Counting himself fortunate to have ongoing projects and an exceptional high-tech home studio in which he can produce new music, Oakland-based musician/composer Chuck Johnson says the last five months have been a most productive time. Although he misses the in-person connection of touring and live performances, his income is not dependent on activities now rendered impossible during the pandemic.
Setting aside his frequent focus on acoustic guitar or pedal steel guitar, Johnson’s new CD, Mound of Shards, is primarily composed for and performed on synthesizers. Another project, a film score for a documentary he recently completed, had him stepping away from his electronic, minimalist-music comfort zone to explore Romantic music. Listening primarily to Chopin, acquainting himself with the era’s diatonic harmonic signatures, chord substitutions, and other features, he says Romantic composers were “pushing music around” and found surprising epiphanies. “It made me feel naïve, which is a good place to come back to, especially at my age  and making music for so long. It’s like, this chord should not belong in this key, but it works, because it has tension and leads you to the next key. It made clear how much jazz owes to that era. Jazz harmony and tonality, the seed of it is Romantic music.”
In addition to making albums (three solo acoustic-guitar LP’s: A Struggle Not A Thought, Crows in the Basilica, and Blood Moon Boulder; his pedal steel guitar debut, Balsams; a duo LP with Marielle Jakobsons, Saariselka; and Rain Shadow, with duo Golden Retriever, among others), Johnson composes for film and television (HBO documentary Private Violence, PBS’s A Chef’s Life, Somewhere South, Food Town, and more.) Johnson has an MFA in Electronic Music and Intermedia Art from Mills College. In a phone interview, he spoke about the new album and his life during COVID-19.
How are you coping with COVID-19 in general?
Someone asked me recently about who my audience is, and it’s not something I’ve thought about before: It’s a compelling question. It brought me to this idea that not touring and traveling to play music for this half year I have less of a visual sense of who listens to my music now. It’s something I’m definitely missing, that in-person contact with people who have somehow heard my music and like it enough to come see me perform.
Back in June, my partner and I were both sick. Mild symptoms. We’ve learned that especially people who have mild cases, they seem to be prone to chronic lingering symptoms. For me it’s every few days I get hit with a big wall of fatigue. It’s debilitating, even if it only lasts for a few hours. The rest of the day is just written off for me. The Covid fog, the cognitive fog you hear people talking about? I get a bit of that as well.
What are your inspirations during this time? What keeps you moving past those foggy days, especially minus the psychological boost of live audiences?
This is not something I thought I would ever say six months ago, but I’ve actually really gotten into exercising. I almost credit that with my fatigue tapering off these past few weeks. I do a combination of strength training and weightlifting and cardio conditioning. I was a serious athlete as a kid. Once I got to college and didn’t need that discipline, I said, I don’t care about exercise at all. I’ve never been motivated to do it as an adult, until now, which is interesting.
Tell me about your most recent technical focus as a composer and sound engineer? What sounds or applications are you striving to master?
The most recent film project was almost all for strings and piano. I knew I wanted to dig into Romantic music. It was really challenging. I started this project with the idea I’d be able to get a string ensemble into the studio and record and compose the music using music software. With the pandemic that became impossible. Fortunately, I know a couple of string players who can record themselves at home; skilled musicians who could give me really good recordings. In the end, I was able to make three musicians sound like 20. Not only was it a new challenge of a new style of music, it was a technical challenge beyond just translating my music into something for a string player. It was a technical challenge of taking recordings from different rooms and making that sound like a cohesive ensemble.
You work often as a solo artist. But in other, collaborative projects like when you were working with Golden Retriever (bass clarinetist Jonathan Sielaff and synthesist Matt Carlson), do you seek comfort or provocation in partnerships?
It’s an opportunity to create something that wouldn’t result from me working alone. Sometimes it involves more tension. Sonically and stylistically working with Golden Retriever was an opportunity to work with some tension. But in another recent collaboration [the LP Saariselka] with Marielle Jakobsons, that was a collaboration that was a more organic melding of two sound worlds that were naturally going to work together. Her work with piano in particular and my pedal steel, we talked about how those two instruments together just made sense. We’re also both audio engineers and producers and work as composers in the studio. Going back to Golden Retriever, it was wild because that was even before the pandemic, and we were working completely remotely. They’re a duo who record and perform together, but they were working from their own [separate] studios. We were working form our own little silos. I knew them and trusted them already so I had confidence in the collaboration, but it was hard to imagine what our sound worlds would sound like.
What philosophies prevail regarding your compositional and/or engineering approach and process? Do they differ when applied to a film versus for solo recordings?
Music always starts with improvisation. I read Derek Bailey’s Improvisation book a long time ago and that really struck me. Every compositional seed is born out of improvisation for me. I never sit down and write things out with pen and paper. Ideas that develop into things I think are interesting are often born out of accidents or little anomalies. Things I don’t intend to happen and I’m not looking for, those sounds are seeds that grow into something more interesting. That’s pretty universal across all the work that I do. Film scoring is more methodical and driven by a system, but it’s still started on a keyboard and exploring one way or another.
I trace it back to John Cage and his idea that at some point the composer steps out of the way. A sound is designed or born, the composer knows when to step away and let the sound develop into what it wants to be. That’s a guiding principle. When I’m recording music for pedal steel, like with the album Balsams, a big part of the process is improvising and recording loops until it’s something I’d be OK hearing for five or six minutes. Then I let the tape loop decay or degrade over time. That becomes the guiding arc of the piece and then I fill in with other layers and sounds.
Your recording studio packs a hullabaloo of equipment. Will you talk about the dangers and delights of technology? It provides opportunity, but is it a trap, especially for young, developing musicians?
It helps me realize things I couldn’t realize without it. I can record myself and produce my records and not have to spend the thousands of dollars or go into debt to a record label in a traditional studio. I do think that tech tools can lead people into sounding certain ways. With a software program a lot of people use to make music, it can lead to a lot of looping and the modular synthesizers popular now. It’s a wonderful world with new gadgets and gizmos and small companies popping up that make hardware. But then a lot of the music can sound the same, which is strange with so many tools available. People just gravitate to certain software and as a result, it can be a trap for some people. It used to be that everyone favored guitar, so there was a lot of guitar.
I’ve never been comfortable relying too much on technology to do what I want to do. I studied electronic music at college and then I swung as far as possible away from that and made music only with guitar for several years. I don’t know if that was a reaction to having to work with tech so intensely, but I appreciated being able to tour with one acoustic instrument. The sound was very much up to me and things I had control over. My performance setup has now swung back the other way and now onstage I have a power laptop, pedal steel, various hardware — a lot can go wrong. It’s the worst feeling when technology fails you onstage.
Tell us about each of the three tracks on Mound of Shards?
They were all recorded during this pandemic time. I was inclined to use musical synthesizers solely, which I haven’t done in a long time. It was about setting up a system and not being so hands-on. The feeling when I play pedal steel or guitar, it’s like I’m threading a needle and the movement of my hands is so focused. With a synthesizer, you set up a sound, a system to let it play itself to a degree, and then step back, see how it develops over time.
Limen is the most hands-off. I just found a pattern, almost like a program sequence. The tonality shifts over time, and the timbre shifts, but the pattern stays the same. It’s pattern-based and so it’s not a drone; it has a compulsion and forward movement even though it’s doing the same thing over and over. That’s how this time feels to me. We’re all in a state of suspension, in lockdown, things are on hold but time continues to move. Our lives and world events are developing rapidly and chaotically at the same time we’re being told to stay still. That struck me as a compelling idea and setting or frame to make music.
Mound of Shards was recorded earliest. It’s less of a repetitive pattern and more of setting up a synthesizer to play itself with occasional manipulation on my part. That synthesizer is easy to patch; what that gives is some agency to be discerning with tempo, pitch, rhythm — those kinds of parameters.
With Mica, titling is something that comes after the fact. It’s hard to describe, because I make mostly instrumental music and words are harder to commit to [regarding] what’s going to be printed on an album. In this case, there’s a theme of how I was thinking about being suspended in a process where time is moving so fast it’s feels out of control. While not being allowed to move, not feeling like we have a lot of agency.
CORRECTION: The title of Chuck Johnson's new recording is Mound of Shards, not Mounds of Shards. It was listed incorrectly in the article title and on first mention as originally published.