“Private Violence” Premieres at Sundance

Cynthia Hill’s documentary Private Violence – with original score by Chuck Johnson - premiered at the Sundance Film Festival January 19, 2014. The film is part of the festival’s U.S. Documentary competition, and it has been picked up by HBO.

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Chicago Reader Previews Show at Constellation

Chuck Johnson’s microtonal “American primitive” guitar, Friday at Constellation

Posted by Bill Meyer on 10.17.13 at 10:07 AM

Chuck Johnson‘s recent LP Crows in the Basilica (Three Lobed Recordings) is one of the best records I’ve heard this year. Like Glenn Jones and the late Jack Rose, two leading lights of the “American primitive” guitar style that Johnson practices, he has a diverse musical history that both precedes his work as a solo acoustic guitarist and enriches it.

In the 90s, Johnson lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and played in a series of bands that never quite fit into the town’s indie-rock scene. Spatula used ambitious structures to transcend its power trio lineup; the all-acoustic Idyll Swords leaned on exotic instruments and athletic tempos to forge something like a cross between Gastr del Sol and Sun City Girls; and the instrumental Shark Quest updated the twang of the Raybeats and their ilk, applying it to cinematic ends.

Johnson has carried on designing sound and composing incidental music for documentaries to this day. He also played improvised guitar solos under the name Ivanovich, but switched to circuit bending about a decade ago. His growing interest in electronic music took him across the country to Mills College, where he studied with Pauline Oliveros and earned an MFA in 2009. But at the same time that Johnson was delving into composition and electronics building, he returned to the acoustic guitar.

He debuted his new approach to the instrument on the compilation Beyond Berkeley Guitar (Tompkins Square), released in 2010. His contribution, “A Struggle, Not a Thought,” uses contrasting sections, rather like John Fahey did, to create a sense of apprehension. But where Fahey let the overtones of his guitar radiate in every direction, Johnson seems more in control. This mastery of the minutiae of tonal relations is part of what distinguishes Crows in the Basilica; even when Johnson is honoring folk guitarists Elizabeth Cotten and Hobart Smith by elaborating upon their licks, he’s also marshaling microtones with the adeptness of Terry Riley or Tony Conrad. The result is music that has both an engaging, rustic familiarity and a hypnotizing tonal richness. Johnson has toured both coasts this year, but he hasn’t played his own music in Chicago since 2001. This Friday he appears second on a bill with Spires That in the Sunset Rise and Health & Beauty at Constellation. Crows in the Basilica is streaming in its entirety below.


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October Midwest Tour

10/16 – Madison @ Shockrasonica
10/17 – Milwaukee @ Sugar Maple
10/18 – Chicago @ Constellation w/ Spires That In The Sunset Rise, Health and Beauty
10/19 – Detroit @ Trinosophes w/ Nick Schillace
10/20 – Columbus, OH @ House concert w/ Mike Fekete

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Chuck Johnson: Live at WFMU on Irene Trudel’s Show – May 27, 2013

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Crows In The Basilica Reviewed By Tiny Mix Tapes

Original article

Chuck Johnson
Crows in the Basilica
[Three Lobed; 2013]

STYLES: guitar soli, Americana
OTHERS: Idyll Swords, Ivanovich, Shark Quest, William Ackerman, Bert Jansch

It’s surprising that Bay Area guitarist and composer Chuck Johnson is labeled as someone who comes out of the “American Primitive” school, but as with any stylistic label placed on music, it tends to accentuate how diverse and perhaps unfit for the term individual artists might be (cf. minimalism or free jazz). Johnson was in the breezy instrumental art-rock band Shark Quest, as well as the ethnographically influenced string trio Idyll Swords. His live electronic music has appeared under the name Pykrete, and as an improviser, he’s performed and recorded as Ivanovich. Following a few compilation tracks and the 2011 Strange Attractors disc A Struggle Not a Thought, Johnson returns sans nom de plume for Crows in the Basilica, which wraps steel-string guitar soli out of the Takoma/Windham Hill universe in crisp, elemental classicism. Although Johnson himself has a stated affection for country blues guitarists and ragtime music, it would be unfair to place his work simply alongside modern canonical players like John Fahey or Jack Rose. Certainly this music would be unlikely without such forebears, but Johnson definitely provides his own voice.

Early on, Johnson’s ramble seems akin to an Appalachian minimalism, itself derived from English folk music, noticeable on the opening “Across White Oak Mountain,” poised and athletic with an absence of dust. The lushness of Appalachian guitar music is evident in material overlays and progressive lilt, and being slightly divorced from its rural context doesn’t diminish the depth of its effect. There’s a vastness in Johnson’s approach on “Ransom Street Blues,” where a twanged raga aligns itself with long-form country blues maestros (if we’re to call out Fahey, it’s the Fahey of The Yellow Princess) in a multi-part suite filled with slippery turnarounds. On the other hand, “Albion Source” is a haunting and layered composition reminiscent of Vincent Le Masne and Bertrand Porquet’s Guitars Dérive (Shandar, 1974) that subtly shifts into resonant steel-string drive.

The title piece, which begins the second side, is rooted in a progression one almost feels could be played on a harpsichord or dulcimer rather than on guitar, only the occasional ghostly elisions transporting the music back to six strings. In fact, the flip shows more clearly Johnson’s classical approach and early music harmonies, fully visible in the lengthy, measured “On a Slow Passing in Ghost Town,” which traverses a path from Pachelbel to scumbled folk and fleet, interwoven lines. “Mine Creek” is the most traditional of the pieces, and it approaches the Fahey-schooled disco void with glorious, robust introspection, while the closing “Wild Geese on Level Sand” is a narrow, delicate missive of baroque parlor blues based on Chinese song. Music like that of Crows in the Basilica is so present and uncluttered that trying to get to the core of Johnson’s playing is almost antithetical, and it is easy to waste one’s breath either trying to explain who he isn’t as well as who he is. While there are a good number of excellent guitar soli recordings on the map, especially from a younger generation, there is only one Chuck Johnson.

01. Across White Oak Mountain
02. Ransom Street Blues
03. Albion Source
04. Vastopol
05. Crows in the Basilica
06. On a Slow Passing in Ghost Town
07. Mine Creek
08. Wild Geese Descend on Level Sand

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