New York guitarist/composer Scott Johnson has long been interesting in breaking down the barrier between "serious" (classical) and "popular" (rock) music. His latest release, Rock Paper Scissors, is a successful melding of these two musical forms, a difficult feat that few have been able to accomplish. The title piece is a modern take on chamber music. Using pianos, synthesizers, a cello, an electric guitar, and a violin, Johnson creates an intriguing five movement piece that captures elements of rock, jazz, and classical music. The result is often beautiful and hypnotic, sometimes chaotic and annoying, but never boring. Unlike some music I've heard where they seem to be fighting each other, the guitar and synthesizer join seamlessly with the traditional stringed instruments. This is most likely due to Johnson's traditional composition technique and his Stravinsky-esque sense of form which enables his to give the piece a good tonal balance.
The best part of this CD is the piece Convertible Debts. As in his first album, John Somebody, Johnson has based this work on the natural melodies and cadences (not to mention the awkward pauses and stutterings) of human conversation. To get the sound of natural, unguarded speech, he recorded friends as they called up someone to ask a favor. Johnson then selected portions of this conversation that he found interesting and manipulated them digitally into a melodic and rhythmic musical foundation. Upon this he added piano, guitar, cello, and violin, integrating them perfectly with the human voice. The first movement of this piece captures the awkward moment when the speaker must first bring up the subject of asking for a favor. In the third movement, a young Asian female asks to "borrow you an air compressor", a broken, angular line that Johnson turns into a haunting and ethereal passage. The final movement is formed around someone making sure that a check he is about to deposit won't bounce because "well, if it bounces I'll get billed." Though not for the diehard Mozart or Hootie fan, those interested in experiencing some music that is truly alternative would do well to listen to this latest work by Scott Johnson.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 1998.