Music Review: November, by Dennis Johnson

07/25/2014

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The musical avant-garde has created a number of very long pieces of music. Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, for example, runs for around six hours; other works by the same composer last from one to four hours. La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano runs around five to six hours. John Cage’s As SLow aS Possible runs from 20 to 70 minutes, but a performance underway in St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, began in 2001 and should take about 639 years. Other long works include Erik Satie’s Vexations, which runs somewhere around 28 hours. But the latter two works are more gimmicks than anything else; Satie’s piece is merely one minute-and-a-half piece played 840 times.

Length does not equal quality, but in the area of minimalist music – this is the minimalism of sparseness, not that of repetition, such as the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass – the listener enters a sound world that moves at a different pace from the world around them. Listening to such works – Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet is an excellent example of this – forces the listener to rethink what music is and how it is heard and experienced. I like music of this type which slows me down and makes me listen differently. In many ways, November, as with many of Morton Feldman’s works, is as much like looking at a painting as it is like listening to a work for piano. It’s beautiful music that moves in slow motion.

Dennis Johnson’s November is one such piece. It was composed in 1959, and, as Kyle Gann says in the liner notes to this new recording, “was glacially calm and meditative in the extreme.” Gann obtained a cassette tape from La Monte Young; “It was one of those thin, unreliable 120- minute cassettes, and the pitch wobbled badly.” He set out to transcribe the work, and eventually obtained a copy of the manuscript from the composer. But this score was far from perfect:

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!”

Pianist R. Andrew Lee found himself interested by the piece. “My interest was first prompted by an Everest Complex, if you will. I attended Kyle Gann and Sarah Cahill’s landmark performance in 2009, and I really enjoyed the piece. I had also heard Kyle talk about November’s importance and read his posts on the subject. I’d like to think these factors influenced my decision to try it in the first place, but, if I’m being really honest with myself, I just wanted to see if I could do it.”

This recording, just shy of five hours, takes up that gauntlet and offers to the listener a unique work of subtle music, built around recurring motifs that become familiar, similar to the work of Morton Feldman, yet with its own style.

You can listen to this work in many ways. Few are those who would sit in front of their stereos for five hours; you can listen to one disc at a time (it’s on four discs, or four files if you purchase it by download), you can listen to a half-hour or so, then move on, or you can put it on as you work, and shift from paying close attention to having it flow by in the background. I think all these options are fine, but the longer you listen to the music actively, the more it becomes a meditation.

Pianist Lee sums up his feelings about this work:

I do not play this piece because of an Everest Complex, nor do I play it even because of its incredible historical significance.

I play it because I love it.

And that’s as good a reason as any to listen to it.

Update: Listen to Kyle Gann discussing November, and hear excerpts, on this WNYC Spinning on Air show: