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November in December - remembering Dennis Johnson

The Sound Barrier for Sunday 30 December 2018

On 20 December this year, American composer and mathematician Dennis Johnson died. He might not be hugely known for many things, but those for which he is known have been of seminal importance.

And perhaps the most significant of these is his composition November, a huge work for solo piano, spanning almost five hours and, composed in 1959, now recognised as the seminal work of modern tonal minimalism.

It lay pretty well unknown for many years until it came to the attention of musicologist Kyle Gann in 1992 who then ultimately realised it into a full score, working with the scribbled fragments of the scores only manuscript, a degraded old cassette of part of a performance of it, and some conversations with the composer himself, whose own memory at the time was failing.

The result is an immersive work that foreshadows much else that has been associated with the minimalist movement, from the The Well-Tuned Piano of La Monte Young to much later works such as Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories.

This weekend on The Sound Barrier I will be introducing this remarkable work to you, explaining some of its structure, the process by which its score was realised, and its significance in the story of 20th-century music, as well as bringing you some sizeable excerpts from the magnificent recording of it, released as a 4 CD set, by Irritable Hedgehog and Penultimate Press in 2013.

Presenting music in excerpts is something I rarely do on The Sound Barrier, but this is such an extraordinary work and, while its epic duration prevents me from bringing you the whole piece, its historical significance and its musical beauty are just too great for me to not bring to you what I can, and tell you about it as much as I am able, as a tribute to this vital though rarely-known composer.

I hope you will join me for this glimpse into Dennis Johnson's November, this Sunday night at 10.00 PM (AEDT) on PBS. Through PBS's diversity of broadcast platforms, you can listen in live from anywhere in the world, as well as access the audio via the website shortly after the show has gone live to air.

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