Tom Johnson (composer)

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

Early life and career[edit]

Tom Johnson was born in Greeley, Colorado. He received two degrees from Yale, the B.A. (1961) and the M.Mus. (1967), after which he studied privately with Morton Feldman in New York. From 1971 to 1983 he was a music critic for The Village Voice, writing about new music, and an anthology of these articles was published in 1989 by Het Apollohuis under the title The Voice of New Music. During this New York period he also composed four of his best known works: An Hour for Piano (1971), The Four-Note Opera (1972), Failing (1975) and Nine Bells (1979). After 15 years in New York, he moved to Paris where he lives with his wife, the artist Esther Ferrer.[2]

Johnson considers himself a minimalist composer, and in fact, he was the first to apply this term to music in his article "The Slow-Motion Minimal Approach”, written in The Village Voice in 1972. His minimalism is of a formalist type, depending mostly on logical sequences, as in the 21 Rational Melodies (1982), where he explores procedures such as accumulation, counting, and isorhythm. Some have even said that he is the inventor of logical music.

After the Rational Melodies, he developed more complex techniques using mathematical notions. This began with the collection of Music for 88 (1988), where he applied ideas of Eratosthenes, Euler, Mersenne and Blaise Pascal. Later he collaborated with living mathematicians, particularly Jean-Paul Allouche, Emmanuel Amiot, Jeff Dinitz and Franck Jedrzejewski. With them he explored the notions of self-similar melodies (Loops for orchestra, 1998), tiling patterns (Tilework, 2003), and block designs (Block Design for Piano, 2005), along with homometric pairs (Intervals, 2013).

But these mathematical foundations are not the only aspect of the work of Tom Johnson. His approach is multi-disciplinary, and his obsession with integrating text and visual images can produce a theatrical atmosphere close to performance art. The librettos for his operas, which he almost always writes himself, describe what takes place in the music in an objective manner, somewhat reminiscent of Pirandello. For example, in The Four-Note Opera, the chorus proclaims “There are three choruses in this opera. This is the first one. The second one will be almost like this one, but somewhat shorter […]”. Words intervene in many of his works, generally via a narrator, who explains pedagogically how the music is made, as is the case in Eggs and Baskets (1987) and Narayana’s Cows (1989). The association of text and music led Johnson to write numerous radio pieces, most often for René Farabet (France culture) and for Klaus Schöning (WDR). Some humor often emerges in these pieces, due to a light touch of absurdity, as the music presents itself as if giving a course in music.

The visual also plays an important role in Nine Bells (1979), a piece written for nine bells suspended in a three by three square, with one bell in the center. The player moves around this square, hitting bells along the way, following paths that are quite varied but always systematic. The piece is truly spatial and visual, and the melodies one hears are simply the result of the routes drawn in the space by the composer. In Galileo (1999-2005), bells swing like pendulums in tempos determined by the length of their strings, permitting the composer to make music following the laws of the pendulum, as formulated by Galileo Galilei in the 17th century.

Since 2000 the work of Johnson is less concerned with theatricality and turns more toward musical form and mathematics. From about 2004 to 2010 he worked with what he calls “rational harmonies” in pieces like 360 Chords for orchestra (2005) and Twelve (2008) for piano. In the following years one may observe, among other things, an increasing interest for rhythm, as in Vermont Rhythms (2008), Munich Rhythms (2010), Tick-Tock Rhythms (2013), and Dutch Rhythms (2018). Johnson also wrote pieces for jugglers (Three Notes for Three Jugglers, 2011; Dropping Balls, 2011), and several more ambitious projects (Seven Septets, 2007–2017 ; Counting to Seven, 2013 ; Plucking, 2015).

One must also mention a particularly important project, which occupied the composer from 1988 to 1992, the Bonhoeffer Oratorio. This is a work for two choruses, soloists and orchestra, using exclusively texts of the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945). Despite the impressive dimensions of this two-hour work, one can say that Johnson modestly stayed in the background, letting the words of Bonhoeffer come first, and for this reason he set aside his formalist research for once. Tom Johnson received in his native Colorado a religious education in a Methodist church, and one can see elsewhere too a general concern for religion, or at least for transcendence.


  1. ^ Allmusic biography
  2. ^ "Tom Johnson - Concerts, Biography & News - BBC Music". BBC. Retrieved 2020-03-26.