Profile: Robert Johnson
Date: Aug. 14, 2000
Story and photo by: Dawn Fuller
Archive: Profiles Archive
A series of haunting paintings served as the inspiration for a UC composer's piece
that earned a favorable mention in The Arizona Republic last May. The
composition by Robert Johnson, head, College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) Library,
was first performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1996, but the May
performance by the Phoenix Symphony is leading to additional work for Johnson.
Johnson's Nightpiece (after Blakelock) "painted an orchestral night
brimming with emotions of anxiety and of hope, a richly imagined phantasmagoria,"
wrote Republic reporter Kenneth LaFave. Johnson's 11-minute
composition opened a May 4 performance by the Phoenix Symphony.
"Blakelock was a 19th-century American landscape painter who specialized in very
moody, mysterious, moonlit landscapes," explains Johnson. "The music, I think, reflects
this generally haunting atmosphere that the paintings convey. The conductor, Hermann
Michael, liked it so much that he wants me to write something else especially for that
Johnson's love for classical music began when he was a child growing up in
Hutchinson, Kansas -- back when radio carried performances by the major symphonies
such as the NBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. The first instrument he
learned to play was the clarinet, but piano lessons led to his interest in composition.
Johnson majored in composition at the University of Kansas and earned his
master's degree in library science from the University of Illinois. "That may sound like an
unusual hybrid, a composer-librarian, but it's really not all that unusual. In music library
work, it's essential to be a trained musician. There are people with all kinds of musical
backgrounds in the music library field," says Johnson, who came to CCM's Library 32
Johnson adds the key to composing does not mean the composer needs to master
every musical instrument. "Once you know the character of the instrument -- it's
capability and limitations in terms of range and tonal quality -- you're on pretty safe
ground as far as knowing how it will sound in combination with other instruments."
Additional works by Johnson include Autunnale for Oboe, English Horn and
Orchestra, commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and performed
during the 1998-99 season, and Janus Variations, performed by the CCM
Philharmonia during the 1996-97 season.
Johnson says that because CCM is primarily a performance-oriented school, the
CCM Library reflects the performance focus in its collection of music scores and
recordings. "We probably have the best collection of scores by contemporary composers
in the state."
Although many ideas may come to him during his hours spent at the library, he
only composes at home. "Sometimes I might get an idea and jot it down when I'm sitting
at my desk and work on it later when I get home. Usually, I'll say, 'I need to jot this
down,' and I don't get around to it."