Samn Johnson (he/him, b. 1991) is a composer and producer based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Ever curious for new sound combinations, Samn’s music takes a variety of forms including orchestral, choral, electronic, and solo piano music. Renaissance-style canons, swung downtempo grooves, atmospheric synths, and idiosyncratic instrumental flourishes are all at home in his imaginative pallet. Often slow, atmospheric, and designed to evoke a sense of wonder, Samn’s music is tinged by a fascination with memory and the passage of time. His recent work increasingly incorporates Just Intonation and other tuning systems outside the now-standard 12 equal divisions of the octave; drawing directly from acoustics and physical resonances as a source of inspiration. Samn has no interest in genre, preferring to think of his creations as a connected body of explorations and expressions - notated classical pieces, electronic music productions, and everything in between exist together on a spectrum as the same artistic project.
Samn in 2017: photo by Ida Fey
Collaborators include the JACK Quartet, RighteousGIRLS, Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Mikaela Davis, Chromic Duo, Tis Kaoru Zamler-Carhart, Gloria Yehilevsky, Molly Collier-O'Boyle, and his longterm duo with poet/vocalist Leora Mandel; ACRAEA. His current compositional work is focused on Consolation, a song cycle for non-binary vocalist Tis Kaoru Zamler-Carhart, setting Latin poems by Boethius. This piece is created for the studio, combining layers of Tis' voice with electronics an instruments played by the composer. His academic background includes composition degrees from the University of Michigan and New York University, where he studied with Julia Wolfe, and Robert Honstein. Outside of music, Samn is interested in historical linguistics, science fiction, astronomy, and leftist politics.
Samn also works as a freelance mixing engineer and music teacher - check out the mixing and teaching pages on this site for more info and examples of work.
releases and news
wie ein Nebel... - single release
April 24, 2020
wie ein Nebel... "like a fog" is a short piece for four singers and electronics in 5-Limit Just Intonation. It is based very loosely on the melody of the Bach chorale "ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig". And uses snippets of text from the chorale. Performance by Cassandra Venaglia, Carmen Lustik, Dani Strigi, and Oscar Pan. The score is available for purchase in my online store.
it comes in waves - video with Gloria Yehilevsky
October 10, 2019
Gloria and I met as fellows at the Bang on a Can festival in 2018, and working with her on this piece for prepared vibraphone and electronics was one of the highlights of 2019. Described by Steve Reich as "an extremely impressive percussionist". Gloria, who commissioned the work and premiered it at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in the UK, is a wonderful musician, collaborator, and friend, and I am so pleased with how this video turned out. If you want to purchase the final score and backing track, a performance materials package is available in my online store. Below is one of my early sketches for the piece. It's been great to see it come from this blueprint to a finished score and video!
This is the first in a series of pieces written for solo instruments and electronics. These are united by my requirement that the electronics exclusively use samples of the instrument being featured. This leads to close collaboration with the instrumentalist, learning what sounds they like to make and recording them together. It also gives me a chance to explore creative sound design, digging deep into the instrument's sonic DNA to discover what permutations are possible. This piece incorporates my fascination with overlapping cycles, using a five-chord pattern which is modified in various cyclically-determined ways. The roman numerals are short hand for each chord in the progression, not the conventional chord labels you may know from music theory. One example of cyclical modification is shortening a chord to less than a full bar. This is shown with a purple line, while the default full-length is blue. You can see that throughout each section, the purple lines (hence shortened chords) get increasingly frequent. I designed the cycles to work this way in order to create a feeling of pushing forward throughout each section; an accelerating wave that crests when the cycle completes.
Dispatches from the Bang on a Can Festival
July 29, 2018
Big thanks to Maggie Molloy from Second Inversion for writing about my works from the 2018 Bang on a Can Summer Festival. Check out her wonderful article here (scroll down for the segment on my music). I had a wonderful time at the festival and met so many thoughtful and dedicated musicians who I am excited to continue working with!
Aporia - single release/upcoming album
April 14, 2021
Aporia is the first single off my album Epistulae ("letters" ✉️ in Latin). The record consists of ten tracks that I produced between 2011/17, all reworked and mixed/mastered anew. Some were released on my previous albums in 2012/13 (the last time I released a full record!). Others are unreleased.
In Aporia, I created almost all the electronics from samples I recorded, including things like the giant creaky sculpture outside the art museum in Ann Arbor (by Mark di Suvero), legos, and various household objects. There are also some live instrument parts I wrote, recorded in 2012 by Anna Piotrowski, Daniel Goldblum, and Zac Lavender on violins, bassoon, and cello, with viola samples from Molly Collier O'Boyle added in on this new version. I also played some harmonium. The music is tuned in 5-Limit Just-Intonation. The title is an Ancient Greek term ᾰ̓πορῐ́ᾱ, meaning "impasse, difficulty in passage", and is used by philosophers as wide-ranging as Aristotle and Derrida, with different technical meanings. Here I am thinking of the general sense of uncertainty and difficulty moving forward, which is the prevailing mood throughout the piece.
it comes in waves - single release
September 25, 2020
A new mix of it comes in waves is now available to stream on all major platforms, and purchase on bandcam! This is a composition for prepared vibraphone and electronics commissioned by Gloria Yehilevsky in 2019 for her "Waveshape" recital program, representing a large wave (and its parallels with life) as it comes up, with ebbs and flows throughout. The electronic track is created exclusively from processed samples of vibraphone sounds recorded by Gloria. The release also features beatiful new cover art by Rebekkah Lycett & Joe Spinoza.
apud arbores - single release
May 14, 2021
The second single off Epistulae, apud arbores, is here! I had a blast revisiting this piece and recording new piano and synthesizers, which you can watch me play in the above video. The title of this one means "among trees" in Latin.
Epistulae - album release
June 18, 2021
Today I am very happy to share my album Epistulae! Available to stream on all the major services, as well as to purchase for $5 on Bandcamp (links below). This is an album of reworked tracks I originally produced 2011-2017 while I was getting my sea legs as a producer. It's been gratifying for me to circle back and clean up these mixes, making them sound more like I had imagined, but didn't quite know how to execute yet.
They cover a lot of different feelings, so if you don't like one, check out another! There is Just-tuned-glitchy-darkness in Aporia, vibey optimistic downtempo in Blue Shift, Klezmer Dubstep in Klaglied, Renaissance Polyphony + Post-Rock in Ockeghem, etc. etc. Thanks to Anna Piotrowski, Daniel Goldblum, and Zac Lavender, for playing on this record, and to Toshihisa Tsuruoka for mastering. Also major shoutout to Molly Collier-O'Boyle for recording beautiful viola samples that I use on several tracks.
Consolation EP 1 - release & NMG performance
August 10, 2021
I am beyond delighted to share the first recordings from my song-cycle Consolation, setting Latin poetry written by Boethius in 524 AD. I composed the music in close collaboration with vocalist Sasha Kaoru Zamler-Carhart (they/them), who recorded the entire cycle. While in prison, Boethius wrote "The Consolation of Philosophy". In it, he imagines that he is visited by Lady Philosophy, an ethereal feminine personification of philosophy who helps him face his imminent death and confront big questions: money, fame, power? Did I have them? Did they make me happy? What is the nature of evil? what is the greatest good?
This text is particularly suited for a non-binary vocalist, as it represents a dialogue between a masculine and feminine character, which is is, in a sense, actually a monologue. There is really only one person in this cell, who embodies both Philisophia and Boethius. The three song EP is part of a 15-song cycle that will be released as 5 3-song volumes, and then a complete album.
This has been one of my main creative outlets since I started workin on the piece in 2015, and I am so thrilled that it is reaching this stage - and with the DIY, highly collaborative form that it has settled on. This has allowed us to really dig into the project and focus on details such as very specific tunings, that would have been much more difficult with many players and limited studio time. We recorded all fifteen songs already, and after mixing them and finishing electronic arrangements, will be releasing ultimately 5 volumes of EPs, and then an album of the entire cycle put together.
Sasha and I will also be performing this EP and other songs from the cycle at this year's New Music Gathering! You can check out our in-person recording in St. Paul, or online from anywhere on Aug 15.
Ockeghem - single release
June 11, 2021
Ockeghem, the third and final single from Epistulae is now available to stream. This piece is a panorama of different eras, merging samples of renaissance choral music post-rock ambience. The sample is from Ockeghem's missa prolationum, an incredible piece by one of my very favorite composers. I made the above animation from an Altdorfer painting Die Alexanderschlacht (fun fact this is the same painting which Ligeti mentions as influencing his piece Lontano). The full album will arrive on June 18!
Braided Thistle - premiere with Chromic Duo
February 1, 2020
Braided Thistle is my new work for two pianos, written for my good friends Dorothy Chan and Lucy Yao of Chromic Duo. They premiered it on the Pulsing and Shaking festival at NYU, where I am honored to be invited back as a guest alumni composer. This piece is built from the stabat mater plainchant melody, braiding fragments and permutations of this melody together into a pensive contrapuntal web. Here is a humble phone video from the performance. It's been a real pleasure working with Chromic and I am excited to see what they do next!
omnia mutantur - new piece
October 1, 2020
Omnia mutantur, the next piece in the same series as it comes in waves, is now complete! It is for solo viola and electronics, with the electronics also made entirely from samples of the viola. This piece is commissioned by Molly Collier-O'Boyle, who will premiere it at the Australian National Academy of Music in Naarm (Melbourne). Molly and I worked closely on zoom over the pandemic, with her sending me hours of samples to use in the track, and workshopping ideas on the instrument. The title is from Ovid's quote "omnia mutantur sed nihil interit" (everything changes but nothing is lost), which was on my mind during the extreme changes taking place during the pandemic.
This piece is the first to extensively explore my new ideas about what I call "ouroboros music", where the boundaries between musical parameters dissolve. Pitch becomes rhythm, rhythm becomes pitch; melody is drawn out from the resonances between notes. It accomplishes this in part by using techniques such as Extended Just-Intonation (11-Limit), and synchronizing tempo in such a way that beating between notes is in time, and fast rhythms transform into specific pitches used in the scale.
Stay tuned (in 11-Limit JI 🥁) for this piece to be recorded and added to my online store.
Empty Spirals - new orchestra piece
April 29, 2018
I am honored to be selected for NYU's orchestral residency and to have the opportunity to write a piece for full orchestra. Empty Spirals is an arrangement of an electronic piece of the same name, which is currently unreleased and will be included on my future album Ageless Sea. I enjoyed finding acoustic equivalents for the electronic sounds, and felt like I got to know my own music better in the process.
Here is the manuscript of my short score, which I used to analyze the original track and convert it into notation, which I then orchestrated. This was the first time I composed an orchestral work without using the playback in my notation software at all, and I am really glad I didn't. It forced me to really imagine the sound combinations and not make decisions based on the computer's playback, and hearing it come to live for this first time was such a joy. The title doesn't have any specific reference but a few impressions were in mind when making it: the Fermi Paradox and spiral galaxies with no life in them, emotional "spiraling" and feelings of emptiness, spiral notebooks not yet filled.
retracing a path - new piece
April 23, 2018
As I near the end of my last semester of my masters at NYU I have been very busy composing and have a lot of exciting premieres. I am grateful to share this program with so many wonderful friends and colleagues. Here is my new chamber orchestra pieces for the NYU Contemporary Ensemble, retracing a path. The piece is based on a long series of chords, which I composed first at the piano, and then fleshed out with orchestration. These chords are made using particular rules that govern how many notes they have, and what type of intervals they are made of (whether they stack thirds, or fourths, for instance). These are color-coded in my initial sketch shown here. These constraints are designed to make the chords feel like they are always shifting colors.
The name comes from the fact that we are allowed to move both forwards and backwards through the progression. When the chords begin to “rewind” we often change to a much faster texture, like rewinding a tape, before proceeding further down the path. These faster sections are distinct by staccato synchronized chords, as opposed to the lush and slower textures that otherwise dominate. I have been enjoying composing using these made up systems that are designed to give a piece a certain feeling, then setting them in motion and seeing how they work!
Catalexis - premiere with RighteousGIRLS
May 6, 2018
I am so excited to be collaborating with Gina Izzo and Erika Dohi, the wonderful musicians of RighteousGIRLS. I wrote my piece Catalexis (a term in poetic meter for a line which is cut short) for this concert, with Gina playing processed alto flute, and Erika on prepared piano. I use this title as the piece has a lot of rhythms that feel cut short. Really excited with how this piece came together and looking forward to more performances! We are also fortunate to be joined by Maya Pollack and Nathan Freeman creating live visual art - check it out in this video!
Blue Aurora - premiere at Bang on a Can festival
July 23, 2018
A highlight of many incredible experiences as a fellow at the Bang on a Can summer festival was working with this incredibly thoughtful and devoted ensemble on my new string nonet Blue Aurora. I am so thankful to the patient, detailed, and understanding work that these musicians put towards realizing these sounds. Here is the premiere recording by Claire Niederberger, Rose Xiu Yi Kow, Yi-Chun Lin, Shannon Reilly, Kieran Welch, Molly Collier-O'Boyle, Nick Photinos, Ashlee Booth, and Rebecca Lawrence.
Here is a bit of an early sketch for the piece. I didn't use everything on the page, but a lot is retained. At the heart of Blue Aurora's structure is a 5-note cell, which is run through various serial procedures, such as retrograde (running backwards), and inversion (turning the notes upside down). I find using these modified forms of the same thing can create a sense of overarching but intangible connection, floating somewhere below the surface; a web of roots. This 5-note cell is also contrasted with a second, lyrical theme. The final section features the lyrical theme juxtaposed with the 5-note cell, which is now the bass line of a passacaglia (a piece with repeating bass). As these elements intertwine in a swell of shimmering waves, a threatening bow-scrape, which has played a disruptive role throughout the piece, interrupts for a final time. It makes good on its threat, abruptly silencing the music.
Recital at Scholes Street Studio
April 25, 2018
I had such a good time presenting a recital of my music and collaborations at Scholes Street Studio featuring excellent music making by many good friends. We premiered several songs from my ongoing project Consolation, setting poems of Boethius to music, and Leora and I followed this with a set of our songs as ACRAEA. Here is a a video of Sasha Kaoru Zamler-Carhart singing the first song of the cycle. Really looking forward to set more poems and continue to work with them on this project!
nox perpetua - premier by JACK Quartet
April 9, 2017
I am honored to present a video of my 2017 string quartet nox perpetua in the premiere performance by the world class JACK quartet. This piece is inspired by the work of the Roman poet Catullus, using his signature meter (the phalaecean hendecasyllable) as motivic material.
announcing new complete works edition and online store updates
November 13, 2021
I am announcing a new ongoing project, creating a new edition of all of my notated works - and gradually adding them to my catalog in my online store. Many of my earlier works were not up standards of engraving I now employ, and I am really enjoying producing a definitive, easy to read edition of my pieces. I don't have a set end date for this project, but am hoping it is complete by around this time next year, and I will be continually updating the catalog as I complete each piece. Below are some title pages to give you an idea what to expect. In the meantime you can check out the scores section of my website for my list of works, and to see which are currently available.