Q&A: Evidentiary Bodies composer Norman Scott Johnson

Melissa Starker, photos by Sydney Cologie

May 29, 2019

Architect and Barbara Hammer Evidentiary Bodies composer N. Scott Johnson

As the late Barbara Hammer wrote, she and architect-slash-cellist Norman Scott Johnson had a creative affinity from their first meeting:

"Norman Scott Johnson and I met in an airport in Stockholm on our way to Oslo, he for a mini vacation from his demanding work in architecture and I for a retrospective of my films at Kunsthalle Oslo. We became friends and hung out all weekend. On return to NYC I asked Scott if he’d perform his cello (multitalent!) during my upcoming performance about living with cancer. We jammed! We laughed! We cried! Scott was willing to try anything!"

Their collaboration produced the uniquely organic and evocative score for Evidentiary Bodies, the climactic multichannel installation in the new Wex exhibition, Barbara Hammer: In This Body. Johnson will be here to perform the score live during the Summer Exhibitions Preview tomorrow, May 31.

Johnson shared some details about their partnership with us before arriving in Columbus from New York, and when he got here he invited us to come along as he chose a cello to borrow from The Loft Violin Shop for his Wex performance. Thoughts and pictures are below.

Architect, cellist, and composer N. Scott Johnson at The Loft Violin Shop in Columbus, OH

How did you get involved in this project?
In 2015, shortly after we met in Stockholm, Barbara was awarded studio space in Brooklyn for a year to develop her ideas for a performance installation of Evidentiary Bodies. She asked me to swing by the studio with my cello to see what we could come up with. This was our first collaboration and we did several informal public performances together at the Studio. From there, Barbara developed the work into the performance piece for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2016, and then into the film Evidentiary Bodies which we took to the Berlin Film Festival last year. The exhibit at the Wex features an immersive presentation of the film, which is the culmination of Barbara’s vision.

Did you get any direction from Barbara?
Having never worked in experimental cinema before, I came to my first rehearsal with Barbara prepared to play Bach. After a few measures, she stopped me, paused, and said, “Why don’t you just play one long note.” Thus began my role as an improvisational composer and performer. Up until that moment, everything I had ever played was composed by someone else. It was liberating and Barbara encouraged me to try anything. At one rehearsal she brought in medical equipment, which we used as musical instruments, experimenting with sound. In another, I tied the cello to my chest with Ace bandages so I could walk around with Barbara while she focused a hand held projector onto the walls, ceiling and the cello. During the recording session for the film Evidentiary Bodies, Barbara sat next to me and told me what she was thinking and feeling and I would play, as if interpreting her thoughts. The big breakthrough was when she started breathing into a microphone and my response was to try to find a way to make the cello resonate from within, to breathe.

A selection of cellos at The Loft Violin Shop in Columbus, OH

How does your music reflect or expand on what people will see in Evidentiary Bodies?
Recording the sound track for Evidentiary Bodies with Barbara was a profound experience, a confirmation of the renewal effect of the creative process. Evidentiary Bodies is about mortality. I wanted to create a duet with the film that invites the viewer to experience the film as something that lives in the present, that inspires life.

What are you looking for in a cello for this piece?
A cello is a very specific instrument with a unique and rich history and I am fully aware you cannot expect a cello to do something that it was not designed and built to do. What I am looking for is an instrument that has a wide-open sound, one that vibrates and resonates at the bottom and the top of the registers and at the same time has a bright singing sound. There are moments in music when Barbara asked me to play something that sounds happy, so for Barbara, I would hope to find a cello that feels good and makes me happy.

Architect, cellist, and composer N. Scott Johnson at The Loft Violin Shop in Columbus, OH

The exhibition is very centered on the body. The cello has its own physical presence and relationship with the body performing with it. Were these ideas that came up as you collaborated with Barbara? 
Very much so. It all circles back to the collaborations in the 1970s between cellist Charlotte Moorman and video artist Nam Jun Paik that explored sensuality and technology within the framework of gender and social politics. For Barbara, this was the model for our collaboration. Without the cello, Barbara would have had zero interest in working together on this project. 

How did they affect your techniques for creating sound for the piece?
I started focusing on the cello as a body of sound, exploring vibrations, harmonics and overtones, looking for ways to release a world of untapped possibilities. At the same time, the cello is an extension of my body, which does not like to sit still for too long, so we experimented in all sorts of physical ways to create sounds while moving around, even laying on the ground. 

Barbara taught me to see, hear, and feel sound in a completely different way. As a composer, I like to think of myself as an explorer. Each time I sit down to the cello, my goal is to generate something new, something I have never done before. During Barbara’s final weeks, I wanted to compose a song for Barbara, and went to the sound studio with a few ideas in mind. During the recording session, I threw out all pre-conceptions, closed my eyes and just started to play. Working with sound engineer David Goldman, we put together a four-minute piece, which I quickly emailed to Barbara. This is the note Barbara sent me, a week before she died: 

Hi Scott

Florrie and I just had a chance to listen to your thrilling music. It took me to new places. I’ve never seen you write like this before. Your ability to open up the door and spaces to a new way of visualizing - for some reason, opens up the desert as wide as it can go. I’m waiting for more.

Love always 



Ps. I don't believe in the afterlife and beyond.

Any thoughts on the idea of playing within a very specific, immersive space within the Wex—a very particular, rigid building?
My approach to musical composition is as much informed by proportion and physical relationships as it is by precedent and music theory. If the physical space between two notes makes sense to me, the sound follows. For Evidentiary Bodies, I am exploring harmonic proportions, the mathematical structure that defines the relationship between harmonic notes on the cello. This approach was inspired by one of my favorites, renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who used the theory of harmonic proportions in the design of his buildings. I like the idea of connecting to something universal.

The Wexner Center is an amazing building. Architecturally, it has a rigorous organizational structure inspired by mathematical principles and its own unique context. In a way, I am trying to do the same thing with sound. With this installation of Evidentiary Bodies, I see an incredible opportunity to generate a dialogue between fixed architecture and sound, which to me is what it is all about.