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Mathematician and early minimalist composer Dennis Johnson has died

Inspiring La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano, November was written for solo piano in 1959

Dennis Johnson died on 20 December 2018. Writing to Mark Harwood of Penultimate Press, the label that co-released, with Irritable Hedgehog, R Andrew Lee's performance of Johnson's groundbreaking composition November, Johnson's family said, "Denny climbed his last mountain today at noon. No ropes. No protection. No more limits."

Johnson was born in LA on 19 November 1938. In 1959 Johnson was at UCLA studying music alongside La Monte Young and Terry Jennings. It was there that Johnson would perform November, the piece that Young would credit for inspiring his famed The Well-Tuned Piano, written five years later in 1964. Although quite possibly the first record of a minimalist composition, Johnson's November was not transcribed until over three decades later. The piece, Johnson recalls in an interview with Clive Bell, was the fruit of a practice session on Jennings's grand piano, and nurtured in the practice rooms at UCLA. “I would just sit down at the piano and diddle, and listen, and it would slowly grow, like out of a seed”, he explained.

For years, November only existed in the form a 100 minute long cassette that was noisy, warped and featured a barking family dog. Kyle Gann penned the score from the original recording in 1992, with the help of a partial score that Johnson wrote in the 1980s. The outcome, performed in 2013 by pianist R Andrew Lee, requires several pages of improvisation.

Later he would write a another piece titled The Second Machine, but in 1966 he would stop composition for another major passion, geometry.

“There was some kind of a rift between me and La Monte”, Johnson explained to Bell. “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.”

Johnson would come to work at the NASA-affiliated Caltech research university in Pasadena. He contributed to the engineering of robots for a space probe to Mars.

Eric Pinoit, who is in the process of writing a documentary The Mystery Of All The Unknown Rivers, about Johnson and the beginnings of minimalism in music, tells of his “love affair with the rivers”, with the greatest passion for rock climbing and kayaking.

Johnson would continue to play piano and improvise during the 1980s and 1990s. In his later years he lived alone in Kensington, CA. He died at Pacific Hills Manor nursing home in Morgan Hill, California. He had been diagnosed with dementia.