Dennis Johnson. Photo: David D. McIntire.

Dennis Johnson (1938–2018)

Dennis Johnson, composer, mathematician, and pioneer of Minimalist music, died on December 20 in California at the age of eighty. Johnson is best known for November, a six-hour-long solo piano piece composed in 1959 that is credited as one of the earliest works of Minimalist music. La Monte Young, who studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, with Johnson, attributes November as the inspiration for his classic improvisatory work The Well-Tuned Piano, which he began in 1964.

With its repetitive motives and diatonic tonality, Johnson’s November anticipated many Minimalist music trends, though it was never officially released and was nearly lost. In 1992, only one 112-minute recording of it remained, which composer and critic Kyle Gann used to reconstruct the score after receiving the tape cassette from Young. Since then, various restagings and interpretations of November have taken place, including a 2013 recording by R. Andrew Lee. 

While Young moved to New York in 1960, Johnson stayed at UCLA to focus on his studies in ethnomusicology—though he did visit the city on several occasions to play in Young’s performance group, Theater of Eternal Music, in the early 1960s. He gave up public music performance in 1966 to focus on mathematics, completing a doctorate in the field in 1968, and went on to pursue research projects at NASA and to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. 

When asked in a 2013 interview with The Wire how it felt to be hailed as the first composer of Minimalist music, Johnson answered: “That’s interesting. Tell me again, the meaning of Minimalist?”