Celebrating Peter Johnson

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Prof. Peter JohnsonProf. Peter JohnsonOn Wednesday lunchtime, Birmingham Consevatoire held a concert to celebrate the work of Professor Peter Johnson on the occasion of his retirement. As a long-time friend and colleague of Peter's, I was invited to say a few words and to have the privilege of presenting his leaving gift, volumes from Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Peter's work has had a profound impact on both my own research and my relationship with my own praxis over the years, so I thought it would be appropriate to make those public thanks even more public by posting them here.

I first heard of Peter when I was a postgraduate student, and some friends who were doing PhDs in the then very new area of performance studies came home from a conference bubbling over with excitement and talking about somebody called Peter Johnson who was ‘doing the most amazing things with tuning’. As first impressions go, I think he’d be okay with that. I then met Peter myself at various conferences during the 1990s and so when a lectureship came up here in 1999, it was the knowledge of his work that gave me the confidence that my own research could find a safe home here.

Peter’s most remarkable talent is for integration.

He finds positions or roles within the musical world that are sometimes cast in opposition, and he brings them together into a dialogue that enriches both. The theorist and the practitioner; the composer and the performer; analysis and intuition.

I suspect his success in doing this is rooted in experience, for Peter himself, as we have already heard, has played a wide range of musical roles. He is a theorist, and he is a practitioner; he is a composer, and he is a performer; his penetrating analytical faculty both relies upon and nourishes a fundamental trust in his intuition. George* and I had both, independently, chosen the word ‘polymath’ to describe Peter, and George has graciously left it for me to use. And this word captures not only the way that Peter takes a lively and intelligent interest in such a range of subjects, but also the way this breadth fuels creative enquiry. Just witness for instance the way the Conservatoire’s PhD programme has evolved through Peter’s contact with other disciplines throughout the university.

There are two main areas I’d like to highlight where this integrating impulse has been especially productive.

First, there is Peter’s research in Performance Studies. Not just his pioneering empirical investigations into what performers actually do. Possibly more important is his epistemological work that has sought to articulate the nature of musical knowledge as embodied in practice. In a research environment dominated by the written word, establishing the research validity of performance and composition has financial as well as philosophical implications. But the Conservatoire’s material success in the research assessment exercises has been driven to a substantial extent by Peter’s capacity to turn our shared beliefs about art and humanity into an explicit vision around which the variety of musical and scholarly endeavours could cohere.

Second, there is his teaching. A couple of years ago, Peter gave a delightful presentation in an IMR roadshow on Performance as Research which suggested that the process of enquiry an advanced performer goes through in developing an interpretation is different only in level, not in kind, from the discovery process of a beginner learning how to practice. And whilst Peter’s capacity for integration has been most in evidence recently in his work with PhD and masters students, it has likewise run through his work at all levels. When I first arrived here, I was given some much photocopied hand-me-downs of lesson plans Peter had prepared for his 1st year musicianship training some years before. These sessions were all about managing the acquisition of theoretical knowledge through a primarily hands-on exploration of how music goes.

I can’t help but suspect that Peter’s later philosophical work on Gadamer’s concept of play owes a lot to that spirit of playfulness that has infused his approach to teaching at all levels.

It is time we had some more music now, so it just remains for me to have the great pleasure of presenting a little something from the Conservatoire to Peter to say thank you.

(*George Caird, Conservatoire Principal.)

This is beautiful; really quite touching and like an intellectual touchpaper (I suppose that's exactly part of what he is). Slightly perturbed by the title, have to keep reminding myself that he's still very much alive!

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