Max Johnson: When the Streets Were Quiet

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Composer, bassist, bandleader, and stylistic chameleon Max Johnson releases this collection of his recent through-composed chamber music, displaying his impressive versatility across many contexts. Unlike some musicians who wear multiple aesthetic caps, Johnson does not present a hybrid amalgamation of the various kinds of music he is involved in, instead we hear a cultivated and thoughtful compositional voice within the contemporary classical idiom, perhaps informed by his work in jazz, bluegrass, and other styles, but on a subterranean level that steers clear of asserting their influence on the surface presentation of the music.


On When the Streets Were Quiet, composer, bassist, and bandleader Max Johnson turns the focus to his finely wrought chamber music. Active in many contexts, Johnson is voraciously eclectic and impressively versatile. The works on this collection betray little overt reference to his wide range of stylistic activities, instead zeroing in on his craft centered approach to composition. With an emphasis on counterpoint, imitative textures, structural markers defined by instrumental relationships, and broad arcs of direction and activity, Johnson creates lush, intricate works that balance an elegiac lyricism with well considered rigor. The featured performers are violinist Lauren Cauley, violist Carrie Frey, cellist Maria Hadge, clarinetist Lucy Hatem, and pianist Fifi Zhang.

Minerva for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello opens the program with swooping lines that snake between the instruments of the quartet. Punctuated arrival notes articulate the direction of the composite line; splashes of harmonic color emerge from the living canvas of activity. When the texture thins out, a pointillistic klangfarben reveals itself more clearly, spinning out one thread of melody as its tone color constantly morphs. The ensemble sections of Minerva are set off by expressive solo and duo passages, contrasting the hybrid expression of the tutti sections with moments of intimate drama. A dense climactic section releases the work’s accumulated energy with a torrent of layered lines (perhaps reflecting the influence of Johnson’s mentor and dedicatee of the work, composer Jason Eckardt) before the piece finishes with a poignant cello solo.

The clarinet takes a central role in Nine O’Clock When the Streets Were Quiet, joined by violin, viola, and cello. The strings provide an ominous pad of closely spaced intervals over which the clarinet plays a searching figure in an initially compressed register that patiently expands over four minutes, intensified by accents and sudden tremolos in the strings. In the second section, the clarinet drops out, as the strings weave around each other in a similarly small register, like reptiles slithering in the mud. This time the cello and viola widen the register, driving towards an arrival, while the clarinet and violin provide long, connective tones. The sustained textures become the primary idea in the subsequent section, and indeed the remainder of the piece, as the texture slowly settles into the intense closely spaced intervals from the opening to close, this time in a higher tessitura. Johnson’s sound painting of a nighttime streetscape is one of tense apprehension and foreboding.

Johnson’s String Trio is organized into multiple sections delineated by solos, pitch areas, and texture, and is primarily written in a harmonic language that evokes the early 20th century transition from extended tonality into free atonality. It takes a surprising turn at the five minute point to a setting of a Barber-esque melody, briefly referencing a familiar kind of mid-century, wide-eyed Americana. An accented four note chromatic figure interrupts the reverie and anchors the following contrasting section, returning the piece to the thornier pitch landscape, now accompanied by vigorous rhythmic interplay. Percolating pizzicati animate the texture before the work closes with a return to the hopeful material from its midway point, acknowledging and integrating some of the harmonic ambiguity from the other sections of the work in a final progression that ends unresolved on a minor ninth between cello and violin.

Echoes of a Memory opens with the clarinet and viola trading off sustained lines, supported by ethereal chords in the piano. The middle register emphasis of the instrumentation is subverted by high sustained notes in the clarinet and clarion harmonics in the viola. Flowing lines in alternating unison between piano and one of the other instruments propel the texture forward towards a torrent of interwoven independent lines. Johnson returns to the watery chords in the piano and sustained tones in clarinet and viola for the close of the piece.

- Dan Lippel

All music composed by Max Johnson (Max Johnson Music ASCAP)

Recorded by Aaron Nevezie at The Bunker Produced by Max Johnson

Edited by Max Johnson

Mixed and Mastered by Zach Herchen

Poetry & Liner Notes by Todd Colby

Artwork by Leah Asher

Design by Marc Wolf,

Photos of Ensemble by Max Johnson

Photo of Max Johnson by Aidan Grant

Made possible by a grant from the Café Royal Cultural Foundation

Max Johnson

Described as “an intrepid composer, architect of sound and beast of the bass...” (Brad Cohan, NYC Jazz Record) composer-bassist Max Johnson creates complex worlds of sound, challenging his listeners to engage deeply and be rewarded with an experience always crafted with love, care, and clarity. With nine albums and over two thousand concerts internationally with artists like Anthony Braxton, Mary Halvorson, Tyshawn Sorey, John Zorn, and Mivos Quartet, Johnson brings a wild energy and excitement. Johnson currently teaches music theory at Brooklyn College and is the father to a beautiful chihuahua named Gabby.

Celebrated as “one of the more versatile figures… a leader with a strong, woody tone” (Peter Margasak, The Chicago Reader), Johnson is equally adept as a composer, improviser, and interpreter. He has carved out a unique path in the contemporary music, jazz, and bluegrass worlds as a boundless force of positivity, with a non-stop touring schedule and a prolific body of work. His music has been featured at Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Lollapalooza, Bern Jazz Festival, Delfest, Rockygrass, Greyfox, Old Settler's Music Festival, High Sierra Music Festival, Fayetteville Roots Festival, Strawberry Music Festival, 3 Sisters Music Festival, and the Quebec City Festival. Johnson also has a prolific recording history, having released nine albums under his own name, has been a part of over 50 albums, and can be heard Spike Lee’s Academy Award winning film the BlacKkKlansman.

In 2012 and 2014 was voted No.2 Bassist of the Year and No. 5 Musician of the Year in El Intruso's International Critics Poll. In 2018 he was commissioned by the University of Glaskow to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Claude Debussy with his work for oboe, horn and harpsichord, Clawed, followed by a commission by the Steven R. Gerber Trust for I Have Heard the Chimes at Midnight for Brass Trio and Piano. In 2020 the Jerome Foundation commissioned him for a new extended work Transformations which was featured in a portrait concert at Roulette, in Brooklyn, NY.

He has toured, recorded, and performed with some of the most legendary names in his fields, including Muhal Richard Abrams, Nels Cline, David Grisman, Ingrid Laubrock, Sam Bush, William Parker, Bryan Sutton, Joseph Jarman, Karl Berger, Kris Davis, Darol Anger, the Travelin’ McCourys, members of Talea Ensemble, Bang on a Can, and the De Capo Chamber Players. No matter the style of music, Max Johnson is heavily influenced by memory, surprise, stasis, and natural development, and cites the writing of Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka as important inspiration. Max Johnson holds a Bachelors Degree from The New School, a Masters Degree from both Brooklyn College and the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and has studied with Henry Grimes, Jason Eckardt, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Jane Ira Bloom, John Mallia, Mark Helias, Eric Wubbels, Cameron Brown, and Kirk Nurock.



Lucid Culture

Good bass players are like good singers: they get enlisted for a wider range of projects than most musicians. Bassist Max Johnson is probably as well known for his work in Americana as he is with jazz. He’s playing the latter, leading an intriguing trio with tenor saxophonist Neta Ranaan and drummer Jason Nazary on Jan 28 at 7:30 PM at the Django; cover is $25.

But Johnson has another side, as a composer of new classical music. On his latest album When the Streets Were Quiet – a reference to The Trial, by Kafka – he appears only as a conductor, leading a chamber ensemble of violinist Lauren Cauley, violist Carrie Frey, cellist Maria Hadge, clarinetist Lucy Hatem and pianist Fifi Zhang.

The opening number on the album – streaming at New Focus Recordings – is Minerva, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. After a spacious introductory reference to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, the ensemble work a simple, increasingly emphatic, steadily acidic counterpoint. Quartet for the Beginning of Time, maybe?

Johnson switches out piano for viola for the quartet on the title track. Hatem’s clarinet moves broodingly over an uneasy, close-harmonied, organ-like sustain from the strings. A couple of shivers and subtle swells further indicate that trouble is brewing. Frey leads the strings deeper into otherworldly microtonal territory, as minutely modulated tremolo effects signal the clarinet’s mournful return and a solemn, slowly drifting procession out. Franz Kafka would be proud to have inspired music this spellbinding.

Next up is Johnson’s String Trio for violin, viola and cello. The more somber, sustained moments of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 spring to mind, Cauley leading a slow but ineluctable upward trajectory toward horror. Hadge leads the group into more calming terrain, with distant echoes of what could be a Britfolk ballad mingled within the unease. The trio take their time moving between a jaunty bounce and portentous swells on the way out.

Hatem, Frey and Zhang play the final piece, Echoes of a Memory, again echoing Messiaen at his sparest. Pianissimo highs against stygian lows give way to a cautious, icy pavane of sorts, part Federico Mompou, part Bernard Herrmann. This doesn’t sound anything like what Johnson will likely be playing with the jazz trio on the 28th but it’s often transcendent. Is it fair to be talking about one of the best albums of the year when we’re not even done with January yet?

— delarue, 1.22.2023



Scan Max Johnson's CV and the impression crystallizes of a highly regarded bassist with credits any jazz artist would envy. He's toured, recorded, and performed with Muhal Richard Abrams, Nels Cline, Ingrid Laubrock, William Parker, Joseph Jarman, and Kris Davis, and has issued nine albums under his own name and had a hand in more than fifty others. But a closer look reveals him to be a musician of immense versatility and a composer comfortable in multiple idioms. Currently a music theory teacher at Brooklyn College and a graduate of The New School, Brooklyn College, and Vermont College of Fine Arts, Johnson has established himself as a contemporary music composer with a number of commissioned classical works to his name. In 2018, he created Clawed, a work for oboe, horn, and harpsichord, for the University of Glaskow to celebrate Claude Debussy's centenary and followed it with I Have Heard the Chimes at Midnight, a piece for brass trio and piano written at the request of the Steven R. Gerber Trust.

It's Johnson's composer side that's featured on When the Streets Were Quiet, a set of four chamber works that reflect positively on his talents in that area. Whereas another figure straddling genres might create works that likewise draw from different music types, Johnson is here operating exclusively within the contemporary classical realm. Splendidly bringing the composer's through-composed material into being are violinist Lauren Cauley, violist Carrie Frey, cellist Maria Hadge, clarinetist Lucy Hatem, and pianist Fifi Zhang. They give Johnson's thoughtfully crafted pieces assured readings and bring into sharp relief his artful deployment of counterpoint, mood, and compositional arc.

Johnson doesn't play on the fifty-two-minute release, though he does conduct its opening piece, Minerva. Scored for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello, the 2021 piece lunges forth with short phrases battered about from one player to another. Minerva never sits in one place for long when its tendrils coil and re-coil for more than ten adventurous minutes. This is a work where every performer's engaged and critical to the result, though solo and duo passages surface along the way. The momentum slows for a dramatic central exploration, but that episode aside, Minerva is generally animated by restlessness and a barely containable energy.

As evocative as its title, Nine O'Clock, When the Streets Were Quiet (2020) pairs clarinet with string trio in a piece dedicated to Kafka. Some of the nightmarish surreality of his stories might also be heard in Johnson's when the instruments—tremolo giving the strings a shuddering quality—establish a somewhat foreboding foundation for the fourteen-minute setting. After leading the performance aggressively, the clarinet drops out, leaving the strings to convulsively wrap themselves around one another like mating snakes. Subtly, the strings elongate their lines, after which the clarinet surreptitiously re-enters, this time as part of a textural mass of rather Ligeti-esque character.

Following that engrossing nightscape, the instrumentation reduces to violin, viola, and cello for 2017's String Trio, a seventeen-minute foray into writing that calls to mind works by Bartók and Berg that likewise push beyond traditional harmonic writing into chromaticism and atonality. At the five-minute mark, a yearning expression lightens the mood, but briefly, as the music soon enough plunges into knotty territory, all short stabs and emphatic gestures, before expanding on the soundworld by adding pizzicati to the bowing. Also a trio, Echoes of a Memory concludes the release with a work for clarinet, viola, and piano, this one advancing from a solemn, ethereal opening to, first, a prolonged meditation and, secondly, flowing interplay between the instruments before the pace arrests for a contemplative coda.

When the Streets Were Quiet impresses as a thoroughly legitimate and convincing document of Johnson's chamber classical writing. At no time does it feel like a musician taking a tentative step into an alien genre realm; on the contrary, any of the four pieces would sound perfectly at home in any chamber classical set-list. Johnson's that rare talent who can operate equally effectively in multiple idioms, which suggests there's no seeming limit to this Brooklynite's capabilities.

— Ron Schepper, 2.19.2023


Vital Weekly

'Streets' brings us four chamber music pieces composed by USAmerican bassist and composer Max Johnson. 'Chamber', in this case, indicates quartets and trios. At 33, Johnson seems to have already delivered 2,000 concerts and played on 50 releases - making him (to my knowledge) one of the few USAmercian composer-musicians who does NOT hold a university lecturing position. No time, no time. He is lead in several trios and quartets of his own making, plays in a large number of ensembles and bands, ranging from new music to bluegrass, has contributed to film scores (e.g. award winning BlacKkKlansman), seems to keep a challenging touring schedule, and has accompanied the likes of John Zorn and Anthony Braxton, not leaving out performances at Lollapalooza, Rockygrass, and Bern Jazz Festival, to name but a few.


Having said this, the music does follow a somewhat trodden path of contemporary, small-ensemble composing. Melodic lines bounce around, testing the skills of the players. Nevertheless, there is an unusual element to be detected here. Although the first piece, 'Minerva', has the four instruments, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, jump around in relative unison for about 3 minutes, the tone then changes into something more continuous and ... well, 'lyrical'? This summarises the feel that the other three pieces on this CD mainly sustain: a sense of melodious development hidden in the otherwise (sometimes) dissonant playing. I would neither be able to identify any influence of jazz nor bluegrass. Still, certainly, someone is used to a more 'musical' approach than constructing pieces off an abstract and constructivist background or 'graphic score'. Johnson is not afraid of setting the trio and quartet playing in contrast to solo lines of the piano and violin - a solo violin line ending 'Minerva', for example. 'Echos of a memory' delicately sets the piano accompanying drawn-out tones from the violin and clarinet. In the 'String Trio', the three instruments weave around each other, with a single instrument taking a temporary lead, then joined by the other two. All this in a strangely 'classical' way, save for the Bartok-esque dis-harmonies.

In its 'song' character, this release captures influences from outside the classical, contemporary circuit to best effect, without having to revert to any 'hybrid' form - so, no bluegrass here, which is very welcome, and some well-crafted and lyrical modern music.

— Robert Steinberger, 3.07.2023



Versatility goes without saying in the career of Max Johnson, who is described by New Focus as a “composer, bassist, bandleader, and stylistic chameleon.” Here we get four of Johnson’s recent chamber works, gathered under the title When the Streets Were Quiet, abbreviated from the title of his clarinet quartet composed in 2020. In the same breath as calling Johnson a stylistic chameleon, the promotional material for this release seems eager to take it back. “Johnson does not present a hybrid amalgamation of the various kinds of music he is involved in… within the contemporary classical idiom, perhaps informed by his work in jazz, bluegrass, and other styles.”

This kind of equivocation confuses me, but the pressure to find your own niche in the New Music scene can make it risky for a composer to sound imitative, a charge no one is likely to be comfortable with. Some clarity is achieved by learning that these four works place “an emphasis on counterpoint, imitative textures, structural markers defined by instrumental relationships, and broad arcs of direction and activity.” All of this, it turns out, can be heard in Johnson’s music.

Counterpoint affords a good entry into the way that Johnson, following the template set down by Schoenberg’s two Chamber Symphonies, continuously overlaps and develops his thematic materials in the opening work, Minerva, a piano quartet with clarinet, violin, and cello. Its lineage back to the Second Viennese School seemed prominent to me, although other ears no doubt will hear different associations. All would agree, however, that the work’s 10 minutes are actively and densely occupied. Certain mottos and cells stand out as markers that make the music easier to follow by ear. The program notes indicate something akin to that: “Punctuated arrival notes articulate the direction of the composite line.”

Another characteristic of Johnson’s appears in the quiet, spare passages where the clarinet and later the violin have solos in strong contrast to the preceding density and piled-up momentum. Atonality is the prevailing idiom, but Johnson has the ability to avoid chaotic note-spinning. His writing seems as assured and purposeful as Elliott Carter’s in a similar mode, and even without an analysis from the composer, the structuring feels as intellectual as Carter’s.

That Johnson is comfortable changing hats is demonstrated in Nine O’Clock When the Streets Were Quiet, scored for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. Here the focus is on mood and atmosphere. An obsessive clarinet solo unfolds over a static background of buzzing and scraping chords from the strings. The work is dedicated to Franz Kafka (the title comes from The Trial), so the quiet streets might be the backdrop for his unquiet soul. The clarinet’s insistent complaint lasts for around a third of the work’s 14 minutes, followed by equally obsessive interwoven string counterpoint (I thought of an implied reference to the first movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta). The third and final section consists of sustained chords varying in color but otherwise slowly shifting. Nine O’Clock When the Streets Were Quiet is accessible because these stylistic changes are self-evident and dramatic. The narrow register of the music adds a mesmerizing touch that would be congenial to admirers of spectral music, with its emphasis on overtones and harmonics taken from a fundamental tone.

One gets used to opaque descriptions of New Music, but the program notes by Dan Lippel are lucid and very helpful about the next work: “Johnson’s String Trio is organized into multiple sections delineated by solos, pitch areas, and texture, and is primarily written in a harmonic language that evokes the early 20th-century transition from extended tonality into free atonality.” That’s the clearest acknowledgement of a link to the Second Viennese School. The piece is intensely lyrical, even passionate, which is another tactic Johnson has found to prevent an impression of atonal wandering.

The final work, Echoes of a Memory, is a trio for clarinet, viola, and piano. The techniques it demonstrates, particularly the long, sustained notes in the clarinet, feel familiar by now, but they are applied to a new use, a spare, aphoristic style recalling Takemitsu to my ear. There’s the same sort of “musical haiku” in feeling, and a reach for timeless serenity through pauses and high harmonics.

It’s a good outcome that the music on this program exceeds what it promised – not all New Music is so fortunate. Johnson has a masterful grasp of every style he has invented as well as a deep recollection of the past. In its own way each piece here makes a strong impression. I could easily see New Music chamber ensembles adopting any one of them as standard repertoire. Johnson teaches music theory at Brooklyn College, and the musicians he has gathered here (he appears only as the conductor of Minerva) are skilled and committed. They convey an impressive understanding of music that is impressive in its own right.

— Huntley Dent, 8.17.2023