Phillip Johnston’s Page of Madness: Suite for Improvisers had its Australian premiere at SIMA’s Summer Series at The Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre in February 2016. This large ensemble piece had its US premiere as the finale of Johnston’s one-week residency at John Zorn’s venue The Stone in New York in March of 2015.
The music is based on Johnston’s original score for Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 Japanese silent film, Kurutta Ippēji (A Page of Madness) which was premiered at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1998 and later had its Australian premiere at The Sydney Film Festival in 2008. The Suite for Improvisers was created from themes used in the film score and some of the structures which applied improvised music to silent film scoring, combining them into a long form music composition. The music functions without the film, as a vehicle for a group of stellar Sydney improvisers, in the spirit of large ensemble music such as Carla Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill for the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, or the music of The New York Composers Orchestra, of which Johnston was an originating member in the late 1980s. This film-score-without-a-film is both haunting and exhilarating.
John Shand wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald: ★★★★½
“If a sense of surprise courses from the heart of much good music, then Phillip Johnston sliced open an artery to flood this work with the stuff. Composition and improvisation have shared a bed since music was born, but often the former has constrained the latter or the latter has rendered the former redundant.
The Holy Grail has been to find a way to create contexts and structures within which improvisers may be given their heads, so the piece is completely different with each iteration, yet remains recognisable.
Johnston plays composer in the conventional sense of strewing enchanting themes through the work, and in the less conventional sense of calling for free improvisations of specified durations and instrument combinations. While playing soprano saxophone he also conducted, controlling dynamics, density, intensity and entry and exit points for individuals.
It was a rendition that bounced between highlights as happily as a child in a toyshop. Among them were Farrar’s alto saxophone exploding with look-mum-no-hands daring and thrilling improbability, Robson tearing the music’s surface apart with his baritone, McMahon summoning up a churning ocean of sound, and a Swanton solo of understated sorrow that was as good as anything I’ve heard the bassist do in 37 years of hearing him.”