The much-anticipated world premiere of Scott Johnson’s “Mind Out of Matter”–the composer’s largest work to-date–will be performed by Alarm Will Sound at the Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, NJ, October 4 and 5. Alan Pierson is conducting. The work is a Peak Performances commission.
In “Mind Out of Matter”, Johnson, the first composer to create music from the rhythm and pitch of spoken words, samples the controversial writings of philosopher Daniel Dennett. Working like a tone poem with every syllable of every word in the piece written with its pitch and rhythmic potential, “Mind Out of Matter” shares its sensibility with Dennett, a dedicated Darwinist, who insists that a sense of wonder at the universe is revealed through scientific knowledge, not religion. Since Johnson is a man of ideas as well as music, the audience’s understanding the words is critical to the piece.
What follows is a description by Johnson of how he has arrived at his unique point of view about music. He begins with a question: “Why can’t there be contemporary classical music that sounds like the time and place I live in?
“I’ve devoted most of my efforts to creating a hybrid music, in which the complexity of the classical tradition opens a welcoming door to musical details and emotional associations from popular musics –- not because some imagined audience might enjoy them, but because I enjoy them. A little background will explain how and why this is personally and artistically important to me.
“Many civilians out there are puzzled because most of the “classical” composers they’ve heard of seem to be dead, and some are curious about what contemporary classical music might be like. That’s where I started also, when as a kid playing guitar in rock bands, I heard the “Rite of Spring” for the first time. By the time I got to college, I was studying music theory during the week, and playing in bars on the weekends. But this cultural moment, in the early 1970’s, was the high water mark of High Modernist compositional styles, and I had simply never heard written music built from the familiar instruments and gestures of my own culture. To do so was, quite simply, to violate a taboo, and any offender would be duly excluded from the company of the “serious” composers of the Western tradition. This isolationist attitude, as we can see now, would itself have offended most of those composers, who tended to regularly mount raids on their own folk musics.
“So I gave up. At 22 I moved to New York City, determined to abandon music and be a visual artist, and landed in Soho and the East Village, which were then the artist neighborhoods of lower Manhattan. Being downtown in 1975 was like being in Montparnasse in the 1920’s –- within a year or two I’d met many of the best painters, sculptors, musicians, and choreographers of the time, and this open-ended atmosphere convinced me that I might able to come up with some serious music that included my bar-band chops. Sound crept back into my still-immature visual work, and within a few years only music was left.”