Tom Johnson

Interview with Dan Warburton
March 2007


Anyone interested in the seismic changes that new music underwent in early 1970s New York City (and that should include most of you) will sooner or later come across the name of Tom Johnson, if only because his collected reviews for the Village Voice remain a historical reference document of seminal importance. But Tom Johnson's career as a music journalist is only part of the story: since relocating to France in the mid 1980s he's pursued his first love, composition. While many of the minimalists whose work he enthusiastically championed back in the early glory days of the Kitchen have now moved back into the material comfort of the mainstream, Tom Johnson is one of the few first generation minimalists – others include his friends Alvin Lucier and Phill Niblock – who's "kept on going"; in Johnson's case exploring the precision and pure beauty of mathematics and translating it into music. And brilliant though you think this interview might be, it won't mean much if you're not prepared to go the extra mile and visit Johnson's magnificent website (the URL is linked at the end of the text): there you'll find a comprehensive biography, discography and list of works (all scores are available directly from Johnson's Editions 75), as well as his complete works as a journalist. The interview took place over two afternoons in Tom Johnson's studio in Paris. - DW

There's one thing you wrote in your review of Symmetries, a phrase that keeps coming back, where you say you prefer [Feldman's] Crippled Symmetry (laughs). I love Crippled Symmetry too! Morton Feldman was my teacher, and nobody wrote more beautiful music than Feldman. Maybe you're right and I should try to write some crippled symmetries myself! Feldman was against all systems, and he stopped me using them. I had to start working just with sounds instead. He was the first teacher I believed strongly enough to do what he said. I was about 28 at the time, and I sort of figured I didn't know how to compose so maybe I'd better listen. He had quite an ear, and he'd listen to what I brought in and said, you wrote this this way, didn't you? And that really surprised me, every week, how well he could hear. A couple of years after I'd finished studying with him I ran into him one day and I told him I was going back to systems. He said, I knew you would! (laughs).

What took you to Feldman in the first place?

I met Morty in a summer composers' course at Bennington College [Vermont] in 1965. But I had to finish my studies at Yale so I wasn't free. My lessons with him in New York were a way of counteracting the propaganda I was getting at Yale. They didn't like that stuff there. There was one professor who asked once if anybody in the class liked Feldman and I raised my hand. I was the only one, of course. He was shocked. I ruined his whole day. And I got a "C" for his course.

But how did you get into that kind of stuff if it was frowned upon at Yale?

I'd been down to New York before I got drafted, back in 62 and 63, and there were a couple of performances of Feldman I'd attended. And there was an LP of his out, Durations I think it was.

What kind of systems were you interested in at the time?

I was doing experiments with rolling dice and picking notes by chance. Back at Yale in 67 I wrote a paper called Music as Machine, about how you could run melodies through a Markov Chain, which I'd discovered reading William Ross Ashby's book Introduction to Cybernetics, [Chapman & Hall, 1956, ISBN 0-416-68300-2, also available in electronic form as a PDF from Principia Cybernetica], all about machines and circuits. I was fascinated by mechanical processes. I think I was still choosing the pitches, though.

You must have passed through the 20th century classic repertoire before getting to Feldman, I suppose..

Oh sure, Yale was very good for that. Allen Forte was the main theory teacher, so that was state of the art twelve tone theory there. We got to use computers a little, but not for composition. He was only interested in analysing twelve tone music. Analysis didn't turn me on that much. We had to study it with Forte, and I had a teacher who used twelve tone series in his compositions, but only really when he felt like it.. he was always above that. I couldn't really appreciate that: if you're going to use a system you should use a system, and respect the system. All those sort of doubtful followers of twelve tone religion didn't impress me too much.
Cage and his crowd were another religion. I didn't have any contact with Cage until he came to Yale to give a lecture. And there were only two people from the music school who went to it. There were about 600 others but only two of us. That was quite striking. I didn't really talk with him until a few years later when I was living in New York, when we'd meet up at concerts. We had mutual friends like Fred Rzewski, and I got to know him rather well towards the end of his life. We'd get together every time he came through Paris – he knew my wife Esther.

You must have quite a few Feldman anecdotes.

There's the one I mentioned in the introduction to a piece called Spaces, which I wrote in 1969. One day he said, Tom I know you're not really a student any more, but I'd like to give you an assignment if you don't mind. Next week, instead of bringing in a piece, bring me just six or seven chords that you like and let's start with that. I'm curious to see what you bring in. Sure Morty, I said, no problem. So I dashed some off, and looked at them next day and realised I could do better than that, so I changed them, tried different transpositions, and every day I'd look at them again and say, uh-oh that sounds like a jazz chord, Morty wouldn't write that, and that one's a Feldman chord and that one's a Stravinsky chord.. like, where are my chords? So I called him up and said, erm I'm very busy could we cancel the lesson? (laughs) In fact I cancelled for three weeks, but I thought I can't keep cancelling, so one day I went in with these innocent naïve kind of chords. He played them over, he played them starting in the middle, he played them backwards. He waited a long time. Long silence. Then he played them again veeery slowly. What he was doing was giving me a listening demonstration, of course. And after a while he said, you know these seem to be really your chords, and they seem to be in the right order too! (laughs) I hadn't thought about the order.. and in fact that was maybe the first time in my life that I'd written my own music. And they formed the basis of that piece. A simple assignment became something very profound.
Feldman was important as a teacher to me because he hadn't done conservatory himself. There were a lot of things about medieval music and Schenker and stuff like that that he didn't know, because he'd never studied them. But there were a lot of things he'd got from Wallingford Riegger, Stefan Wolpe, John Cage, David Tudor that the academic teachers didn't have. He hadn't read all the books we were supposed to read but he'd read others – things like Kierkegaard's essay On Repetition, which is a minor work for Kierkegaard but very important for musicians. He suggested I read that, and it was a very important assignment for me.

When did you move to New York City?

I got my Masters degree in 1967 and went there immediately. I earned my living as an accompanist for modern dance classes, mostly at NYU, but I also played at the Graham and Cunningham schools. I didn't meet too many composers until the Kitchen opened in 71, and then immediately the minimalists were there. [Charlemagne] Palestine and [Robert] Ashley came back from California, Glass had his ensemble, and there was Rhys Chatham, Garrett List, Fred Rzewski. Phill Niblock was just starting to do music. And there was the Sonic Arts Union, not just Ashley, but the other three – I remember hearing them at WBAI Free Music Store – and the Fluxus people. They were in and out of New York, and I got to know Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins and Jackson Mac Low quite well. And La Monte [Young] was there.

While we're on the subject, what is your definition of minimalism?

Working with reduced means. African music working with a three-note scale is minimal in principle, wouldn't you say? It's a universal principle, not just an idea from the 70s; it can come back at any moment, and often does, in any culture. In New York at that time the influence of the visual arts was important too. The term minimalism comes from sculpture. I didn't know those guys personally but I went to their exhibitions. I remember the Incomplete Cube exhibition made a big impression on me at that time. There was a book of interviews with those guys that I enjoyed too.

Was the music you were writing at that time already moving in that direction?

Yes, I wanted to simplify everything, as everybody else was doing, get away from this oppression of the twelve tone system and the post-Webern mafia Uptown who were censoring our music. I was a real Downtown boy. I lived on the Lower East Side at first and then moved up a bit to Greenwich Village and then back down to Grand Street in SoHo when the Kitchen was going. The first real music I wrote along those lines was An Hour For Piano, which was written in 71 and recorded in 73. The Four Note Opera was written in 72.

How did that come about?

Well, I wanted to write an opera! I had a good course in opera with Yehudi Weiner – he was a good professor and a wonderful pianist and he'd been Music Director for some opera houses and he knew the repertoire well. I learned so much from that one course. Anyway, I wanted to write an opera and I'd been influenced by [Pirandello's] Six Characters In Search Of An Author and I started out thinking, let's do "Four Singers In Seach Of A Composer." I was writing very simple melodies, which were all coming out like nursery rhymes, pentatonic.. And one day I looked at the sketches I had and realised some of them weren't even pentatonic and I said, hey if I change this they'll all be four-note melodies – I can call this The Four Note Opera!

How did you end up as a critic?

Well, I got tired of accompanying dance classes! Even after the success of The Four Note Opera I didn't have enough to pay the $500 rent for my new loft, which was a lot of money for me at that stage. I was seeing a lot of good concerts but the Village Voice wasn't doing anything for new music at the time, so I decided to send them some reviews of mine, and I became their correspondent until 1982.

You must have attended many extraordinary concerts during that period. Are there any in particular that stick in your mind?

Oh yes. The first time I heard [Reich's] Drumming, at the Museum of Modern Art, as I recall, was amazing. Maybe they were better then than they were later, because they were playing together every day. I also remember the first time I heard Niblock's music. That was quite an experience. And Charlemagne Palestine was also at his peak as a performer at that time. He had so much energy. And a big following too; I remember once at the Kitchen the place was packed. There must have been 400 people in there. Even Phil Glass couldn't get that many people. Palestine was really a charismatic figure in SoHo, and he deserved it, because he would give everything, just destroy himself to play that Bösendorfer as long and hard as he did.

He already had the cognac and the cuddly toys?

I don't remember the cuddly toys, but I certainly remember the cognac. (laughs) Another piece that comes to mind is the world premiere of [Rzewski's] El Pueblo Unido, played by Ursula Oppens. Maybe that's because I later got to know Sergio Ortega, who wrote the song. He also wrote Venceremos, which became the Chilean national anthem. So I had a lot of emotional contact with the melody itself. And the variations that Frederic wrote are incredibly pianistic as well as intellectually satisfying.

That piece always reminds me a little too much of Beethoven.

Well, Frederic's not afraid of Beethoven. He plays the Hammerklavier very well, you know.

What would Cage have made of it?

I imagine he'd have found it too proselytizing, too moralist.

All your collected writings for the Village Voice are available on your website. Have you never thought about publishing them as a "real" book?

There was one, published by Het Apollohuis in Holland in 1989, but it went out of print, sold out all 1500 copies. By 95 it had completely sold out. Paul [Panhuysen] wanted to do another run, but what with problems with subsidies and rights and what have you, he decided he couldn't afford to do it. A few years after that, websites were getting better, and somebody helped me put it all in pdf format and put it online.

Did writing about music come naturally to you, or did you have to work at it?

I went to Yale, and they make you write correctly there. I'd done a little music journalism for a monthly magazine before the Village Voice. I think it did it well, but less well towards the end. I mean, after you've written about Phill Niblock three times it's hard to do it as well, because his music doesn't change that much! Almost all the music I was interested in was getting to be repetitive to write about, so I decided it was time for a change. When I came to Europe I gave up journalism altogether. There was a conflict of role; it was difficult to be a critic and a composer at the same time. Many people didn't know I was a composer at all, but I'd been spending three or four times as much time writing music as I did writing about it.
One thing I started doing in Europe was work for radio. There was a producer at Radio France, René Farabet, who had a two-hour programme and was very open to ideas. Almost every year I would do a piece for him. Chord Catalogue, for example, was premiered on French radio. It was nice to be paid upfront! I was never good at landing commissions. National subsidised radio was more dependable. I had a contact in Australian radio too, a program called The Listening Room which was quite adventurous, with new works every week. I did four or five different pieces for them, and there was always a budget to pay me and the musicians.

Wasn't Bedtime Stories was written as a radio piece too?

That's right. As a late night radio piece! I think the first version was for French radio, and then Hessischer Rundfunk did it. The nice thing about that was I went to Frankfurt with a recording of myself snoring! (laughs) The producer liked it and inserted a bit of me snoring after each piece. There were pieces done in Austria and Spain too. Some of them were done in different versions: Music and Questions (1989) was done in English on Australian radio and then in French and Spanish. So I got paid several times for the same piece! (laughs) But I was still giving piano concerts and playing pieces like Nine Bells. It was good that I moved to Europe when I did, because American minimalism was fashionable here from [Glass's] Einstein On The Beach in 1975 up until about 1984, and so was modern American dance technique. I had a lot of invitations to perform Nine Bells, which is a very visual piece. And quite an athletic one.

How so?

Well, you're walking and running around for about 50 minutes, because it's two metres from one bell to the next. You have to memorize the score – there's a floor pattern to follow, and you can't carry a music stand around with you. The first performance in Europe was at Riverside Studios [Hammersmith, London] in 1979, and after that I performed it quite a few times in Europe. I haven't been able to perform it for a good ten years now, though. It's a young man's piece!
There are two versions by others now that are quite good – one is by a percussionist in Berlin whose name is Adam Weissman, who plays often with Klangforum Wien. He got interested in this piece and made his own bells out of iron. They're very resonant, and the fundamental pitches are not quite as clear as mine. He does it very well. Hopefully he'll be invited to the Why Note festival in Dijon in November, which is doing quite a lot of my music this year.
Then there's another version of Nine Bells by a group in Bourg-en-Bresse called Les Percussions de Treffort, who made their own bells out of ceramic. It's a very delicate bell sound, less resonant than the metal but very beautiful. They perform it with four players – the music is exactly what is written, but they've devised their own choreography around it. What's especially remarkable about that group is their director, Alain Goudard, has integrated handicapped performers in his ensemble, and they've been able to learn the piece. I'm very touched by their choreography and their performance is accurate. It's beautiful to see a group functioning like that.

Tell me about Chord Catalogue, which I still have problems with. I find I admire the piece more than I like it. We know what the piece is about, but how are we supposed to listen to it? How do you listen to it?

How do you listen to any predicable music? How do you listen to silence? It has an inevitability to it that I like very much. I don't think the predictability is a problem. There's an idea of inevitability, of destiny. You feel a sense of finality when it reaches its end, like you get at the end of a Beethoven piece. (Having said that, I never liked Beethoven very much, because I don't believe in triumphant endings. I don't believe in progress in history, and I don't believe in victorious wars. That seems totally false today.) I wonder if it isn't a question of performance, that you pay more attention to Samuel Vriezen's performance of Chord Catalogue than to mine, because his is so smooth and he's so precise about everything. It's like a machine. I'm not at all ashamed of my performance, and I'm glad that I recorded it, but I realise now that other people can do it better. It should be faster, smoother, more regular. You have to practise it. It really takes months of work, and a special kind of brain. You have to like counting and figuring out combinations. Most of the people I know who enjoy doing that gave up music and went into computer programming.

What's your take on the music of those minimalists that started out at the same time as you? Personally, I find little to enjoy in recent Reich and Glass.

Steve can't resist the orchestral commissions, but I don't think it's really his cup of tea. If only he could orchestrate as well as John Adams! He's left the percussion world that he understands. He seems almost embarassed he ever wrote Pendulum Music, but Pendulum Music is the most beautiful, honest piece he ever did. As for Phil Glass, well I think he always liked money and power and made no bones about it. He always went for the big contracts, and he wasn't worried about making aesthetic compromises.

Like using the same arpeggio figurations in every single piece.

I remember him talking about how he liked the lowered sixth chord. He just fell in love with it, and you hear it all over his music. You know, there's an interesting article somewhere where he talks about his studies with [Vincent] Persichetti at Juilliard. Persichetti would say, next Friday I've reserved the recording studio and a string quartet is going to be there and each one of you has 40 minutes to record something. So write a string quartet for Friday! And you'd better have the parts correct and know how you're going to get it recorded in 40 minutes. That's real professional training for 18 or 19 year olds. And three important composers came out of that seminar that year: Philip Glass, Richard Peaslee, who became a very important theatre composer, and Peter Schickele, otherwise known as PDQ Bach. And all three are very prolific. They can turn out a 20-minute piece in a week.

What are the origins of your Tilework project?

Tilework comes from an article I read in Perspectives Of New Music by Dan Tudor Vuza called Supplementary Sets and Regular Complementary Unending Canons [Vols. 29 No.2, Vol 30 No.1, Vol.30 No.2 1991-1992], which I'm sure nobody read. It's in three parts and about a hundred pages long. It has quite a few mathematical formulas in it. John Rahn told me how many fights he had with the Editorial Board to run that article, and I told him I thought it was probably the only thing in PNM that could really change music history. It's pretty complicated stuff; I couldn't summarise it here. But you should read it. It really made me want to write pieces based on that principle. Sometimes theory is analytical and comes after the music, but sometimes the theory comes before. You should read [Guerino] Mazzola too. But we're talking totally theoretical mathematics. One of Mazzola's illuminations, for example, and one that French music theorists don't like to recognise, is that Messiaen's list of Modes of Limited Transposition is incomplete – he left out two. I remember explaining it to Alain Bancquart, who couldn't believe Messiaen could have made a mistake like that.

Was it a mistake or just an oversight?

Well, Messiaen didn't understand the mathematics well enough to investigate every possibility. Mazzola's ideas are very important for me, for I believe, as he believes, that the truth is in the numbers. You can analyse all Western music as the finite cyclic group they call Z/12 better than with any kind of acoustic observations. Even questions of tonality and atonality can be more intelligently discussed with group theory than with suppositions about the overtone series. But I know not everybody agrees with me! I had a long discussion with James Tenney about this. He was so involved with acoustics and the overtone series that he didn't want to hear anything about it.

Some of the Tilework pieces look pretty difficult to perform.

They are. Nobody's ever played Tilework for flute accurately. They make mistakes with the octaves. One Spanish clarinettist did a great performance of Tilework for clarinet, where you really hear all six voices. That's the whole idea of Tilework: playing counterpoint with one instrument.

How long have you been publishing your own music with Editions 75?

Since I made the mistake of giving The Four Note Opera to Schirmer, when I realised I wasn't the only composer who was unhappy with his publisher! No, to protect my music I have to handle it myself. I can probably sell it better than they could, too. I print everything here, just round the corner, and the quality is just as good, better even. I work with Finale, and I can guarantee that there are no mistakes. I have a copyist who helps me, and he really knocks himself out with some of my scores. Most publishers wouldn't take the time to put in all the double flats and double sharps the way he did in Counting Keys.

This question of difficulty reminds me of your other celebrated piece, Failing, A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass. How did that come about?

I was invited by Jon Deak to write a piece for him. I remember I wrote it quickly. I had some sketches for a piano piece that wasn't working and I realised I could transform a lot of them into a double bass piece. I liked the absurdity of the idea of having to play and talk at the same time. I was sure that even the best players would fail, but in fact it's played pretty well pretty often. It also says in the score at the end you're supposed to do an evaluation of your own performance and the mistakes you make, but not many people ever do (laughs)!


Tell us about the Galileo project.

Galileo said, Nature is a book one can read, but the language is mathematics. I love that quotation. I've always liked pendulums, and the way they swing so precisely, mathematically. It doesn't depend on weight or material, only length. One of the more remarkable laws of Nature, so mechanically perfect. I'm always looking for music that comes from some kind of exterior logic beyond my own control, or, as John Cage put it, "music that imitates Nature in her manner of behaviour". So I started hanging pieces of metal around, and playing with this idea, and the piece evolved over a long period of time. I did a little eight-minute, three-bell presentation in Amiens a few years ago, then I got to four pendulums and started using four bells, and then rings and different kinds of metal, and finally I found the resonant bars I use now. There are five of them. By then I had enough variety for about 50 minutes of music. It became something of a virtuoso piece: I had to practise it a lot to learn how to play it. I think it's a piece that other people would have a hard time playing, even percussionists.

How did you notate it?

Well, I didn't. Like Nine Bells, it's a head chart, because you can't look at the score and hit things at the same time. It's about logical sequences anyway; once you know what the circuit is you don't have to write it down. But eventually I did write it down, because sometimes two or three months go by between performances and I have to get ready to play it again. I've played it about 30 times now. I have my own instrument I travel with, and as long as the ceiling is at least four and a half metres high there's always a way to install it. It's nice to do it out of doors. I find that with this kind of music, since it's coming from Nature, it doesn't matter if the wind is blowing, birds are singing or cars are going by, because this music is part of Nature anyway. I have several good recordings of the piece, including a really clean studio recording made at Radio Bremen. But it probably won't ever be released, because the piece is so visual it doesn't make sense to have just an audio recording. I don't think people can understand the piece if they can't see it.

Talking of releases, you're quite prolific, but there are relatively few discs of your music. Are there things in the Catalogue you'd like to see out on disc?

Well, there are seven all-Johnson CDs available currently, which is not bad, but it's true that much is not available. Sometimes there are really good master tapes I don't have the rights to, because they belong to some radio station. Radio France did a great recording of J'entends un choeur, a 20-minute piece for female or children's chorus, and there's also a very good recording at Bayerische Rundfunk of Eight Patterns for Eight Instruments (1979). Every once in a while people ask to perform that, but nobody's done it as well as that group in Munich did. There's also a piece called 844 Chords (2005), which lasts about 20 minutes. But as Morty Feldman used to say, the last thing the world needs is another 20-minute piece! I'm not really interested in having the operas recorded, even on DVD. I don't think you can appreciate an opera that way.

What are your latest projects?

I'm interested in chord categories. Samuel Vriezen told me one day when we met in Amsterdam that he'd written a piece that has eleven chords and each chord has two notes in common with each other chord. I thought, how did he figure that out? Well you can figure it out by hand if you have the patience, but I tried and found it was more difficult than I thought. I mentioned it to my mathematician friend Jean-Paul Allouche who told me I should investigate Block Designs. It's a small subcategory of Combination Theory (but there must be a thousand people working on it in the world so there's plenty of literature on the subject) which has to do with forming chords or sub-groups out of scales or groups. You can make different subgroups or chords in a way that is very disciplined and balanced, with the same number of common tones. To be really clear I'd have to go into a lot more detail. (Goes to the piano). Here's a Block Design called 7-3-1, that means there are seven elements, and you connect them in such a way that each line connects three points. Each line has one connection with each other line, and each pair of elements is together in one and only one line. This'll make no sense to your readers without visuals. Combinations have no particular order, so how do you organise this into a composition? I started drawing pictures.

How did you choose those seven original pitches?

Ah, that's where the hard work comes in! In theory you can do the same thing with any seven note scale, but the resulting chords either end up sounding too similar, or you get one note that stands out more than the others. If you work long enough, you can usually find a scale where everything sounds good.

And what about the rhythmic element of the piece?

So far all there is is a series of chords.That bothered me for a long time, I thought maybe I should add a melody or a rhythmic element, but then I remembered what Morty Feldman told me: let the music do what it wants to do. So I thought what does this music want to do? More and more I came to the conclusion that these were just chords, with their symmetry. So leave them alone. I call them unfinished pieces, not because I don't want to finish them, but because they don't want to be finished. Instrumentation is another temptation; I could be a "composer" and orchestrate them. But that would be adding my own subjective bullshit, and that's what I'm trying to get away from.

How many possible Block Designs are there?

The possibilities are infinite, but there are a lot of constraints. You can't do 8-3-1 for example, and you can't do 6-3-1.. but you can do 6-3-2. If you permit every pair of notes to come twice, you end up with a group of ten chords.

Mathematicians have gone very far in analysing all this. For example with 9-3-1 there are 36 possible solutions which are not transpositions of another solution. That's heavy mathematics to prove that. There are 80 solutions to the 15-3-1 problem (I know because I read it somewhere – don't ask me to figure it out!). There's one Block Design with a solution of 330 chords, which became a whole piece called Block Design for Piano. One practical application is tournament design. If you have ten teams and each team has to be play each other team twice over 20 days in six different cities, that's a Block Design problem.

Obviously all these mathematical considerations only make sense musically in a world of equal temperament. Have you ever considered the possibility of working with the same mathematics in a microtonal context?

I've had a lot of arguments with microtonal people who argue that microtonal music is perfect mathematical ratios, all 4:3s and 7:5s, and I say well my music has to do with the 12th root of two, and that's a transcendental number, a beautiful number like the Golden Ratio, and I don't see anything wrong with it! (laughs) You're working directly and honestly with Z/12, the finite group of 12, with the logic of the chromatic scale which has to do with the whole history of music, both tonal and atonal. That's what appeals to me about the chords I've just played: they're not tonal and they're not atonal, they're in Z/12, a mathematical world that recognises all intervals as equal. There are no good ones or bad ones, right ones or wrong ones.

Is there a rhythmic potential in Block Designs?

I think the idea of combinations is something that belongs to the domain of harmony. I don't hear combinations rhythmically. Tilework belongs in the domain of rhythm, but it's more about counterpoint, canons. Not combinations.

Do you return to the United States often?

The last time was seven years ago. I haven't had any family connections there since my mother died in 1991. My life is here now, my friends are here, my career is here. I've lost contact with many people since I came to Europe. I don't have many performances in the States, except the pieces I wrote while I was living there, like The Four Note Opera and Failing. The pieces I've written in Europe tend to be written for specific performers in Europe. European audiences are different too. They read the programme notes! (laughs) I certainly wouldn't have written Riemannoper if I was still living in the States, for example. Nor the Bonhoeffer Oratorio.

How did that come about? What drew you to [German theologist] Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the first place?

After a mid-life crisis I decided I had to go back to the Protestantism of my parents. It's a long story, but it had to do with getting divorced, leaving New York, leaving journalism, moving to Europe and establishing my career here. I asked myself why I found reading the Bible appealing again. I had a Sunday School interpretation of Christianity, like most people who don't get beyond that (and some don't even get that far), and so I decided I had to get some solid theology. When I discovered Bonhoeffer I said, wow here's a theologian I can really go with, this is really speaking for my Christianity and the way I see the role of the Church. So in 1986 I went to a meeting at the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Memorial Church in Berlin, and Otto Dudzus, who'd just edited a new edition of Bonhoeffer's Sermons, was there, a former student of his, who was 75 or so at that time. That was February 4th, 1986, which would have been Bonhoeffer's 80th birthday. I bought some books and started reading – in German – and it was two years later that I really wanted to do something with this text. In 1988 I went to a week long international Bonhoeffer conference in Amsterdam and heard lectures by South African, English, East German, West German and even Japanese theologians talking about what Bonhoeffer meant to them. That gave me enough information, and I started writing an oratorio in the classical German style: two hours, four parts, two choirs. Like the Saint Matthew Passion. (laughs)

You said you had a religious upbringing in Colorado –

Yes, Methodist.

– and that slipped out of your life when you went off to university?

Oh yes, I had a philosophy class instead – I thought it was much more sophisticated than Christianity! (laughs) You grow up, and you think you become smarter than Christianity, but of course it's just that you didn't continue to study enough. They don't take you very deep in Sunday School. When you're an adolescent, you follow the group, everyone else is agnostic and atheist and you don't want to be the only one who's going to church.

I see you have a piece by [member of the Wandelweiser Group] Jürg Frey there on the piano..

Jürg was here just the other day! We played one of his pieces together, for clarinet and piano. I like that kind of music very much but I don't get the chance to perform it very often. Those long pieces with long silences take a lot of concentration. They look simple but they aren't.

How does silence fit in in your work? I'm thinking of Organ and Silence here..

Maybe silence is the final frontier as far as avant-garde thinking is concerned. You can't shock people with dissonance or noise anymore, but you can shock them with silence. It's important to investigate that. I also got a call recently from another one the Wandelweiser people, Antoine Beuger, who called to apologise for not answering a letter I'd sent him, because he was in a monastery! He went there to meditate and think about silence and he said he learned an enormous amount. Antoine is very dedicated to this new frontier in music, what it means and where it's taking us. There are many difficult questions involved, and not only philosophical ones. One thing you realise is that during one of these long silences you're still hearing the last sound that you heard.. (Walks to the piano and plays an isolated G, and comes back.. twenty seconds later) You still hear it, right? (Long silence) If you don't make other sounds to compete with it. There's no question that if that note comes back later (Goes back to the piano and plays the G again) you'll recognise it as the same sound.

But isn't this the complete antithesis of a project like Tilework, which is all about filling in the space?

Antoine said one day, and I think he's right, Tom, I'm writing silences but you're writing pauses. I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's true that Organ and Silence is metrical music and the pauses are always measured. That's the difference.

So the silences in, say, a Cage Number Piece are silences, not pauses? Does it just depend on notation? You measure a pause but you count a silence.

Yes. I'd say that in Cage they are silences, because it's non-metrical music.

Is Cage more important to you as a composer or as a man of ideas?

Neither. As a man, he was important. As a composer, and as a teacher, I learned from Feldman, but whenever I have a question like, should I accept this commission, should I redo that piece, should I pawn off that piece where I cheated a little bit, any kind of ethical questions and ideas about fame and money and publicity, I ask myself what John Cage would have done in the same situation. And I get good advice if I remember how he handled all those difficult situations in his life. He had a sense of justice, and mission and ethics. And he had so many friends, he was so generous. That's the part of Cage that was really important for me. But his music is wonderful too, especially the Number Pieces. I think the music he wrote in the last five years is the best music of his life. It's about the only pure music he wrote. I think that was important to him at the end of his life. He didn't have time any more to do events and happenings. (Long silence) Let's see if that note still sounds the same, shall we? (Goes back to the piano and plays the G again). Yep, it's still there.

Go to See interviews of related interest with Frank Denyer, Ben Johnston, Radu Malfatti, Ursula Oppens and Phill Niblock.