WTF?! Wednesdays: Scott Johnson, “Part 3: Involuntary Songs” (1982)

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Though it was only then just beginning to hit the mainstream, looping and sampling by the ’80s was becoming old hat for the New Music/Minimalist guys. We saw on my last go around on WTF Wednesdays how Terry Riley immortalized a commonplace RnB song of its time by contorting the living hell out of it, back in the year of Sgt. Pepper. And then some fifteen years later, guitarist, composer and visual artist Scott Johnson entered the world of tape manipulation.

Having gotten away from the music side of arts for several years, Johnson re-entered in in the early 80s with a fresh perspective, and made perhaps his defining work with John Somebody, first released in 1986. The ingenious thing that Johnson did on these recordings wasn’t the looping and layering of samples. It was weaving them into the very fabric of the harmony and rhythm of the songs, combining them with conventional electric instrumentation (electric guitar ands bass, along with drums) in a way that puts them on an equal footing.

The first part, for instance, takes a very small fragment of a throwaway conversation and constructed tempo, cadence and chord progressions from it. An audio marvel even today, to be sure. But I’m more taken aback by “Part 3,” because the fragment that’s used for the kernel is not even a part of a sentence, it’s some woman giggling. There’s a certain tempo and even melody in a simple giggle, and all Johnson does here is realize the potential from those aspects.

Naturally, the only kind of melody to build around laughter is a bouncy one, and the bass and saxophones create countermelodies and counter rhythms around the layered, endless chuckling, playing in the same key. By “Part 3c,” the looped fragment is even assimilated into a chamber music piece, taking the place of the strings. After a while, the whole weirdness about creating music out of a random snippet of human sound fades away. Well, almost.

In what might be the first instance of laughing used for something that has nothing to do with humor, Johnson started with a gimmick and in the end, made something very musical; a serious — and seriously odd — piece of sonic art.

Thanks to Linq Pisio for the idea of this installment.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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