"The Four Note Opera" figures now among the standard international opera repertory since its New York début 30 years ago. Rarely has a modern opera received such initial acclaim with the result that it has now been produced about 100 times in at least 10 different languages. It was his first major success and it has been followed by many others.
Critics are unanimous in their appreciation of both Tom’s technique as well as the humor that pervades much of his work especially evident in the "The Four Note Opera".
It is an opera about an opera where each of the singers tells the audience what he or she is doing or is about to do, and describes the feelings that normally remain secret but which, one suspects, are only too true - if the truth be known: the snooty over-acting soprano who wants to show-off her virtuosity; the contralto - who is really a mezzo - who knows she could do it so much better; the tenor who considers he has been short-changed in his role and the solid reliable baritone who makes the whole thing clear for everybody.
As the title says, only four notes - D, E, A and B - are used, albeit in different octaves. The pace of the opera is such that this fact is soon forgotten and the harmony especially in the quartets, is amazing.
Tom Johnson was born in Colorado in 1939, received B.A. and M.Mus. degrees from Yale University, and studied compositon privately with Morton Feldman. After 15 years in New York, he moved to Paris, where he has lived since 1983. He is considered a minimalist, since he works with simple forms, limited scales, and generally reduced materials, but he proceeds in a more logical way than most minimalists, often using formulas, permutations, and predictable sequences.
In addition to "The Four Note Opera" Tom is also well known for Riemannoper which has been staged more than 20 times in German-speaking countries, since its premier in Bremen in 1988. Often played non-operatic works include the Bedtime Stories, Rational Melodies, Music and Questions, Counting Duets, Tango, Narayana’s Cows, and Failing:: a very difficult piece for solo string bass
His largest composition, the Bonhoeffer Oratorium, a two-hour work in German for orchestra, chorus and soloists, with text by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was premiered in Maastricht in 1996, and has since been presented in Berlin and New York.
Johnson has also written numerous radio pieces, such as J’entends un choeur (commissioned by Radio France for the Prix Italia, 1993), Music and Questions (also available on an Australian Broadcasting Company CD) and Die Melodiemaschinen, premiered by WDR Radio in Cologne in January 1996.
The principal recordings currently available are the CDs Musique pour 88 (XI,1992), Rational Melodies (Hat Art, 1993), and The Chord Catalogue (XI, 1999) The Voice of New Music, a collection of articles written 1972-1982 for the Village Voice, was published by Apollohuis. Self-Similar Melodies, a theoretical book, was published by Editions 75 in 1996.
Long time Paris resident, Tom Johnson is an internationally recognized composer and a leader of the minimalist style. Last year he won the major French award for composition, the 8th "Victoires du Classique et du Jazz" for his "Kientzy Loops". This is the French equivalent of the Grammy awards.