12 O'Clock Track: November, the pioneering piano minimalism of Dennis Johnson



Do you have some time on your hands? I hope so, because today's 12 O'Clock Track easily ranks as the longest one the Reader has ever offered up, clocking in at one hour, ten minutes, and 21 seconds. That's only about a fourth of the total duration of a stunning new recording of November, a protominimalist masterpiece written by Dennis Johnson, a cohort of composers like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Terry Jennings at UCLA in the late 50s. Young has cited the piece as an important influence on his magnum opus The Well-Tuned Piano, but until the Irritable Hedgehog label released a new version of the work meticulously and patiently performed by R. Andrew Lee the epic had never been commercially available—and it seems as though it had only been performed a couple of times. New York composer and critic (and onetime Reader contributor) Kyle Gann learned about the piece while writing about Young, who in 1992 gave him a cassette—of unknown provenance, but dated 1959—featuring 112 minutes of the Johnson work.

Gann became obsessed with it, and once technology allowed him to easily digitize the recording in the mid-aughts he set about transcribing it by ear. Johnson sent him a copy of November's six-page manuscript, but since the composer was in frail health and his memory was failing, he wasn't able to fully explain how diagrams illustrating how the core melodic cells were combined—Gann set about doing it himself based on the cassette recording. Notations on the manuscript were dated 1970-71, while another passage read "Dec. 1988," making the temporal origins of the piece increasingly murky. Gann had heard rumors that November was intended to roll on for six hours, and over the years he fleshed out Johnson's manuscript, adding variations and elaborations based on the composer's notes. He and fellow pianist Sarah Cahill premiered the new version in September of 2009 at the 2nd International Conference on Minimalist Music at the University of Missourri at Kansas City, with the musicians alternating turns each hour. Irritable Hedgehog owner and fellow composer David D. McIntire and pianist Lee were two of the nineteen people at the concert, and they were suitably moved to make this gorgeous recording, which boldly shows off the composer's early embrace of additive composition. New information is slowly added to the most basic materials, unfolding measuredly to create a hypnotizing, beautiful epic. The four discs—totaling just under five hours—are packaged in a glossy cardboard box with an illuminating 20-page booklet featuring essays by Gann, McIntire, Lee, and Mark Harwood.

Add a comment