Phillip Johnston – Subtracting the Film from the Score

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Phillip Johnston. Photo: Andrew Cowan.

It’s thanks to TV that Phillip Johnston became a film composer. Like millions of other children Johnston grew up with the television playing nanny, and daytime TV in the 1960s meant movies. Old ones, thick with music. He loved film, he loved music and he especially loved film music.

These days Johnston, a New Yorker who now resides in Sydney and is also a jazz saxophonist, has composed many scores, frequently for silent movies, and has penned a PhD on the relationship between music and film.

There are, he suggests, two main attractions to writing film scores: “One is that it gives you opportunities to indulge your love of different genres. For practical reasons you could never play at a club and the first tune be a string quartet and the second tune be Italian wedding music. But in film music you’re called on to do that all the time.”

The second attraction is that film can contain much more adventurous music than anything to which the population at large usually listens. “Most people’s experience with atonal or dissonant music would be in horror movies,” Johnston observes. Because the sounds are tailored to the images people accept a more radical sonic palette.

Johnston has now revamped one of his silent movie scores, for Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926), into a concert piece called Page of Madness: Suite for Improvisers. “Because the film was pretty abstract in a lot of ways I decided to use it as an opportunity to make a score that had more improvisation in it,” he explains. Having been performed in New York, it is now being presented locally by a 12-piece band including the Necks’ bassist Lloyd Swanton, the first musician Johnston met when he moved here. He conceived the piece as requiring just one rehearsal (the players having previously been furnished with the scores). The catch? “They all have to be amazing musicians,” he says. “Otherwise it falls apart.”

Long before he began writing for film, Johnston’s compositions were heavily influenced by such brilliant screen composers as Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann. “People who’d come to hear bands of mine would say, ‘Your music sounds like film music,'” he recalls. “Then people started asking me to write music for their films, and it just kind of grew.”

Even away from film Johnston’s projects are diverse. Within the jazz idiom they extend from the Thelonious Monk-oriented Tight Corners to the raucous 1920s-focused Greasy Chicken Orchestra. “If I couldn’t participate in different kinds of music that I love I would feel kind of deprived,” he says. “And I do anyway, because there’s only so much time in a day.”

Johnston began as a saxophonist playing everything from rock to backing a magician. After concentrating more on composing he met his future wife, the Australian playwright Hillary Bell, in a New York workshop where high-calibre composers, playwrights and singer/actors collaborated on new songs. After five years in New York they moved to Sydney – not necessarily the sharpest career-move in Johnston’s life.

He returns to New York regularly, pursuing such projects as the acclaimed Microscopic Septet, whose new album, Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play the Blues, is released on February 10. Formed in 1981, the band split for 12 years, then reformed in 2005 when a four-CD set of their early LPs was released. This was the year Johnston moved to Australia. “I’m a master of bad timing,” he says.pj res