Tom Johnson – Nine Bells

Tom Johnson - Nine Bells LP front cover
Tom Johnson - Nine Bells LP back cover
Tom Johnson - Nine Bells LP side 1
Tom Johnson at the creation of Nine Bells
Tom Johnson at the creation of Nine Bells
Tom Johnson at the creation of Nine Bells

A student of Morton Feldman, Colorado-born composer Tom Johnson (b.1939) lived in New York from the late 1960s to 1983, when he relocated to Paris, France. During much of the seventies, he worked as music critic for The Village Voice, reviewing the performances of the Downtown’s New Music scene. As a composer, Johnson derives much of his music from logical operations and mathematics, including topology and the “tiling” theory.

Composed in 1979, Nine Bells explores the multiple combinations of 9 suspended bells in a 3×3 grid, each bell situated 6 feet from its neighbors. The music is produced by pealing the bells following precise walking paths around the installation. The piece induces a lot of walking around, more or less rapidly, and the sound of footsteps is an integral part of this recording. One imagines the performance itself, given in various venues at the time (N.Y., Pasadena, London, Amsterdam, Paris…), to be a rather demanding physical exercise for the performer and a visually striking event for the audience.

Coincidentally, Samuel Beckett‘s play Quad, for 4 players, lighting and percussion, premiered in 1981 on German TV (cf Ubuweb), also makes use of assigned geometric movements, percussive sounds and deliberate emphasis on footsteps. The similarities and differences are interesting as they point to Johnson’s literary influences, in addition to mathematics:  the Minimalist music is contemporary with Beckett and the French Oulipo movement, a group of writers using strict, predetermined rules to “process” their writings.

01 First Bell (8:06)
02 Second Bell (6:44)
03 Third Bell (7:22)
04 Fourth Bell (7:31)
05 Fifth Bell (8:30)
06 Sixth Bell (6:40)
07 Seventh Bell (3:58)
08 Eighth Bell (5:05)
09 Ninth Bell (3:40)

Total time 57:30
LP released by India Navigation, IN-3023, New York, 1982


Tom Johnson’s discography (selection):
1979 An Hour for Piano, Frederic Rzewski, piano, LP, Lovely Music
1982 Nine Bells, LP, India Navigation
1993 Music for 88, CD, Experimental Intermedia
1993 Rational Melodies (Eberhard Blum, flutes), Hat Hut ART CD

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5 Responses to “Tom Johnson – Nine Bells”

  1. 1 rsz February 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    thank you for this wonderful Tom Johnson offering – fantastic!

  2. 2 continuo February 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    For me, Nine Bells works on several levels: background music, performance, systems music, art gallery installation, etc. In this respect, it is comparable to Keith Sonnier’s Air To Air, for instance. A milestone.

  3. 3 rosa-rosa February 16, 2011 at 6:27 am

    Is this vinyl record really in mono??? Half of the effect of the composition is lost!

  4. 4 chris sessions July 21, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    this is very nice. thanks for posting!

  5. 5 continuo July 22, 2011 at 6:11 am

    It’s an avantgarde classic.

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