MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Robert Sherlaw Johnson

In every country a sizable number of composers retire early. One does not call it that, of course, but inevitably many fail to fulfil the promise of early youth, run out of steam in mid- career. They become some kind of pasticheur, go into films, and generally cultivate a small corner of the musical garden until obscurity enfolds them. In England many used to turn into dons, becoming the ornaments of Oxbridge, where the siren calls of strong vintage port and slender vintage choirboys prove irresistible, and where composing is largely a response to parochial commissions or demands for pieces d'occasion. In old age such figures are brought out every five years, crippled with gout, all passion spent, ready only for an undemanding birthday party and an honorary degree. Their creative clock has for years stood permanently at ten to three, and for them, yes, there is still honey for tea...

Infiltrating into our universities today, however, are com- posers of a very different cast. For the Smalleys and the Sousters, the Dalbys and the Rands to find themselves in academic positions, if only for a short phase in their careers, is a newer phenomenon, rather after the American pattern. This kind of composer is there to experiment, to nurture his most ambitious creative ideals and influence others in this respect. That the composer - rather than the teacher or musicologist - should become a focal point of Music faculties is in itself a healthy sign. (In America, it carries with it some problems which we shall probably avoid here: for instance, there being no national radio network comparable to the BBC, and America being the size it is, so many thousand colleges and universities experi- ence great difficulties of dissemination. Composers at one col- lege will have no idea what developments are occuring at other colleges or universities.)

The trend towards this sort of arrangement was perhaps given greatest impetus by the establishment of a Music De- partment at York University under Professor Wilfrid Mellers. He has certainly experimented more than any other musical academic, and attracted on to his staff a number of talented composers. Among these has been Robert Sherlaw Johnson who formerly had been on the music staff at Leeds University (1961-5) and who remained at York until 1969, when he went to Oxford.

Sherlaw Johnson is a reliable and solidly successful teacher, and such academic work has been conducted as an essential corollary to his own evolution as a composer. Beneath his slightly hunched, ascetic figure, behind his lean and hungry look, lies a strong independent personality, capable of gentle- ness and warmth. He is a pianist and composer of some distinction. Both spheres of activity reflect his predilection for non-German musical forms and languages.

Sherlaw Johnson, who was born in Sunderland in 1932, went on a Charles Black award to Paris in 1957, where he studied piano with Jacques Fevrier and composition with Nadia Boulanger, attending, as well, some of Messiaen's classes at the Conservatoire. He has become since then a brilliant and justly renowned interpreter of Messiaen. His recital partner- ship with the soprano Noelle Barker has brought some memorable performances of Messiaen's long exhausting cycle Harawi (which they have recorded for Argo); they have also recently recorded the less often heard eycles, Chants de terre et de ciel and Poemes pour Mi. Next year, Sherlaw Johnson will undertake the mammoth task of recording (also for Argo) the complete Catalogue d'oiseaux of Messiaen. Spanish music has also figured in his repertoire, partly as a consequence of his experience as pianist for a touring ballet company, and of a group of Spanish dancers; Boulez, Stockhausen and the 20th century in general are his specialities as performer.

Not surprisingly he is the perfect exponent of his own piano music which explores all aspects of the sonorities obtainable from the instrument along lines that reflect the influence of Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen, but which bear an identity of their own. His First Piano Sonata (1963) is a virtuoso study in barbaric, percussive textures and additive rhythms (particu- larly in the second movement), and it saw the composer emerge as a distinctive personality.

The Second Piano Sonata (1967) - which is to be heard at St John's, Smith Square, as part of an ISCM Festival concert on June 7 - exploits not only the potential of sounds produced from the keyboard, but also in its second move- ment those obtainable directly from the strings, the performer using either fingers or soft and hard drumsticks. It is part of an interesting method he has developed of harnessing timbre to other elements in the musical design. What happens is that the second movement uses the material of the first in a different order, with interpolated commentaries played on the inside of the piano. By this means the material itself becomes trans- formed in timbre, as well as in duration and intensity and so on. The third movement begins on the keyboard, gradually incorporating more and more 'inside' sounds as the movement proceeds.

Sherlaw Johnson's Seven Short Pieces (1968-69) follow suit, exploring the colouristic possibilities of sounds produced inside the piano, which are integrated with normal keyboard-produced sounds. The fourth piece, Phanix, here establishes a continuity of sound from the keyboard to the inside of the instrument and back again. The sixth is another striking timbre-study, focusing upon a pizzicato chord of E flat and G flat (a quotation from Beata l'alma for soprano and piano by David Blake, the dedicatee of this piece; at this point in Blake's cantata there is a reference to 'bleak ecstasies' hence the title). Each piece has a Webernesque compression of form and content.

Sherlaw Johnson's fascination with musical sonority in its most basic manifestation and his concern to allow timbre and structure evolve together without pedantic inhibition is an important and deep-rooted facet of his creative outlook - even though his acquaintance with new music came rather later than one might expect. Educated at Gosforth Grammar School, King's College, Durham, and the Royal Academy of Music, he had studied the piano from the age of six, even composed, but still regarded Beethoven and Brahms as daringly modern even into late teenage years. Vaughan Williams ind Bartok were his first glimpses of the contemporary scene, and gradually his musical horizons expanded to include all the major figures. The most powerfully influential were Varese, whom he still reveres and to whose memory his First String Quartet (1966) is dedicated (the shadow of Varese looms large on the thematic material of this quartet and its formal efflorescence), Messiaen and Webern.

Sherlaw Johnson and Messiaen have a lot in common tem- peramentally, both of them creatively inspired by a deeply felt religious faith. Sherlaw Johnson became a Catholic in his early 20s, and many of his works are based on religious texts, including a Congregational Mass (1967). Messiaen's mythological and mystical pantheism are evident in his work, too. The cycle, Night Songs (1964) for soprano and piano, for instance, is a surrealistic work in which the composer imposes an overall symbolic pattern upon seven poems by six different Chinese authors (in translation), and an interplay of imagery involving dreams, dawn and death. The musical techniques here highlight the surrealistic quality of the verse, ranging from serial passages and Sprechstimme to parody of the bel canto style of Italian opera (for example, the melody of the climax of the third section is distorted Puccini in a dissonant pianistic context).

The Resurrection of Fen-Huang (1968) again draws upon Chinese mythology (Fen and Huang are the male and female birds who rise again as one Fen-Huang from the flames of their own funeral pyre). But in composing this four-section choral work, Sherlaw Johnson became aware of too strong ari emulation of Messiaen's choral techniques in Cinq rechants. And he has been uneasy ever since about unaccompanied choral composition. The earlier motet Veni, Sancte Spiritus (1965) had established its own sound-spectrum, both as an unaccompanied choral piece and in a second version adding percussion accompaniment. But Fen-Huang caused him un-, ease. Sherlaw Johnson is not disposed to ape the methods of another composer: he prefers to venture forward towards un-charted territories.

Messiaen, Webern, Boulez and Stockhausen all contribute to Sherlaw Johnson's notions of structure, which conjoin elements from sonata form, serialism, and the mathematical theory of groups. In his First Piano Sonata, for instance, the various methods of obtaining contrast in sonata-style writing - contrast between movements, subjects, rondo-episodes and variation - provide areas in which, and procedures by means of which, a five-note group heard at the start is treated. The permutation of intervals, pitches and durations associated with this group generates all the sonata's material, although the work is not built entirely as a serial piece. In its three connected movements, the first is a rondo with two episodes. The character of each episode dictates variations in the ritornello section on every reappearance. This first movement is recapitulated in the course of the second, which is founded on four superimposed transformations of the basic material, each of a different length and constantly altering in relationship to each other. The last movement is a rondo like the first, and continues the process of recapitulation by the insertion of commentary passages referring to the basic material. It has three primary motifs (Ex 1) appearing in various rhythms, inversions and expansions.

The Second Piano Sonata takes even further the idea of transformations that are effected through the interaction of rhythm, pitch, dynamics, texture and timbre. Although its opening four bars (Ex 2) are derived from a twelve-note series combined with its inversion, it is from the format of this group and its component elements, rather than from the series, that the thematic material of the sonata derives.

An individual use of serialism features elsewhere in Sherlaw Johnson's music. Catena - the second of the Seven Short Pieces - is based on the four forms of a tone row (normal, retrograde, inversion and retrograde inversion). These follow along in chain fashion - hence the title of the piece. In Night Songs various rhythmic cells recur at crucial points in the cycle, and the songs themselves are thematically interrelated, the last being an inversion of the first.

Sherlaw Johnson has not been so obsessed with formal cohesiveness as to rule out elements of chance and indeterminacy. Quite the contrary: these have evolved from his formal explorations quite spontaneously. The First String Quartet is the first example of this in his mature output. Its first movement is as tautly constructed as the First Piano Sonata, but in the second movement the players contribute to the formal outcome by deciding at each performance the order of some of the given material. After a brief introduction there follow five variable sections or 'Strophes', each preceded by a homophonic block of chords; after an Episode there is a re-grouping of the Variable Strophes, this time without Refrains.

The most significant fruit of this period during which the composer was applying serial methods to the question of variable musical forms was certainly his series of Improvisations. In the first two (1966), for violin and piano, three groups of differentiated material are arranged in different orders for each separate performance by the players according to the composer's instructions. A third Improvisation (1967), also for violin and piano (when all these three are given together, this one normally comes second), is sharply contrasted with the earlier ones, combining different material again in varying relationships chosen by the players. Here the performer can, if he so chooses, interpolate material from the rest of the piece into the two written-out cadenzas.

After Improvisat."on IV for student orchestra (written in 1966, before No III), come two which see Sherlaw Johnson experimenting with notation for the first time. Improvisation V for violin, flute, piano and percussion, mixes systems of conventional notation with graphically notated ones. Interpretation of the latter is based upon what has already been played. Improvisation VI (1970) is entirely a piece of graphic notation, and is scored for two groups of three instruments. Electronic means can be used to realise the whole or part of one of these instrumental groups, which are spatially separated. Here Sherlaw Johnson lists the range of thematic material, stipulating only that its general characteristic should be slow-moving. Further freedom is possible in that certain modes of obtaining new relationships - ie not indicated by the score - are also suggested.

Some of this experimental work with improvisation derives from his educational work at York, but it has infiltrated the rest of his music. The third of the Seven Short Pieces, Chame- leon I (OUP, 1970) is notated graphically to indicate relationships between certain types of sound without specifying the actual sounds themselves. A new realisation of Chameleon I is interpolated into the last piece of this set. Taken as a whole, the Seven Short Pieces are a remarkable testimony of his control and flexibility in composition. He is aware of all sides to the issue: what the work must mean to him; what range of creative choice is offered to the performer; and what coherence and imaginative range it can offer the listener.

He thus seems well equipped to enter the much abused field of electronics. Already, in The praises of heaven and earth (1970), a cantata for soprano, piano and electronic tape using a text derived from Psalm 148, he has embarked on a successful venture in this sphere. The tape here is a synthesis of sounds drawn from vocal and piano sources, and is employed as an extension of the live sounds. ln his present post at Oxford, he is a front-line campaigner for an electronic studio, and his own creative ambitions alone would seem to justify this. Sherlaw Johnson may seem, in the light of all this, a peculiarly withdrawn figure, yet once one gets to know a small quantity of his best music, its sensuous range and formal command are irresistible. He is not a mass-media figure likely to feature in a Ken Russell film or take over the ICA. There is too much integrity and richness for him to want ever to sell out. He bides his time, and one day it will come.