Perfect Sound Forever

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure:
On Tom Johnson's "Failing"

by Daniel Barbiero
(June 2022)

"...I am required to read a long text while playing music written above the text. The text must be read out loud at a more or less normal pace and I must not allow the music to slow me down..."

The above quote is from "Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass" by composer Tom Johnson. The title minces no words: it is a difficult piece to perform. The performer must keep up a running narrative while playing increasingly difficult, highly chromatic music on the double bass; the instructions specify that both spoken and instrumental parts must be properly synchronized and accurately played. Failing that, the piece fails. Or does it?

Although the challenges it poses to performers transcend the circumstances of its composition, it is a piece suggestive of a certain time and place. "Failing" was the product of the period Johnson spent living in New York City in the 1970's and early 1980's. Composed in 1975, the piece was one of his works of the time--1972's "The Four Note Opera" was another--that incorporated self-referential texts--that is, texts explicating what was happening within the performance as it was happening. "Failing" was originally written for John Deak who at the time was the Associate Principal Bassist of the New York Philharmonic. Johnson composed "Failing" from a piano piece he'd been working on. As he told Dan Warburton in a 2007 interview for Paris Transatlantic, he "liked the absurdity of the idea of having to play and talk at the same time." The absurdity and the difficulty: "Failing" is a hard piece to play, and even though it's become something of an off-center standard for double bassists in the decades since it was composed, it remains a challenge even given the general advances in performers' technical abilities that those decades have seen. The instrumental component consists in a cumulatively more complex set of chromatic fragments; the text is a purposefully prolix monologue of over 1250 words augmented by a spoken improvisation. "Failing" isn't quite the shaggy dog story it's sometimes been called, or if it is, it's one given to chasing its own tail in a conceptual loop of (apparent) self-contradiction. There's something Dadaesque about the paradoxical logic that underlies it; not quite as extreme as the deliberately unplayable pieces Johnson assembled for his 1974 collection Imaginary Music, but self-subverting nevertheless. Self-subverting to the point that one might legitimately ask: Can a performance ever succeed? Can it ever fail?

Given the way Johnson has framed the piece, success is the specter haunting any of its realizations. This is a neat reversal of the ordinary convention governing a performance, in which it's the prospect of failure that does the haunting. In constructing the composition as he did--making it about failing and at the same time explicitly describing its conditions for success--Johnson seems to have set up an elegant conceptual trap. By being about failing, "Failing" is, reciprocally and unavoidably, about success. Failure and success are semantic twins caught in a perpetual family quarrel--permanent antagonists that define and challenge each other from within. Their dependence on each other is inevitable as neither one can mean anything without the other; each is the quality by which the other can be recognized, albeit negatively. It's a strange negation that, in calling attention to its opposite, affirms at the same time that it negates. "Failing" at one and the same time maintains failure and success as possibilities in a tense equilibrium that runs throughout any given performance, whether or not that performance turns out to be a--a what? A success, in which the performer has met all of the conditions set out by the composer? But the piece is supposed to be about failure. Does its successful completion then represent a failure. Does the performer "fail to fail," as the text puts it? Or a failure, in which case the performance--succeeds?

In attempting to determine the success or failure of any given performance of "Failing"--in attempting to reject with certainty one of these semantic twins in favor of the other--we seem to reach instead an aporia or uncertainty, or to have entered a hall of mirrors in which images present themselves as alternately facing left and right, contradicting each other even as they represent a single, self-same object. How to decide which is image is the true one? The fact is that as with these opposed images, the terms "success" and "failure" may simultaneously represent the same performance of "Failing."

Then what does it mean for "Failing" to succeed? The question is as difficult to answer as the piece is to play, and any attempt at it leads to a paradox. The conventional answer to whether or not a piece is successfully performed is that the performer accurately and completely realizes the composition as written. We could broaden this somewhat and add that the performance realizes the composition as written and as the composer intended it. This is where things get interesting for "Failing;" for now it's enough to note that for any musical performance, the critical line is the one that separates success from failure. That there is such a line and that it can be drawn more or less ambiguously, however it may be defined in any given case, is simply a rule of the game. All that's left is to negotiate exactly where that line falls and to stake out a space within it; all the rest is practice. In "Failing," though, the line is a strange one--not a clearly drawn, fixed boundary but instead something more like an oscillating curve putting the same performance now on one side and now on the other.

As uncertain as this may seem, "Failing" does set out its criteria for success--in plain English, and in the text the performer recites. To wit, he or she is to read the piece's long text aloud at a normal pace while playing increasingly difficult chromatic music without slowing down, missing notes, or cheating by deliberately omitting parts of the text or music. Simple enough. But this is where plain English, for all its apparent transparency, does nothing to make plain a meaning that isn't so plain. As the text would have it, failure would seem not only a possible outcome of a performance of "Failing" but an actual inevitability. Not because of the difficulty of the piece, but in principle. If one fails to play it as written one has simply and obviously failed. And yet if one succeeds in playing it as written, one has failed to fail--a fact the text itself points out. In its "heads you fail, tails you fail" logic, it would seem to preclude the possibility of not failing.

Unless we decide to look at it another way. In that case, we would find that "Failing" makes success inevitable. That may be counterintuitive--and really, what about this piece isn't counterintuitive?--but not unthinkable. Consider again, the performer who plays the musical parts accurately while delivering the text in a normal, normally paced voice, without omitting any parts or otherwise cheating. There's certainly nothing to prevent this--after all, the piece is subtitled "very difficult" and not "impossible"--and in fact, there are performances that would seem to be successfully realized. See, for example, Corey Schutzer's realization, accessible on YouTube. By meeting the set of criteria explicated in the text, such a performance would have to qualify as a success.

As would its opposite. A performance that fails to meet those criteria does just that--it fails. But does it? Here the composer's intention, embodied in the spirit of the piece, comes into play and sets itself against a literal reading of what it means for a performance of the piece to succeed. As the text notes, "Failing" is about failing, and if the performer succeeds in playing everything accurately while speaking normally and not cheating, he or she may succeed on the literal terms laid out in the text, but will have nevertheless "miss[ed] the point" of the composition. Which puts a failed performance in a different light altogether--the light of success. It's right there in the text: in not playing the piece correctly as written, the performer "will succeed in communicating the essence of the piece" even while failing to succeed in a more conventional, literal sense. The spirit works against the letter in a kind of Platonic contradiction: the idea wins even as the empirical fact of its realization loses. From this point of view nothing succeeds like failure--because real-world failure is ideal success.

In sum, if you fail to play the piece as written, you've succeeded on its own terms. Conversely, if you succeed in playing it as written you've failed by failing to fail. And of course vice versa: if you succeed in playing the piece as written, you've succeeded in terms of the literal conditions it sets out, whereas if you fail to play it as written, you've succeeded in failing and thus have kept to the spirit of the piece. In this strange world, failure is success and success is failure; once again we find ourselves in the hall of mirrors and choosing whichever image's orientation happens to suit us at the moment.

But "Failing"'s house of mirrors isn't built of glass but rather of words. Johnson' text is a wryly self-reflexive one that turns in on itself and takes itself--and by extension, the piece as concept and realization--as an object of awareness that is itself self-aware. The self-reflexiveness of Johnson's text is obviously apparent in the running account it gives of the performance in progress, which is expressed as a set of statements about what a successful performance of the piece entails and how and at what points it can fail. In this way, Johnson has the composition address its own goals and processes explicitly, thereby turning them into objects of reflection that the performer has to engage in a very public form of self-examination. All of this is filtered through the psychological attunements of hope and doubt, as the performer tells us what it is he or she hopes to do while at the same time acknowledging the unlikelihood that he or she will actually do it.

In short, Johnson's text makes "Failing" a self-reflexive composition as much about its own conditions and likelihood of success as it is a musical piece to be performed. In doing so, the composer has set the conditions for a performance that calls for two ordinarily mutually exclusive levels of awareness to operate simultaneously. There is, first of all, the immediate and immediately felt level of the actual performance itself, which may or may not conform to these criteria at any given time and which the listener, having been let in on what these criteria are, consequently can judge a success or failure; and at the meta-level of an observer standing back and evaluating the performance in progress. The performer straddles both levels, being immediately and intuitively aware of whether or not the performance is succeeding and at the same time, observing the performance at one remove thanks to the text's bringing to his or her self-conscious awareness how things stand with his or her performance in progress. By having the performer inhabit these two levels of awareness, "Failing" constitutes itself as at once an activity--a sequence of certain specific musical gestures and speech acts that ordinarily would be performed as an unselfconscious flow of action--and an object of description and analysis. In a sense, it manages to hold together and make an integrated work out of the two ordinarily contradictory stances of engaged, unselfconscious action and detached self-awareness.

(In a further turn of conceptual irony, "Failing" is constructed in a way that potentially reverses the usual causal relationship between failure and self-consciousness. Ordinarily we become self-consciously aware of what we're doing in situations where we encounter an obstacle or otherwise fail at what we're doing--when the situation breaks down and we're no longer able to remain unselfconsciously absorbed in our task, whether that task is hammering in a nail or playing a musical piece. To the extent that "Failing", through its textual narrative, imposes a degree of self-consciousness on the performer from the very beginning, it divides his or her attention and introduces an obstacle potentially able to derail his or her execution of the score and hence solicits breakdown and failure. To the extent that it precipitates rather than follows breakdown, "Failing"'s induced self-conscious causes failure rather than the other way around.)

Irreducible paradox, irony, reversal of the usual order of things: all of this is "Failing", the absurdity of which is wryly amusing and the wry amusement of which is absurd. Call it a piece of logical self-refutation and the text will get there first--it already has acknowledged that it succeeds when it fails and fails when it succeeds, or maybe vice-versa. It already has deconstructed itself in plain view by exposing the fundamental undecidability at the heart of its conceptual foundation--that by its own requirements success is failure and failure is success, and that these two contradictory concepts are necessarily intimately connected and mutually-implicating. In effect, it asks what failure is and answers that--why not?--it can be success, just as success can be failure. And that makes it not so much a shaggy dog but a stranger animal altogether: a Schrodinger's cat, which can occupy two mutually exclusive and contradictory states at once.

Also see our interview with Tom Johnson

And see Daniel Barbiero's blog

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