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American composer and minimalist guitarist Scott Johnson, author of “John Somebody”, dies in New York.

The American composer Scott Johnson (Madison, Wisconsin, 1952-New York, 2023), died last Friday, 24 March, due to complications derived from the lung cancer he had been diagnosed with two years earlier. He was somewhere between rock and minimalist music, and stood out as a guitarist in the Downtown New York scene of the late seventies and early eighties, forming part of a group of composer friends that included other musicians such as Peter Gordon, Rhys Chatham, David van Tieghem, Arthur Russell and Laurie Anderson, with whom he collaborated regularly. With the former he became a member of his Love of Life Orchestra. With the latter two he created a short-lived band, The Fast Food Band.

A meticulous composer, his best known piece is John Somebody, which he created between 1980 and 1982 with a loop of fragments of a telephone conversation with a friend, recorded in 1977 (“You know who’s in New York? You remember that guy, John somebody? He was a… he was sort of a…”), to create constantly shifting rhythm tracks, over which he layered electric guitars, bass and percussion. John Somebody was released by Nonesuch in 1986 and later, in 2004, reissued by Tzadik, John Zorn’s label, and his compositions were performed by bands such as Bang On A Can-All Stars and Alarm Will Sound; for the latter he composed a work, Mind Out of Matter (which he developed between 2009 and 2015), seventy-five minutes long: considered an “atheistic oratorio; a Handel’s Messiah for the non-religious”. Instead of choirs singing biblical texts, the piece employs the recorded voice of philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, speaking about the ideas in his book Breaking the Spell (Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). Johnson combined musical styles as disparate as baroque recitative and retro-funk in the piece to illuminate Dennett’s central assertion: just as plants and animals evolve in the physical environment, ideas and traditions compete within ecosystems made up of human minds and cultures. Religious ideas populate our minds, multiply in our cultures and spread like viruses, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes not.

© Photograph by Patricia Nolan, downloaded from Scott Johson’s website.