Review: Tony Peña – TomJohnsonForSix

project_06_desaturatedThe first track on TomJohnsonForSix, titled “Septapede”, was originally written for piano, centring on a short loop that gradually mutates through repetition, shedding notes and gathering others as it rolls around, subtly adjusting shape through the shortening and slurring of durations. It’s a delicate sculpture of plucking fingers and high pitches. The process is like a watchmaker tinkering with the mechanism as it turns, adding tiny implements that smoothen the rotation of one cog and stifle another, gradually approaching full functionality through a see-saw between states of excess and imbalance. I suppose this analogy breaks down in how it depicts the music as driving for a final, “correct” state; instead, Johnson’s mutating loop is a music set adrift, each iteration as valid as those prior and those after, documenting an eternal process of movement that does not know why it does, but simply follows its urge to ruffle the onset of stasis over and over again. It’s restless, but for what?

This gently nurtured change is a consistent theme throughout this collection. The descending tip-toe of “Alexadrins” feels like a speech rehearsed over and over again, pausing at the end of each run-through before restarting, subtly amending the language used every time until the meaning shifts completely. The structure remains the same, yet the content is unrecognisable. “Canon For Six Guitars” places an angular motif into conversation with itself, overlapping at different points to experiment with different points of harmonic intersection, culminating in a moment where six separate iterations bustle around the same space and bump into eachother, like bells clanging together as they swing back and forth. Performer Tony Peña talks about his decision to record this piece alone instead of calling on collaborators, overdubbing various versions of himself to create a hall of mirrors that, once again, obscures any notion of an “original” object as distinct from the reflections around it. Johnson is constantly swirling around a centre that I cannot see.

Peña’s renditions are intimate and simple, and the compositions are such that this intimacy is invited to bleed into the work. I can hear the notes squeak as his hands press down to choke the fretboard, or the jagged edge of a nail scuffing on a string. This isn’t a minimalism that strips all performer ego out of the frame, and Johnson strikes a balance between amplifying the very construct of the guitar while retaining the duet between skin string, or musical mind and actualising implement. There’s a moment on “Arpeggios” where Peña simply picks each open string from bottom to top, generating that unmistakable slow strum of a guitar in standard tuning. While the piece reduces the contact between player and instrument, removing the presence of the fretting hand entirely, it also pays homage to that ritualistic act of acquaintance between a guitarist and their guitar – the obligatory check that the guitar is entirely in tune. On TomJohnsonForSix, it’s as important that player is tuned to instrument as vice versa.