Tom Johnson (composer)

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Tom Johnson (born November 18, 1939 in Greeley, Colorado), is an American minimalist composer, a former student of Morton Feldman.[1]


He earned his Bachelors (1961) and master's (1967) degrees from Yale University.[2] His pieces are often based on mathematical and logical processes which he attempts to make as clear as possible. His works include: The Four Note Opera, An Hour for Piano, Rational Melodies, the Bonhoeffer Oratorio, Organ and Silence, Riemannoper, Rational Melodies, La Vie est si courte, Vermont Rhythms, Munich Rhythms, Tinkelenberg Rhythms, 360 Chords, The Chord Catalogue and Galileo.

Johnson received the French "Victoires de la Musique" prize for contemporary composition (the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize) in 2001 for "Kientzy Loops".

He lived 15 years in New York, where he wrote music criticism for The Village Voice (articles anthologised by Het Apollohuis in 1989 under the title The Voice of New Music). In 1983 he settled in Paris, where he lives with his wife, the artist Esther Ferrer. During these New York years he composed four of his most important works, The Four Note Opera, An Hour for Piano, Failing, and Nine Bells.

Nine Bells[edit]

Nine Bells (1979) involves an invented instrument in which he walked around nine suspended bells, systematically exploring the geometric paths around the three-by-three grid for about an hour. At the age of 55, Johnson had to stop performing this athletic piece, but Matthias Kaul, Adam Weisman, Olaf Pyras Olaf Pyras and others have developed their own interpretations of the score, using their own sets of bells. Similarly, Galileo (2005), employing five swinging pendulums, is another hour-long composition which the composer performed often from 2001 to 2009, but which is now interpreted by Pierre Berthet.

Johnson is particularly known for his operas, beginning with The Four Note Opera (1972), written exclusively with the notes A, B, D, and E. Following its premier in New York, it has continued to be sung in many countries in at least 10 different languages.Riemannoper (1988), another comic chamber opera for four singers and piano, has been staged by over 30 different opera companies, always in German. The text consists of quotations from the Riemann Musik Lexikon.

Perhaps his most important general contribution, however, has been his use of logical processes. Not being himself a mathematician, he often collaborated with specialists like Jean-Paul Allouche, Franck Jedrzejewski, Emmanuel Amiot, and Jeff Dinitz. Beginning with rather simple procedures in the 21 Rational Melodies (1982) and various counting pieces, he evolved to more subtle models in the Music for 88 (1988). He was the first composer to explore self-replicating melodies, and also worked with automata, tiling structures (generally called Tilework), and music using block designs, homometric groups, and other techniques.


  1. ^ Allmusic biography
  2. ^ Sandow, Gregory (2007–2016). "Johnson, Tom". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2016-01-11.  (subscription required)