Early to Rise

Daniel Johnson loves early music's purity of sound and intimacy, and he's not alone

Early to Rise
Photo by Bret Brookshire

Daniel Johnson doesn't look like a rebel. And he certainly doesn't sound like a rebel. But don't be fooled by the middle-age placidity, the casual air in his manner and dress, the voice that rarely rises above pianissimo. This man bucks the system, the party line, and he's been doing so for more than 30 years.

See, he plays early music. Early, as in before the Classical Era, before the days when Mozart, Beethoven, and the other gods of symphonic composition began their reign over the concert hall. Early, as in baroque music and its predecessor, Renaissance music, and its predecessor, medieval music. It's not the stuff that's in heavy rotation on your KMFAs of the world, not the bread and butter of your symphony orchestras, not the core curriculum of your schools of music studied by your aspiring "serious" composers, not the sanctioned "great" music of the Western world used to measure our cultural literacy. There's a reason we call it classical music. And the thing about early music is, well, it's. Just. Not. Classical.

Time was, all the hardcore music community pretty much had to do was ignore early music, treat it as a curiosity for specialists, for students of prehistory in the Western musical tradition. But in the 1950s, a few people began to discover some of this prehistoric music and made an effort to haul it out of the margins of the music textbooks. As with folk music around the same time, there were musicians that managed to popularize this forgotten, or at least underappreciated, music and commit it to vinyl, and the LPs they made were spun on dorm-room turntables across the land, catching the ear of who knows how many music students and scholars and luring them away from the well-traveled territory of the classical canon to this largely unexplored frontier.

Daniel Johnson was one of those students, a kid from Big Spring, Texas, who took to the wind-scoured plains of Lubbock to study musicology at Texas Tech, and he remembers with great fondness the liberation that came from listening to records by the early early-music ensemble New York Pro Musica. "They were trailblazers in the States," he says. "They turned so many people on [to early music], and I was one of them." The group's recordings may sound a little crude today in light of the 50 years of early-music scholarship and refinements in historical performance that have taken place since, but to the people like Johnson who discovered early music through the recordings of the Fifties and Sixties, they still enchant. "They look back on that as a really magical period because it was just so fresh to all of us. They were just so in love with it," he says.

Early music was, well, revolutionary, as unlikely as that may sound, at least in the way so many things were in the Sixties and Seventies. Johnson recalls a concert he played in as a sophomore or junior that cemented his sense of that: "I was a young little hippie, and this guy came up, and he was so excited to see hippie-freaks doing early music. For some people, it was the new thing. It was a rejection of the old and something new. For me, it was mostly the sound of it and the possibilities that it awakened in music."

That alluring, addictive, elusive early-music sound ... it was something on a more human scale than the symphonic, choral, and operatic masterpieces of the 18th and 19th centuries. "There's a thing about doing a Bach B Minor Mass with a choir of 300 that has its own power," explains Johnson. "It's just astounding. But being in a group of maybe 10 people and doing something of equal musical weight and seeing the effect that that has not only on you but on the audience, it's pretty magical. It's just so personal and intimate. Individual feelings can come out in the voice, in the vocal expression.

"Early music really is about expression. It's about telling a story. In a big opera, you really don't. You have six lines of text, mostly on an 'ah' vowel, and it's just for pure, luscious, huge, beautiful sound. Huge emotions are embedded in that. Puccini operas, [Rossini's] Cinderella – it's great. It's wonderful. But it is a different kind of communication. Going back to chant and the troubadours, that was a way of conveying news, gossip, maybe politics, definitely a lot of love stuff. In order to communicate those words, you can't make those huge sounds, and you can't do the things that a modern singer has to do."

Early music employs a different architecture than that B Minor Mass. Bach was building a palace, while those troubadours or a Josquin or a Monteverdi (to name a couple of early music's superstar composers) were constructing something closer to cathedrals, houses of worship. "Think of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, how ornate that is," Johnson offers. "That is that kind of architecture that seems like it's huge, but it's really pretty simple and very classical. It's built with the idea of promoting purity of spirit and acoustically promotes purity of sound." The architects of that era, he adds, "spent so much time creating spaces for purity of sound," and the makers of music were doing the same.

"To get purity of sound and intonation, you really do have to govern the way that you create sound, and that goes back to being much more simple, much more intimate," says Johnson.

So he was drawn to the music's personal quality, its directness and openness, and so were a lot of other people. But not everyone. The defenders of the Classical temple – big "C" – stood by the canon, and since this newfound popularity meant they couldn't merely ignore early music anymore, they actively sought to discourage performers from pursuing it, as if it were disreputable or even unsanitary. Johnson took the rebel stance to that, and once he did, it was pretty much inevitable that he would wind up in the poster city for rebellion in Texas: Austin. All he needed was an excuse to come here, and he got that in the form of – what else? – a band, the once-renowned, now largely forgotten early-music purveyors Clearlight Waites.

"A friend of mine in Lubbock, Mike Robertson, who played bass for Joe Ely, his sister lived in Austin, and she was a member of Clearlight Waites," Johnson remembers. "And he knew that I liked their music, and he said, 'You know, you should go check out the stuff that's happening in Austin.' So I went to the Renaissance Faire and heard Clearlight Waites and then auditioned for them, just because I was interested in moving to Austin in the first place. So then I started performing with them, and that kind of settled it. It really seemed like where I needed to go."

So in 1979, Johnson landed in Austin, and he stayed busy with Clearlight Waites for eight years. It gave him the opportunity to broaden his experience with early-music instruments, playing krummhorns and shawms and recorders and citterns, though some of it, he freely admits, "badly, really badly."

"One of the rules in Clearlight Waites was you had to play everything, so people who couldn't sing had to sing, and people who couldn't really play instruments had to play instruments, because it was supposed to be a little bit highbrow and lowbrow at the same time. It was pretty fun."

Clearlight seemed to have run its course by the mid-Eighties as more and more members started getting married or moving away, but by then, the band had helped Johnson make connections in his new hometown, connections that determined his future in ways he didn't anticipate. "I started being adjunct in the music department [at the University of Texas] in 1984, when Doug Kirk was directing the UT Early Music Ensemble," he says. "Then he moved to Montreal in '86. He got married, and he was going to go up and be with his wife for a year, then they were going to move back to Texas. I was supposed to direct the Early Music Ensemble for one year, and I don't know, Montreal has a certain draw, so he never came back. So the first year went okay, and they asked me to stay, and that lasted 17 years."

The Early Music Ensemble had the support of the UT School of Music chair, so Johnson was inheriting something that was "if not a bastard brother then at least someone you couldn't completely ignore," he says. "It was really popular," although people who came to check it out sometimes arrived with misconceptions planted by the old guard of classical music. "Students heard about this thing called Early Music Ensemble and said: 'What is it? Some people say it's not good for you.' So we tried to dispel those rumors. This is a great way to sing, promotes longevity, promotes healthy singing, promotes long hair ..."

Students to the EME came from every corner of the university – the English department, the classics department, foreign languages departments – and musicians from beyond the 40 Acres showed up, too. "It was town and gown," says Johnson, and at times, the Early Music Ensemble included more than 80 people. The size of the group offered him a wonderful opportunity to experiment, to use instruments that he hadn't yet learned much about and to explore the full range of early music with a medieval ensemble, a Renaissance ensemble, and a baroque orchestra. "Lots of early-music ensembles tend to be – and quite logically, I must say – pretty narrow and mostly baroque. And that's probably wise. But there was this entire period of 300 to 400 years of medieval music that people didn't really get to study in music history classes unless they'd go to grad school and could specialize, and it's stupid to ignore this stuff 'cause it's great."

During Johnson's 17 years with EME, he conducted 98 concerts, and his work earned him Early Music America's Thomas Binkley Award honoring university ensemble directors. His contract as an early-music specialist was discontinued in 2003 – a casualty of budgetary bloodshed in the College of Fine Arts at the time – but by then, Johnson had established himself as an early-music specialist of international renown, performing everywhere from San Francisco to Hong Kong to Europe and maintaining a longtime position on the faculty of the Amherst Early Music Festival, plus he had another local outlet for his musical calling, the Texas Early Music Project.

TEMP, as it's commonly known, was something Johnson created in 1987 as a town version of the Early Music Ensemble. "Sometimes there were gigs that weren't really for Early Music Ensemble, but there was the TEMP contingent that could take it," he says. The organization didn't really ramp up until the conception of the Mid-Winter Festival of Music in 1998. Now that he had met so many prominent early-music practitioners, he wanted to bring them to Austin. And he wanted to encourage local musicians to form their own ensembles outside of EME and TEMP and La Follia, Austin's baroque music specialists. So he and his TEMP family just created a six-week festival from scratch.

"We didn't know what the hell we were doing," Johnson admits. "We had beginners' karma all the first year, and the second year a little bit less great, but it was good." It gave Johnson and friends the room for even more experimentation, to perform works they couldn't have in a regular concert season. "That was very instructive, pointing out repertoire that we needed to look back at when we had more time and pointing out repertoire that was unexpectedly great. It opened creative doors that just aren't there when you're just doing a regular season, and you're much more cautious, 'What are the audiences really going to like?' as opposed to just to see what the heck this is."

But the effort required to produce the festival took a tremendous toll, and after four years, it was abandoned. "Energywise, we felt it would be destructive to continue," Johnson says. "I really miss it, partly for the experimentation and partly for the camaraderie. For six weeks, we'd see a lot of each other. We made a lot of mistakes, but we made gains in how we performed with one another and how we related to the audience."

The people he performs with have become a key part of what Johnson treasures about his early-music work in Austin. "They really are my family," he says. That extends back to people he's performed with since the mid-Eighties, vocalists such as KUT host John Aielli and Stephanie Prewitt ("No matter what Stephanie Prewitt sings, you want more of it") and violinist Laurie Young Stevens ("You don't think about what she can't do, because there's not much she can't do"). Every few years, he's seen a new influx of musicians who join the group, "so it's like generations of this family," which affects the music that TEMP performs. "I know people's strengths, so when I'm thinking of a program, I know not only how to use them efficiently but [how to give them] something they'll enjoy and will knock off the socks of the socks-wearers in the audience. Also – and don't tell anybody this – I try to find something that they can't do or haven't really been able to master so far; they still have to think about it a little bit."

He's bringing some of these members of his family together this weekend for a holiday program called An Early Christmas. Yes, everyone does a yuletide concert, but few cover the ground that Johnson and company do. After all, their repertoire predates "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "White Christmas" and even "Silent Night." And I daresay you won't hear Dutch and Portuguese and Catalan carols at most of the other December concerts in town.

Johnson will certainly enjoy having the older "generations" of his TEMP brood around him for the concert, but he may take the most pleasure in seeing the newest generation getting its first fix of early music and getting that same high he did in Lubbock all those years ago. "The really brilliant thing is watching these kids get hooked on this drug. That's one thing I miss about not being at UT anymore. But we have a lot of new performers that are getting into TEMP right now. They have some of that same look of bewilderment when they say: 'How come I've never heard this stuff before? How come my teachers didn't want me to do this?'"

An Early Christmas will be performed Saturday, Dec. 13, 8pm, at First English Lutheran Church, 3001 Whitis. For more information, call 371-0099 or visit www.early-music.org.

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Daniel Johnson, Texas Early Music Project, UT Early Music Ensemble, Clearlight Waites, Stephanie Prewitt, John Aielli, Laurie Young Stevens

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