Tom Johnson, Cross Rhythms, Silkscreen on cloth, 146.5 × 139 cm, Edition of 21
Courtesy of Archivio Conz, Berlin
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  • Silkscreen on cloth
  • 146.5 × 139 cm
    (57 ⅝ × 54 ¾ inches)
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  • Tom Johnson is an American minimalist composer. His ability to combine music, mathematical structures, and written and visual language has contributed to the evolution of new reflections in contemporary music. His sounds and formulas are pared down to essentials, proximate to those of Alvin Lucier and Phill Niblock. Johnson earned two degrees at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, then moved to New York and pursued private studies with Morton Feldman. During this time, he first encountered the Fluxus movement through the members of Sonic Arts Union, where he first met Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins, and Jackson Mac Low at the WBAI studios. From 1972 to 1982, Johnson was the New Music critic of the exceptional Village Voice newspaper, covering the inception and development of minimal music in New York. Johnson wrote about the most outstanding composers and musicians of his time, including Steve Reich, Alvin Lucier, Nam June Paik, La Monte Young. The book The Voice of New Music, published in 1983, is an anthology of his articles. During this same period, Johnson composed some of his best-known pieces, such as The Four-Note Opera (1972), Failing (1975), and Nine Bells (1979). The influential An Hour for Piano from 1972 is distinguished by the exact one-hour duration and constant tempo and is accompanied by a program to be read while listening. Although characterized by a linear narrative quality, the text is not intended to tell a story, but rather to make the listener aware of the formal structure of the piece, the performance development, and the listening process. Mathematical concepts and a logical sequence drive Johnson’s musical minimalism. According to the artist’s own words in his text “Found Mathematical Objects,” numbers predate all other things, which means their concepts are eternal, and music derived from mathematics can be linked to infinity. More recent compositions such as The Chord Catalog (1989), Tick-Tock Rhythms (2013), and Dutch Rhythms (2018), which he describes as “rational harmonies,” precisely investigate the relationship between sound and numerical combinations. In 1983, Johnson settled in Paris and married Esther Ferrer. In 2001, he received the Contemporary Composition Prize at the Victoires de la Musique. Besides having performed internationally, Johnson’s discography counts more than thirty titles. Since 2018, he has been curating the Illustrated Music series on his YouTube channel, dedicated entirely to explaining his scores and notations.

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