Samn Johnson – ‘Variations’
Ann Arbor’s Samn Johnson uses his vast imagination and rich sounds from contemporary composers to create engrossing ambient works. His work is expansive and deep—the type of textural work that beckons thoughts like, “what did he mean by that?” without speaking a single word. As a classical-inspired artist, his work reminds me of a long narrative. Similarly to the way in which a book demands full engagement from the reader, giving Samn Johnson a proper listen with the lights out and the volume on high is blissful understanding.
Variations is Samn‘s first full-length, and we’re proud to present you with the entire work below, following an in-depth analysis of the work’s meaning by Samn Johnson himself, which includes both an objective and an abstract interpretation:
It is very difficult for me to describe ‘Variations’. I’ve been working on it since last April, and when you spend so much time alone with something, you begin to read a lot into it. Over the course of working on this project, I have traced out several distinct concepts and narratives that I believe inhabit the work. These ideas are not features of an architecture that I imagined prior to the compositional task, but were applied to the work, during and after it’s construction. All I can do to describe this piece is trace the contours of aspects which I find most salient, and encourage the listener not to privilege my interpretation and construct their own meanings and narratives in response to the work.
First I will describe it objectively. Then I will describe my reading of it.
‘Variations’ is an album of electronic music in which all tracks sample something categorized as classical music. That said the music that I sampled is picked out from the periphery of classical music. We aren’t taking about Bach or Brahms but music that is either very old (late 1400’s) or avant-garde music from the latter half of the 20th century. I also incorporate non-western classical music by sampling a traditional Japanese piece.
Now for more abstract stuff:
The initial concept behind this piece was creating an electronic album that drew heavily and my background in and deep love for classical music. Electronic music grew out of classical music after all (pioneers such as Stockhausen, Varese, Cage, etc all being “classical” composers), and I was interested in paying reference to this lineage. Additionally, the practice of variation within the western classical tradition was a point of interest to me. Harmony itself grew out of the procedure of writing elaborated melodies over stretched out Gregorian chant tunes (this is called organum if you want to read about it on Wikipedia or something). I think the idea of recycling earlier material has continued to be a prominent feature of western music ever since. In earlier times composers could only quote “pure musical” material such as melodies or harmonies, but now with sampling at out disposal, we can quote the exact sound of a performance. I wanted to go back into classical canon and apply this quite recent technique.
There is also a narrative of decay that runs though the album. I suppose it isn’t surprising seeing as every single sample on here is taken from a composer who is dead. This idea was initially inspired by the idea of the universe expanding indefinitely and perishing in a big rip. This theory describes the universe essentially pulling itself apart until there is virtually complete emptiness in all directions. “Ockeghem” and “Event Horizon,” the first and last tracks of the record describe the beginning and end of this lifespan. “Ockeghem” portrays the nascent universe. I use sparkling sounds that remind me of stars and the potential for life. Conversely, “Event Horizon” is a corpse, an attempt to summon a completely barren, and skeletal sonic landscape. The tracks between these two poles occupy various spaces on a downward oriented emotional arc. I find that it is impossible to think of the universe without anthropomorphizing it. Why else would the idea of its “death”, something so far removed from out perceptual experience, and which really bears no resemblance to the human concept of death, be so chilling? Consequently, I do not imagine this work simply as an analog for the “life” of a non-sentient cosmos, but as a mirror to the life of a conscience. The album scrutinizes itself, reacts to things, and attempts to bend itself in various directions. To me, as the album progresses it begins to scrutinize itself too intensely and tears itself to pieces (the crux of this is the track composure), leaving a vast emptiness in its wake.
These are just a few of the ideas that I believe inhabit this space I created for myself. I could choose to emphasize other things and it would have a completely different meaning. A lot of these tracks are about a girl as well, but I don’t want to describe that here. Truth be told, at the very root of it, I am unable to identify with any real certainty what caused me to make this thing. I only have the fact that it exists and memories of what I was thinking about as I sat at my computer and put it together.