A Liminal Review: November by Dennis Johnson (June 25th, 2013)

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This work of art – for that is the word – has pretty much been lost for the best (or worst?) part of fifty years, so before any reviewing gets underway, I need to offer profuse thanks to both Irritable Hedgehog in the US and Penultimate Press here in the UK for going the extra one hundred miles in order to share it with us today in 2013. Reading the accompanying notes by author and composer Kyle Gann on the album’s Bandcamp page, it quickly becomes clear that this release of November was quite the labour of love, with Gann having painstakingly recreated the piece’s score from a damaged cassette he was given in 1992 by LaMonte Young, the man generally regarded as the father of minimalism. From the tape, and a manuscript sent to him by Dennis Johnson himself, Gann has restored November to something approaching its supposed actual length (six hours), with a four-hour work that easily eclipses the 112 minutes he was working from with the tape.

November is performed entirely on piano, thus anticipating LaMonte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano, not to mention the works of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. In fact, the more I listened to it, the harder it was to conclude that it is November, and not Young’s Trio for Strings, that represents the first true work of minimalism, which is certainly Gann’s intimation. The piece, divided here into four hour-long discs, is built around a gradually evolving progression of slow-burning motifs, starting with two notes that are then repeated and added to with a third, and so on, a style that would take hold in minimalism over the next two decades. It evolves at a glacial pace, each note held and sustained for various lengths of time, allowed to reverberate in the air and in the mind. One immediately thinks of Michael Nyman’s Decay Music, also for piano, although there is a deceptive simplicity at play in November that elevates its emotional potency above that of Nyman’s work. Like The Well-Tuned Piano, its emphasis lies in tonality and, most astonishingly, improvisation, meaning it has the potential – now that it has been revived – to evolve and develop independently of Johnson (now in his seventies) and Gann, who performed November when it was recorded. Even as one is aware of hearing the same notes being played, the way Johnson juxtaposes them and then builds them up means each hearing is something of a revelation.

The cover image Irritable Hedgehog and Penultimate Press have chosen perhaps gives a better sense of what November is like than any explanation I can muster out of my feeble brain. A dark forest lies blanketed in fog, the photograph transmogrified by means of a filter that imbues this stark vista in a soft, violet hue. It’s an image that of course resonates with the piece’s title, its promise of winter and stark horizons. It’s a photo that reflects the often austere quality of Johnson’s music, but, equally, the warm texture of the colours hint at a certain gentle melancholia, one that percolates through the spaces between the notes and tones and worms its way into the listener’s heart. Of all the great minimalist works, November is the one that seems to find an echo in the more overtly emotional drone and ambient recordings, from Brian Eno’s Music for Airports to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops.

Whether or not November actually represents the birth of minimalism as we know it today is a red herring. What matters is that, through Kyle Gann and his team’s hard work, it has been born anew, finally getting the release it most certainly deserves. It’s a beautiful work, with the kind of resonant power that elevates the great works mentioned above, and sits comfortably alongside them and many others. Hopefully this won’t be the last lost masterpiece by Dennis Johnson and the other early minimalists (such as Terry Jennings and Young himself) to see the belated light of day.

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