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— Tristan Whitehill

New York, New York jazz musician and instrument designer Joseph Allan Johnson is actualizing independence in 2021. Their unique music utilizes custom designed audio instrumentation and woodwind instruments, and will easily be both appreciated by serious jazz musicians and computer instrument enthusiasts. I first noticed his work inside some of the forums for Pure Data (Miller Pucket's open source music programming language) on Zucknet where they had posted some examples of their harmonizer they had designed with their gorgeous saxophone arrangements. After being consistently flabbergasted by the brilliance of his seemingly effortless and sophisticated computer jazz, I had the pleasure of asking him a bit about their process and the origins of their work.

 

Please tell me some about your history as an artist. If you could name some experiences or exposures to art and technology that helped define you as an artist.

 

I started playing saxophone when I was 11 in the school band.  There was really no rhyme or reason to why I took band or why I chose saxophone.  At that point it was more about filling an elective requirement.  I ended up enjoying it and having a bit of a knack for it.  My middle school band instructor suggested to my parents that maybe I’d enjoy taking lessons outside of school.  I ended up studying with Paul Jeffrey.  He was a jazz saxophonist.  He had come up playing in the bands of Lionel Hampton, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus etc.  My lessons were on Saturday mornings and they lasted for however long Paul felt like teaching, sometimes sometimes four hours.  Most everything I know about music comes directly from my time with him.  


As far as technology goes, I’ve just always kind of been into it.  I was always taking things apart or breaking the family computer.  Prior to having a saxophone I really wanted to be a physicist.  I was a weird 4th grader. 


 My interest in technology and music started as soon as I realized that computers could make music.  

I may be dating myself, but I vividly remember saving up for a Soundblaster 16.  In those days I was splicing together old headphone cables so that I could record things from my boom box into the computer.  


I also lived way out in the country.  There wasn’t much to do, so music and experiments were how I entertained myself.

 

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A post shared by Joey (@josephallanjohnson)

 

The compositions and improvisations you perform in Little Gorgeous and JJFM make me reminisce of golden era jazz but effortlessly futuristic due to your pallet of instruments you develop to perform with. What are some influences that have informed your unique approach to sound?

 

Well, I’m obviously a huge jazz fan.  So the usual suspects, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, etc are my influences in that regard.  


The first CD I ever bought was a Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Mauraders”.  They’ve got a lot of jazz in their music, but it’s not in a cheesy “let’s fuse jazz and hip hop way”.  It sounds organic to me.  I was really into this sound when I was younger.  It had some of what I was studying as far as jazz in it, but it also sounded contemporary like the music my friends were listening to at the time.  


At some point I was turned on to Bjork.  Her music has so many interesting textures and harmonies.  This really got me thinking about what music could sound like sonically.  


If you smash all of that together you’ll find my aesthetic sensibilities somewhere in there.

 

Can you speak about the overlaps of your interests in programming, improvisation, and composition? When you think about your artistic signature, what does this sound like to you or how is it organized?

 

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A post shared by Joey (@josephallanjohnson)

 

As a jazz guy, improvisation is just what music is to me.  The programming and the technology just make the palette from which you can pull things from larger.  I don’t really think of composition as separate from improvisation, they’re the same thing just on a different time frame.  


I’ll have to give you an answer to that second question when I figure it out myself.  How all of these things fit together and what they should sound like is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I’m still at the point where I’m just experimenting and seeing what is possible. Hopefully out of that will come an organizational / aesthetic strategy. 

 

Your work with programming hardware is impressive, what challenges of note have you encountered while developing software and hardware for music? This a technical blog so feel free to get as nerdy as you like.

 

One of the biggest challenges is the amount of hands and feet that we humans have.  Someone somewhere called this bandwidth.  As a saxophonist I basically only have free use of my feet while I’m playing.  Someone playing trumpet would have the use of their feet and one their hands. A singer on the other hand has access to all of their appendages while performing.  


I should mention that most of the things I do are done with live performance in mind.  If I were more interested in strictly recording projects these limitations wouldn’t be as severe.  


In my work this manifests as me wrestling with different ideas about presets and ways to change parameters.  If I’ve got all of the settings I want mapped out to presets then I can just hit a button on the foot controller, problem solved.  I tried this once, however and it didn’t feel good.  I didn’t feel flexible at all.  Then there’s the other side of the coin where everything is adjustable.  Managing all of the necessary parameters on the fly is a different type of headache.  When you’re trying to think about music it can be information overload.   


Another challenge that I think about is feedback.  The more complicated the system you’re working with the harder it is to tell what is going on.  Remembering if something is off or on or what value some parameter is at can be tricky in the moment.  I guess this could be solved with a monitor or something, but I personally don’t want to be dealing with anything that looks like a computer while performing.  


I guess that leads to the third thing.  I really don’t want people thinking too much about the tech that goes into everything while they’re consuming the music.  So, the biggest challenge of all is trying to make all of that stuff invisible. 

 

What is your artistic / spiritual future pointing toward? Where can we see more of your work?

Good question.  I’m thinking about doing things with less saxophone, more saxophone, only saxophone, and no saxophone. I’m also interested in possibly doing some through composed things as you can get a little wilder with the electronics when you know what’s coming next.  

Unfortunately, I’m only on Instagram and Bandcamp at the moment. I’m going to try to change that in the coming year.