Really Old & Really New with Scott Johnson

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A pioneering voice of New York's fertile 1980s Downtown scene, the music of guitarist and composer Scott Johnson has, for the last 30 odd years, explored the parallels of speech and music while straddling the worlds of popular and classical music.

For this week's episode of Mixtapes, Johnson offers a century-jumping playlist of works that draw both from the worlds of the concert hall and the corner bar.

Really Old & Really New (or, Song & Dance), by Scott Johnson

There’s a big hole in the middle of this playlist -- my entire generation, and most of what we grew up on.  This isn’t for lack of tribal loyalty to my own generational cohort.  We had to make some tough decisions about the deeply insular compositional tradition that we inherited, and people on all sides of the issues did their best in a conflicted situation.

But a new world is emerging after those transitional battles, and it reminds me of an earlier period: the first half of the 20th century, when a lively avant-gard felt free to reflect upon their living popular musics -- in ways that were explicit, undisguised, and clearly audible.  Early modernists like Stravinsky or Bartok were omnivorous transformers of found influences, successfully hybridizing the concert hall and the corner bar, as generations of composers before them had -- an approach that was generally absent from prestigious modernist composition in the second half of the 20th century.

Over the last decade I’ve heard growing numbers of young composers easily and gracefully acknowledge their debts to the broader culture, and I thought it might be interesting to juxtapose this with a time when this was utterly normal.  You might say it’s unfair to bump new kids up against the top dog survivors of a century of Darwinian selection.  But that’s what eventually happens anyway, in concert halls and individual brains, so they may as well get used to it.  We’re all born into a context, and grappling with it makes us what we become.

Rock or dance beats processed through minimalism don’t sound like jazz or ragtime processed through impressionism, so these two moments have little obvious stylistic overlap.  What they share is a cultural equation: I can draw on THAT kind of thing to make THIS kind of thing.  Some of those early modernists might have seen the often consonant harmonies of today’s composers as a throwback.  But they didn’t grow up with the distant outcomes of their own experiments, and it’s certainly natural for the 21st century to talk back to the 20th -- just as modernists did to the 19th.

One thing that appears to set this new populism apart from the old is the embrace of our modern vernacular’s electric instruments (at last! says this aging electric guitarist).  But what instruments might Ravel have heard while having a drink in the dance hall?  Plenty of clarinets and violins, overlapping with the concert hall.  And remember, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto was written for one of America’s most popular swing bands.  Modern culture itself has changed its orchestration, and today’s composers are not violating a traditional stance when they use the available resources.  They are simply reinstating a natural equation.

I’ve included 2 transgressions against my premise in this playlist.  Louis Andriessen provides a bridge not only between these generations, but between continents.  He’s known people from both of these eras, and is one of the few European composers of his generation who didn’t strip their music of references to American popular music.  European post-modernism tends to reflect on their own classical past, but Andriessen is as concerned with living culture as American post-modernists have generally been.

Finally, the Britten is here for reasons that have nothing to do with popular music.  It’s a reminder to myself.  Attention to everyday human life is, I think, a necessary element in a thriving musical culture.  But it‘s not sufficent for all of the goals of music.  There is a sense of the sublime, of wonder at the universe beyond our little human corner, for which popular culture does not offer the best tool set.  Despite repeated and ongoing attempts by religion to hijack this aspect of our existence, awe predates such cultural constructs.  The urge to express this is as firmly rooted in our physical brains as the mating urge that generated all of those dance tunes. 


  • Charles Ives - In the Cage (performed by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra)
  • Tyondai Braxton - Uffe's Workshop
  • Igor Stravinsky - Ebony Concerto (performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy  and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester)
  • Judd Greenstein - Clearing, Dawn, Dance (performed by yMusic)
  • Bela Bartok - String Quartet #5: Scherzo: Alla bulgarese (vivace) (performed by Julliard String Quartet)
  • Gabriel Kahane - Song (performed by yMusic)
  • Louis Andriessen - Schultz Song (performed by Volharding Orchestra)
  • Missy Mazzoli - A Song for Mick Kelly (performed by Victoire)
  • William Brittelle - Acropolis, What Did I Expect?
  • Igor Stravinsky - 3 Pieces for String Quartet (performed by Tokyo String Quartet)
  • Oneohtrix Point Never - Child Soldier
  • David T. Little - Sweet Light Crude (performed by Newspeak)
  • Benjamin Britten - Moonlight (performed by André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra)