David Johnson, the composer friend of Charles Wuorinen, was the most dedicated and most thorough practitioner of artistic self-defeat of anyone I’ve come across. His acts of self-sabotage were works of art in themselves: a muttered nasty word, carefully chosen and well-timed, that would ruin a party; a bitter diatribe in response to a friendly gesture (not friendly enough was often its nub) by someone in a position to help him with his career. Johnson’s alienation of Henry Brant was a classic of performance art.
Brant, who was then a pretty big deal among academic composers, had somehow been cajoled by Wuorinen to visit Christopher St. to take a look at David’s work.
I was there. (I can’t remember whether I’d been specially invited or if I had just happened to drop by.) As we waited for Brant, Wuorinen and Johnson were in a state of nervous tension – an unusual frame of mind for them. David kept growling that Brant wouldn’t come; Charles insisted he would, but clearly was worried he wouldn’t.
Brant was late, but eventually footsteps on the stairs signaled his arrival. By the time he knocked on the door Charles was in jovial, companionable mode (also uncharacteristic) and David was grinning demonically, which was the most amiable facial expression he was capable of.
Brant carried a leather portfolio, with a music manuscript which he had been working on in the train down from Bennington. Admiring that, of course, was the first item on the agenda.
Wuorinen, in an imitation of Uriah Heep that tottered on the cusp of lampoon, which redeemed him somewhat in my eyes, made ready the drawing board. He knelt (that gesture, in itself, was atypical) more than once, to adjust its height to Brant’s short stature. He moved aside a portfolio of David’s music, some dip pens fitted with music-writing nibs, and a bottle of india ink. He angled the goose-neck lamp to fall just so.
Slowly, fussily, Brant laid his manuscript out. Wuorinen and Johnson drew near, their heads already bobbing in delighted affirmation. David murmured something about the lamp, He raised his arm to reposition it and, in doing so, knocked over the ink bottle. The ink ran down the drawing board and over and into the pages of Brant’s music.
Wuorinen rushed into the bathroom and came out with a roll of toilet paper, with which he tried to blot up the ink. All David could do was shrug his shoulders at Brant, his grin more demonic than ever. Brant, furious, gathered up his music which, still damp with ink, no doubt ruined the leather portfolio it had come in, and stormed out the door.
Most of David’s self-defeating act were conscious and pointed. This one, possibly because Charles had arranged the Brant visitation, was, or appeared to be, accidental. Nevertheless, it was a tour-de-force of self-defeatism.
Slapstick as that event was, and as uncomfortably anti-social most of David Johnson’s self-defeating behavior was, he also was responsible for a coup of self-sabotage which was so marvelous that even now, thinking about it, I have to smile and shake my head in wonderment.
Somehow – either through Wuorinen’s influence or some remarkable confluence of connections – the renowned violist, Walter Trampler, commissioned David to write a concerto for him.
David was no longer living at Christopher St., but was sub-letting a basement apartment further west, on Bank St. I bumped into him one night at The White Horse, where he was enthusiastically describing, to all in earshot, the large flying South American cockroaches which, he claimed, the couple he was sub-letting from kept as pets. I was dubious, so he invited me to come around the corner to see for myself.
Yes, there they were – three large bugs, easily two inches across, roosting on some gauze curtains on a small window looking out onto the sidewalk. I didn’t see them fly, although I knew they could if they wanted to. I still was dubious about their status as household pets.
The etymological tour finished, David sat down at the piano to play me the melody he had written for the opening theme of the viola concerto for Trampler. “It’s lovely,” David said, “it’s perfect for him. It’s the viola concerto that Mozart never wrote.”
This is the melody I heard. You have to imagine it played sweetly. This robotic kerthumpery is the best I could do.
This melody – measures 1-6 – has stuck with me for sixty years. Measures 7 and 8 only approximate what David played. The repeat and measure 9 are just my attempt to complete it.)
It was – it is – lovely. It could have been composed by Mozart. (In fact, for years, I suspected David of plagiarizing it, and kept expecting to come across the melody in some obscure Mozart piece.) Trampler, of course, hated it and cancelled the commission.
That melody – so lovely, yet so unacceptable – was a masterpiece of self-defeatism – deep, subtle, complex, exquisite – surely one of the greatest acts of self-sabotage that the art world has ever known or, rather, that the art world would never know about.