Phillip Johnston moved to Australia over a decade ago, but NYC still feels like his home turf. We were both back in town last November for Thanksgiving, and we met to discuss memory, music, media, the (not-so-silent) history of silent film, and his long-association with the various music scenes of NYC.
Episode 2: DANCING ON THE HYPHEN
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Johnston wears a lot of hats (sometimes literally). He co-founded The Microscopic Septet in 1980 with Joel Forrester, a group that also counted John Zorn as an early member. A genre-bending ensemble rooted in Jazz, Swing, R&B, Ragtime and other classic styles, The Micros have been called “New York’s Most Famous Unknown Band.” Johnston has played in many other groups, released several records as band leader, and collaborated with famed cartoonist Art Spiegelman. Additionally, in a parallel career, Johnson has long produced music for film, in particular composing and performing original scores to silent films from the early 20th century, a subject he also studies as an academic.
Across these various strands of activity is a shared interest in art forms which exist in the space between genres and media. While his own tastes are diverse, Johnston is often drawn to artists of undeviating vision, who similarly exist in these spaces, dancing on the hyphen, as evidenced by an interest in the music of Thelonious Monk (see Friday the 13th: The Micros Play Monk), or keeping the music of Captain Beefheart alive (with Fast ‘N’ Bulbous, his group with guitarist Gary Lucas).
Johnson and I met last November to discuss his recent work and the not-so-silent components of “silent” film. After a quick brunch at Cafe Mogador, we moved over to Tompkins Square Park for the interview. It was a chilly Sunday morning in November, but despite a freak snow storm in late October it was still pleasant enough to that the park was full of people, whose lovely ambient noises can be heard in the background throughout. The following Tuesday, Johnston played two sets at Smalls, one of my favorite jazz clubs in the city, with his Silent Six performing a mixture of jazz standards and songs from Johnston’s recent album Diggin’ Bones.
That album was released under the name Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators, a project designed to explore funky, hard-driving, cartoon-influenced, organ jazz with some minimalist ideas thrown in. That band includes some of Australia’s most acclaimed touring musicians, including Lloyd Swanton of The Necks.
Johnston also recently released The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a new score to Lotte Reiniger‘s 1926 film, an adaptation of a German fairy tale that is the oldest surviving animated feature film. Reiniger was a true pioneer, the inventor of an animation table and camera that was the predecessor to the multiplane camera. Johnston situated her in the same category of artists as Monk and Beefheart, those who “read one book a hundred times,” who find their artist calling and explore it without deviation.
Johnston, on the other hand, keeps a plethora of styles and influences on hand, mixing and matching as each diverse project requires. We discuss the technical side of producing sound for cinema, performing live along with silent film, how silent film scores were not preserved since they were considered disposable, why he has been attracted to art forms that blur the distinction between high and low or between genres, and much more.
Sound Propositions the podcast has the same mission statement as the written Sound Propositions features: to share in depth discussions with artists whose work we love, to delve into the details of their creative practice.
Special thanks to Phillip, Joyce, Steve, and Smalls.
SOUND PROPOSITIONS – THE PODCAST
WORDLESS w/ Art Spiegelman
ARTIST – “TITLE” (ALBUM, LABEL, YEAR)
Field Recording – Film Projector
Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators – “Frankly” (Diggin’ Bones, 2018)
Coleman Hawkins – “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (1948)
Chet Baker – “Polkadots & Moonbeams”
SP Intro (the new objective – “vita activa”  plus film samples)
Phillip Johnston – “Flying” from the original score for F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) (2003)
Field-Recording – Buskers in NYC MTA
Phillip Johnston – “The Magic Lamp” (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Cueniform, 2018)
Wayne Horvitz / Robert Previte / Butch Morris trio – “After all these years” (nine below zero, Sound Aspects, 1986)
Field-recording – Fordham Road
Original Dixieland Jazz Band – “Dixie Jass Band One-Step (intro: That Teasin’ Rag)” – (The Best of Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1917-1936))
Art Ensemble of Chicago – “New York is Full of Lonely People” (Urban Bushmen)
Raymond Scott – “Powerhouse” (and Looney Tunes clips)
The Microscopic Septet – “Evidence” (Friday the 13th: The Micros Play Monk, Cuneiform, 2010)
Captain Beefheart – “Moonlight on Vermont” (Trout Mask Replica, Straight, 1969)
Fast ‘N Bulbous – “Pachuco Cadaver” (Live on New Sounds WNYC, 2005)
Fast ‘N Bulbous: The Captain Beefheart Project – “Pachuco Cadaver” (Pork Chop Blue Around The Rind, Cuneiform, 2005)
Harry Partch, “Daphne Of The Dunes” (The World Of Harry Partch, Columbia, 1969)
Conlon Nancarrow, “Study For Player Piano No. 2b” (Studies for Player Piano, Wergo, 1990)
Charles Ives, “Central park in the dark” (Holidays & Central Park In The Dark, Eterna, 1982)
The Microscopic Septet – “Let’s Coolerate One” (Manhattan Moonrise, Cuneiform, 2014)
The Microscopic Septet – “Fresh Air Theme” [Joel Forrester] (Surrealistic Swing, Cuneiform, 2006)
Gil Evans, Todd Dameron – “Nobody’s Heart” (The Arrangers’ Touch, Prestige, 1975) [Rogers & Hart]
Art Spiegelman – “introduction to WORDLESS” [sample] (2014)
Art Ensemble of Chicago – “Bush Magic” (Urban Bushmen, ECM, 1982)
Phillip Johnston – “The Battle of the Spirits” (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Cuneiform 2018)
Ruth Crawford Seeger – “Andante for string quartet (1931)” performed live by 12 Ensemble Kammer Klang / Cafe OTO (2016)
Field-Recording – NY Bus sounds
Elliott Sharp – “Loisaida” (Nots, Glass, 1982)
I/S/M – “Sample/Hold” (Peripheral Vision Compilation, 1982)
Satan is my Brother – “Movimento V” (A Forest Dark, Boring Machines, 2011)
Mingus – “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (2e partie)” (The Great Concert of Charles Mingus, America Records, 1971)
Wolfgang Zeller – “Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed” (excerpt) Original score of Prince Achmed
John Zorn – “Chi Mai” [Ennio Morricone] (The Big Gundown, Tzadik, 1986)
Steve Lacy and Andrea Centazzo – “The New Moon” (Clangs, Ictus, 1976)
John Coltrane – “Giant Steps” (Giant Steps, Atlantic, 1960)
Wayang Kulit Balinese Shadows Puppet Theatre – The Sacrifice of Bima (excerpt)
Phillip Johnston – “The African Magician” (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 2018)
Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators – “Diggin’ Bones” (Diggin’ Bones, Cueniform 2018)
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra – “Midnight Indigo” (Anatomy of a Murder, Columbia, 1959)
Field-Recording – McCarren Park at Night
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra – “Anatomy of a Murder” (Anatomy of a Murder, Columbia, 1959)
John Luther Adams “Become Ocean” (Become Ocean, Cantaloupe, 2014)
Phillip Johnston – “Pari Banu Kidnapped” (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Cuneiform, 2018)
the new objective – “subway symphony” (2013)
Field-recording – Music school practice rooms
Sound Propositions is written, recorded, mixed, and produced by Joseph Sannicandro.