I am not the first person to play through Dennis Johnson’s November, but on August 12 I became apparently the first person to listen to an entire recording of it. You can be the second. In honor of the sixth anniversary of this blog tomorrow (Saturday), among other things, I have uploaded a complete performance of November, one of the earliest (1959) major minimalist works. The first public performance of the piece since the early ’60s at least will take place in Kansas City on September 6, with myself and Sarah Cahill alternating at the keyboard. I have recorded a version of the entire work here, conveniently formatted in four parts [UPDATE: I have replaced my private recording with the one Sarah Cahill and I made at the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music, Sept. 6, 2009, so the next paragraph no longer applies]:
It’s not a professional-level recording, though I made it on my wonderful Sony PCM D-50, which has totally changed my life. I had to switch pianos at one point, because the freshmen arrived at Bard halfway through, and the piano I started on was in a room where high heels clicking through the hallways were too audible (and those were the guys!). But it’s the first complete recording, with all the material contained in the score. It lasts only four hours, and I think I could have gone longer, but every note you hear is in the score, and there is virtually nothing omitted.
Dennis’s surviving recording contained only the first 112 minutes of the piece. What I am playing is an exact transcription of those 112 minutes, as identical to the original as I could make it, and then I improvise the remainder of the piece according to rules I obtained by analyzing the relationship of the recording to the score. The reason for sticking to the transcription for the first 112 minutes is that there are aspects of the piece not ascertainable from the score; the score was derived from the original tape rather than the other way around, and Dennis’s letter to me about it stated that “the recording must stand as the primary definition example of the piece.” Subsequent performances need not be so slavishly faithful to the recording, but this first exposure has got to get the piece across as Dennis played it, so musicologists can know exactly what they’re dealing with. Before you go there, the idea of this piece from the beginning was that it is a (loosely) notated piece, that any so-minded pianist could play it with complete authenticity. Dennis was not a great jazz pianist, not a jazz pianist at all in fact, and there is nothing technical nor idiosyncratic about his playing that another pianist couldn’t sufficiently imitate. Dennis is flattered that Sarah Cahill and I are doing this, just as Harold Budd is flattered that Sarah is playing Children on the Hill. If the composers are thrilled, you have no theoretical basis on which to disapprove.
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There is a hilarious sequence of situations in Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad in which Twain and his fellow tourists drive an Italian tour guide to absolute distraction with questions of surreal incomprehension:
Our guide there fidgeted about as if he had swallowed a spring mattress. He was full of animation – full of impatience. He said:
“Come wis me, genteelmen! – come! I show you ze letter writing by Christopher Colombo! – write it himself! – write it wis his own hand! – come!”
He took us to the municipal palace. After much impressive fumbling of keys and opening of locks, the stained and aged document was spread before us. The guide’s eyes sparkled. He danced about us and tapped the parchment with his finger:
“What I tell you, genteelmen! Is it not so? See! handwriting Christopher Colombo!–write it himself!”
We looked indifferent – unconcerned. The doctor examined the document very deliberately, during a painful pause. – Then he said, without any show of interest:
“Ah – Ferguson – what – what did you say was the name of the party who wrote this?”
“Christopher Colombo! ze great Christopher Colombo!”
Another deliberate examination.
“He write it himself! – Christopher Colombo! He’s own hand-writing, write by himself!”
Then the doctor laid the document down and said:
“Why, I have seen boys in America only fourteen years old that could write better than that.”
“But zis is ze great Christo- ”
“I don’t care who it is! It’s the worst writing I ever saw. Now you musn’t think you can impose on us because we are strangers. We are not fools, by a good deal. If you have got any specimens of penmanship of real merit, trot them out! – and if you haven’t, drive on!”
Half of the comments I got on my recent Harold Budd posting, several of them by people criticizing me while admitting that they hadn’t listened to the music they were criticizing me for, were about on this level. It’s not as funny from the tour guide’s perspective. I’m offering you the minimalist equivalent of Christopher Columbus’s handwriting, neither for your critique nor for your approval, but because I have the information, I enjoy disseminating it, and I know there are people interested. The claims I make for this music are that the tape said the piece dated from 1959 and the performance from 1962, and that La Monte told me that this piece inspired The Well-Tuned Piano. If you have evidence to confute these claims, I’ll be curious to hear it; otherwise, criticizing me for this reveals a misunderstanding of the situation. This is musicology, not American Idol. If this recording or the piece isn’t your cup of tea, that’s OK, I understand, but I can’t alter the results of my research to suit your squeamish and waffling tastes. If you want your comment posted – respond appropriately.