What Scott Knew notes on Scott Johnson's "Bowery Haunt"

What Scott Knew notes on Scott Johnson's "Bowery Haunt"

11 August 2023 / William Anderson / On the Beat, Compositions, recodings

Sept 14 T h e V i l l a g e T r i p
GuitarFest 1
In Memory of Scott Johnson
at Loft393 will include Scott’s Bowery Haunt (2005).

Eventbrite Tickets –>


I don’t know what Scott Knew. He didn’t know all he knew. He was thinking on his feet. Nevertheless, I reverse engineer; I ask, “what were his conscious committments?” And what I can find is related to what I do, what I’ve gotten in my head through what I do with pitches. It takes one to know one. We’re all thinking on our feet. Nevertheless, we reverse engineer because that’s what our brain does with our experience and our feelings. And without that, we could not creatively *mis*understand (misprison).

The 20th C. was daring and ventured into entirely new musical ways and means. There were things we heard that we could not unhear. It’s gnostic. We cannot unknow.

There were things we heard that we cannot unhear,
things we’ve come to know that we cannot unknow

Most of the interesting and adventurous musical modalities that florished in the 20th C. are no longer in practice. Some surviving old post-maximalist composers are beating their heads against the wall, but the situation is more normal now. It’s ok. Interesting composers were always underground.

Scott Johnson is an interesting case. I’m citing these examples from “Bowery Haunt” because they can be found in much 20th C. music – Bartok & Babbitt. But because Scott does it all in a rock idiom it can pass as progrock. It could be a trojan horse. Scott is the downtown composer who pulls off a great number of uptown tricks.

A quick note about Scott’s “John Somebody”. There’s a Gentle Giants album that begins with breaking glass that is looped into a riff. GG surpassed Yes in my progrock pantheon, but that may have happened after my talks with Scott. Scott may not have known that GG album.

Flirting with Disaster

So Here, Scott approaches a harmonic horror – two fifths a tritone apart – [C, G, F#, C#] and later [F, C, B, F#]. Schoenberg adored 0167. Opening with the two elements suggests 5ths a tritone apart is a conscious committment. By the end of that first line we get 6 of the 8 members of an octotonic scale, but the missing 5th, [D#, A#] doesn’t appear with any weight until much later.

These moves, fifths transposed by a tritone, are all over the mandolin part in Schoenberg’s Op. 27 #4.

B to F# from 1st to 2nd beat of m. 114, against F, C in guitar 2. But also, this harmony happened at the end of m. 112 with 2 fewer pitches. The gradually shifting of significant develpments from weaker beats to the strongest beat. See Bach BWV 996 where a feint to G major occurs a few bars before the end of the A section, which ends conventionally on the dominant minor. In the Jethro Tull-covered Bouree, however, G major finds its way to the structural position at the end of the A section.

The various positions within a bar and their various strengths are the principles governing Milton Babbitt’s time point system, which became much different from duration rows.

In my setting of Djuna Barnes Pastoral, the 0167 gradually shifts into a structural position toward then. The entire cylce of Djuna Barnes setting is in the same gamut as Bowery Haunt – pairs of perfect consonances–

Adding Pitches and Subtracting Pitches

The purge – where I mark, “045s purging minor 7ths”. That clears the air. Then minor 7ths start appearing, but this is a process that happens in two steps, perfectly paced. The target is a rock cliché – gesture ending on E – D/E in measure 65.

Following the purge, minor 7ths creep in, but then you get, Em7/A. That is the target + 1 pitch. It’s G/A + E. Adding a note to the minor 7th, especially in this way, is hard to miss. Even people who don’t know what I’m talking about are gonna feel it.

When you get to the cliche, it’s an unadulterated D/E.

He subtracted a pitch.

It sounds cool and the process is so elegant. This (2 or 3-stage process, well paced) is how one *overdetermines* the cliché, redeeming it. This is Jeff Nichols stuff. Robert Morris stuff. I once thought it was called “interval vector music”, but some people didn’t like that so I started to call it chord quality stories.

Flirting with Foxy Lady

Foxy Lady + 2

FL\addF, add Db

In measure 314, the E-7 stays in the room for the 4th beat.

E7\#9 and b9

7/8th 8tonic. No Bb
And there’s an 0167 there in the cross relations between beat 3 & 4 – [Db, Ab, G, D] it’s a prominent subset of the octotonic scale.

But the Fox Lady aspect overwhelms any feeling of 8tonic.

FL\addF, add Db is the residue of the previous slitherings, E to D/E, which we’ve come to know & love, is there at the end of m. 311. Triads transposed by minor thirds will have notes of octotonic; triads transposed by major thirds will have notes of augmented scale. But he knows those traps, he avoids those rabbit holes, letting them contend with one another.

And he dim7 chords because they are too 19th C. Romantic. Scott & I talked about that. That’s a commitment he shared with Manuel Ponce and plenty of 20th C. tonal composers. Manuel Ponce favored whole tone as his mixed modal phenomenon, that’s true of a lot of early 20th C. tonal music.

These pitch issues are no more important than Scott’s sense of drama. I saw the piece in its formation. Sections were labelled, “ramp up to recap”, cool down for meno mosso, and such.

–William Kentner Anderson