Phillip Johnston
Page Of Madness

(Asynchronous Records)

Phillip Johnston is nowadays mostly known for the work of two line-ups of which he is a co-leader: the bizarre and quite original band called The Microscopic Septet, whose career started a long time ago; and the more recently established Fast 'N' Bulbous, a group that has formulated a personal version of the highly individual Beefheartian canon.

Strange but true, the only time I had the chance to catch Johnston on stage was thanks to one of those nights when a newly composed score to an old silent movie is performed live - an occupation that is just a part of his role as composer of scores for movies and theatre. On that night, the Johnston-led Transparent Quartet (featuring Joe Ruddick on piano, Mark Josefsberg on vibraphone, David Hofstra on double bass, and Johnston himself on soprano and alto saxophone) played a live score to eight shorts by George Méliès.

Quite paradoxically, this kind of concert is exactly the type of thing that I strongly dislike. Maybe it's because I developed myopia at an early age, I really hate the "out of focus" look that's so typical of most movies from the silent age. Maybe it's because, far from being the main element, the visual part acts for me as an annoying distraction when it comes to the goal of appreciating the music (which is obviously not a mere "complement" - would we feel the same interest were the music composed/performed by The Johnny Somebody Quartet?). Last but definitely not least, the practice of having a group of improvisers playing to a silent movie hoping for a miracle - totally understandable when it comes to issues concerning money - which was quite common in the not so distant past, has left a disturbing aftertaste in my mouth.

So it was with great surprise that (with the minor exception of a giant headache as the logical consequence of the "out of focus old age look" of the shorts) my experience from that night proved to be for the most part a very positive one. It occurred to me that the bones in Johnston's neck were in excellent conditions, permitting him to rapidly watch the screen, and the score, while also cueing his musicians (and also keeping an eye on a stop-watch?). I was pleasantly surprised when I was given the possibility to listen to a few compositions as stand-alone pieces, performed while the next short was being prepared; it's with great pleasure that I remember two of them: Hofstra's Dilemma and The Needless Kiss, both featured on the fine album by The Transparent Quartet that gets its title from the latter tune.

The CD titled Page Of Madness feature the original score written by Johnston for Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Japanese 1926 silent film titled Kurutta Ippeiji, or A Page Of Madness.

The meager booklet tells us that the performance featured here was recorded (very clearly, by Jon Rosenberg) in 1998. There's a very interesting page, full of interesting considerations about scoring for silent movies in general, and for this one in particular, on Johnston's website. About the CD it says that "For several years I tried to get a release for this recording, but after being rejected (or ignored) by 37 record companies (...), after ten years, I have decided to do a very modest limited release myself on my own Asynchronous Records".

(But wait, there's still hope: the score was performed at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival, with Chris Abrahams on piano, Daryl Pratt on vibraphone, and Lloyd Swanton on bass.)

The approach chosen by Johnston for his score to A Page Of Madness has a combination of written music and improvisation, strictly related to the images on the screen. All featured musicians used synchronized stop watches. The music featured on this CD comes from a single performance, the only cuts were of some long silent passages, when regarded as being too long in a home listening dimension, I think.

After listening to this album for quite a few times in the course of two weeks, I think I'm not wrong when I say that the music featured on Page Of Madness is really excellent. This is not a CD that's easy to "get", but this is not due to the music being especially spiky or extremely complex; really, it's the "long" time dimension of the tale being told - seventy-seven minutes, and they are quite dense - that requires one's undivided attention and a quiet room (both not so easy to get, these days...). The music is quite varied, with many familiar "styles" showing up here and there (echoes of Steve Lacy, a few "cool jazz" moods, even a touch of "free" when Joe Ruddick's baritone sax plays against Johnston's soprano; while Mark Josefsberg's vibraphone sometimes reminded me, at least superficially, of Earl Griffith's on Looking Ahead! by Cecil Taylor).

The conceptual continuity of the story becomes apparent after a few spins, while one easily gets some recurring traits, such as a piano passage. There's a nice "classic" theme - at 3' 26" of Prelude, then on Parting The Waters, again on The Masks, also at 2' 20" of the closing track, At Peace With A Mop - but every time we encounter it, something has changed. Johnston is good at matching timbres, also the foreground/background elements, while paying the right amount of attention to "weights".

It's not my intention to attempt a useless moment-by-moment description, I'll just indicate a few of my favourite moments. The above-mentioned Prelude opens with trills, gruppettos, arpeggios, until we listen to the "main theme" for the first time. The Mad Wife has a "cool jazz" start for double bass and soprano sax, a recurring piano phrase, then double bass and sax playing an inspired duo. The Visit opens with an ostinato, mid-tempo, instruments coming in one by one, then the whole quartet moves, along independent but coordinated lines, then it's back to the opening ostinato. Alto sax, vibes, double bass on The Asylum, which toward the end has the piano sounding like a musical box, coupled to a "fat-sounding" double bass. Parting The Waters has the main theme again. Jerky and dissonant, tense, with the alto, and the piano rumbling all over the keyboard, almost à la Cecil Taylor, There's A Riot Goin' On.

Home Life has a nice compositional touch, alternating a theme for alto and piano, and a different one for vibraphone and double bass, it's a very elegant, classy move. Home Life Ruined has the instruments chasing one another, and a "cut" close. Escape Attempt has a "suspended" beginning, double bass played arco, dueling soprano and baritone; nice intermezzo by vibraphone/double bass, and soprano/baritone; the mood getting tenser and tenser. The Dream opens with a piano arpeggio, a motif for solo vibraphone, soprano sax in counterpoint; at 3' 56" we have a nice melodic theme played on alto sax. Nice thematic development on The Masks. At Peace With A Mop starts with a "cool" theme for soprano, classic "comping" by the rhythm section, a fine solo by vibraphone, then it's the "cool" theme again; then, at 2' 20", for the last time, it's the sad theme that by now we've learned to recognize, and love.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2009 | May 19, 2009