Dennis Johnson’s “November” : minimalism before minimalism was cool

dennis johnson1

Back in 1960 three friends, all students at UCLA, invented minimalism:  La Monte Young, Terry Jennings and Dennis Johnson (Terry Riley would soon join them but he was not at UCLA).  Of these, Dennis Johnson is credited with writing the very first piece of music that later came to be called Minimalist: his four (to six) hour work for piano called November.

Dennis-Johnson-letterLa Monte Young met Johnson in 1957 after overhearing him practicing the Webern Variations for piano, they quickly became friends.  Along with Terry Jennings they would form the nucleus of a style that later inspired Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  But back in the late ’50s, 1957-1959 to be exact, Dennis Johnson was writing works like Din, with 40 performers in a darkened hall clapping, screaming, shuffling feet, and so on; or a work using only four pitches, titled The Second Machine, and in 1959 November, a slow piano piece that was only available for years on a cassette with terrible fidelity, and which cut out after the first 100 measures.
JohnsonNovember-ms-1 That cassette offered the “only” 112 minutes of November, a work that was rumored to last as long as six hours but there was no score, or anyway to realize the work without Dennis Johnson’s help. The problem was that Johnson left music in 1962, and, in fact, dropped off the map entirely shortly after.  No phone, no internet; he went as much off the grid as a person could get.  Dennis Johnson was finally found with the help of other California composers, and he sent a six page score of melodic cells and a graph offering a method of connecting them to Kyle Gann.

Gann transcribed the entire work and made a recording. (Kyle Gann is a composer and author of five books on American music. He was new-music critic for the Village Voice from 1986 to 2005, and has taught music theory and history at Bard College since 1997.)

Recorded July 24th, 2012 by R. Andrew Lee on the Richard Cass Memorial Steinway, White Hall, University of Missouri, Kansas City – can be purchased here.

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