Dennis Johnson's newly recorded piece November, which inspired La Monte Young's The Well Tuned Piano, rewrites the history of minimalism. Clive Bell talks to the elusive mathematician.

Dennis Johnson lives in a very small house – in his words, “a shack, 15 by 17” – in the Bay area of California. No computer, nothing to play music on. “I had an electric piano for a while. But my place is so tiny, that piano covered the wall halfway across the house!” he laughs. “I just wasn’t using it any more and I passed it on.” In fact Johnson hasn’t had much of anything to do with music since around 1962, when he finished studying it at UCLA. Which makes his story all the more remarkable, because a piece he composed in 1959, titled November, has recently resurfaced, and it may be the first ever minimalist composition.

1964 is year zero for minimalism, when La Monte Young’s The Well Tuned Piano and Terry Riley’s In C appeared. But their fellow UCLA student Johnson seems to have got to the Minimalist ballpark five years earlier. La Monte Young said later that Johnson was the only person in the 1950s, aside from Jennings and Terry Riley, to understand his music. November inspired Young, five years later, to create The Well Tuned Piano. Young considers this his masterpiece, and it’s one of the defining works of American minimalism.

A few years ago, Johnson told Young that he’d had enough of the 21st century and was going ‘off-grid’. No email, and for long periods his phone remained unanswered. But Mark Harwood, of Penultimate Press, had the number, and got through to Johnson last year. This spring Harwood, in collaboration with the Irritable Hedgehog label, are releasing a 4CD performance of November by pianist R Andrew Lee.

With Harwood’s help, I spoke to Johnson by phone. Now in his mid-seventies, Johnson would be the first to admit his memory is fraying, but in person he’s likeable and generous to a fault. I asked how he feels being hailed as the first composer to write minimalist music. He answered: "That’s interesting. Tell me again, the meaning of minimalist?"

Let’s try to recapture UCLA in 1959: Johnson and Young are music students, engaged, along with their friend Terry Jennings, in animated musical debate, banter and experiment. Young first meets Johnson by opening the door of a practice room: inside Johnson is tackling Webern’s Piano Variations. Cage and Stockhausen are in the air.

Johnson conducts Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 for 12 radios. The students share in the new excitement about chance operations and indeterminacy in music, about sound that could elude its composer. Few compositions by Johnson are known, but at one point he hands La Monte a piece of paper on which is written the word "LISTEN".

One of the younger lecturers is organising a group to play Japanese gagaku court music, so Johnson is learning to play the hichiriki, the brash oboe that carries gagaku’s melody. A rank whiff of the times comes steaming off a prankish letter sent by Johnson to Young (below): "Dear Lamonte, SO YOU THINK THERE ARENT ENUF THINGS TO DO NEW (DEW NO) – [written inside a box] ART IS A FART (and vice versa of course) – [and turn the page around 90 degrees] You’re right fuck everything, fuck fucking." Young kept this hectic epistle, and reproduced it in his 1963 book An Anthology.

Johnson recalls his pals with affection: “Only La Monte and I were actually studying in a university or anything of that kind, Terry was just a natural… I don’t think he ever had a teacher in any way. They had a grand piano and from childhood he must have started playing. It was impossible [to debate] with Terry, he was so quiet, he would listen and smile, and when he said anything, it would come out of the blue.”

CB: Terry wrote piano pieces at that time?
DJ: We’d see each other frequently. It was hard to get to Terry however, because the family didn’t appreciate it. Well, they didn’t like La Monte and I, we were just lower middle class (laughs).
CB: Terry’s family was high class?
DJ: Upper class.
CB: …And they had a piano?
DJ: Yes indeed, and that piano I’m pretty sure was… I started playing one day while I was there, and I think I got it [November] started then. And when I went back to UCLA I started working on the piece.

Young later credited November with inspiring his The Well Tuned Piano, but no transcription of it existed until now. In 1992 Young passed a hiss-filled 100 minute cassette to Kyle Gann, with the proviso that Johnson’s piece could in theory be six hours long. Gann set about transcribing the cassette, which weebled at unstable speeds, and included the barking of the Jennings family dog. He managed to contact Johnson, who sent him a partial score from the 80s.

Gann describes Johnson’s manuscript as "kind of a wonderful mess, full of arrows, cross-outs, and hesitant verbal directions sometimes taken back with the afterthought 'No!'" But Johnson made it clear in a letter to Gann that the cassette, rather than the manuscript, "must stand as the primary example of the piece." After considerable, painstaking work, Gann completed a score for the work’s first couple of hours; after that, the pianist improvises against further notated material, with a total length of between four and five hours. Listening to R Andrew Lee perform November at Cafe Oto this March, the effect is of a drifting, suspended soundworld, made up of simple elements. There is a clear tonality, modulating now and then to different keys. This contrasts with Terry Jennings’s 1958 Piano Piece, which is clearly atonal – and the Jennings lasts less than two minutes. Jennings’s early piano works can be heard, in exquisite performances by John Tilbury, on the 2010 Another Timbre release Lost Daylight.

November has no metrical beat: its single notes and dense cluster chords hover in a melancholy space. Johnson has said he was trying to capture the slow onset of winter. The piece seems to be modular, endlessly remaking itself by adding to material.

CB: Did November have a mathematical system?
DJ: No, I don’t think so. I would just sit down at the piano and diddle, and listen, and it would slowly grow, like out of a seed.
CB: …You were working in an intuitive way, not with a system?
DJ: Definitely not. There might have been some such things underground, but they just came out… Even now when I do mathematics it seems to be that way.
CB: After that time you went more into mathematics?
DJ: Yes, I wonder why? Well, I don’t really wonder – there was some kind of a rift between me and La Monte. He moved to New York at some point, and that was an ideal environment for him. It took me some time to go over there, and he was established by that time, and he had been writing. By this time I had sort of fallen away from the music, and was studying mathematics. I even tried to get him and his wife [Marian Zazeela] to learn things about geometry (laughs). They tried, but we had to give up! I thought it was such a beautiful thing, the beauty in geometry. I talked to him that way, and they asked me, ‘Why do you do it?’ And I told them, it comes like a flower, you start from a seed and all these things grow up to be beautiful flowers… And you have tools, called algebra, you can use it to help make the flowers grow. So they decided to learn geometry, but it was hopeless. I mean, I was a bad teacher because I wasn’t patient enough, and I was a terrible taskmaster.

November’s similarities with Young’s piece are clear: both are steadily permutating accumulations of themes and improvisations, and both crash through the boundaries of what was considered an acceptable time span for a concert piece. However, Young likes to work at a drone, and so The Well Tuned Piano feels more Indian-influenced (Young was a passionate student of Indian music). And of course, Young tunes his piano in a strange variety of Just Intonation – a tuning he kept secret for the next three decades – so every note rings with exotic colour.

Listening to November, you might discern echoes of Webern or jazz, but any obviously Eastern quality is absent. (Unless you say, for example, that Johnson’s careful use of empty space recalls Japanese visual art, and the concept of ma.) All the same, as a West coast student Johnson was encountering Asian culture, including via his hichiriki practice for the gagaku group. “That was at UCLA also,” he recalls. “One of the professors was very interested in the whole eastern part of the world. Not just music, but the histories of Java and Bali. I was enamoured with those things too, I really wanted to go there! There were some things that appealed to me, they gave me a new view of the world, and this has always attracted me. Even when they contradict the other ones that I know. And I can’t throw any of them away. Even now, even though the energy source is currently much lower, I still want to fly through all the things that you can find.”

Half a century later, Johnson is still practising his beloved geometry, still watching those flowers grow. But these days he’s in 3D, a kind of geometry that enables the viewer to move around within a mathematical environment. When I express amazement that Johnson is doing all this (and hoping to publish a book with a colleague) without any computer equipment, he explains that he uses a system similar to the cardboard red and blue glasses used for watching 3D films. But his lenses are Polaroid, so they can deal with colour, and he has talked to Apple about producing a machine along these lines… During this part of our conversation I become completely lost.

Johnson spent time employed at Caltech, the private research university in Pasadena, California, with links to the NASA space programme. Here he contributed to research that culminated in the engineering of robots for a space probe to Mars. This could be the Viking Mars landing of 1976, which sent back the first colour pictures of the planet, or even the Mars Science Laboratory landing in August 2012. "It might have been lying around," says Johnson of his research, "and then twenty years later they said, 'Well maybe we can use this!'"

If November is a composition that effectively vanished for 50 years, suddenly reappearing and forcing us to rewrite musical history, there’s an uncanny parallel with Johnson’s Martian mathematics.

Johnson certainly makes this job sound idyllic. "At that time I moved further east," he remembers, "into this tiny little place in the mountains, with a population of about twenty people. It was so beautiful. I got an arrangement that I didn’t have to go to the workplace. I could do the work at home, and they would call me every now and then and give me a problem, and I’d get something finished and come down and explain it. I love being up in the mountains where nature rules. I feel that’s the primary thing that drives me, from being a small boy. Even in Los Angeles there are small places that are mysterious and wonderful."

Although I never ask him to specify a date, Johnson repeatedly apologises that he can’t manage dates and time sequences any more. "I wish I’d written things down," he sighs, and then remembers that he did. Spring-cleaning recently, he came across four or five scrapbooks, which may go as far back as his UCLA years. It seems there could still be a lot more to be discovered about Dennis Johnson.

My brother, Robert Jacobs, was Dennis Johnson's roommate at UCLA for at least a year. When Dennis had his major concert at UCLA, in Royce Hall, I performed in this concert when I was 15 years old. I'm now 70, and when this article resurfaced, my brother told me the story of his time at UCLA, studying music, and his close connection to Dennis. Rob was also named best musician at L.A. City College, and had a recital in his honor. I think it was in 1958. We had both performed in the Meremblum Symphony, (L.A.Phil Jr. Symphony) for years. I, 1st chair on the tenor trombone, and Rob playing 2nd clarinet. I believe he also performed in the Inglewood Symphony, not sure how long.

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