Minimalist Composer Meditates on COVID-19

‘Mound of Shards’ tracks the musician’s bout with the virus with moody atmospheric synths.

By mid-June, Chuck Johnson and his partner, multi-instrumentalist Marielle V. Jakobsons, had been sheltering in place for three months. Faced with a global pandemic, they took nearly every precaution possible: they worked from home, had groceries delivered, stayed away from friends and out of restaurants, and wore their masks diligently. That’s when the Oakland couple heard about a local clinic offering COVID antibody tests.

“We felt fine when we went in,” Johnson says. “We just wanted to see if we had been exposed already.”

After a short nasal swab, they went home. The following week, they got their results.

“We were both negative for antibodies, but my partner Marielle, her test for COVID was positive,” Johnson says. “We were shocked.”

A few days after that, the symptoms started.

“I had really bad headaches and achiness, and there was a lot of really bad fatigue,” Johnson says. “Like jetlag. Like flying-to-Europe jetlag. It was difficult to function on those days.”

Johnson’s new album Mound of Shards, released via Bandcamp on July 3, is a collection of tracks recorded throughout he and Jakobson’s shared experience with avoiding, contracting, and surviving COVID. The earliest piece was recorded in March, in the dreary dawn hours of the global pandemic. The most recent composition was tracked after he knew he was infected.

Though his primary instrument is the guitar, and his most critically acclaimed album is a collection of serene pedal steel compositions (2017’s Balsams), Mound of Shards consists of what Johnson calls “synthesizer studies” — long-form, single-take performances on a modular synth.

“I am a guitarist,” he says, “that’s the instrument I’ve played the longest. But when I started to go deep into improvised music that was textural and utilized noise, I felt like I didn’t really have the facility on guitar to do what I wanted to do. So I started to gravitate towards electronics because the sound palette is just wide open.”

On either instrument, Johnson’s work draws inspiration from minimalism’s early innovators (glacial, tone-based artists like Tony Conrad, and Le Monte Young), as well as the concept of deep listening pioneered by composer Pauline Oliveros — a professor and mentor during Johnson’s years at Mills College.

“I like the idea of finding complexity in what might seem like a simple palette,” Johnson says. “On the surface, the music may seem very static, like just continuous tones, but there’s a way you can enter it and be inside it, and then you’re inside this really immensely complex architecture.”

Mound of Shards opens with “Limen,” a piece which flickers and dances like a reflection of light on water. Over nearly 20 minutes, “Limen” unfolds deliberately, its anxious palpitating eventually giving way to a deep current of volcanic synths, which slowly reveal themselves beneath. “Mica,” the somber second track, largely explores the distance between two tones, flitting between them in an iambic rhythm until the four minute mark, when the song suddenly expands outward, like a dilating eye. Then, in the title track, tones emerge and stack upon each other ominously.

On his Bandcamp page, Johnson says the album “reflect[s] the sense of being suspended or paused, while at the same time rapidly hurtling forward.”

“It strikes me as reflecting how this time feels,” he tells SF Weekly. “In this new layer of reality, things are paused, but at the same time, things are moving really fast towards some outcome, and we really don’t know what it is.”

Fortunately, in the weeks since their tests, both Johnson and his partner have largely recovered from the virus. Though the fatigue has lingered, most symptoms have dissipated, and neither case progressed to difficulty breathing, pneumonia, or hospitalization. Still, the experience revealed something to Johnson in hindsight: a threshold long since passed. If the other side is still hazy, maybe that’s just the blur from its rapid approach.

“We are going somewhere that won’t be where we left when this all started,” Johnson says, “and we’re getting there fast.”

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