10 months ago, I heard two half-hour long, live electro-acoustic cello improvisations by Olympia native Derek M. Johnson on KEXP’s Sonarchy radio show. The show started at midnight and I’d just happened to tune in while driving. When I got to my destination, it was certainly one of those things NPR calls a ‘driveway moment.’ Afterwards, I hunted down the recordings, downloaded and trimmed off the non-music bits (intro, radio banter, etc.) and listened to them…and listened and listened. Sometimes on long drives, sometimes just lying down and doing absolutely nothing but listening. They have become two of my favorite pieces of music of the last couple years, at the very least.

The improvisations are both untitled, but to me, almost all music seems like program music, so I came up with titles to reflect the imagery I personally associated and the stories I heard. Both pieces have a sort of rough three-movement dramatic arc to them.

Untitled I (Mt. St. Helens)

I call the first Mt. St. Helens, because its middle section reminds me of going to Seattle’s now-defunct OmniDome as a child and seeing the immersive Mt. St. Helens documentary, with scenes of ash drifting down like snow between the skyscrapers in 1980.

Untitled II (The Emerald City)

I call the second The Emerald City, not as a reference to Seattle, but to The Wizard of Oz. I call it so because the way in which the vertiginous climax is resolved is unusual: as if the music realizes that the peak of tension to which it has ascended is just an illusion—”Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”—and the melody walks away from the dramatic turmoil as an audience member who had previously suspended disbelief might stand up and exit the theater at the height of a sci-fi film, with a slow fade, emerging from the darkness into daylight and a sense of deep pastoral serenity.

I was fortunate to catch one of Derek’s performances at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford last February and I enjoyed the set quite a bit. It was great to get a chance to talk to him and I hope he keeps recording amazing stuff like this.

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