Award: Artist Research & Development Grant

Discipline: Performing Arts

Project Collaborator(s):

City/Town: Tucson

Year: 2018

Artist Website:

Creating the music that comprises the Liminality project will be the fruition of years of preparation and development. Yet from a community perspective I see this as but a starting point, a foundation upon which a new music arts collective would be formed in Tucson.

Eric Johnson is a Tucson-based composer and producer who endeavors to explore ambiguous musical spaces between jazz and chamber, consonance and dissonance, composition and improvisation. With Liminality, a set of musical compositions for an eight-piece improvisational jazz/chamber ensemble and a string orchestra.

Originally used to describe the middle phase in a rite of passage, liminality can be used today to describe any state of transition existing free of conventional structures and boundaries, from a state of mind to a moment in time. With the eight pieces that comprise Liminality, Johnson aims to reflect a world in which states of transition are occurring rapidly, on many levels, from the personal to global.

Though combining orchestral elements with jazz improvisation and world music is not new, Johnson believes there yet remains much room to explore the spaces between these contrasting mediums. Past efforts to combine these elements have often resulted in one dominating the other–a jazz group with background strings added for embellishment or an orchestral work containing a brief jazz solo passage for the sake of novelty. Liminality seeks to balance these elements as indigenous equals, each having their featured moments, while at times playing off the other as if having an intimate conversation.

To facilitate the creation of the music, Johnson will engage consultants to advise him on matters of playability, phrasing, and notation. These will include string players Jim Karrer, Michael Fan and Joseph Pagan of Tucson Symphony Orchestra, vocalist Katherine Byrnes and guitarist Gus Woodrow. Daniel Dor and Jon Singer, two New York-based percussionists, will assist with the drums and tabla parts. The compositions will be further refined while recording excerpts using pianist Angelo Versace and guitarists Matt Mitchell and Woodrow.

Initially studying music with his father. Eric Johnson joined the Pima College Jazz Band at age 13, and shortly after began playing professionally, (first on trumpet, and later piano). Following high school he studied with jazz master Steven Solomon at Pima College. After several years of serious training and playing professionally, Eric enrolled in the composition program at the University of Arizona, studying with Dan Asia, while furthering his jazz studies with Jeff Haskell. In school one of his compositions was selected for the 1991 Billy Taylor CD Fiesta in Tucson (University of Arizona). Eric also composed a sonata for two cellos (1992), and a concerto for piano, percussion, and chamber orchestra (1995), before receiving a degree in Theory and Composition in 1996. In 1997 Eric composed and produced a soundtrack for filmmaker Rob Sabal. The film (Molt!) was premiered in Tucson that same year. Eric continued to immerse himself in contemporary orchestral music, writing works that would include Sonata M for String Quartet (premiered in Tucson in 1998), and Sabbath in Gehenna (1999), a concerto for electric fretless bass and chamber orchestra.

In 2000 Eric began teaching high school full time, the demands of which required him to temporarily suspend his musical activities. By 2005 Eric was slowly able to re-incorporate music into his grueling weekly schedule as a teacher, composing All Along, which comprised the same instrumentation he would later use to begin writing for the Liminality project. Premiered and recorded that October, All Along (and subsequent pieces) helped to mold Eric’s current direction, melding improvisational and world music with his chamber and orchestral style.

Inspired by a trip to the Amazon, Eric composed the first piece for the Liminality project, The Dreamers, in 2012. Two other pieces would later follow, All Things Known (2015) and First Impressions (2016). The Stillness, a prelude for solo guitar, was composed and recorded in 2016, and will be expanded into a larger work for the Liminality project in 2017.