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15 Questions to Aaron Krister Johnson

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I'm great, thanks! I'm sitting in front of my laptop at home, which sits atop my digital piano/synthesizer/mixer setup.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I'm busy teaching, playing gigs, including my regular gig as organist/pianist at one of Chicago's largest synagogues. I'm trying to find the time to compose and practice more, but right now life is in transition due to the birth of my first child, a girl, on May 3rd. It has been wonderful, and she is a beautiful thing! Down the road, I plan on resuming composing more for the theater, and actually getting the microtonal festival that I've always dreamed of to be a reality (so far, I've managed to put up a rudimentary website at steps....)

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
Yes and no. There are certainly a lot of talented people doing music at present, but the whole scene seems more and more fragmented, a process I see as accelerating. Classical music record sales have always been low, esp. for newer music. The mp3/ogg thing and the internet music scene have been both a blessing and a curse--one can "set up shop" and give one's stuff away, but now people expect free music! Creative musicians, unless they are one of the lucky few to be backed by huge mega-corporations, are finding it harder and harder to make money on their creativity. At least I can speak for myself. So I teach, and play services, etc. to eat and pay the mortgage. What I love, I mean *really* love to do, I get paid very little for.

I think personally the future is alternate tunings--new sonic flavors, new wine in old bottles, or what have you. Just Intonations, non-12 divisions of the octave, etc. So I'm excited by the work I've done and that quite a few others have done in this area. Of course, there are big name pioneers in this area:  Harry Partch, Wendy Carlos, Lou Harrison, Ben Johnston, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and John Chowning to name a few. Some of my colleagues who I think are doing great important work and deserve more of a spotlight are Prent Rodgers, Kraig Grady (an important West Coast musician as well as the maintainer of the archives of Erv Wilson, an important tuning theorist), Christopher Bailey, Kyle Gann (also one of the best living music critics), Jeff Harrington, Daniel Wolf, Erling Wold, Michael Harrison, Neil Haverstick, Jon Szanto (who played with Partch as a percussionist), Rick McGowan, Marcus Hobbs, Jacky Ligon. You even see interest in this as well with very talented individuals from the Middle East such as Shaahin Mohaajeri. Actually, this is not at all surprising when you consider that both Arabic culture and Greek culture have a rich history and legacy of tuning theory. There is also important work being done as well by some tuning theory 'gurus' who also compose and/or perform on the side--Gene Ward Smith, Paul Erlich, Joe Monzo, Margo Schulter, George Secor, Carl Lumma. The list is huge and healthy, forgive me if I neglect to mention some, as I surely did. These people, and the many other unmentioned others, all open doors that had never been opened, or haven't been opened for centuries. Many of the people mentioned 'hang out' and share music and ideas on the tuning mailing-list, now hosted by Yahoo.

One of the most compelling things about the alternate tuning universe for me is that it's one way to get more mileage out of tonality, and I'm all for that. It's a vast, under-explored territory, and one of the last true frontiers in music. I love it.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
I guess I take it to mean "recent", or it could be viewed as "this is different than what had come before". The best music, in my opinion, is never self-consciously "new", but reflects at least the bit of the best past music(s) in fresh ways. Or, it comes from an organic, unconscious place of pure creation. That's rare.

I feel that my best and most original inspiration comes from writing works that owe an awful lot to the past masters. I must confess, I'm not hip to a lot of bleeding edge trends in music. I have the reaction Sibelius had to it: give me space to be alone in the forest (or my little studio!), away from trends. Communing with nature, my inner self, and the past is the 'way' for me.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
Simple: all composition is sound. One may be, I suppose, more or less conservative and admit only a small subset of sounds, which is perfectly legal and valid.

I suspect you are asking "how valid is noise" in "music". I'd say it's a great thing, very useful. After all, there are more noises (aperiodic waveforms) in the universe of sounds than periodic or quasi-periodic ones.  We might as well put them to work!

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I think of composition as 'edited improvisation'. I definitely improvise differently than I compose, so I guess in that sense they are separate for me. I love both, for different reasons. Sometimes when improvising I come upon very simple powerful ideas that I know I wouldn't have consciously composed, because I might say "that's too obvious" or something, so I realize that primitive essence in improvisation is important. Other times, I think my improvising comes out lousy (these days less so thank heavens), so I want to 'edit' !

How would you define the term “interpretation”?
How person 'x' performs and is sensitive or not to the parameters and/or latent vision in a work by person 'y'

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?
I'm for freedom. I'm also for defining boundaries. I think this is for individual creative people to define for themselves. Creative spirits march on, and always have, against the aesthetic proclamations of theorists.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?

I wouldn't draw a border. Aesthetic borders can only be subjective in nature. That said, I think there is an awful lot of alienating music being written that is badly self-conscious in that its authors want to be perceived as naughty iconoclasts. I tend to yawn at such stuff.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?

I think good folk music of ages past can be considered crystallized purity of musical instinct, great stuff. All the masters through the ages found inspiration there.

Today, I think there is a wide gap between John Adams and Brittany Spears, yes. Definitions like those can be limiting, but sometimes useful.

A friend of mine, John Serkin, once said "great music bows to the cosmos". I like that idea, but I'm not sure I convinced him that the Beatles at their best "bowed to the cosmos". I don't think Brittany does, but I guess a Taoist would say she does in a sense.

Let's just say my daughter will hear more Bach than Brittany Spears and leave it at that!

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
Personally, no. Value in art I think has nothing to do with its political statement, at least for me.

True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can really appreciate it.

False. However, the more you hear, the more you hear....

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
I guess I don't know or can't say.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
First, I would do a lot of research and homework. I would cover people that are not covered elsewhere that I believed in. We tend to hear a lot of the same big names everywhere. I'm anti-monopoly in this way--let's hear this other, near-obscure work or composer, who has a day job, but writes music unlike anyone else by night! (perhaps I'm projecting?)

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Not a clue. Right now, I'm attracted to the idea of perfecting my vision of what to do in smaller forms. Some of my favorite things come in small packages: Bartok's "Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm", Schumann's "Kinderscenen", Mompou's piano music. However, I'd love to write something on a par with Sibelius' 5th symphony one day (I mentioned Sibelius before, he's one of my favorites). Right now I'm very inspired by my explorations of early composers like Dunstable, Obrecht, Ockeghem, etc. I love the purity of their music, and I'm a fan of beautiful counterpoint, and nowhere is it better than in the Renaissance (save Bach, where it is at least equal). I also love exploring strange and surreal improvisations with Andy Hasenpflug (i.e. my duo 'Divide by Pi').

Works (extract):
On this good soil, let our automatons play in piece... (2006)
Theme and Variations from The Madwoman of Chaillot... (2006)
Study for Kyle Gann... (2005)
Praeludium distretto/Contrapunctus null/Eat My Two-Against-Three/ADD Crisis Center (2005)
Peer Gynt Music

(with Divide by Pi)
Ice Ritual (2004)

Aaron Krister Johnson

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