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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 orchestra."

Robert Johnson

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 years ago.

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."

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