Ben Johnston (composer)

Not to be confused with Ben Jonson, Ben Johnson, or Ban Johnson.

Benjamin Burwell Johnston, Jr. (born March 15, 1926 in Macon, Georgia) is a composer of contemporary music in just intonation: "one of the foremost composers of microtonal music" (Bush 1997). He was called, "one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer" in 1990, by American critic John Rockwell (Taylor 2002, 54).


Johnston is best known for extending Harry Partch's experiments in just intonation tuning to traditional instruments through his system of notation. Johnston's compositional style is eclectic, employing serial processes, folksong idioms (String Quartets 4, 5, and 10), repetitive processes, traditional forms like fugue and variations, and intuitive processes (Fonville 1991, 120–21). However, his main goal, "has been to reestablish just intonation as a viable part of our musical tradition" (Bermel 1995) and "ultimately, what Johnston has done, more than any other composer with roots in the great American musical experiments of the '50's and '60's [sic], is to translate those radical approaches to the nature of music into a music that is immediately apprehensible" (Swed 1995, quoted in Bush 1997).

Most of Johnston's later works use an extremely large number of pitches, generated through just-intonation procedures. In them, he forms melodies based on an "otonal" eight-note just-intonation scale made from the 8th through 15th partials of the harmonic series) or its "utonal" inversion. He then gains new pitches by using common-tone transpositions or inversions. Many of his works also feature an expansive use of just intonation, using high prime limits. His String Quartet No. 9 uses intervals of the harmonic series as high as the 31st partial. Thus Johnston uses "potentially hundreds of pitches per octave," in way that is "radical without being avant-garde," and not for the creation of "as-yet-unheard dissonances," but in order to, " a kind of musical beauty," he perceives as diminished in Western music since the adoption of equal-temperament (Gann 1995, 1). "By the beginning of the 1980s he could say of his elaborately microtonal String Quartet no.5..., "I have no idea as to how many different pitches it used per octave" (Gilmore 2006, xviii).

Johnston's early efforts in just composition drew heavily on the accomplishments of post-Webern serialism. His 7-limit String Quartet No. 4 "Amazing Grace", was commissioned by the Fine Arts Music Foundation of Chicago, and was first recorded by The Fine Arts String Quartet on Nonesuch in 1980 (and reissued on Gasparo as GS205). The String Quartet No. 4, perhaps Johnston's best-known composition, has also been recorded by the Kronos Quartet. The Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal, Eric Segnitz, Brek Renzelman, and Karl Lavine) also recorded it on a CD for the New World Records label, as part of a complete 10-quartet series documenting Johnston's entire cycle of string quartets. The Third Quartet was premièred this way by the Concord String Quartet at New York's Alice Tully Hall, on March 15, 1976 (the composer's fiftieth birthday) (Rockwell 1976).

Staff notation

Just perfect fifth on D  Play . The perfect fifth above D (A+, 27/16) is a syntonic comma (81/80 or 21.5 cents) higher than the just major sixth above C (A, 5/3) (Fonville 1991, 109), 27/16 ÷ 9/8 = 3/2.

Beginning in the 1960s, Johnston had proposed an approach to notating music in just intonation (see Just intonation#Staff notation), redefining the understanding of conventional symbols (the seven "white" notes, the sharps and flats) and adding further accidentals, each designed to extend the notation into higher prime limits. Johnston‘s method is based on a diatonic C major scale tuned in JI, in which the interval between D (9/8 above C) and A (5/3 above C) is one Syntonic comma less than a Pythagorean perfect fifth 3:2. To write a perfect fifth, Johnston introduces a pair of symbols representing this comma, + and –. Thus, a series of perfect fifths beginning with F would proceed C G D A+ E+ B+. The three conventional white notes A E B are tuned as Ptolemaic major thirds (5:4, Ptolemy's intense diatonic scale) above F C G respectively. Johnston introduces new symbols for the septimal ( & ), undecimal ( & ), tridecimal ( & ), and further prime extensions to create an accidental-based exact JI notation for what he has named "extended just intonation" (Johnston 2006, 77–88).

Though, "this notation is not tied to any particular diapason", and "what remains constant are the ratio relations between pitches", (Johnston 2006b, 77) "most of his works utilize A = 440 as the tuning note", making C 264 Hertz (Fonville 1991, 136n3). Thus a string quartet is tuned C-, G-, D-, A, E.


Johnston taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1951 to 1986 before retiring to North Carolina (Gann 1995, 1). While there he was in contact with such "avant-garde" figures as John Cage, La Monte Young, and Iannis Xenakis (Gann 1995). Johnston's students include Stuart Saunders Smith, Neely Bruce, Thomas Albert, Michael Pisaro, Manfred Stahnke, and Kyle Gann. He also considers his practice of just intonation to have influenced Manfred Stahnke, and with James Tenney, Larry Polansky (Bremel 1995).

Johnston began as a traditional composer of art music before working with Harry Partch, helping the senior musician to build instruments and use them in the performance and recording of new compositions. After working with Partch, Johnston studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College. It was in fact Partch himself who arranged for Johnston to study with Milhaud (Duckworth 1995, 122). In 1952 Johnston met John Cage, who invited him to come to New York in the summer to study with him. Though Johnston decided he did not have sufficient time to prepare for such studies, he did go to New York for several weeks, where he assisted, along with Earle Brown, in the production of Cage's eight-track tape composition, Williams Mix. He did study with Cage later, in 1957 and 1959 (Von Gunden 1986, 22). Cage encouraged him to follow his desires and use traditional instruments rather than electronics or newly built ones (Bermel 1995). Unskilled in carpentry and finding electronics then unreliable, Johnston struggled with how to integrate microtonality and conventional instrumentals for ten years and struggled with how to integrate microtones into his compositional language through a slow process of many stages (Gann 1995, 1). However, since 1960 Johnston has used, almost exclusively, a system of microtonal notation based on the rational intervals of just intonation, what Gann (1995, 1) describes as a "lifelong allegiance" to "microtonality". Johnston also studied with Burrill Phillips and Robert Palmer (Tyranny 2011; Von Gunden 1986, 23).

Other works include the orchestral work Quintet for Groups (commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Sonnets of Desolation (commissioned by the Swingle Singers), the opera Carmilla, the Sonata for Microtonal Piano (1964) and the Suite for Microtonal Piano (1977). Johnston has completed ten string quartets to date. The Kepler Quartet has recorded all ten of Mr. Johnston's string quartets on three CDs for the New World Records label, finishing in April of 2016, on the heels of the composer's 90th birthday (New World Records n.d.).

"Tempered tuning is not the acoustically simplest kind. In just tuning, any interval is tuned so as to eliminate 'beating' (the result of vibrations interfering with each other). Just intonation is the easiest to achieve by ear. In this kind of tuning, all intervals have vibration rates related by small whole-number ratios. The larger the integers of the ratio, the greater the dissonance" (Johnston 2006, 42).

Johnston has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959, a grant from the National Council on the Arts and the Humanities in 1966, two commissions from the Smithsonian Institution and the Deems Taylor Award. In 2007, the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored Johnston for his lifetime of work. His Quintet for Groups won the SWR Sinfonieorchester prize at the 2008 Donaueschinger Musiktage (Lamparter 2008).

An interview with Ben Johnston can be found in Duckworth 1995. Heidi von Gunden has published a monograph on the composer (Von Gunden 1986), and Bob Gilmore has edited the composer's complete writings (Johnston 2006). A three-part oral history covering all stages of Mr. Johnston's career is housed at OHAM through Yale University.





External links

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