Thinking about Scott Johnson, by Frank Brickle

Thinking about Scott Johnson, by Frank Brickle

20 July 2023 / William Anderson / On the Beat, Compositions, composers

Composer Frank Brickle shares his thoughts about Scott Johnson

Frank Brickle was always less pig-headed than I was. Frank was an early advocate for Morton Feldman within certain cirlces in which and at a time when Feldman was a hard sell. He advocated for Phillip Glass. I asked Frank to write about Scott.

An interesting subject for another conversation, very relevant to music, is Scott Johnson and Daniel Dennet. Scott blogged about Dennet and Stephen Jay Gould. I spoke with him about those. Frank touches on Dennet briefly here.

Thinking About Scott

Immediately after Scott died, I wrote that, in my opinion, he was the best composer of my generation. Since then I’ve thought about it a lot and have come to feel this even more strongly. I’ve also thought about his situation in the musical universe, and why there wasn’t a chorus of voices echoing the same sentiments about his work.

For myself, personally, hearing some of his somewhat more recent work around 1990 blew up totally my notion of what one ought to be doing, compositionally speaking. I’ve been chasing that down ever since, with varying degrees of success. What is unquestionable is that what I’m doing now is far, far better than it would have been had I not been blown up, and it shares some definite kinship with his constellation of ideas.

What’s so good about his stuff? Well, everything. He devised a dialect for himself that was highly mutable and mercurial but could constantly send out sidelong glances at pretty much every other kind of music, as will or whimsy might dictate. His music is rhythmically propulsive and dense and surprising. It makes the instruments playing it sound great. It’s about as far as can be from the one-note-at-a-time-itis and wheezing rhythms of so much of the other “art/serious” music of our era. But – here’s the really important part – his capacity to animate shape and form over spans of many minutes is absolutely unparalleled by anyone else in our cohort. He addressed headlong and successfully engaged the question, Why is this piece so long? without ever lapsing back into flimsy metaphors of processes in the natural world, the usual escape route these days. He asked musical questions in his pieces, and answered them from inside the music itself.

Now, why do I seem to be the only starry-eyed fanboy for his work like this? For one thing, it’s not easy. Some of his pieces require some pretty serious attention to give up the most rewarding secrets. They’re also extremely difficult to imitate or plunder, even badly. These aren’t the major parts of it, however. In the encomia following Scott’s death it became clear that most people knew him for “John Somebody,” maybe “Convertible Debts,” and not much else. Much as I love these pieces, they’re not where the richest ore can be found. Essentially, the best of Scott’s work is an unopened book. There’s a little irony in the fact that the only place I could lay hands on a copy of his “Rock, Paper, Scissors” CD, just a few months after its release, was in a record store in a faraway country, found by accident.

In 2002 I asked Scott to come down to the Lincoln Center Library to participate in a panel discussion about George Antheil’s music. He didn’t really have the time but he did it anyway. I’d sent him a few CDs of Antheil’s piano music. When he showed up at the Library his first remark was, “Why aren’t these pieces played all the time?” Of course what Antheil’s known for is the Ballet Mécanique and even now, not a lot else. I find it kind of a sad mirror of Scott’s situation in many ways.

We have some idea what Scott thought about all this, and I have to admit, I think he was slightly mistaken about some of it. He believed (rightly, I think) that self-conscious art music gets pretty diluted when it strays too far from popular music. He felt his work was grounded in the best of the vernacular world. Where I disagreed and disagree with him is over what the necessary vernacular foundation needed to be. He seemed to confine himself to a pretty small orbit. Maybe that was required for him to know he was stepping outside it himself.

Furthermore, he was very much attached to some fairly elevated ideas of mind and consciousness that I believe are just wrongheaded. If the world really worked the way Daniel Dennett says it does, I don’t believe Scott would have been able to do what he did. That’s an argument for another time, though, perhaps.

So in the end I guess Scott’s music is just a tough nut. Hard to play, hard to get to know. I’m not in fact bothered by being a vocal, cheering audience of one. I’m still discovering pieces of his I didn’t know about and am dazzled all over again. It’s just that he was *so good* at putting notes together. I wish more people could do so well.


— Scott himself was perhaps overly proud of Johnny Somebody.

—is he more him when instruments are electric? A test is to check out his Beckett piece for Cygnus, “Last Time Told”. And there, like in Johnny Somebody, are found speech rhythms, right from Beckett’s Ohio Impromotu.

Does he sound more like Scott when he’s using electric instruments? Here’s Bowery Haunt.


Embedding speech rhythms (and sometimes pitches and pitch contours) is such a commercial thing. Do you remember the theme music from Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, and from the PBS Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett? The names “Molly Dodd” and “Sherlock Holmes” are the spines of their respective emblematic tunes.


So another example of Scott being thoroughly enmeshed in American pop culture.
Johnny Somebody — does it come out of an experimental or downtown mindset? You get the idea and it goes, a minimalism? Scott quickly turned that minimalism into a city.


Experimental, maybe…it just feels more “Downtown” to me. The (then-crude) technology was maybe being put to a slightly different use? What went onto the tape wasn’t experimental, it doesn’t seem to me.

That’s good – turning experimental into a city. Specifically, New York :-)