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  • Reconstructing November
  • Kyle Gann (bio)

Around 1992, La Monte Young gave me a cassette tape copy of a piano piece by Dennis Johnson, a friend of his from his UCLA days. The piano piece was titled November; the annotation on the tape indicated a composition date of 1959, and a performance date of 1962. By reputation, the piece is supposed to have been six hours long, very slow and somewhat improvisatory, and Young has consistently credited the piece with having been the inspiration and predecessor to his Well-Tuned Piano, on which he began working in 1964. Unfortunately, the surviving tape of November contains only just over 112 minutes of music before it cuts off abruptly. Johnson remembers the tape having been made in the home of Terry Jennings, on his mother's piano. The tape is interrupted by a few caesuras, as though someone was clicking the microphone on and off. Voices murmur in the background. Occasionally a far-off dog barks.

La Monte has said that he met Johnson in 1957 at UCLA; walking through the music building, he heard someone practicing Webern's Variations for piano, opened the door, and there was Dennis Johnson.1 Johnson was born in late 1938, so he was presumably nineteen at this time and La Monte was twenty-two. In Young's "Lecture 1960," first given in that year at Ann Halprin's dance workshop and later published in the Tulane Drama Review, Johnson is described as having performed a piece called Din, in which at least forty performers placed among the audience in a darkened hall made various noises by clapping, screaming, shuffling feet, and so on.2 Asked after the concert by a critic if the [End Page 481] group was "part of Zen," Johnson replied, "No, but Zen is part of us." Johnson is also known for a work titled The Second Machine, based on only four pitches taken from Young's Four Dreams of China. Another known work is a jazz piece written in chord changes called the 109-Bar Tune.

At one of the Berkeley concerts, Johnson conducted Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for twelve radios (a feat I also duplicated in college). Claiming that he had created a piece that was completely indeterminate and outside the composer, Johnson once handed La Monte a piece of paper on which he had written the word "LISTEN." Johnson was also apparently the person who told La Monte about Cage's 4'33", though according to Young this happened after 1962.3 Besides playing the piano, Johnson sang and played the hichiriki, a Japanese double-reed instrument used in Gagaku. Johnson was supposed to accompany Young to Darmstadt in 1959, but caught pneumonia and had to stay in New York with electronic minimalist composer Richard Maxfield. Later, Johnson became a mathematician and did no more public work in music after around 1962.

The 1963 book An Anthology by Young and Jackson Mac Low contains a humorous handwritten letter from a contributor identified merely as Dennis. This is, of course, Dennis Johnson, who clearly possessed a kind of faux-adolescent sense of humor. Though he doesn't give his full name here, the handwriting is identical to that on the score of November, and in "Lecture 1960" Young quotes a joke from this letter, attributing it to his friend Dennis Johnson.4 Once Young was detailing for me all the idiosyncrasies of his friends in the early minimalist movement, and I finally asked, "La Monte, are you telling me that of all the people in that scene, you were the normal one?" Young replied, "I guess I was."

In 2007 (thanks to composer Dan Wolf, who provided an address), I was able to contact Dennis Johnson, who sent me a copy of his slightly garbled and at places self-contradictory score from which the pianist improvises November. From analysis and comparison of the score and the partial recording, I have prepared a performance version of the work, which Sarah Cahill and I (alternating each hour at the keyboard) premiered in Kansas City on September 6, 2009.

The cassette tape is problematic in many ways. The first side contains 65...


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