Sounds Heard: Scott Johnson—Americans
i. Universal Phenomenon from Americans
Composer/guitarist Scott Johnson has a knack for orchestrating the pitches and rhythms of recorded speech, and has evolved a signature style over the years, which combines this technique with elements of his rock music-inspired upbringing. Since Johnson’s early work from the 1980s, John Somebody (which completely blew me away when I first heard it in college), his music has developed and expanded in a unique direction, with increased depth and complexity on all fronts. His most recent CD Americans, takes that ball and runs with it.
The CD’s title track is a three-movement exploration of material culled from interviews with immigrants in Queens, New York. Intended both as a work of concert music and as musical interludes for Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America, a multi-media and book project by Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan, the triptych presents recorded interviews mixed with an ensemble of standard bar band joined by an eclectic assortment of melodic instruments. The first movement, “Universal Phenomenon,” is a blustery, ebullient jumble of musical snippets derived from a Chinese immigrant commenting that, “Americans all look the same to me.” “Your Host,” the second movement, is a melting pot of voices—hosted by a Romanian DJ—injected into a complex instrumentation flipping back and forth between passages flavored with American rock and Eastern European performance styles. The darker, slower, more overtly lyrical third movement, “Continental Divide,” illuminates the conflicted thoughts of a young Afghan-American after the events of September 11th. Here the instrumental ensemble provides space and breathing room for the voice recording without sacrificing the catchy grooves and lush instrumental arrangements established in the previous two sections.
The rest of the works on the Americans disc are purely instrumental, minus the taped vocals. The Illusion of Guidance has a stylistic quality similar to the composition Americans—in fact one wonders if it was composed with a recorded accompaniment that was ultimately removed from the mix—with a more linear structure and development of content. Its exuberant tone evokes images of a cast of diverse characters excitedly sharing stories around a campfire. Bowery Haunt for two electric guitars brings power chords and a progressive rock edge to a reminiscence on the heyday of CBGB’s. Anthem Hunt—a movement from a larger dance score entitled Pact—is a delightfully quirky work for electric guitar, electric bass, cello, and guitar.
Effectively combining so many plugged-in instruments with orchestral instruments in a recording is no small feat, and the technical quality of this CD is excellent. The sound is clear, present, and natural throughout; every instrument can be easily heard even through busy, full textures. All the better to enjoy the vibrant, confident performances given by the musicians.
Although there is very little provided in the way of program notes—a little disappointing since Johnson is also a talented writer of words—the short descriptions and comments he provides (in keeping with his compositional habit, perhaps?) are definitely provocative, and provide just enough imagery to direct the intent of the music while allowing the listener to find his/her own pathway into the compositions.