We are saddened by the passing of David Johnson, one of the founding members of PARTCH Ensemble. David was the Head of Percussion Studies at the California Institute of the Arts, where he served on the faculty for 26 years. Several members of the Ensemble studied with David at CalArts, and it was thanks to his recommendations to John Schneider that most of us are in the band. Erin, Matt, Nick, and I all studied directly with David in the CalArts percussion program, and Derek and Alex knew him in the few years before David’s retirement in 2017. Vicki and Alison knew David as fellow faculty members at CalArts…needless to say, our musical lives were greatly entwined, as well as enhanced, through the years we were fortunate enough to spend playing, learning, and laughing alongside David.
David was also an integral part of our ensemble’s success and longevity: for many years, the instruments were kept in David’s garage in his Mt. Washington home overlooking Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium, just over the Los Angeles River. Every year in preparation for our performance season, John and I would set up the instruments in the open room in David’s home: the band spent weeks rehearsing every summer, learning new and challenging music, and strengthening the bonds of friendship and artistry that kept us together for so many years.
This page is a memorial to David, his life, his music, and his genuine love for the arts. We wanted to find as many photos, stories, and memories as we could, and combine them here to give us all a chance to celebrate David’s amazing life and contributions to the Los Angeles musician’s community. If you have a photo, a story, or a quote you’d like to share, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will continue adding to this page.
David will continue to have a lasting impact on our ensemble. We are in the process of creating an ongoing fund in David’s memory, dedicated to creating new music to be performed on the Partch instruments in our collection. Anyone wishing to support this fund can follow the link below.
We are very grateful for the time we were able to spend making music with David, and his contributions to our group, as well as the impact he had with each of us individually as a teacher, a colleague, and a member of the Los Angeles music scene, will never be forgotten.
– T.J. Troy
Written on behalf of all members of PARTCH Ensemble, past and present
“I most enjoy the communal elements of music. I like making connections in our community and exploring how music impacts other communities or cultures.”
Music has the rare power to transcend vast swatches of reality in its effort to build connections, and most often, we want music to do exactly that…transport us to a place aside this one, remove the spaces between us and the other, such that we lose the distinction between ourselves and our surroundings, environment, and community. That’s where we gain the freedom to rebuild those relationships in our own image: how many friendships have begun with a handshake and an inquiry…”do you play the drums?”
Matt Cook spends his time cultivating connections from the ground up, a rare combination of master percussionist, educator, and leader in the non-profit arts community. Originally from Duluth, GA, Matt pursued his muse at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, his focus on orchestral and contemporary percussion, especially in a chamber music context.
Matt came to PARTCH Ensemble in 2011 via the arm team, otherwise known as the California Institute of the Arts, where he completed his graduate studies with then Head of Percussion Studies (and a PARTCH Ensemble member emeritus) David Johnson, while working closely with world percussion maestro Randy Gloss and resident swing master Joe LaBarbera. As Matt’s musical horizons grew, it was a natural fit for him to join the ranks of the growing Los Angeles phenomenon that was PARTCH Ensemble.
Harry Partch didn’t make things easy for the performers in his ensembles. There were often new parts to learn on familiar compositions that had been updated to include one (or more) of his newly invented instruments; each of these instruments was informed by the composer’s own notion of the idiosyncratic nature of the instrument in question, and the notation that came with it would reflect this. Whenever a new instrument arrived, it meant new compositions, new parts, and new notation, all unique to that new instrument. In turn, this meant “somebody” had to learn to play these new parts…in PARTCH Ensemble, we more often than not turn to Matt.
His vast multi-percussion experience serves a much needed role in our group: his ability to travel from instrument to instrument within the ensemble, be it stringed or percussive in nature, has worked to allow the ensemble to vastly expand its playable repertoire. Matt has performed extensively on the Cloud Chamber Bowls, Bass Marimba, Kithara, Harmonic Cannons, Surrogate Kithara, Spoils of War, Diamond Marimba, and Marimba Eroica, as well as performing traditional orchestral percussion instruments on several of the ensemble’s collaborative ventures with composers writing for PARTCH Ensemble with extended instrumentation (see Anne LeBaron’s LSD – The Opera).
Challenging as it may seem to the outsider, it is part and parcel with the musical experiences Matt has always chosen to pursue…in fact, the challenge alone was enough to draw Matt’s interest to the ensemble:
“I was drawn to the unique playing techniques and challenges that Harry’s instruments presented. As a percussionist, I’m always searching for new sounds and new challenges to explore.”
Matt is a highly active member of Los Angeles’ vibrant professional music community: performing regularly on film, television, and other recorded media, he is also a founding member of the illustrious Los Angeles Percussion Quartet (along with another PARTCHian, Nick Terry), as well as a member of the dynamic contemporary music ensemble WildUp. Currently part of the teaching faculty at Fullerton and Ventura Colleges, Matt has recently ventured further in the area of professional Performing Arts administration, working as a Development Director to secure opportunities for various ensembles to continue their mission statement and present their works for public consumption.
“I feel that Partch’s music is most relevant today as a rewarding live concert experience. The albums give listeners a glimpse into his world, but to really experience the music it requires a fully immersive, live concert experience…[It is] the most unique performing experience that I’ve ever been a part of. I think Harry would be proud.”
Each member in PARTCH Ensemble would echo this sentiment in our own way, but Matt’s words are especially prescient, cutting to the core of what our group is about…come see it Live…as this is the most effective, direct, and transcendent communication of thought. Building connections through performance or recordings, through education or development, or through the sheer joy of sharing moments onstage with friends and colleagues…each a branch of the same tree that roots us in the same reality. And while true that music can transcend the spaces between people, it also acts as the very bridge that connects them. We are honored to work alongside Matt Cook for the vast plethora of talent, experience, knowledge, and follow-through of his artistic and professional vision.
“[It] occurs regularly…the instant before we start playing; that breathless silence before the first note, when I crouch down to peer through the kithara and connect with each ‘Partchian’…the excitement, the smiles, the trust in each other…that is my favorite moment.”
Musicians are often asked this very simple question: why do you do what you do? Answers vary from person to person, era after era…variations as numerous as grains of sand. And each musician needs to discover their own personal why, and then cultivate that reason into a drive…that’s the point where it is possible to become an artist. It’s a term that is not to be used lightly; those of us in the business of professional music know when we encounter a visionary, a true artist…while it may not necessarily take one to know one, it does take one to understand that the label does not confer a level, or an aptitude. The label is only that.
True artistry is transcendent: it goes beyond talent and embraces the full spectrum of a person and their internal motivations and drives. It’s a lifelong journey, and the joy comes by being a willing and conscious participant in said journey. The journey towards true artistry is similar to that of self-realization: only you can walk the walk.
Composer Harry Partch walked his walk. Many musicians have taken up the walk in the years since Harry’s journey ended in 1974, and have done so with equal parts zeal, love, and madness, with varying results, and of course, a multitude of destinations.
This month’s Member Spotlight features harpist and resident Kitharian Alison Bjorkedal, a stalwart of the Los Angeles classical, new music, and contemporary music community. As with many members of PARTCH, her personal journey into music began at an early age, where the deep end of the pools of music she was shown suffered her no consternation.
“I began playing piano at age 3 and cannot remember a time when music was not a daily, integral part of my life.”
Originally from Kennewick, WA, Alison first encountered the harp in high school, and was able to gain access to an instrument owned by the local school district; from that moment on, Alison’s path was committed to the harp. The path led south from Kennewick, first to the University of Oregon for a Bachelor of Music degree, leading to both Master’s and Doctoral degrees from the University of Southern California. Seeing the musical landscape of Los Angeles as a fruitful bed of opportunity, Alison permanently relocated to southern California, and began quickly making inroads to the broader classical music community.
In 2011, the path veered suddenly towards Harry Partch: “Harry Partch was mentioned, almost as a side note, in an undergraduate music history course. But, sadly, I had not explored his music until…”
Enter John Schneider.
“John speaks with such love about the ensemble and its mission of keeping this music alive…I was delighted by the uniqueness and the incredible wit of the music.”
I will reiterate: it may not take one to know one, but it does take an artist to understand the commitment, the drive necessary to embody the journey of true artistic development, especially as it manifests in another. John recognized it in Alison, and the invitation to join the group was forthcoming, if not altogether expedient.
“…I could not resist his invitation to learn more…”
Alison is PARTCH’s resident master of the Kithara, the 72-stringed behemoth of a harp, setting 12 distinct (thought intrinsically related) hexachords formulating Harry Partch’s unique harmonic foundation. Additionally, Alison has performed extensively on the Harmonic Canons, Surrogate Kithara, Cloud Chamber Bowls, and recently added her voice to the ensemble’s rendition of Harry’s beloved Barstow, performing the part of “Marie Blackwell.”
She serves on the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts, guiding students immersed in their own personal journeys with the harp. Simultaneously, Alison teaches a class in Music Appreciation at Pasadena City College.
“As a teacher, I observe my students’ bravery and commitment to finding their artistic voices and [Harry] Partch’s music mirrors that exploration and expression in a very unique and inspiring way.”
Her career as a first-call harpist has featured performances with Sia, Madonna, Nate Ruess, and Kid Cudi; on-screen appearances with Andrea Bocelli and the Pentatonix; appearances with the San Diego Symphony, Pasadena Symphony/Pops Orchestra, Long Beach Opera, and the Long Beach Symphony.
“Discovering Partch’s music has compelled me to think about music differently. It was very humbling to start fresh learning a new type of music notation and an instrument unlike any other…I hope our journey as an ensemble brings that experience to more people as we work to expand our performance and recording opportunities.”
The journey towards true transcendent artistry begins with an unspoken desire; there are years then spent seeking, learning, expanding, before self-actualization…before earning the title “artist.” PARTCH Ensemble is fortunate that each member has not only discovered this journey on their own, but that the path led them to the group. From here on out, it is a shared journey, and for one who has considered the path Less Traveled…knowing that it is shared with friends and mates who share the same values has made all the difference. PARTCH is grateful to be sharing this part of our collective journey with Alison Bjorkedal traveling with us.
[Composer Harry] Partch made a big point of the corporeality of music. HIs instruments and tunings were intended to reach a listener physically…[Partch] wanted performers who were physical presences…and he got them in the likes of Erin Barnes.
Mark Swed, Music Critic, Los Angeles Times
The California Institute of the Arts is one of few accredited institutions in the world that feature music curricula beyond the scope of what is found in a traditional conservatory environment: CalArts boasts programs specializing in North Indian (Hindustani) Classical Music, Balinese and Javanese Gamelan, and Ewe Drumming from Northern Ghana, collectively dubbed World Music Studies. It’s one thing to hear music from these regions and be moved, but another thing entirely to practice these art forms under the guidance of the established masters of the genre; CalArts offers the opportunity to experience both, in significantly meaningful ways.
As a percussion major at CalArts in the 1990s, Los Angeles-born and raised percussionist Erin Barnes was exposed to all this and more. Early on in her CalArts tenure, her interest in instrument building led her to discover alternative concepts of intonation, and an introduction to the work of Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist Kraig Grady. Kraig’s own brand of microtonal string and percussion music was firmly rooted in theories set forth by (amongst others) composer Harry Partch, and it was through this collaboration that Erin Barnes was first introduced to Partch’s music, and ultimately led to her to the Diamond Marimba, a fixture in virtually every performance of the PARTCH Ensemble.
“It was…1998, but I think the first piece I heard (of Harry Partch’s) was And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, or Daphne of the Dunes,” says Erin, when recalling her first experience with Partch’s music. “At that time, I was also deeply immersed in the world of dance, taking several ballet and modern classes a week…When I started playing Partch’s music, I had no idea about his philosophy of corporeality and music. Castor and Pollux, a highly physical piece, was the first piece I learned as a part of this group, and naturally I found myself moving around the instrument a lot. When I later learned that Partch wanted his musicians to move, to have a strong physical connection to the music, it made complete, perfect sense, and I felt deeply that I had found my perfect artistic match.”
“When I later learned that Partch wanted his musicians to move, to have a strong physical connection to the music, it made complete, perfect sense, and I felt deeply that I had found my perfect artistic match.”
Indeed, Erin’s command of the corporeal Diamond Marimba has become one of the great highlights of all PARTCH Ensemble performances since joining the group in 2003; at that time, the ensemble was but three people, still performing under the name of founder John Schneider’s group Just Strings. Together with Schneider and fellow percussionist (and CalArts mentor) David Johnson, the group performed for two more seasons, recruiting current members Nick Terry and T.J. Troy along the way, before officially establishing the ensemble now known as PARTCH in 2005.
Beyond the microtonal world of PARTCH, Erin is active in many different musical and educational capacites in the Los Angeles area, performing on the hammered dulcimer, focusing on traditional Celtic, Swedish, and American “Old Time” string music. Recent projects include a return to 1920s Xylophone and novelty Piano music (which also require a 1920s era xylophone, a sudden and preoccupying obsession!). She currently serves on the faculty of the Pasadena Waldorf High School, leading their Percussion Ensemble, and coaches the Violin and Cello sections of the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra. Additionally, Erin is a trained yoga instructor, her work focused on elderly practitioners.
Yet, it is the spirit of invention championed by Harry Partch himself that engages Erin on a fundamental level, revealing deeper musical meaning through her experiences with PARTCH Ensemble. “The most meaningful memory” she shared, ”…probably my deepest experience as a musician and human being…happened to be with PARTCH.
“We were at UC Santa Cruz, having played the previous night at Mills College to a large and enthusiastic audience. The Santa Cruz audience was smaller than Mills’, and maybe this set the scene for a more relaxed performance. For a fleeting moment, while playing Pollux (possibly my favorite music to play, ever), I experienced a clear and deep feeling of complete oneness between the music, the sound of the instrument resonating in the hall, myself, and the audience. It was such a calm, powerful, and beautiful moment, and as it occurred, I realized I was conscious of it.”
While music’s power to transport and inspire imagination has been documented repeatedly throughout all eras of human existence, it is the transformative aspects of music that are more elusive; more likely than not, it’s because the unique nature of these experiences leave little to compare to another’s. Regardless of what inspirations brought Erin Barnes to the music of Harry Partch, it is our PARTCH Ensemble that benefits from her inspiration to stay there, to keep searching for the deeper parallels, the resonances that reach across decades and across people, to arrive at a place where the corporeal interacts with the spiritual…this is where Harry operated, and in that space, Erin Barnes continues to dazzle with the pure physicality that is music in motion.
“I truly appreciate this group as a mix of wonderful musicians…I feel like I learn so much from everyone in this ensemble. As for Harry, there really is no other music like his.”
In 2001, David Johnson was the first musician recruited by John Schneider in his quest to build a new set of Partch instruments, and the fledgling ensemble that would become PARTCH first began. David, then faculty at the California Institute of the Arts, was a central figure in the band until 2016, providing a rehearsal venue and storage for the band’s instruments from 2006 to 2018, as well as tapping several former CalArtians to fill PARTCH’s ever-growing need for performers.
Originally from Port Angeles, WA, David’s musical upbringing focused around the piano and organ, before settling on percussion as his professional musical voice. His skill set was commensurate with that of a classical percussionist, though his passion lay in jazz and improvised music of his time. The era was the mid-1960s, and after one year of study at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, David transferred to the University of Washington to focus on his Bachelor of Music degree, focused on orchestral percussion.
A fateful meeting with legendary percussionist John Bergamo would change David’s life permanently. Bergamo had just helped found the California Institute of the Arts, serving as the Institute’s first Head of Percussion Studies (a position held until his resignation in 2002), and was in the midst of a recruiting trip…literally driving up the west coast of the United States, picking up any and all interested students to join him at CalArts. He met David at the University of Washington, and after hearing him play, offered him a full scholarship and ride to California. David jumped in the van and never looked back.
He completed his undergraduate studies at CalArts, and was immediately recruited to join the Black Earth Percussion Group, one of the nation’s premiere percussion ensembles. He lived in Champagne, Illinois, home of the University of Illinois, and Black Earth’s main academic support. After touring and recording with Black Earth, David settled back in Los Angeles to work and raise a family in 1977. After a brief teaching appointment at the Winword School, David was offered a part-time teaching appointment at CalArts, a position he would remain in for 26 years, eventually taking over for his teacher and mentor Bergamo as CalArts’ Head of Percussion Studies, working with hundreds of students in the percussive arts, including many of the current members still playing in PARTCH.
In 1970, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, David met Dean Drummond, fellow percussionist and then resident of San Diego, where he studied and played with composer Harry Partch and his strange family of invented instruments. Dean and David became fast and lifelong friends, with Dean inviting David to visit him in San Diego, to meet Harry and personally experience his musical world. The two friends made the trip together, and the impression Harry Partch left on the young David was enormous. When the opportunity came, years later in 2001, to join a new ensemble focused on the compositional output of Harry Partch, David would not hesitate…and after 15 years, thousands of rehearsal hours and hundreds of concerts, PARTCH would rank as one of David’s highest musical achievements.
His work as a freelance percussionist in Los Angeles boasts an impressive resume: primary ensembles include XTET, the New Century Players, the Kim Richmond Jazz Orchestra, the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble, Dark Wing, Roger Williams, and the Lian Ensemble. He has worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, John Zorn, Pierre Boulez, Wadada Leo Smith, Yusef Lateef, Stuart Copeland, Green Day, Dave Brubeck, and the California Ear Unit; he has performed on over 40 major motion pictures, including Spiderman 3 and The Matrix. A noted composer in his own right, his work Quartz City for vibraphone solo with percussion ensemble won the Percussive Arts Society Composition Competition in 1995; other major works include The Oregon Variations for marimba soloist and percussion quintet, Shape Shifter for vibraphone and marimba, Dark Wing for cello and marimba, and Nine Sheets to the Wind for a mixed chamber ensemble and improviser. His book, “Fifteen Etudes for Vibraphone,” along with his other percussion-based works, are published by MalleTech, and many of his compositions have been included on the Lian Records Dark Wing CD “The Hidden Sacred” and on “Dual Force,” recorded with guitarist Ken Rosser on the Nine Winds label.
David retired from CalArts in 2017, and has since relocated to Port Angeles, where he lives and stays musically active performing solo piano renditions of traditional jazz standards, now and always his first musical love. His contributions to PARTCH are numerous and unforgettable, from his first stints behind the Bass Marimba, to the amorphous and deceptively complex Cloud Chamber Bowls, before finally settling behind the Chromolodeon. David’s tri-level residential building in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles would serve as PARTCH’s de facto headquarters for nearly 12 years, the definitive roof over the ensemble’s head.
David’s contributions to the band can never be forgotten, and certainly his musicianship, his joy, and his friendship will never be replaced. PARTCH, the band and the music, will be forever richer for his contributions.