Dennis Johnson: November
This is a recording of a major work that has been lost to history for fifty years.
My first hint of its existence came around 1992. I was writing an article about the music of La Monte Young, who in the 1960s had introduced long drones into the music of the avant-garde, and in so doing secured himself as reputation as “the father of minimalism.” La Monte gave me a hissy cassette tape of some slow, faint piano music. It was one of those thin, unreliable 120-minute cassettes, and the pitch wobbled badly. It was marked as containing a piece called November, dated 1959, by Dennis Johnson, though the recording was indicated as being from 1962. The music was glacially calm and meditative in the extreme, and cut off abruptly after 112 minutes; in fact, there were a few gaps in the audio elsewhere, too. On tape, voices murmured in the background. Occasionally a far-off dog barked. And La Monte credited the work as having been the inspiration and predecessor to his mammoth magnum opus The Well-Tuned Piano, which I had come to write about.
Dennis Johnson was one of Young’s college friends at UCLA; they met in 1957 when Young heard him practicing Webern’s Variations for piano, and barged into his practice room to see who it was. Along with their friend Terry Jennings, Young and Johnson were the original minimalists, composing austerely slow and static music years before Steve Reich and Philip Glass got involved. Young’s “Lecture 1960,” published in the Tulane Drama Review, describes Johnson as having performed a piece called Din, with 40 performers in a darkened hall clapping, screaming, shuffling feet, and so on. Young recounts that after the concert a critic asked if the group was “part of Zen,” and Johnson replied, “No, but Zen is part of us.” Johnson was also known for a work using only four pitches, titled The Second Machine, and a jazz piece written in chord changes called the 109-Bar Tune. After a few years of avant-garde performance, though, Johnson gave up music around 1962, and for decades almost his only public historical record was a hilariously immature letter (credited only to “Dennis”) in the 1963 new-music compendium An Anthology, edited by Young and Jackson Mac Low. A rumor persisted, however, that November was supposedly, in total, six hours long – the eventual length of The Well-Tuned Piano.
For years I kept that ancient cassette, thinking about it and occasionally listening to it. Not until the mid-2000s did I have enough technology at my disposal to digitize the recording and make transcribing it a reasonable possibility, which I did in 2007. The tape contained only 112 minutes of a six-hour work, and I knew I couldn’t completely make sense of it without Johnson’s help; luckily, composer Daniel Wolf was able to provide me Johnson’s address and phone number in California. Johnson generously sent me a copy of the manuscript of the work, six pages of melodic cells and diagrams for conjoining them. He told me over the phone that he was born in late 1938, so he was presumably 20 or 21 when he wrote November, 23 when he recorded it at Terry Jennings’s mother’s house. Because of the wobbly pitch, correctly transcribing the tape would have been a dicey operation without the score; comparing my transcription with the score clarified actual pitch levels.
It took months of work to copy down all the notes on that tape, including some thick chords that the tape’s pitch waviness wouldn’t let me match exactly on the piano, but the effort was amply rewarded as I learned more and more how the piece worked. November, if it was truly written in 1959, rewrites the early history of minimalism. Before November, Young and Jennings had been writing extremely slow atonal music, climaxing in Young’s String Trio of 1958, a twelve-tone piece with notes and chords sustained for several minutes at a time. November started off in the key of G minor, and was thus the earliest available tonal piece in the new style of minimalism, which would reintroduce tonality back into avant-garde classical concert music. In addition, November was apparently the first piece to proceed through the repetition of small motives, which is the technique now most commonly associated with minimalism via the works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. November is the first static or repetitive piece to be several hours in length (Young’s earlier String Trio having been approximately an hour long without a break). It is the first known piece to proceed via additive process, i.e., starting with two notes, repeating them and adding a third, repeating those and adding a fourth, and so on; the technique would become famous a few years later in the late-‘60s music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
In short, in November most of the elements we now think of as minimalist appeared all at once. Only the slow, drawn-out time sense was anticipated by Young and Jennings. Assuming it really came from 1959, Dennis Johnson seems to have created minimalism with all its basic elements at once – and then the original piece with which he did it was forgotten for almost half a century.
The manuscript score of November is a puzzle. It contains two pages of “motifs,” numbered first with Roman numerals and then switching to Arabic ones, often out of order, with many cross-outs, alternative possibilities, and self-questionings by the composer. These are followed by three further pages on which Johnson tried, with only partial success, to analyze his improvisation and arrive at a more exact notation. Little annotations among the notes, in the same handwriting of Johnson’s letter in An Anthology, show him cogitating on paper and rather humorously arguing with himself: “maybe replace IVb with this”; “sounds better to enter with low A#”; “maybe add low E# in first chord – NO!”
Along with the score, Johnson sent me a note with the following description:
Here is the complete “score,” if that is the correct term. It consists of “motifs” plus rules of which motifs can follow each given motif – at least that is what it should be, but I’m afraid that it isn’t made entirely clear. Items 1-15 were written around 1970-1971. Pages A + B are, I think, an attempt to make the transitions more explicit – or possibly to write down the transitions as they occur in the recording, but it was never finished, so the recording must stand as the primary definition example of the piece. The piece was not meant to be entirely fixed, but somewhat improvisatory, with the given transitions as the rules for the improvisation. No rules were implied about the times spent on any of the motifs, nor on the number of recurrences/recycles of any motif – they do recur in the tape.
This is an enigmatic note. I called Johnson soon afterward, and we had a nice conversation, but his health is failing; he warned me that his short-term memory is very bad and that he would probably repeat his questions, which he did. He confirmed, though, that the score he sent me was made after the fact, in an attempt to set down what he had performed several years earlier; the description above suggests that it was made in 1970-71. Whether he was listening to the tape as he did this is impossible to ascertain, though it seems plausible, because a couple of the transitions match the tape pretty exactly. By implication, some of the motifs (those numbered 16 through 18) were written after 1971 and may represent new material not played in 1962. One passage in the score is dated “Dec. 1988.” Perhaps Johnson continued adding to the piece this late. Much information is missing, and speculation can only take us so far.
Nevertheless, the score clarified much of what I found on the tape, though inconsistencies remained. A motive labeled “Ia” (G D C in the treble clef, G Bb in the bass) was followed by IIa, IIb, IIc and IId in succession; Ib came somewhat later. Some, but not all, of the numbered sets of motives were unified by being all in the same diatonic scale (each number standing for several related motives):
I G natural minor (though with a B-natural in Ib)
II G major
III G# natural minor
IV F# major (though with one B#)
V & VI G# natural minor again
7 & 8 E natural minor
9 Bb major (though with a dissonant Db at one point)
Others, however, were inconsistent in this regard. Little curved arrows suggested movement from one motif to another, but these were inconsistently added, and didn’t always match the progression on the tape. In one place, a frequently recurring chord on the tape did not contain the same notes as its counterpart in the score, which may have been a transcription error on Johnson’s part; as instructed, I took the recording to be the authentic version.
Johnson also preserved in the manuscript an intriguing example of his formal thinking. In an example on area III, he numbers motifs IIIa-d and IVc with a kind of poetic refrain notation, so that IIIa appears as numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, and 13, motif IIIb as 2, 6, and 12, and so on. Follow that in a kind of bouncing-ball motion, and the resulting pattern gives us a succession of motifs in the form
More simply put, he works his way gradually from A to E by alternating between adjacent motifs in a kind of permutational additive process. Presumably this type of process could be used to link other motifs in performance as well. Approximately half the material on the score is used in the tape, which means that it is fairly easy to imagine how to double the length of the tape by similarly adding in the other material. However, I also found on the tape passages of material not reflected in the score, which could well mean that the original six-hour performance, if it did run that long, contained more material than has survived in the score.
Among other things, November anticipated The Well-Tuned Piano in being an improvisatory piano piece whose large-scale areas are held together by occupying the same harmonic field. As models of music improvised from materials written out and played in any order, we might also cite Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI and Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata, both completed in 1957, as predecessors. Given how focused American composers were on the music of Anton Webern at the time, I also think it is not far-fetched to hear in Johnson’s two- and three-note motives the influence of Webern’s Piano Variations, even though Johnson’s language is mostly far more consonant.
Becoming a little obsessed, I wanted to play the piece, or have it played, and we had the perfect opportunity coming up at the 2nd International Conference on Minimalist Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, in September of 2009. I set to work on a performance score. I didn’t know if I could sit five hours at a piano, but the amazing pianist Sarah Cahill was going to be there too, so we agreed to alternate by hours. My solution for a score, on which Andrew Lee’s performance is based, was, first, to as carefully as possible transcribe the 112 minutes of the tape, and then create a performing version for the remainder based on continuing the kinds of patterns heard on the tape with the remaining materials found in the score.
I marked off blank measures of 5/4 meter with the 8th-note at 60 pulses per minute; this way each measure corresponded to 10 seconds. At this music’s ultra-slow tempo, I figured that placing every note within half a second was generally precise enough. I transcribed the 112 minutes into notation software and afterward deleted (or made invisible) all the note-stems and rests, so that the disembodied noteheads would float in a John Cage-like proportional notation. Even though no pulse runs through the work and rhythms need not have been notated, Johnson in his performance patently grouped certain notes into recurring phrases, and at this first stage it was important to preserve exact timings to avoid falsifying the phrasing profile of the original. I had to reconstruct some music that took place during gaps in the tape, using the same logic evident in the relationship of manuscript score to tape. Where the tape gave out, I made up a continuation score containing the remainder of the motifs from the manuscript score, laid out in a plausible order so that the pianist could continue improvisatorily. My hope was that the entire performance would, from the listener’s point of view, maintain a seamless logic. I tried to use in the improvisatory, second half of the reconstruction the same kinds of logic, additive process, repetitions, motivic rhythms, and harmonic connections apparent in the material captured on tape.
Expanding the piece’s length to the alleged six hours presented some difficulty. The original six-hour performance, if it did run that long, seems likely to have contained more material than was eventually captured in notation. A six-hour reconstruction using the extant material might be needlessly repetitious; our 2009 performance went four and a half hours, and Andrew has made a version running almost five hours. Even so, an authentic performance requires considerable creativity on the pianist’s part, along with some analysis of the transcription to get into Dennis’s musical thinking. I made my own private recording of the work on August 12, 2009, and Sarah and I (re-?) premiered the piece September 6 at UMKC. I’m thrilled that Andrew Lee, a pianist devoted to minimalist repertoire, has made it a special project and even given its European premiere.
Musicologists aren’t done with Dennis Johnson and Terry Jennings. Someone needs to locate the scores to The Second Machine and The 109-Bar Tune and research the chronology of the original minimalist trio. The importance of The Well-Tuned Piano adds to November’s place in history, but the work also abundantly stands on its own. I’ve listened to our recordings many times, and enjoyed the limpid pool of tones it creates, its gentle repetitions and insouciant changes of tonality. Had minimalism never happened, Dennis Johnson’s November would be a beautiful and radically innovative conception, well worth recording and hearing. Given the piece’s seminal position in sparking a rebirth of tonality in 20th-century music, I would like to think that the piece will take its place as one of the more influential monuments in musical history as well.
Kyle Gann is a composer and author of five books on American music. He was new-music critic for the Village Voice from 1986 to 2005, and has taught music theory and history at Bard College since 1997.
Recorded July 24th, 2012 on the Richard Cass Memorial Steinway, White Hall, University of Missouri, Kansas City.