate those gestures.

In bass lines – in the work of Perotin & Steve Reich the movement of the bass will be a modal inflection. That’s visceral. That’s palpable. In binary forms a Lydian move to a modulation to V; a mixolydian move to balance things out on the way back to I – those are the harmonic signatures of binary form, those, broadly, create the feeling of where we are in the structure.

In more chromatic music, how to make a structural bass line feel structural? The answer is in measures 110 to 114 – those 5 bars. Measure 110 is the circled 3/4 bar. Scott is rubbing our noses in the scent of “tritonality” – [ B, F#, ] to [ F, C ].

[B, F#] is structural for those four bars. While he avoids the nastiness of a vertical 0167, he is nevertheless giving us the scent of that. Elsewhere, [F, C] is focal.

My epiphany for today is that this focus on 0167 organizes the pan-tonality. This should be presented more generally: creating surfaces with built-in memories of where we’ve been over various time spans organizing our pantonality.

To call a passage “pantonal” is a criticism, suggesting a liquidated wash. The pointing and highlighting that brings to the surface (pulls into the moment) aspects that are playing out over larger timescales sorts out the pantonal surface. Yes, Scott’s surface is mercurial, often locally pantonal, but not limited to diatonic collections. His choices are ever mindful of where he’s been and where he’s going. This is one of the elements that overdetermine the surface. This is hard to unpack; I’ll keep working on it. One thing must be acknowledged: everything we do is overdetermined, even bad behaviors and bad compositional practices.

See my earlier notes about the bass line of Bowery Haunt and how it relates to the opening move –

[ F#, C#] opens in guitar 1; guitar 2 brings in [ C, G ].

I’ve come to speak of “tritonality” in connection with Beethoven and his augmented 6th chords and other enharmonic doings, but also to Jazz, David Amram (who often saves some briliant tritonality for the very end of his pieces.) The gag is that the tritone substitution is actually a local move. Related – tritone transpositons of a diatonic hexachord are also a local move, not really a modulation, but something refresihing the 0 hexachord, the focal hexachord.

I’ve come to speak of “overdetermination”, borrowing from psychology because that usage in psychology is precisely analogous to the value structures created in music and to the normative questions addressed in music composition. We might speak instead of “shoring up”, “butressing” all those are fine. “Overdetermination” acknowledges that forces are stacked against one. Even before a composer sets down the her first note, an array of hostile forces must be overcome. See Terry Eagleton’s discussion of Macherey.